The Science of Meditation (and how it can help with anger management)

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I arrived home from yoga the other night, pleasantly marinating in an unadulterated sense of relaxation as my mind idled in a heady meditative brain-wave state. I had gone deep in savasana, the final resting pose of my yoga practice. Everything had faded away, and my own body seemed to disappear into all-that-is.

In an instant after I walked through my front door I was snapped back to the reality of human problems when I realized that I had unintentionally left the stove on simmer for the past two hours. My beautiful saag paneer dinner (an Indian cheese and spinach dish) was burnt and pasted to the bottom of the pan. I had put a lot of love into this dish and I was so looking forward to it. And now it was ruined.

And I lost it.  

I had a meltdown of emotions of epic proportions. It was one that I hadn’t experienced in quite some time, given that I’ve been diligently “fixing myself” of all my emotional ailments over the past year. A quick evaluation of the situation analyzed that the emotion at the root of all of this was anger. It rose up, exploding in a cacophony of cuss words, and then eased off to maintain a low rolling boil.

I didn’t want to drag my poor husband into my misery so I put myself to bed without any dinner (pouting) and laid in the dark (because in the meantime the power went off). In the midst of now also being angry about the fact that Bahamas Power and Light had decided to flip the switch off now and not when I was inadvertently “simmering” my meal, I began to realize that the anger I was feeling wasn’t necessarily a superficial anger. This time, I was able to remain cognitive throughout the “anger process.” When I sat back and observed it, what I was actually feeling was anger for allowing myself to get caught up in these emotions. It was a bit of an ah-ha, in a way, despite the fact that I was still angry. But in this instance, I felt strangely disconnected from the emotion.

I read something later that allowed the experience to click. Dr. Andrew Newberg, MD, director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania states “Anger interrupts the functioning of your frontal lobes. Not only do you lose the ability to be rational, you lose the awareness that you’re acting in an irrational way. When your frontal lobes shut down, it’s impossible to listen to another person (in an argument), let alone feel empathy or compassion. When you intensely and consistently focus on your spiritual values and goals (through meditation), you increase the blood flow to your frontal lobes, which cause the activity in emotional centers of the brain to decrease.”

So normally when you switch into negative emotional states, your prefrontal cortex (the cognitive or “new” brain) shuts down and basically you can’t think and act rationally anymore. Fear determines and dominates your behavior. But what I found striking was that it’s now being scientifically proven that meditation practice and spiritual connection allows you to train the brain to keep that prefrontal cortex activated so you can act rationally, even while you are experiencing an intense negative emotion.

“Newberg’s work shows that meditation enhances blood flow as well as function in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate, an evolutionary newcomer that mediates empathy, social awareness, intuition, compassion and the ability to regulate emotion. It bridges the gap between the amygdala (one of the most primitive brain structures) and the prefrontal cortex. Newberg’s studies show that meditation and other spiritual practices (yoga anyone?) strengthens the anterior cingulate, while also calming the primitive amygdala.” Excerpt from Power Up Your Brain, The Neuroscience of Enlightenment by David Perlmutter M.D. and Alberto Villoldo Ph.D.

Have you heard the term “neuroplasticity”? It means that you can recreate the hardware, or the neuronal pathways in the brain, by changing your behavior or environment (with regards to stuck and repetitive patterns). When you practice meditation, you train the brain to open a portal of sorts, by turning your attention away from the everyday world and gazing inward. In his book How God Changes your Brain, Dr. Newberg states that meditation not only modifies specific areas of the brain, but it helps the meditation practitioner behave and express emotions in a more positive manner.

I know, I know, this is all fairly boring brain-science jargon, but the fact that there are now studies backing up the benefits of meditation, showing that you can move through negative emotions and change the way you react to stressful situations, allowing for a more compassionate and kind interaction between ourselves and our surrounding world, well that’s just straight up good stuff isn’t it?

So, what is meditation?

Simply put, it’s sitting quietly for anywhere from 5 minutes to multiple hours. You begin to train your awareness to be fully in the present moment. The ego falls away, and your existential-self is replaced with a connectedness to the higher-self or the divine. While getting ethereal with your practice doesn’t always happen, it certainly can.

On a day-to-day normal human basis, we are typically operating in beta brain wave states, where you’re thinking and acting cognitively. You’re problem solving and functioning based on ruminations of past or future events. Alpha brain waves are slightly mellower, a resting state of being in the present moment. You are alert but relaxed, and in light stages of meditation. Theta brain waves delve even deeper, occurring mostly while sleeping, but also during concentrated states of meditation. Theta is our gateway to learning, memory, and intuition. In theta, our senses are withdrawn from the external world and begin to focus on signals originating from within. When you find yourself in those deep theta brain wave states through meditation your awareness begins to shift, and you can start to tap into your intuition. I’ve had a lot of things come up for me in deep meditation, including personal realizations and answers to questions I’ve been pondering.

With practice, when you enter states of deep meditation, you begin to sense that the body “goes to sleep” but the mind stays alert, without the thought chatter. It’s therapeutically relaxing and uplifting at the same time.

How to incorporate meditation into your daily life

A lot of people get overwhelmed with the idea of trying to “turn off the brain” for an hour at a time, so they just don’t bother to meditate at all. You don’t have to fight with the brain or the thoughts that arise. What you are trying to do is become the observer. So, the thoughts can arise, they just don’t dictate action and they aren’t in control anymore. You stop listening to them when they say, “hey, let’s stop meditating now and grab a snack”. Once you can get past those urges, you’ll find you can sit for extended periods of time and actually enjoy the sense of relaxation you begin to cultivate.

So my advice is to start with five to ten uninterrupted minutes of quiet sitting per day. I meditate first thing in the morning and it sets the mood for my day in such a positive way. Over the years, I’ve been able to work up to easily sitting for an hour.

You can always sneak a little meditation session in when you feel like you need a break throughout your day too. Just find a peaceful spot on your couch, or in out nature if you can, and close the eyes and saturate yourself in present moment. And of course, if you have a regular yoga practice, you’ll get a bonus meditation during your final savasana pose.

Remember that there is no “goal” of meditation. It’s not a competition, and it’s certainly not a fast track to enlightenment, but as with learning to play a musical instrument, a new language, or sticking with your yoga practice to increase flexibility, you begin to make subtle changes over time, and eventually you’ll begin to notice a profound shift.

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I often end my yoga classes by saying “do your best to take whatever you practiced on your mat out into the world.” But it’s tough right? When you’re on your yoga mat, you’re only dealing with yourself in an uninterrupted state, and the external stressor components are removed. Once you step into your regular world, you’re tested regularly. When get home, even if you were just in that state of post-yoga bliss, if your dinner is burnt, you can easily switch back into reactionary mode.

But meditation bridges the gap between sacred space and your everyday world, and eventually you realize you don’t necessarily need the yoga mat or the meditation cushion to access its benefits.

So meditate people. Meditate so the next time you accidentally burn your dinner, you can have a moment like mine, an insightful one that turned into an entire blog post, instead of the more painful route of getting caught up in the anger and taking it out on your unsuspecting spouse, child or dog.