It can seem like a Catch-22 is baked into the practice of meditation. It’s meant, among other things, to foster patience—but meditation also seems to require considerable patience to work. Or at least “mindfulness meditation” does. (There are many ways to meditate; the practice isn’t monolithic.) When I began to toy with it several years ago—because of the demonstrable health benefits science was showing it could provide—I found that I couldn’t stand the “mindfulness” version. In “The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation,” a 2015 paper in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Yi-Yuan Tang and colleagues write that mindfulness meditation is often described as “non-judgmental attention to present-moment experiences.” I agree. That’s why it’s so frustrating.
But I wasn’t ready to give up. A friend on Facebook, a perceptual psychology professor at Georgia Tech, recommended I give Passage Meditation, by Eknath Easwaran, a read. I loved it. The focus isn’t on mindfulness, as Tang defines it, but on mantra. Instead of trying to passively, non-judgmentally, attend to the thoughts that arise in consciousness, or moment-to-moment experience, the goal is to deliberately focus on a single saying to the exclusion of other thoughts that vie for attention. For 30 minutes after my morning shower, I’d sit and say, “As long as there is suffering, I am here to joyfully serve. As long as there is happiness, I am here to rejoice. Calmly, peacefully, rama,” over and over.
Honestly, it felt more like a trip to the gym than relaxing in the hot tub, and I found my mind looking for reasons not to do it. Typical studies in humans have them meditating for a half hour per day for a whole month. If you’ve ever tried to meditate, for even five minutes, you know that it’s hard. And the purported great effects of meditation, as suggested by many religious traditions, only come after years of practice. It’s easy for people to come to the conclusion, much like they do with exercise, that it’s just not worth the effort. I meditated regularly for about a year and a half before I stopped, in part because I couldn’t keep out thoughts of all of the other things I could be doing with my time. Why does it take so long to produce a benefit?
Even the Dalai Lama finds it onerous to meditate for four hours a day!
As Tang and his colleagues conclude in their 2015 paper, “knowledge of the mechanisms that underlie the effects of meditation is still in its infancy.” Yet it is safe to say, given the results of over two decades of research, that mindfulness meditation, the researchers write, “might cause neuroplastic changes in the structure and function” of the brain areas responsible for “attention, emotion and self-awareness.” For example, meditation appears to increase the strength of the connections between part of your forebrain and your emotional systems—the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the limbic system, respectively—allowing you more control over your emotions, just not right away. These complex physical changes simply take time. You can’t rewire your brain in any fundamental way overnight.
But what if you could do it, if not overnight, but more quickly, or with less effort? Would it still be legitimate? Although meditators might have a knee-jerk reaction to any kind of easy way out, it was the Dalai Lama who urged neuroscientists to look for ways to get the same kind of brain stimulation without actually meditating. (Even he finds it onerous to meditate for four hours a day!)
A recent study suggests we might be on the first step of the path to inducing meditative states without meditation—at least in mice. Aldis Weible, a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon, and his colleagues, seemed to give mice the benefits of meditation just by shining a laser into their eyes. They started by breeding mice with some unusual properties: Their mouse brain frontal areas would get more active when researchers shined a particular kind of laser into their eyes. This uses a technique, optogenetics, which makes exposure to light in the eyes affect neuronal processing. In this first group of mice, a laser in the eyes made their ACCs more rhythmic and active. Another group of mice was bred so that light would optogenetically create reduced frontal activation in the presence of the light, and a third, the control group, was not affected by light in any way.
These mice had lasers in their eyes for 30 minutes per day for 20 days—what it takes to get effects from meditation in humans—to get the little ACCs of the mice to be rhythmic. It’s important not just that the ACC is more active, but that it’s active in a kind of rhythm, mirroring what happens in meditative states. These mice showed lower levels of anxiety, as measured by how much time they spent in the dark (mice naturally explore lighted areas when feeling safe, and hide in the dark when stressed. Unlike humans, mice feel safer in the dark.)
Although this paper was inspired by the findings of meditation training, it wasn’t designed to show that we can look at a laser instead of meditating—its purpose was to provide further evidence of how emotions are manipulated by connections between the ACC and the limbic system. And for this method to work on humans, we’d need to be bred so that light affects us the same way. In other words, it’s too late for anybody alive today. (Just to be crystal clear, please don’t start shining a laser pointer into your eye.)
But it shows an example of how some of meditation’s effects are, in essence, biological changes, and that those changes need not be caused by meditation. Maybe someday there will be an easier way. But for now, there’s focusing on your breath for half an hour, or on a saying, or on nothing in particular. Good luck.
Jim Davies is an associate professor at the Institute of Cognitive Science at Carleton University in Ottawa, and author of Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe. His sister is novelist JD Spero.
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WATCH: The psychiatrist Carl Erik Fisher on whether the word “mindfulness” is problematic.