Children take to meditation very easily – they have a natural disposition for silence because they have an infinite openness to life without expectation. Adults can quickly tire of meditation because they feel they are getting nowhere. It seems – on the surface of things – that nothing is happening and that can lead to a nagging doubt that the silent repetition of the mantra is a waste of time. But repetition doesn’t bother children – indeed, they welcome it. I sat and played with my three-year-old granddaughter after I collected her from crèche recently – we played the same game over and over for forty minutes. She never tired of it. It seems clear that repetition plays an important role in brain development.
A simple analogy can help to clarify the benefits of repetition. The first time we cross a grassy area we have to make a path for ourselves across the unmarked terrain. But as we and others make the same trip across the same ground day after day, a trail emerges and that pathway is strengthened with every journey made. We can see this most obviously when we visit a park where concrete pathways have been designed with too much attention to the aesthetics of design and too little attention to how people behave. In so many new developments, where an architect designs a two-legged path from A to B, human beings inevitably create a new shorter path that links A and B directly across an area where grass has been sown! The path becomes more obvious over time as more and more people follow it.
The same is true of neural pathways in the brain. When we repeat a given sequence of actions, the more we repeat the steps the easier the process becomes until eventually we are able to repeat the actions without consciously thinking about them as a series of separate actions. When we first learn to drive a car, we think about every step laboriously: touching the brakes, pressing in the clutch, changing gears, releasing the clutch, maintaining pressure on the accelerator. It can be a painful and noisy experience but as we practice we get better and better at it until we eventually manage to do it every day without any conscious thought.
When we practice meditation regularly, that too has an effect on our brain. A study in Harvard in 2011 identified where new grey matter developed in the brain in a group of meditators being studied. Other researchers suggest that meditation opens up neural pathways between the two hemispheres of the brain, each of which processes information very differently. In Western society we tend to spend most of our time acting out of the left-hemisphere of the brain and to make considerably less use of the more creative right-hemisphere. By repeatedly letting go of our preoccupations, meditation helps us to achieve a better balance.
Meditation is about one-sided attention – choosing to focus on a word and holding our attention on it. Of course, what happens to all of us when we try to do that is that our attention wanders – often very quickly and repeatedly. But the moment one realises that the mind has wandered is a moment of watchful awareness that enables us to return our attention to our mantra. Doing so repeatedly over a meditation session – and every time we meditate – strengthens our capacity to hold our attention on that single focus and to leave thoughts and distractions behind. It’s not that they cease but when they arise we find we have the capacity to ignore them and to return our full attention to our mantra.
Most of us nowadays are easily distracted by our phones. If you use social media apps or news apps you will know how frequently notifications are sent to your phone with unless you take steps to limit them. Because every notification is normally accompanied by a sound, many people now experience distraction after distraction all the time, most of them utterly trivial. Meditation helps to realise how often we allow our attention to be so easily distracted.
By restoring a balance between the two hemispheres of the brain, meditation changes how we perceive reality. It quietens the mind and restores a harmony between doing and being, helping us to develop a more integrated way of seeing and being in the world.
Meditation might be described as sitting to attention. As we sit in meditation, attending to our word and letting go of distractions, we are brought to a deep awareness of being itself, a deep sense of participation in pure being. It deepens our awareness of our true self and of our connectedness to others at the deepest level of our being. As we grow accustomed to that deeper sense of who we are, we begin to live our lives from that awareness. As we become grounded in the presence in which we live and move and have our being, we are transfigured. We might say that the ABC of meditation moves us through Attention to Being and Connection.