Heather and I attended this conference in New York City on January 17th, 2013. The meeting was held in the World Trade Center Complex, Building 7. For a non-city dweller, it was difficult to identify the building even after getting explicit directions from the hotel concierge. After walking right past the entrance, a helpful police officer pointed at the 60 story glass-fronted building and said, in a wonderful New York City accent: “It’s right there in front of you—you can’t miss it.” I walked toward it, around it, and eventually Heather appeared near the entrance. We walked in and the journey began. After showing appropriate ID, we traveled by pre-programmed elevator to the 40th floor, and were greeted with an incredible panoramic view of the City, including the Hudson River and the final WTC building under construction.
The conference was very well organized, and the presentations were focused and well delivered. The purpose of the conference was to advance the growing interdisciplinary science that explores how various forms of meditative practice influence people on multiple levels, including behavior, psychological health, and brain activity. A further goal was to facilitate the translation of findings into modern education, medicine, and social change.
The day began by experiencing three different forms of meditation, guided by conference speakers. It progressed with a good deal of hard science, some big picture philosophy on the common ground shared by all meditative techniques, and some clinical research showing benefits of meditation practice in real world environments. There was also ample time for informal discussion of ideas and presentations.
My take away message is that there is a great deal of exciting research in the meditation field. Our ability to study the brain with modern imaging definitively shows that meditation has a positive effect on the function of the brain. Meditation is to the brain as physical activity is to the body. There is still work that needs to be done to define optimal ways to educate the public on how to gain these benefits. With physical activity, we now know that one needs a balance of resistance, aerobic, and flexibility training. Future work will probably define the major areas of meditation practice that are vital to success.
Some major outcomes stood out: Brain studies show that meditators attend to external stimuli faster and are less reactive to those stimuli relative to non-meditators. In other words, meditation helps one to be more aware and to choose a response rather than just a knee jerk reaction. Many parts of the brain are improved with meditation. It is most striking that the white matter–the cables that connect all parts of the brain together–is increased in meditators relative to non-meditators. Another “a-ha” moment was learning that researchers don’t like to scan or study brains older than 40 due to natural atrophy and the corresponding decline in functional intelligence that occurs with aging. Meditation slows and sometimes even reverses that atrophy. Meditation can also be a prescribed tool for specific problems, such as pain and anxiety, with research proven clinical benefits.
Another important point was that in general, meditation influences three realms of the self—self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence–and usually in that order. So, meditation can both transform individuals and serve as a useful tool to address some specific health concerns.
The scientific field of research into the benefits of meditation is growing. One of the main barriers is that meditation is somewhat foreign to most people in our Western culture. This conference and others like it, serves to point the public in the direction of the large amount of evidence right in front of them, much like the kindly New York City police officer who pointed us to WTC, Building 7. When clinicians and researchers are presented with the data, they will see the wonderful landscape of possibilities that meditation practice can offer us in the search for the balance of our external and internal environment we call health.