Meditation: A Prescription for Change

When discussing meditation, teachers often refer to mind grooves, patterns we create and then consistently follow. Think of it like repeatedly hiking a trail, as time passes, the trampled path becomes more defined. In many instances, we simply take the path of least resistance. Now imagine you needed to hike the same route, but you couldn’t use your normal trail. When we stray off the worn and familiar path we encounter a more difficult journey. Maintaining the status quo requires less effort.

So do we as humans actually have some type of biological “setting” which makes change difficult?

Successfully navigating life requires certain brain functions that expedite thinking. Heuristics are mental shortcuts used when engaging in problem solving or decision making. Think about the grooves or path. As time passes and we establish a routine, our brain switches to something called the default mode network (DMN), it’s like autopilot. Neuroscientist Marcus Raichle, first began using the phrase to describe resting state brain function. Raichle examined positron-emission tomography (PET) and functional MRI (fMRI) scans to measure the change in brain activity during “resting” and focused mental tasks. When something is familiar and demands less thought, our brains automatically switch to DMN levels and we shift into “autopilot” mode.[1]

Another study published in 2010, further explains how we create grooves. Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, examined cognitive dissonance/cognitive bias. They focused on human misperceptions and whether false or unsubstantiated beliefs, specifically political beliefs, could be corrected. During the study, they coined the phrase, “Backfire Effect.” The backfire effect is a cognitive bias in which people, when presented with evidence that challenges their beliefs, not only reject the evidence, but intensify their support for the original position.[2]

Subsequent research seems to confirm the validity of the backfire effect. In 2016, University of Southern California researches conducted a study aimed at examining the neural mechanisms that govern this backfire effect behavior. They found that when participants read and responded to statistical and or factual information that contradicted their beliefs, there was widespread activity throughout all regions of the brain.[3]

So how does meditation relate to this research?

When we meditate we separate ourselves from our thoughts, feelings and emotions. This is why meditation can serve as a significant component when beginning a difficult change. During meditation, you sit with yourself and observe thoughts and inner dialogue. Meditation facilitates a recognition of your true-self and helps you separate from your fleeting thoughts and feelings. After you accept that your thoughts and feelings are ever changing, you don’t identify with them. You then possess the power to act from a place of authenticity, love and compassion.

I recently read Brené Brown’s book, Rising Strong. She states that many people never fully understand or recognize their feelings and emotions, which makes achieving real change nearly impossible. “Recognizing emotion means developing awareness about how our thinking, feeling (including physiology), and behavior are connected. While some researchers and clinicians argue that you can change your life by just changing your thoughts, actions or feelings.” Brown states her research has yet to yield evidence that substantiates a genuine transformation in the absence of thinking, feeling and behavior. They are equally important parts of a whole.[4] Her opinion makes sense, how can we change when we refuse to change?

I constantly strive to be a better and more actualized version of myself. Meditation helps me differentiate between what is “real” and what is not “real.” Thoughts and emotions come and go so quickly, when you don’t validate them as You, it’s easier to act freely from a non-judgmental place. I notice myself being more attached to certain beliefs, because they are the beliefs that I have let define me. I recently began examining beliefs I feel an attachment to, or identified with. It’s been interesting seeing how quickly I’ve experienced a shift in my perspective.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

Patanjali defined “yoga” as, “Yogas-citta-vrtti-nirodhah.” Citta-vrtti-nirodhah translates to cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.[5] Our minds are constantly swirling with information, thoughts, emotions, etc., practicing the eight limbs of yoga is a method by which we still our minds and become totally present without a point of view. This meditative state is known as Samadhi, the eighth and final limb of yoga. Practicing the eight limbs of yoga helps us to find the self without the construct of identity (you can read my more in depth analysis of the self versus identity here).

Back to the backfire effect, researchers suggest several theories for why people reject factual information that detracts from their beliefs. We craft identity, this identification is known as Asmita, one of the barriers to Samadhi.[6] We protect our beliefs because these beliefs shape our worldview. Compromising our worldview threatens our identity. Have you ever been part of a discussion where someone introduces facts and another person essentially covers their ears and says, “I don’t want to hear it.” It seems as though in past few years more and more people say things like, “I know in my heart,” and, “That’s my truth.” People have become so protective over their beliefs they allow their emotions and how they feel to override facts. If we didn’t attach ourselves to our identity, we could see the world without an Asmita prism.

For many people, change is difficult. Breaking patterns, habits and routines takes a concerted effort, it’s much easier to just turn on autopilot. There are certain aspects of our lives where refusing to change doesn’t make much difference in the overall quality of how we live. However, some people engage in self-destructive behavior or even just act in a way that isn’t optimal to their success and happiness. A change might be something simple, a tactile method that could improve efficiency, or it could be something more meaningful. Imagine if we could evaluate and then change without any preconceived notions or beliefs. Meditation might be part of the solution.

[1] Raichle, M. E., MacLeod, A. M., Snyder, A. Z., Powers, W. J., Gusnard, D. A., & Shulman, G. L. (2001). A default mode of brain function. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 98(2), 676–682.

[2] Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2010). When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32, 303–330.

[3] Kaplan, J. T., Gimbel, S. I., & Harris, S. (2016). Neural correlates of maintaining one’s political beliefs in the face of counterevidence. Scientific Reports, 6(1), 39589.

[4] Brown, Brené. (2017). Rising strong: How the ability to reset transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead.

Random House Publishing Group.

[5] Patañjali. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: The Book of the Spiritual Man (1.2). An Interpretation. London: Watkins, 1975.

[6] Ibid (2.6)

LifestyleHeather Peterson