Meditation and Mental Health
“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence–continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12,13 NIV)
God works in us. In meditation, we work to gradually quiet the ego so that our spirit works with His spirit as we “work out our salvation.” Father Laurence expresses in his book First Sight (2011), that salvation is about healing and becoming well. Our wellness increases as we are faithful to the practice of our daily meditation. Slowly but surely, the love of Christ, or as John Main refers to it as “a stream of love”, flows within us, from Jesus toward the Father. This stream of love transforms our ego and opens us to the Spirit. This transformation leads to healing and greater health – mental, spiritual, and physical.
In this commentary, we will identify three ways in which meditation improves mental health and wellness. First, meditation improves emotional regulation, second, meditation improves relational functioning. And third, meditation fosters ongoing growth and wholeness.
Meditation Improves Emotional Regulation
One of the most fundamental changes demonstrated in the research on meditation and mental health is how meditation helps to improve emotional regulation. Meditation assists our emotional regulation in two ways. First, meditation can help to alleviate triggers which act to dys-regulate us emotionally, and second, meditation naturally facilitates emotional healing in the process itself.
In today’s world, people are very stressed and overwhelmed. When we experience stress, our minds and bodies are in a state of arousal that activates the sympathetic nervous system. Because we experience such high levels of stress, our sympathetic nervous system is overly active. In our readiness, we are better able to perceive danger and act on our own behalf. In this physiological state, we scan our environment, looking for individuals or situations which have caused us pain or upset in the past, and when we perceive something that is familiar in this way, we become triggered. When we are triggered, we are projecting a real, but past, experience onto our present experience. Our present perception, emotion and subsequent reaction are all distorted by the past experience. In addition to the painful feelings, our triggers include negative beliefs about ourselves and others called schemas (Bennett-Goleman, 2001).
Schemas arise in the present when we are triggered by a past event which is painful and unresolved. Often, an individual is not even aware that feelings from the past are coloring the present experience. There is a similarity in the present event that causes the trigger to arise, but because the present event is amplified by beliefs and feelings from the past, it is more difficult to hold the present event in consciousness and to tolerate the intensified experience.
Schemas arise from our mid-brain, which is also the emotional center of the brain. This part of the brain encodes memories that we have perceived as “dangerous” to a mid-brain structure known as the amygdala. The amygdala shuts off our usual connection from the hippocampus (another mid-brain structure) to the forebrain, so we are less able to remember and reflect. Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence (1995), refers to trigger experiences as emotional hijacking. To explain emotional or amygdala hijacking, we experience a trigger, and the trigger brings on an attack. When the attack occurs, our prefrontal cortex is disabled by the amygdala and we go into emergency mode: fight, flight, or freeze. Our perception is narrowed and we see only the danger. We lose our reasoning ability and our awareness of the surrounding environment.
Meditation is of great help with the physiological and psychological events that occur under stress. Meditation activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which lowers our arousal, and allows us to experience peace and calm. The research demonstrates this by showing an increase in theta waves, brain waves that are associated with peace and calm (Lutz, et al., 2004). Research also demonstrates with an average of 27 minutes of meditation per day, there is a decrease in both the activity and size of the amygdala, which is related to the stress and anxiety, fight or flight response (Holzel, et al., 2009). In addition, meditation increases both the size and activity level of the hippocampus, another structure in the brain which is associated with attention and learning (Holzel, et al., 2011). Finally, the research indicates that meditators are more likely to inhibit their reactive responses, thus having greater control over their behavior (Sahdra, et al., 2001).
Meditation leads to emotional healing by allowing psychological space for the original pain to be re-experienced in a conscious way. As we begin to distinguish our schemas from present reality, our ego-self also begins to give way. When this occurs, we enter into a period of unknowing. The ego-self is the framework for interpreting our experience with respect to whom one is, who others are, and what the world is like. The ego-self is formed by schemas and is designed to defend against schema attacks. The ego-self also engages in three activities of the mind which, in Buddhist psychology, “poison” the mind and block our access to deeper consciousness. These three activities are attachment, aversion, and delusion. Attachment is clinging or grasping to whatever serves to shore up and maintain the ego self. Aversion is pushing away and avoiding whatever serves to threaten the ego-self. Delusion is a confusion of the ego-self with the deep sense of the self we are in Christ. The goal of meditation is to dis-identify with the ego-self and to free the mind of the three poisons.
John Main writes, “the discipline of meditation teaches us to be humble, faithful and patient and through the stillness the Spirit empties our heart of everything that is not God”. Meditation helps us to “let go” of the ego-self so that we an become open to experiencing our brokenness while also experiencing the stream of love. When our brokenness is met with love, we heal.
Meditation fosters relational connectedness
Meditation fosters relational connectedness in two ways. First, when we meditate, we see others more accurately because they are not distorted by our schemas as frequently. Secondly, we react less defensively which makes it safer for others to relate to us.
There are several schemas which clearly impact our ability to relate to others (Bennett-Goleman, 2001). These schemas cause us to treat others based upon our fears of the past, rather than the reality of the present. For example, an individual with an abandonment schema believes that he/she will be left alone without anyone, and filters experience through fear of being abandoned. An individual with a deprivation schema believes that his/her needs will never be met, and interfaces with the world from this place. An individual with a subjugation schema believes that everyone else’s needs take priority over his or hers, and acts accordingly. A mistrust schema causes one to believe that people can not be trusted, and finally, an unlovability schema results in deep feelings of unworthiness and unlovability. All of these schemas define relationships with others in a very negative and defensive way. Furthermore, as long as we operate out of these schemas, we can not really enter into true relationships because we are not able to know others as they are. Rather, other people are the objects that our ego creates.
In addition to these interpersonal schemas, there are other schemas that color views of the world (Bennett-Goleman, 2001). For example, a perfectionism schema leads one to believe that he/she will never succeed unless he/she is perfect. Related to this is a failure schema, which is the belief that one is not smart enough to succeed or not a worthwhile person. An entitlement schema causes an individual to feel overly special, so much so that the rules that apply to everyone else, do not apply to this individual. An individual with an exclusion schema feels that he/she is always on the outside, that there is not a sense of belonging in the community. Finally, a vulnerability schema leads one to believe, is a very general way, that something horrible is going to happen. It is clear from these examples that these schemas interfere with the individual’s ability to maneuver in the world effectively.
Meditation can help us in our relationships by connecting us more deeply with our vulnerability. When we can connect with our own vulnerability, we are able more connect more honestly with the vulnerability of others. We can then experience greater compassion for ourselves and others. We experience others as “subjects” in their own right, rather than objects of our own schemas. As we heal, our schema projections dissolve and relationships move from being “me-it” or “it-you” to “I-Thou” (Buber, 1958). As a result of this shift, we are able to develop spiritual friendship, which deeply feeds the soul.
The research on meditation and relationships demonstrates that meditation increases overall emotional sensitivity and empathic awareness (Block-Lerner, et al., 2007). Couples who meditate report increased feelings of closeness, acceptance, autonomy, and general satisfaction with each other. Some forms of meditation increase feelings of social connectedness and leads to a move positive view of strangers in general. Parents of autistic children report that when they meditate, they are more satisfied with their children’s behavior (Singh, et al., 2007). As a result, parents observe decreased levels of aggression and non-compliant behavior in their children.
Meditation Facilitates Growth and Wholeness
There is a compelling line from the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, “We are either busy living or busy dying”. The story is about how a man is “busy living” as he escapes from prison while others are content to remain secure in their cells, afraid to return to the outside world. Maybe the secret to mental wellness is to be “busy living.”
Jesus referred to the Pharisees of his day as “walking tombs” and told an inspired follower, who asked if he could attend a family funeral before joining him, to “let the dead bury the dead (Luke 5:88).” Jesus was suggesting that this man’s family was among the “living dead”. Clearly, it is possible to stop being alive in this world even though one is physically alive. Perhaps when we cling to security in this world, we become stagnate and stop growing.
John Main taught that the Spirit of Christ within us is an energy of life which is ever expanding. Through meditation we die to our ego and its tendency to cling, which creates space for the Spirit and compels us to grow. According to Father John, the Christian meditator participates in an ongoing cycle of death and resurrection which allows for continued growth and expansion.
To enter this cycle of continued growth requires great faith. In his book First Sight (2011), Laurence Freeman writes that faith “integrates us as a person. Integration always awakens a sense of depth and mystery.” Father Laurence suggests that faith is what makes human growth and development possible. Meditation strengthens our faith so that in times of crises, we can respond to the call for us to let go of our ego and open to God, to life, and to greater wholeness.
Richard Davidson (2012) a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has found that meditators have a greater capacity to be resilient. In other words, meditation helps a person to bounce back from a painful experiences which in turns optimizes the possibility that the painful experience can be used for learning and growth. Other research on meditation also supports the view that meditation increases wholeness and well being. Elaine Luders and her colleagues at UCLA (2009, 2011) have found that meditating for years thickens the brain and strengthens the connections between cells which allows the brain to function as an integrated whole. Luders, et al., (2012) have also found that meditators have larger amounts of gyrification, or folding of the cortex, which allows the brain to process information faster and respond with greater flexibility in adapting to changes. The implications of these findings is that meditation leads to physical changes in the brain that results in greater flexibility and integration, creating a sense of flow and wholeness.
C.S. Lewis once said, “Every idea we form of God, God must, in mercy shatter.” As we reach new levels of self experience we form new images of ourselves, others, and God. Yet every new level of growth has its season and the time to let go and die to our images comes again. Like the seasons of the year, we all continue to cycle through our springs and summers only ending in autumns and winters. Because we continue to flow with life, we remain whole and at peace. May you be whole and at peace.
I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly.
Written by Tim Pedigo, PhD and Karen Pedigo, PhD, psychologists in practice and teaching, and also meditation group leaders in Frankfort, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.
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