This Is Your Brain on Meditation

The devotee’s undesirable habit-mechanisms
in the brain are often cauterized (in the presence of a saint);
the groove of his worldly tendencies beneficially disturbed.
-Autobiography of a Yogi

The Positive Influence of Meditation on the Brain

Regular meditation improves our lives. This phenomenon is gratefully experienced by countless people around the globe. But Why? One asks. What is going on?

One reason is central. Meditation has a beneficial influence on our brains. This is a fact science has well documented. Scientists call the brain “the computer of the human body.” Changing the “software”  of our inner data automatically improves our daily lives. The diligent meditator assumes a glow of peace, happiness and fulfillment.

Paramhansa Yogananda, a great yogi of modern times affirms that meditation brings definite and favorable changes on both the physical and subtle (energy) levels:

You cannot have all wisdom unless your brain is evolved accordingly.”Paramhansa Yogananda

“You cannot have all wisdom unless your brain is evolved accordingly.” Isn’t that interesting? For seekers of Self-realization, he further points out in Autobiography of a Yogi:

“The scriptures aver that man requires a million years of normal, diseaseless evolution to perfect his human brain sufficiently to express cosmic consciousness. [By Kriya Yoga] he removes himself from studied observance of natural laws, which can only take him–by circuitous means as given by proper food, sunlight, and harmonious thoughts–to a million-year Goal. It needs twelve years of normal healthful living to effect even slight perceptible change in brain structure, and a million solar returns are exacted to sufficiently refine the cerebral tenement for manifestation of cosmic consciousness.”

In the broadest terms, every authentic meditative method has the potential to positively transform the brain and offers not only spiritual benefits but physical and psychological advantages as well.

The Ever-Changing Brain

Up until the 1960s, scientists believed that changes in the brain could only take place during infancy. They asserted that by early adulthood, the brain’s physical structure was permanent. Modern research, however, has demonstrated that throughout life the brain continues to change and adapt by creating new neural pathways.

Science tells us that already at birth, a baby’s brain contains a staggering 100 billion neurons. This is half the number of stars in the Milky Way. Imagine! Take a moment to visualize the power and vastness of your own brain. It’s like a galaxy. Our potential is enormous, and largely untapped.

Before birth, the brain has produced these countless neurons and the connections between them, known as synapses. During the first years of life, the brain undergoes a series of extraordinary changes.  During the teenage years, a “pruning process” occurs, eliminating connections (synapses) which are seldom or never used. Throughout adult life, this process of elimination of unused neural pathways continues while new ones are being created. This lively process is ongoing, right now. We all have an ever-changing brain.

This lively process is ongoing, right now. We all have an ever-changing brain.

Why is this so extraordinary? Simply because the brain’s “plasticity” places our lives squarely into our own hands. It allows us to make fundamental changes in our thought processes, emotions and personalities. Nothing is rigidly fixed.

 Are you habitually fearful? You can change it. Are you an angry person? That can be changed, just like a software.  Do you want to develop new or alternative habits? Yes, you can. It might not be easy, but it can be done.  You may ask: How?

“Grooves” in the Brain

Yogananda coined his own term for neural pathways.  He called them grooves. These grooves are cerebral pathways of habitual thoughts and feelings.  Yogananda instructed that each one of our habits creates a specific groove in the brain. They make us behave in certain ways and often against our inclination or wishes. Our lives are proscribed by the brain grooves we create for ourselves.

Yogananda claimed before scientists did that we can eliminate negative cerebral grooves by consciously creating brain patterns of opposite good habits. One effective method he recommended is Affirmation, practiced with utmost attention and concentration.  Yogananda’s own words below deserve to be read slowly and carefully:

Attention is the needle that forms the grooves of mental good or bad habits. It is by deep attention to an evil experience or good experience that a bad or good habit is formed in the brain. These good or bad habits remain in the brain like good and bad records of human experience. As ordinary phonographic records can be played by a needle, so the good and bad records in the brain grooves can be played and brought forth by the needles of attention. That is, whenever attention is given to good or bad habits, they manifest themselves in mental and muscular activity.

He also advised that will-power and auto-suggestion from others may also destroy mental bad habits. Will-power can concentrate energy in the brain grooves with healing results. Auto-suggestion is useful when one’s will is paralyzed by the experience of chronic mental disease.  The individual can reinforce their will-power by the suggestion of an other’s strong will to be healed. Auto-suggestion is used in most forms of healing and can revive a disease-paralyzed will by sending energy into the brain and effecting the removal of destructive habit patterns lodged in the brain cells.

Mental bad habits can be destroyed by associating with those that have good mental habits. The timid should associate with the brave, the sensual with those possessing self-control, the restless with those that have meditative habits. Exercise of will-power and staying away from the bad company that feed the specific bad mental habit can destroy it. As good doctors can handle chronic diseases, good mental healers can help one by auto-suggestion or transmission of energy by will through the ether. (Yogananda, The Second Coming Of Christ)

Four Beneficial Changes

In this article we identify four beneficial changes that the brain experiences during meditation. These benefits are increasingly being scientifically endorsed as modern science catches up to what has already been taught by enlightened yogis for millennia.

1. MEDITATION CAUTERIZES “GROOVES” IN THE BRAIN

Meditation is an outstanding method for eliminating undesirable grooves or neural pathways in the brain. Meditation is a veritable “brain-purifier,” as Yogananda explains:

In meditation the mind becomes interiorized and withdraws the life force from the muscles and nerves and concentrates them in the brain cells, where the evil mental habits are grooved. This concentrated life-energy in meditation burns out the grooves of mental habits which are lodged in the brain. (The Second Coming Of Christ)

How is it possible that this life-energy burns out only the bad grooves, leaving the good ones intact? Yogananda explains that in meditation the energy acts under the wise guidance of superconsciousness.

In deep meditation the energy accumulates in the brain and penetrates into the brain grooves where habits are secreted, and consciously destroys the evil habits. The subconscious mind, being mechanical, destroys only habits of worries with the relaxed [withdrawn] energy concentrated in the brain during sleep. But in meditation the superconsciousness uses the relaxed [withdrawn] energy of the mind concentrated in the brain to go deep into the brain grooves, seeking out the evil habits and cauterizing them. (The Second Coming of Christ)

How do we change the grooves in the brain? Yogananda taught specific techniques for making new grooves in the brain and for eliminating old ones. Here is something you may want to try during your meditation:

Concentrate on the brain cells. They are the storehouse mechanisms of habits.

  • To create a good habit, first meditate and then with your concentration fixed at the point between the eyebrows (the region of the pre-frontal lobes), deeply affirm the good habit you want to install.
  • To destroy bad habits, concentrate at the point between the eyebrows and deeply affirm that all the grooves of bad habits are being erased.

2. MEDITATION CREATES A CALM BRAIN

There is another positive physiological impact that meditation provides. Research proves that meditation affects brainwaves.

Our usual day-to-day brain frequency is called beta which are electromagnetic oscillations with a frequency range of 12-38 Hz. Beta brainwaves are active when our attention is directed toward our work and the world. It is a ‘fast’ brain activity present when we are alert, attentive and engaged in any focused mental activity.

During meditation slower, alpha brainwaves can be measured. A frequency of 8-12 Hz, calms the nervous system. It also lowers blood pressure and heart rate. These waves decrease the production of stress hormones and promote relaxation.

In deeper meditative states theta brainwaves appear with a lower frequency of 4-7 Hz. In theta, our senses are withdrawn from the external world and focused on signals originating from within.

In the deepest meditators, even delta brainwaves appear with a frequency of 0,5-4 Hz. Delta brainwaves usually occur only in the deepest, dreamless sleep.

Calm brainwaves experienced during meditation have a formidable effect on everyday life: on health, emotions, psychology, thoughts and inner awareness.

 3. MEDITATION STIMULATES THE PREFRONTAL LOBES

And that’s not all!  Focusing at the point between eyebrows during meditation is of great importance. When we concentrate on this area – the “spiritual eye,” this region of the brain becomes energized, vitalized, and activated. This is exactly where the prefrontal lobes of the brain are located that are increasingly being studied in the Neurosciences. Why are they so important?

Here is why: Researchers have discovered that the prefrontal lobes are vitally important to the way we live. They are the most highly evolved portion of the brain and are central to behavior, psychological health, and emotional control.  The frontal lobes are responsible for the following functions:

          • concentration
          • will power
          • sense of humor
          • creativity
          • learning
          • empathy

In essence, this portion of the brain contains the qualities that help to define us as human beings. Meditation stimulates this area and improves all of these positive functions.

Interestingly, yogis have been talking about the importance of the prefrontal lobes (in their own terminology) for thousands of years. Yogananda strongly encourages yogis to hold their attention throughout the day at the point between the eyebrows.

4. THE BRAIN AND SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE

Neurotheology is a scientific field that seeks to understand the relationship between the human brain and religious or spiritual experiences, beliefs, and practices.  This area of study is beginning to show that the changes in a person’s brain are similar in all religions, whether they meditate, pray, perform a devotional ritual or sing to God. In other words, the changes occurring in the brain are alike for Christians, Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists or Hebrews.

Yogananda goes a step further and makes a revolutionary claim:

The brain and nervous system are the only pathways that lead all human beings to inner communion or God-contact.Paramhansa Yogananda

“The brain and nervous system are the only pathways that lead all human beings to inner communion or God-contact.” He presents this thought in his book, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Explained:

The nerves are channels through which the life-force enables the mind and body to interact. As the life-force moves down the spine and out to the body and its senses, the mind is drawn outward also. Sense-stimulation from within impels one to seek fulfillment in sense-pleasures.

This same nervous system, however, constitutes the one and only path to spiritual enlightenment, regardless of formal religious affiliation. When the energy can be coaxed to reverse its flow from the senses to the brain, it reveals to our consciousness another world. This stimulation of the nerves at their inner source awakens the desire for self-fulfillment, and for Self-realization. With progressive interiorization, through daily meditation, one develops subtle, inner perceptions vastly more satisfying than their muted echoes from the senses.

That same concept was explained by Yogananda in the movie Awake: The Life of Yogananda, which documents his inspiring life story:

The spine and the brain are the altars of God. That’s where the electricity of God flows down into the nervous system into the world. And the searchlights of your senses are turned outwards. But when you will reverse the searchlights, through Kriya Yoga, and be concentrated in the spine, you will behold the Maker.

The control of the life-force, resulting in spiritual experience, could aptly be called “the science of religion.”

Hopefully, in the future, Neurotheology will scientifically examine the process of reversing the flow of electrical impulses in the nervous system and study the effects of what happens when these impulses do not flow outward from the brain to the body but flow inward, back into the spine and upward to the brain, during silent meditation and prayer.

If such studies prove valid and authoritative, the religion of the future might easily become scientific: a method of effectively controlling the nervous system.

Is spiritual experience an illusion of the brain?

There are a few relevant questions we can ask about the brain and spiritual experience. Is spiritual experience merely a subjective matter? Is it simply an illusion produced by an altered brain brought about by religious practices? Scientists have speculated that the human brain features a “God spot.” This spot is a distinct area of the brain that produces the sensations of mystical or spiritual experiences.

Is the brain an instrument that is so great that it allows for a true experience of a non-material Reality? In other words, is God-experience a mere product of the brain, or is it true beyond material or physical reality? Materialists and spiritualists will hardly ever agree.

True spiritual Masters laugh about such discussions, as they know the answer from cosmic experience. They describe the brain as an instrument, like the body. Just as we learn to use the body, so we have to learn to use our brains efficiently. In daily life, it allows us (when it is under our control) to live a happy, self-possessed life. Spiritually, the brain and spine are “the altar of God.”  This is an inner altar we all can approach in meditation. The cerebral altar of the brain, however, is finally left behind. God–the primordial absolute Consciousness–alone remains.

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