Om Sweet Om: Meditation Makes Its Mark

Want to keep a bigger brain? Consider the cushion

(WTNH) A few years back, I was between jobs and had time to try something, you know, different.  So I went to a 7-day silent meditation retreat in Massachusetts, not far from Worcester.  It was definitely different, and also a profound life experience.  What I’ll always remember is that as soon as it was over, three fellow meditators needed rides in my car; one to the Worcester train station, one to the airport, and the third to the bus station.

I didn’t have the faintest idea where any of those places were.  But I’d gotten so used to not thinking a thousand thoughts a minute, I just got in the car, and drove each one of them exactly to their destinations without giving a thought to what the actual directions were.

It was probably random…and Worcester’s not really that big…but I’ve always held on to that experience as a lesson in what kind of impact serious meditation can have: less overthinking, more intuition…getting you where you need to go, so to speak.

I’m remembering that today after reading about a new study giving indications that long-term meditation is tied to smaller age-related decreases in brain size.  You brain DOES shrink with age, no matter what you do with/to it.  But the UCLA study shows that subjects who meditated regularly had higher brain volumes than subjects of the same age chosen from the general population.

It’s the latest research boon for meditation, which has moved over the past few decades from an Eastern New Age oddity to a genuinely effective therapy, taken seriously by much of the medical establishment.  Part of this is because of brain scan technology, which now allows researchers to see, in real time, what effect stimuli — or lack of stimuli — has on the way the brain operates, and as this study hints at, even changes structurally.

No one is claiming the path to brain Nirvana has been found.  A psychologist not involved with the study called the results “insignificant” when the statistics are analyzed conservatively.  Even the lead UCLA researcher modestly concluded, according to the journal Frontiers in Psychology, “this study says it’s basically worthwhile to think about meditation.”

But along with other findings in recent years showing that meditation can improve things like attention, memory, and creativity, a body of scientific work is slowly confirming what at least one person knew for sure 25-hundred years ago: the Buddha got it right.

NOTE: The retreat center I visited, several times as the years went by, is the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.  It’s long been a leading light in the practice and study of Buddhism in the West.  They offer a variety of retreats, some lasting a weekend, others three months (!)  To find out more, the IMS website is http://www.dharma.org

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