When you meditate you are using your brain

By Carl Henrik Grøndahl

If you meditate, you do as ten million American adults do, among them film stars Goldie Hawn and Richard Gere, and former Vice President Al Gore. You are also an object of study for serious scientists, who are now discovering that some kinds of meditation have interesting effects that can be measured.

Many people still associate meditation with romantic dreams of a golden age. Someone – a prophet, a guru, a reincarnated Maitreya – is going to come and initiate a new era, where all pain is gone and all enigmas are solved. People who practise meditation are seen as escapists guided by such fantasies of a problem-free existence. Meditation entails crystals and pyramids, weird notions and even weirder lifestyles. Normal, sensible and realistic people do not meditate.

The average American does meditate

The American weekly Time Magazine, with a certain degree of wonderment, says goodbye to this idea of the weirdness of meditation, in its cover story on August 4 (notably in its American issue, not in the European one). The article begins with the statement that meditation has been associated with “New Age mumbo jumbo”, a discipline for nutty people. (The fact that the magazine uses an interestingly lightly clad film star on its cover, meditating in a new-age type landscape, probably reflects a healthy understanding of the newsstand market). The writer, who does not meditate, notes with surprise that he almost belongs to a minority. Meditation is becoming demystified. People who meditate are no longer hippies past their sell-by date or dotty people living in California with crystals, pyramids and new-age magazines, but normal and average Americans. Meditation rooms are appearing at airports. Meditation is increasingly recommended by medical doctors as a means to prevent, or at least control, stress-related problems or diseases, and to strengthen the body’s immune system. Research has shown that meditation can, in computer terminology, “reset” the brain and change the “cluster” that makes you react with rage at traffic jams. You can actually train yourself to be present here and now, and not remain stuck in past reaction patterns.
Time reports a series of studies and various meditation techniques, highlighting the material with attractive illustrations and graphics.

Goodbye to romantic theories

In countries where Acem Meditation is more widespread, the demystification of meditation may not be regarded as remarkable. Those who read issues of the Acem periodical Dyade from the early 1970s will find clear analyses and dismissal of romantic meditation waffle and uncritical submission to charismatic prophets. Acem’s sober and demystified efforts to develop an understanding of meditation have been a relief to many – and a disappointment to some – who sought simple and seductive solutions. People who come to Acem’s beginner’s courses usually do so precisely because they have discovered the reality that Time describes: this is a method for everyday life, for normal people who want something more in their lives. There is a seriousness here that provides security.

More acceptable science

Time’s main point is, of course, that the effects of meditation can be shown scientifically. There is nothing new in this. The problem is, rather, that such proof has largely appeared to be pseudo-scientific. Cool graphics and sensational results have often appeared to be made-to-order, as if the conclusion preceded the research. Self-respecting scientists have distanced themselves from all studies of meditation.
Time reports that such research is now becoming more sound and reliable. The magazine may very well be right, because about a week later, the New York Times, in its Sunday magazine, published a feature referring to a fax that the Dalai Lama sent to an American professor of psychology in 1992, wherein the exiled Tibetan leader offered his meditating monks for scientific research. “Most American neurologists would have declined, or run away from, an invitation to do research on Buddhist meditation”, but the professor started a project and gradually involved other eminent scientists. They are now presenting their conclusions. We may well come to see more cover stories about the good sense of meditating.

From Acem International Newsletter No. 2 2003.

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