Originally published in the Summer + Fall 2018 issue.
A few days after one Thanksgiving, I was carrying 50 pounds on my back — convinced if I didn’t sit down soon, kick off my boots and eat something, I’d topple over. Paces ahead of me on the rugged trail, my boyfriend Jordan glanced back, responding to my groan with a smile. The silver glacier we passed and the towering emerald trees through which we wove meant nothing to me. All I saw was the tiny campground up ahead, growing larger with every step.
A dark-eyed man sat in an SUV-sized wooden structure at the mouth of the campsite. “10,000 pesos,” he said. I looked at Jordan. We had to pay? To camp? In the backcountry? After already having paid an entrance fee to the national park? I threw down my backpack and stormed off, leaving Jordan to respond alone.
I zigzagged through the trees to a clearing beyond the campsite and sat down on a stump. I was sick of paying for outdoor experiences. What right did he have to profit from the earth, anyways? No, the fee wasn’t outrageous. It was just unexpected, and on my traveling budget it felt disproportionately harsh. I resented the dark-eyed man, though I knew he was just doing his job. He was protecting the earth, in a way. When I finally walked back, Jordan had already set up the tent.
Months later, I thought about this moment and the chain of emotions I’d undergone: outrage, followed by self-consciousness, then consideration, then understanding.
In those intermediary months, I’d been knee-deep in an investigation about the effects of meditation on the brain. After sifting through dozens of psychology studies and neurological experiments that examined “mindful sitting,” I’d learned a few things — namely, about how and why we react to the world around us, and how meditation can improve that reaction process.
Essentially, when we encounter external stimuli that are of particular significance, our brains fire through a series of automatic neurological patterns that form our emotions. That is, I got frustrated when slapped with an unexpected, straining fee.
The thing is, emotions evolved to be temporary and particularly sensitive. As you can imagine, it’s extremely important that emotions “turn on” at key moments, like when fear causes you to jump away from a snake. In my case, my outrage led me to question why the fee existed, and to contemplate its authenticity, purpose and safety. It’s equally important, however, that emotions “turn off” when either our perception or the circumstances in the external world change. If they didn’t, you’d still be operating on high-alert long after the snake had left, or you realized it was just a toy.
Though everyone’s reactions differ in magnitude and length (the rate at which emotions are switched on and off), what everyone shares is the ability to train, or condition, their brain to respond in certain ways to stimulations. Meditation — as the vast majority of neurological and psychological research that I surveyed supports — is one tool that conditions the brain to react in a positive way.
It turns out meditation can physically alter the brain, yielding permanent changes to its composition and structure.
It’s only been in the past decade or so — as meditation has gained more popularity in the “West” — that North American research labs have sourced enough material to evaluate the bold anecdotal claims (and praise) for meditation’s capacity to heal and bolster happiness. Since then, hundreds of studies have been conducted analyzing the effects of meditation and its intersection with a variety of other subjects from psychology to nutrition, philosophy and education. It’s now widely accepted that meditation positively and relatively reliably affects the brain.
When you meditate, the largest change scientists have observed occurs in the amount of grey matter in your brain. Grey matter is a type of tissue located throughout the central nervous system that facilitates two critical brain functions: information processing from sensory organs and neuron nutrient transport. The more grey matter a brain houses, the more efficiently signals from sensory organs can be processed, the more accurate our emotions and our reactions are.
Meditation aids the growth of mental muscles — much like going to the gym and working out biceps will yield stronger, larger arms — by dedicating uninterrupted time to mental cultivation.
Developing more grey matter allows the brain to process information more accurately, more efficiently and more reliably. By streamlining the connection between sensory input, information processing and reaction, the meditator can make better decisions — that is, decisions that result in appropriate, positive actions.
I realized by increasing our emotional accuracy, what meditation really does is expand our ability to empathize. Thinking back to my time sitting on the tree stump behind the campground, that was part of my emotional process. After experiencing outrage and moving through my financial insecurities, I was able to resume a calm and collected state long enough to reconsider the situation. The dark-eyed man was doing his job, protecting the earth from overuse. That was something we had in common. I could empathize with that.
Many studies show that meditators are equipped with the skills for attaining and maintaining this calm, collected brain state — proven through a variety of tests that include monitoring heart rate and skin conditions. In turn, it was reported that this state can foster empathy, sympathy and an increase in general good moods.
Empathy is important. Not only did it allow me to continue our backpacking trip with a genuine smile, it often acts as motivation to engage with the larger world in a certain way. When we see others in pain, we understand (maybe even feel) the pain, motivating us to reduce or confront the source. When we see others are happy, we resonate with the happiness, and commend whatever act it was that induced the feeling. This induces a pattern of perpetuating the good (what brings happiness), and condemning the bad (what brings pain or other adverse reactions).
In this way, empathy plays an important part in moral judgment, and one could argue more empathy throughout the world would lead to a more harmonious place. Cultivating meditation practices will help humans accurately translate stimuli, leading to better decision-making, and, thus, more empathy and its ensuing harmony.
Meditation is no different from other aspects of life. Practice is key. One study showed as little as seven minutes a day can make a difference. Next time, maybe, I’ll reach my empathic point before Jordan even gets the tent out of the bag.