Meditation goes west: Stars, science & apps

Am I doing this right?

It’s a strange question to ask yourself about an activity that humans have practiced since around 5,000 BCE. But if you’ve ever tried to meditate, your logical mind has likely faced a tinge of self-doubt. Sure, some people pepper their meditation stories with terms like “universal oneness,” “eternal bliss” andastral projection,” but meditation can also feel like a clumsy dip into mental murk. 

Just remember, your meditation practice may never open the gates to another dimension, but it will likely improve your life on Earth. The innately human superpower can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, soothe pain, enhance focus and much more.

I forgot my mantra.

Ancient Indian and Chinese practitioners knew it was a great idea to meditate, and thousands of years later, the West caught on. Meditation’s Western adoption followed the natural progression of spiritual trends:

  1.     Some uber-famous musicians (The Beatles) learned Transcendental Meditation from an Indian guru circa 1970.
  2.     Other celebrities caught on.
  3.     The affluent hippies followed suit.
  4.     A filmmaker mocked the trend.

Note: The Beatles’ meditation style of choice, Transcendental Meditation (TM), costs hundreds of dollars to learn from a certified teacher, which, according to the TM organization, is the only legitimate way to develop a practice. TM teachers give students a mantra (or a phrase to silently repeat during meditation), then they offer lifelong meditation support. Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall satirizes this elitist approach to meditation when Jeff Goldblum delivers his iconic line “I forgot my mantra.” Check it out.

Jokes aside, we don’t discount TM as a legitimate practice with potentially transformative impacts, nor do we intend to diminish the value of working one-on-one with a qualified meditation teacher. Although a number of other meditation styles have gone mainstream, many high-profile Westerners still practice TM.

Spirituality gets practical

 In true 1990s fashion, Westerners stripped meditation of its guru garb, dressed it in normcore and ushered the spiritual trend into a “practical awakening.” Mindfulness, which involves the act of observing your own consciousness with neutral detachment, gained popularity as a more accessible style of meditation. Similar to TM, minus the pricey mantra. Meanwhile, science and spirituality collided.   

For years now, researchers have been conducting studies that support meditation as a viable treatment for issues like acute and chronic pain, addiction, depression and anxiety. And thanks to brain-imaging tools, the mechanics of meditation aren’t so mysterious to a Western audience anymore. Electroencephalography (EEG) scans reveal that our brain waves change during meditation, showing Theta waves throughout the middle and frontal parts of the brain, and Alpha waves across posterior sections. Conversely, Delta waves rise when we sleep, and Beta waves drive goal-oriented activities. So, yes – you could feasibly verify whether or not you “actually meditated.”

We also have visual evidence that meditation can structurally alter your brain. As this other Nano article discusses in more detail, neuroimages of consistent meditators tend to present more grey matter (a good thing) in the brain areas that power logical reasoning, memory, self-control and other traits of a highly functional human.

Meditation today

Ready to upgrade your brain? You don’t need to meditate in the Himalayas or work with a spiritual guru. Launching your practice could be as simple as downloading a meditation app like Headspace, Calm, buddhify or another one of the many options. However, meditation can surface long-buried emotions, so if you’re dealing with psychological pain or trauma, enlist the guidance of a medical professional. You may also want to find a meditation support group if you’re flirting with the idea of astral projection.