There has been much in the news about the interdependency of mind, body and spirit. Studies using brainwave technology measured actual physical changes in the brains of longtime meditators -- Tibetan monks. Recently another study showed how meditators often fared better than their nap-taking counterparts in mitigating the effects of sleep deprivation. Yet another explores the myth of multi-tasking, concluding that single focus is ultimately more efficient, less prone to errors and less stressful that trying to attend to more than one thing at a time. Meditation as a practice using single focus trains us to be more mindful of competing demands for our attention and to choose wisely by virtue of that awareness.
What is exciting about the new technologies and research is that perhaps science is finding ways to verify what the ancients already knew: practices that expand awareness and consciousness can be of benefit to all aspects of the human condition. This is particularly evident in looking at meditation as a practice.
One of the main "tasks" of the meditator is to quiet the mind. We use various techniques such as watching the breath, repeating a word or mantra, chanting, walking, listening to music or visually focusing on an object. This gives our brains something to do so that our body circuitry can adjust to a state of relaxation and become aware of what thoughts our minds are generating. This process itself further changes our body chemistry so we relax more.
Now think of the left brain as the spokesperson for the personality or ego self. It regulates some vital processes for our bodies, but it also has increasingly taken on the task of regulating what is OK for us to experience as a human being and how we interpret what we do experience. This regulatory process is conditioned by cultural, family and ego expectations. Unfortunately, this can form a rigid set of circuitry that limits our experience of both our internal and external world.
As we set aside some of the control functions of the left brain, we can become much more aware of our bodily and emotional processes. We use other perceptual organs such as the heart. Did you know that the majority of the cells in the heart are not muscle cells, but actually a type of neural cell? I am reminded, when I think of this, of the old adage, "The heart has reasons that reason knows nothing about."
Researchers are finding how the intestine and stomach, the source of our "gut instincts", channels other information essential for our well being directly to our central nervous system. But sometimes our minds get overbearing, so we don't pay as much attention to all those other sources of information. Most of us have had the experience of "something told me not to do that, but I didn't listen to my gut". Meditation reduces the filtering/interpretive component of the left brain and lets us go more directly to these other sources of information. The pathways for a balanced internal dialogue emerge.
We can begin to integrate in a more relaxed way all the pieces of ourselves that have become scattered, suppressed, or simply held so rigidly in place that they don't communicate with each other. What could be a better basis for physical and mental health?
The rational left brain does not go away. It does and must participate in this process. But the brain should be at the service of our inner spirit and our bodies and not just the other way around. I'd like to think too, that science, the purest manifestation of the rational mind, might also now be finding ways to be of service to spirit. In the Dark Ages, science and rational thought were sometimes called "heresy" by the church. In modern times, spirituality and "altered" consciousness has been called "superstition" by science. If we have learned anything, perhaps we can understand that neither pronouncement is true and that both aspects of experience are necessary to a balanced and uniquely human existence.
Finally, if we rely totally on rational thinking and science, then we might miss the opportunity for a partnership of mind, body and spirit to create other options for us, for life to exceed our expectations. How often we have heard stories of those who are disabled who have overcome incredible odds to lead fully accomplished lives. Here is where spirit, stretching the limitations of the mind and body, fosters an unexpected outcome. Here is where our humanity, merged with the still unexplainable experience of divinity transforms all.
Spirit inspires thought and belief to change experience. Meditation helps us see the limiting patterns of our mind and loosen their hold on our body and spirit.