Good News For Amateurs

At age sixty-two, I’m a beginning classical piano student. I’m usually pretty disciplined and practice most days. I’m terrible at it, but love everything about it, including the hours of practice I put in each week. I suspect I’ll never be very good at it. I lack a certain natural aptitude and I’m getting a late start. I’ll never be a concert pianist.

My meditation practice is a little like my piano playing. I love everything about it, but I’m never going to be an olympic-level meditator. My concentration is only fair. I’ll probably never go on a traditional Tibetan three-year retreat or even a three month insight meditation retreat. I’ll never spend years sitting in a Himalayan cave. I’m strictly amateur.

Why practice either piano or meditation despite the fact that I’ll never advance beyond amateur status?

A) Because I love the practice itself.

B) Because there are benefits to each.

Playing piano increases my understanding and appreciation for music. I can hear and appreciate more when I listen to Chopin’s nocturnes and Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Meditating builds mindfulness and equanimity in my daily life. It allows me to understand and appreciate life more deeply.

Jean Kristeller, the Director of the Center for the Study of Health, Religion, and Spirituality at Indiana State University, first brought this idea of different levels of meditative practice to my attention in her chapter “Finding the Buddha/Finding the Self: Seeing with the Third Eye” for my book Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings (SUNY Press: 2003).

Jean noted that while she found meditation practice extremely valuable, she was not a “natural contemplative.” She went on to say:

“While more practice may bring with it better ability to access the contemplative side of being, there is a danger in imposing expectations better suited to those seeking a particular state of “enlightenment” or level of mastery. Considering a parallel to training ourselves in other aspects of human endeavor, such as music or athletics, is helpful. We now realize that maintaining physical fitness is a process, the effects of which can be best understood as lying along a continuum, rather than in a dichotomy of the “unfit” versus the star athlete. Even elderly individuals in nursing homes are now known to benefit remarkably from mild exercise. A less dramatic contrast can be considered with musical training. Few would argue that virtually everyone has some ability to appreciate and understand music — and that such understanding is improved with even modest training. We don’t mistake the skills needed to provide such training to school children with the discipline and skill needed to become a professional classical musician, nor do we minimize or disparage the value to the individual of whatever level of musical experience someone wishes to seek out.”

Amen, Jean!

So it was with great interest that I read a recent scientific study suggesting that even very modest meditation experience can make measurable changes in the brain.

The study is called “Short-term Meditation Induces White Matter Changes in the Anterior Cingulate,” and it will appear shortly in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Its authors are Yi-Yuan Tanga, Qilin Lua, Xiujuan Geng, Elliot Stein, Yihong Yang, and Michael Posner. The study involved the collaboration of researchers at the University of Oregon and the Institute of Neuroinformatics and Lab for Body and Mind, Dalian University of Technology. Long live East-West collaboration!

In this study, forty-five college students received a mere 11 hours of training in what the authors called “integrative mind-body training,” or IMBT. IBMT involved body relaxation, mental imagery, and mindfulness training. It involved “no effort to control thoughts, but instead a state of restful alertness that allows a high degree of awareness of body and mind.”

Sounds a lot like mindfulness meditation, huh?

Here comes the technical part:

After the college students received the 11 hours of training, the researchers performed a type of brain imaging scan called Diffusion Tensor Imaging to examine the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of their brains. The ACC is responsible for monitoring and resolving conflict among competing response tendencies. Problems in ACC activation have been implicated in a wide variety of mental disorders including attention deficit disorder, addictions, dementia, depression, and schizophrenia.

The results? The college students who were trained in IMBT showed increased fractional ansiotropy in brain regions associated with the ACC, meaning that the neural fiber tracts in that region either underwent a certain degree of reorganization or increased their myelination. In plain English, there were measurable brain changes associated with the meditation. Were those brain changes beneficial ones? Prior research with IMBT showed that it could improve conflict scores on an attention network test, lower anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue, decrease stress-related cortisol, and increase immunoreactivity. It sounds all good to me.

There have been previous studies that have shown brain cortical changes in meditators. Back in 2005, Sara Lazar and her colleagues found increased cortical thickness in dedicated long-term insight meditation practitioners. What’s remarkable about this new study, however, is how little practice was needed to result in measurable brain changes.

So, fellow amateurs, keep up with your meditation practice, even if your practice is not perfect. Even if you don’t sit every single day. It’s good for you. (This is not, by the way, an invitation to slack off in your practice. More practice, more improvement.)

Not that you needed any brain studies to tell you that. You knew that already, didn’t you?

Still, for those of us who love and respect hard science, its nice to see science “validate” what we already know from our own introspection.

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