In 2011, researchers from the University of Wisconsin studied a group of people who were not in the habit of meditating and instructed them in the following manner: relax with your eyes closed and focus on the flow of your breath at the tip of your nose; if a random thought arises, acknowledge the thought and then simply let it go by gently bringing your attention back to the flow of your breath. For fifteen minutes, the participants attempted to follow these guidelines. Then they were broken up into two groups: one group had the option of receiving nine thirty-minute sessions of meditation instruction over the course of five weeks, and the other group had that option at the conclusion of the experiment, but not before. At the end of the five weeks, everyone completed the earlier thought assignment a second time.
During each session, the researchers measured participants’ electroencephalographic (EEG) activity— a recording of electrical activity along the scalp—and what they found presents a tantalizing picture. Even such a short training period—participants averaged between five and sixteen minutes of training and practice a day—can cause changes at the neural level. The researchers were particularly interested in frontal EEG asymmetry, toward a pattern that has been associated with positive emotions (and that had been shown to follow seventy or more hours of training in mindfulness meditation techniques). While prior to training the two groups showed no differences, by the end of the study, those who had received additional training showed a leftward shift in asymmetry, which means a move toward a pattern that has been associated with positive and approach-oriented emotional states—such states as have been linked repeatedly to increased creativity and imaginative capacity.
What does that mean? First, unlike past studies of meditation that asked for a very real input of time and energy, this experiment did not require extensive resource commitment, and yet it still showed striking neural results. Moreover, the training provided was extremely flexible: people could choose when they would want to receive instruction and when they would want to practice. And, perhaps more important, participants reported a spike in spontaneous passive practice, when, without a conscious decision to meditate, they found themselves in unrelated situations thinking along the lines of the instructions they had been provided.
As children, we are remarkably aware. We absorb and process information at a speed that we’ll never again come close to achieving. New sights, new sounds, new smells, new people, new emotions, new experiences: we are learning about our world and its possibilities. Everything is new, everything is exciting, everything engenders curiosity. And because of theinherent newness of our surroundings, we are exquisitely alert; we are absorbed; we take it all in. And what’s more, we remember: because we are motivated and engaged (two qualities we’ll return to repeatedly), we not only take the world in more fully than we are ever likely to do again, but we store it for the future. Who knows when it might come in handy?
But as we grow older, the blasé factor increases exponentially. Been there, done that, don’t need to pay attention to this, and when in the world will I ever need to know or use that? Before we know it, we have shed that innate attentiveness, engagement, and curiosity for a host of passive, mindless habits. And even when we want to engage, we no longer have that childhood luxury. Gone are the dayswhere our main job was to learn, to absorb, to interact; we now have other, more pressing (or so we think) responsibilities to attend to and demands on our minds to address. And as the demands on our attention increase—an all too real concern as the pressures of multitasking grow in the increasingly 24/7 digital age—so, too, does our actual attention decrease. As it does so, we become less and less able to know or notice our own thought habits, and more and more allow our minds to dictate our judgments and decisions, instead of the other way around. And while that’s not inherently a bad thing—in fact, we’ll be talking repeatedly about the need to automate certain processes that are at first difficult and cognitively costly—it is dangerously close to m8ndlessness. It's afine line between efficiency and thoughtlessness—and one that we need to take care not to cross
Two experiments examined the relation between mindfulness practice and cognitive rigidity by using a variation of the Einstellung water jar task. Participants were required to use three hypothetical jars to obtain a specific amount of water. Initial problems were solvable by the same complex formula, but in later problems (“critical” or “trap” problems) solving was possible by an additional much simpler formula. A rigidity score was compiled through perseverance of the complex formula. In Experiment 1, experienced mindfulness meditators received significantly lower rigidity scores than non-meditators who had registered for their first meditation retreat. Similar results were obtained in randomized controlled Experiment 2 comparing non-meditators who underwent an eight meeting mindfulness program with a waiting list group. The authors conclude that mindfulness meditation reduces cognitive rigidity via the tendency to be “blinded” by experience. Results are discussed in light of the benefits of mindfulness practice regarding a reduced tendency to overlook novel and adaptive ways of responding due to past experience, both in and out of the clinical setting.
In any system of meditation, one can categorize the techniques endlessly. One could divide them into active, passive, and waking, or make distinctions between mental, emotional, and physical meditations. Active meditation techniques require you to focus on some object to the exclusion of all else - like a meditating on a symbol, a set of words or an image. A passive meditation involves stilling the mind so that the train of thoughts which occupy our consciousness so pervasively stop. The surrounding world fades from immediate awareness. The bodies noises and impulses cease to grab our attention, until finally the mind holds "no- thing". Waking meditations consist of meditations one practices continuously. Like the exercises in mindfulness one finds in Buddhism.
Mental meditations have the purpose of developing the intellect. One might consider doing a logic puzzle or studying a foreign language a mental meditation, albeit a simple one. Emotional meditations explore the breadth and flavor of our emotions: for one cannot hope to control a thing without first understanding it. Physical meditations consist of various strenuous exercises done in a particularly mindful manner.
Vulcans use meditation for arie'mnu (mastery of passion and emotion), and training the mind for complex uses of the intellect. So the later method of categorization seems most suited to our exploration of the subject. All Classification aside, the most important thing about meditation remains that one does it - regularly and mindfully. Intermittent meditation practices lead to intermittent results.
Meditation and other “mindfulness” techniques are designed to help people pay more attention to their present emotions, thoughts and sensations without reacting strongly to them. Meditators often acknowledge and name their negative emotions in order to “let them go.”
When the team compared brain scans from subjects who had more mindful dispositions to those from subjects who were less mindful, they found a stark difference—the mindful subjects experienced greater activation in the right ventrolateral prefrontral cortex and a greater calming effect in the amygdala after labeling their emotions.
“These findings may help explain the beneficial health effects of mindfulness meditation, and suggest, for the first time, an underlying reason why mindfulness meditation programs improve mood and health,” said David Creswell, a UCLA psychologist who led the second part of the study, which will be detailed in Psychosomatic Medicine.
The Buddhist meditative exercise has its roots in the metaphysical tenet of “emptiness,” particularly emphasized by the Zen schools . According to this view, reality is originally devoid of ontological properties and it is only via an incessant and largely unconscious habit of emotional self-reference and categorization that a conceptual structure is created and ultimately reified; a process necessary for daily life, but that also tends to condition the individual into predefined patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Meditation is believed to counteract this tendency in favor of a condition of equanimity where the provisional nature of one's own conceptual structure is realized, bringing about a greater freedom of thought and action as well as a decreased sense of self-attachment.
In the current study, we tested the hypothesis that the habitual practice of being heedful to distraction from spontaneous thoughts during meditation renders regular meditators, as compared to control subjects, more able to voluntarily contain the automatic cascade of conceptual associations triggered by semantic stimuli. To this purpose, we adapted a simple lexical decision task  that required the subjects to decide whether the visually presented stimuli were real English words or strings of letters with plausible readings but no semantic content (“nonwords”) by pressing a button on an MRI-compatible response device. The stimuli were delivered on a temporally sparse schedule within an ongoing meditative condition: subjects were instructed to attend to their breathing throughout the scan, perform the lexical decision task when a stimulus appeared on the screen, and promptly re-focus their attention to their breathing. We hypothesized that the default network in meditators would display a response associated with semantic processing characterized by a reduced duration compared to control subjects, for whom the cascade of conceptual associations triggered by semantic stimuli would be less effectively terminated by the experimental prescription of redirecting attention to the breathing.
...there has been a growing body of research over the last years examining various cognitive abilities related to mindfulness, most of which focusing on various measures of attention and memory... Although some studies did not find differences between meditators and non-meditators in rigidity related tasks (e.g , ), others have found that meditators exhibit decreased Stroop interference , (in a Zen meditation sample). The Stroop task requires participants to name the ink color in which color words are written. The interference reflects automaticity with regards to the fact that participants cannot avoid reading the words. This inability to flexibly adapt to novel and non-habitual task requirements may be taken as evidence for inflexibility. Along the same line, other studies found that meditators exhibit superior visual perspective switching on a multiple perspective images task , exhibit superior verbal fluency , , and perform better than controls on a category production task  and the Hayling task, requiring participants to complete sentences with unrelated and nonsensical words . Mindfulness meditators have also been shown to exhibit reduced rumination compared to controls –, which may also be related to reduced rigidity as reflected in the adoption of repetitive thought patterns concerning distressing symptoms, their causes and implications .
In the study, a small group of healthy medical students attended four 20-minute training sessions on "mindfulness meditation" — a technique adapted from a Tibetan Buddhist form of meditation called samatha. It's all about acknowledging and letting go of distraction.
"You are trying to sustain attention in the present moment — everything is momentary so you don't need to react," Zeidan explains. "What that does healthwise is it reduces the stress response. The feeling of pain is a very blatant distraction."
After meditation training, the subjects reported a 40 percent decrease in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. And it wasn't just their perception of pain that changed. Brain activity changed too.
Brain images also show that meditation increased activation in areas of the brain related to cognitive control and emotion — areas where the experience of pain is built. What's more, better meditators (those who scored higher on a standard scale of mindfulness) tended to have more activation in these areas and a lower experience of pain.
But can you achieve similar results by just approximating meditation, or believing you are in control of your pain tolerance? Zeidan says probably not. In this study, subjects who paid attention to their breathing to mimic meditation saw no significant change in pain. And, in a previous study, subjects given fake training failed to see meditation's effects, even though they believed they were actually performing mindfulness meditation.
If my understanding of human nature is that there is no conscious self inside then I must live that way--otherwise this is a vain and lifeless theory of human nature. But how can 'I' live as though I do not exist, and who would be choosing to do so?
One trick is to concentrate on the present moment--all the time--letting go of any thoughts that come up. This kind of 'meme-weeding' requires a great concentration but is most interestin in its effect. If you can concentrate for a few minutes at a time, you will begin to see that in any moment there is no observing self. Suppose you sit and look out of the window. Ideas will come up but these are all past- and future-oriented; so let them go, come back to the present. Just notice what is happening. The mind leaps to label objects with words, but these words take time and are not really in the present. So let them go too. With a lot of practice the world looks different; the idea of a series of events gives way to nothing but change, and the idea of a self who is viewing the scene seems to fall away.
Another way is to pay attention to everything equally. This is an odd practice because things begin to lose their 'thingness' and become just changes. Also, it throws up the question of who is paying attention (Blackmore 1995). What becomes obvious, in doing this task, is that attention is always being manipulated by things outside yourself rather than controlled by you. The longer you can sit still and attend to everything, the more obvious it becomes that attention is dragged away by sounds, movements, and most of all thoughts that seem to come from nowhere. These are the memes fighting ti out to grab the information-processing resources of the brain they might use for their propagation. Things that worry you, opinions that you hold, things you want to say to someone, or wish you hadn't--these all come and grab the attention to everything disarms them and makes it obvious that you never did control the attention; it controlled--and created--you.
These kinds of practices begin to wear away at the false self. In the present moment, attending equally to everything, there is no distinction between myself and the things happening. It is only when 'I' want something, respond to something, believe something decide to do something, that 'I' suddenly appear. This can be seen directly through experience with enough practice at just being.
This insight is perfectly compatible with memetics. In most people the selfplex is constantly being reinforced. Everything that happens is referred to the self, sensations are referred to the observing self, shifts of attention are attributed to the self, decisions are described as being made by the self, and so on. All this reconfirms and sustains the selfplex, and the result is a quality of consciousness dominated by the sense of 'I' in the middle--me in charge, me responsible, me suffering. The effect of one-pointed concentration is to stop the processes that feed the selfplex. Learning to pay attention to everything equally stops self-related memes from grabbing the attention; learning to be fully in the present moment stops speculation about the past and future of the mythical 'I'. These are tricks that help a human person (body, brain and memes) to drop the false ideas of the selfplex. The quality of consciousness then changes to become open, and spacious, and free of self. The effect is like waking up from a state of confusion--or waking from the meme dream (Blackmore in press).