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The term “meditation” has become a catchall for a wide range of practices. In fact, where few people in the West considered meditation to be an important part of their lives a generation ago, now it’s common to know someone who meditates, in one form of another. As positive as this trend is, some confusion remains around why meditation is beneficial and what exactly it means to meditate.
There are three dimensions to meditation: physical, mental, and spiritual—and they each influence why someone chooses to begin meditation practice.
The physical benefits of meditation came first, so far as making meditation respectable in the West. A mounting body of evidence showed specific bodily functions were being affected positively. A reduction in stress hormones indicated that the stress response was decreased in the short term by taking time out in a stressful day to meditate and in the long term if the practice was kept up.
Early studies also showed benefits in lowering blood pressure. The physical side of meditation remains the chief reason millions meditate, and yet this has had the drawback that they look for nothing else. Many only meditate when they feel stressed.
In the mental dimension, meditation calms the restless mental activity that afflicts countless people in modern life. Because of the mind-body connection, the mental effects of meditation can’t be separated from what’s happening in the brain and central nervous system.
Physiologists have coined a term, “sympathetic overdrive,” which refers to the chronic over-stimulation of the involuntary (autonomic) nervous system. This is the part of the central nervous system that controls bodily functions you don’t consciously pay attention to, such as heart rate, hormonal balance, biorhythms, and so on. Sympathetic overdrive is linked to the onset of many lifestyle disorders that were once thought to be independent of the central nervous system. Previously no one would have connected what is happening in the brain with obesity, type-2 diabetes, hypertension, or cancer.
But in the past decade, the medical perspective has radically changed. Now it is known that these lifestyle disorders begin much earlier—years and decades—before symptoms appear. Their root cause is traceable to low-level chronic stress and inflammation. Both are intimately connected to the sympathetic nervous system, which means even when you are unaware of being constantly stressed, and with no visible signs of inflammation, the inroads of disease and aging have already started.
This perspective puts the physical and mental dimensions of meditation in a new light, making the practice much more important as something to keep up every day for a lifetime.
Current research is ongoing in many universities, as well as the Chopra Center, to discover exactly what mechanisms are at work. But the general picture is that many traditional types of meditation have positive effects on chronic stress and inflammation, as measured biologically. Subjectively, people also report feeling calm, centered, and at peace. The benefits begin to occur quickly, within a week or two of starting to meditate, and increase the longer the practice is continued.
There is an increase in both the biological and subjective results when meditation is combined with a whole range of lifestyle changes in diet, exercise, and sleep. At the Chopra Center, the basis for these is Ayurveda, but there are other programs, such as that initiated by Dr. Dean Ornish, that have also proved to alter gene activity in a positive direction. This is important, since everything I’ve mentioned—chronic stress, low-level inflammation, and sympathetic overdrive—can ultimately be traced to a source in what your DNA is doing inside the cell.
The third dimension of spirituality is the primary reason around the world for people to become long-term meditators. They meditate for enlightenment, however you define the term. The goal is to reach higher consciousness. Because many teachings of enlightenment originate in Eastern traditions, meditation in the West gained an undeserved reputation as alien and exotic.
This has changed to a great extent, and now meditation, along with Hatha Yoga, has gained immense popularity as being suitable for everyone. The basis for the spiritual dimension of meditation, once you remove cultural connotations, is to develop a state of quiet mind as a doorway to expanding consciousness.
In constricted awareness, the mind is an unending stream of sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts. In meditation, this activity either vanishes or becomes secondary as one is drawn to the mind’s source in pure consciousness. Through regular practice, it becomes natural to identify with the deeper source of the mind a shift that has no definite goal, because awareness can expand infinitely. The never-ending story of human evolution becomes one’s personal experience, and the more that evolution is cultivated as a conscious process, the greater the possibilities that unfold in daily life.
This is where human evolution is heading, toward the full realization that consciousness is the basis of everyone’s reality. Meditation is like a bridge from the human to the fully actualized state of human awareness, from the limited use of self-awareness to its full use as the highest aim of life.
Learn how to expand your consciousness and evolve every day through meditation with Deepak Chopra and Roger Gabriel in our Primordial Sound Meditation Online Course. Learn More.