Neuroscientists and psychologists have been making progress in catching up with what the ancients knew long ago–that meditation is good for us. It helps us to maintain balance. It helps us to regulate the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). When we regulate the ANS we balance the two opposing, yet complimentary, parts of the ANS: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These two systems are both necessary, but cannot both control at the same time, and when out of balance in either direction cause us to be un-well.
The sympathetic nervous system engages when we face external threats, activating the Fight-Flight system–our stress response. This happens when, for example, a driver cuts us off on the highway or our boss doesn’t recognize our contribution in a group meeting. On the highway, it saves us from getting into an accident by activating mechanisms that get us quickly and safely out of the way of the vehicle that has just swerved in front of us. In the office, it triggers healthy anger which is the motivating energy we need to get out of there and go and find another, more fulfilling job. Of course, if the ANS is really out of whack, it can also lead to inappropriate behavior such as slamming into the back of the vehicle that has just cut us off or punching the boss in the face.
At the moment that the stress response engages our bodies prepare for action. The liver dumps sugar and fat into the blood stream, the cardiovascular system heightens blood pressure; the respiratory system speeds up breathing; the senses and thinking sharpen to focus solely on this moment (not the future), and the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) shuts off to keep us from slowing down, from doing nothing while we think about options, organize, or plan. If the PFC weren’t inhibited at this moment we might crash into the guy who has just cut us off because we are pondering, “Do I swerve or brake? Which would potentially produce less wear and tear on my car in long term?”
The opposing and complimentary system, the parasympathetic system slows breathing and heart rate and keeps us calm; it is the state in which we heal and rejuvenate, and turns on the Pause and Response System which relies on the ability of PFC to resist the immediate temptation staring us in the face. We may think, “Boy, I’d really like to punch the boss in face,” but when the PFC weighs in and we see ourselves being shunned for our violence by our co-workers, we plan another course of action. In general terms, in this instance, it allows us to resist temptation: The “I won’t.” It also allows us to engage in the “I will.” After the initial burst of healthy anger motivating us to look for a new job—or get out of there–the flight response, the Pause and Response system kicks in turning on the organizing and planning we’ll need for our new job search. It also engages the “I want,” which, in effect, remembers our motivation over time: “I want to get a new job,” even when, right now, we’d rather be playing a game or socializing. The “I want,” “I will,” and “I won’t” are functions of the Pause and Response System and all reside in the PFC.
So what does this have to do with meditation? Everything. If our Fight-Flight system is continually being turned on over and over again, all day long, there is no time for recovery and activation of the Pause and Response system. Unfortunately, the modern, civilized lives we lead turn on our Fight-Flight system so many times a day, that we end up in chronic stress mode. With no opportunity for the parasympathetic nervous system and the Pause and Response system to activate, our ANS is out-of-balance and that’s when we run into trouble. That’s when disease, regret, and unhappiness come on line. Meditation helps us to balance the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems so that when we need to swerve out of the way of a car we can but then recover so that the lunch we just ate gets digested properly or the immune system keeping us from catching a cold can do its job, or we can engage in the organizing, planning, and doing necessary to get that new job.
Let’s see how by examining what happens in meditation focusing on the breath. We begin with an intention. “I will focus on my breath.” As we sit concentrating on each breath cycle, a thought enters our head; our mind wanders. Suddenly we’re thinking about the boss who snubbed us in the group meeting and we’re feeling agitated. Then we recognize that we’re distracted and that we have an intention, “Oops, I’m distracted. The boss is not the breath.” Then, without making any judgement about our wanderings, we return our concentration to the breath. This act of having a plan: “I will focus on my breath,” recognizing when we experience distractions (and we will): “How dare the boss snub me. Who does he think he is?” and returning our concentration to what we originally planned, to focus on the breath, without making judgements, without shame or feeling guilty, is building more and denser gray matter in the PFC. Amazingly, it’s the distraction, the recognition of the distraction, and the returning to concentration that builds the gray matter, the neurons and their connections. These, in turn build and strengthen the Pause and Response system.
In meditation, we’re slowing down, we’re calming ourselves, we’re emptying out. We’re bringing online the Parasympathetic Nervous System to provide overall balance to our ANS. We feel happy, our health improves, our well-being increases, our stress decreases, our actions are more even, and our self-reflection and self-control gets stronger; we’re refreshed.