Right now it’s 7:50 am and I’m on a train to Boston. The sky is purple-gray and the sun is hitting the fall trees with gold. I’ve just finished a ten minute mindfulness meditation. It would be a lie to say that I feel better, or even different than how I was feeling before the meditation. So why did I do it? Why have I been doing this consistently for the past year and a half?
While I don’t feel different, I am more aware of how I feel right now. I know that I’m a little tired, but not as tired as you might expect, having woken up at 6:30 pm. I’m calm in the way that early mornings sometimes bring calm. I’m having a little trouble being present, but I’ve had trouble with that all weekend.
I’m not fully aware of what meditation can and can’t do. I’ve tried to use it to ward off anxious feelings, despite the fact that I’ve just told you it doesn’t change how I feel. What is true, though, is that I will swear by meditation. I will call it life changing and recommend it to everyone I know. There is some cumulative effect in taking time each day to myself. And I’m not the only one who finds some benefit from this; meditation practice among adults in the US has tripled from 2012 to 2017. As of 2015, the “meditation and mindfulness” industry has brought in an estimated $1 billion in revenue.
I have a lot of anecdotal evidence for the benefits of practicing meditation. I used it every morning to break a horrible streak of insomnia this past summer. First thing in the morning, I would sit in the side yard at home, the only place that felt really private. I would feel the sun on my face and visualize it pouring through my body. It helped me to separate sleep from wakefulness, day from night. It gave me a routine in the midst of an entirely unstructured season at home.
I’ve begun to use meditation as a sort of cure-all. I turn to it when I feel busy or tired or agitated. It’s hard to explain, but the more I practice mindfulness, the more I can see how integral it is to all other aspects of being my best self. When I feel present, it’s like there’s just a tiny bit more time between each moment. If I’m having a conversation with someone, it seems like there’s a split second where I can pause before I speak and make a decision that considers how my words will make the other person feel. My ability to make decisions seems connected to my ability to be present.
A Western application of the traditional Buddhist mindfulness meditation is used for a variety of conditions. Mindfulness meditation, specifically, refers to a practice of experiencing the present moment without judgment. This can include thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It’s thought to help with ADHD, anxiety disorders, chronic pain management, and Tourette’s, among other conditions. That meditation is so widely applicable is profound to me. It gives people a way of relating to their experiences—a way to hold it, as my abnormal psych professor, Hannah Reese, put it. It seems too good to be true that something as simple as sitting and focusing on your breath can give so much back to your life. However, there’s evidence that mindfulness meditation works on a neurological level.
People who experience one depressive episode are much more likely to have more in the future. Not only that, but it takes less stress to provoke a second episode; having a depressive episode creates pathways that influence how the brain responds to stress in the future, priming the brain for distress.
But what if you could do the opposite; what if you could prime your brain to respond more the way you want it to?
Contrary to common belief, the adult brain is not stuck with a set number of neurons; it has the ability to grow new ones throughout life. This is called neuroplasticity: the brain’s vast ability to adapt to its environment. Not only can the brain grow new neurons, but it can strengthen existing pathways, change patterns of activation, and increase the size of certain regions. While neuroplasticity is known to be greatest in children, gradually decreasing in adults, it remains that everyone’s brain has the capacity for change. Environmental factors can actually shape the way you think and react.
This idea is central to cognitive behavioral therapy. When you compare a brain scan of someone with OCD with that of a neurotypical person, there’s a difference in the activity of certain regions. However, the patterns associated with OCD typically normalize with treatment, whether it be medication or therapy. The fact this is possible confirms that lasting neuronal change is possible.
I had left campus for Boston because I was feeling uncontrollably anxious. When I feel that way, it’s hard to believe that meditation is working, or that I’m in any better of a place than I was before I started. But there’s a key difference: I’m better able to sit with negative emotions, and I don’t struggle to make them go away. And they always do go away. I am so much more aware of how I’m feeling, and am more able to make conscious decisions. And I think it’s true that meditation is changing my brain in a positive way, even if the changes themselves are hard to pin down.
Amidst the current mental health crisis among college-age students, I find it comforting to know that there’s a way to hold our ground. Beyond that, to me, neuroplasticity means that what our brains look like right now doesn’t necessarily define who we are, how we should feel, or who we can become.