How does meditation help me?

Interview with meditation expert Ulrich Ott

Those who meditate regularly are not only calmer and more relaxed, they also develop the ability to concentrate and self-confidence. Brain researchers have found that the brain areas involved enlarge after just a few weeks of meditation.

Meditation can especially help people who are under a lot of stress.

TK spoke to the renowned meditation researcher Dr. Ulrich Ott. Psychologist and neuroscientist at the Bender Institute of Neuroimaging at the University of Giessen and author of the book "Meditation for Skeptics".

What happens in the body during meditation?

Dr. Ott: If you can calm the hectic hustle and bustle of thoughts and link your attention to breathing, body sensations or a word or a syllable. usually notice that breathing slows down and deepens on its own. The heart beats more slowly, blood pressure drops, muscle tension and the activity of the sweat glands decrease. This is the typical picture of a relaxation response. The electrical activity of the brain shows slower and more synchronized waves.

Do I have to learn the lotus position before I meditate?

Dr. Ott: No, of course not. You can also sit on a chair or on a bench. However, posture does play a major role. As a rule, the exercise is carried out in an upright sitting position, in some cases also lying down. In this case, however, it is best to use spoken instructions, otherwise there is a high probability that you will fall asleep. This very rarely happens when you sit up straight. The straightening will make you more alert.

What changes do you see in the mind of meditators?

Dr. Ott: If you focus on an object during meditation, for example on your breathing, then you need regions in the brain that direct and hold your attention. The so-called central executive network, which is formed from several brain areas, is responsible for this. In the MRI scanner it can be observed that it is activated in the meditator's brain.

Also, while meditating, you need to block out distractions and remain vigilant so that you can notice when your mind is drifting. This happens again and again, especially at the beginning, but also later. Another region in the anterior inner area of ​​the brain, the so-called anterior cingulate cortex, is activated to hide disturbances and to monitor.

The maps in the brain become finer

By turning inward, your own body also becomes much more conscious. The 'maps' that represent the surface of the body and the internal organs in the brain are very rough at the beginning. With increasing practice, they differentiate more and more finely. Accordingly, the brain areas that have to do with body sensations, i.e. the somatosensory cortex and the so-called insular cortex, are also activated. After prolonged practice, these areas become larger and the density of synaptic connections also increases. At least this is where meditators differ from people without training.

More compassion

Regions that are active in grinding are also strengthened. The insular cortex also plays a role here. Meditation is not selfish as one might think. Rather, it will expand your ability to be open to others. With certain forms of meditation, you can even actively cultivate emotional attitudes.

Our western world doesn't associate emotions with the fact that they can be trained. But research, for example on Buddhist monks, shows that it is possible, for example, to train compassion. The brains of these monks react much more strongly to stimuli that trigger compassion, for example when the sound of crying is played to them while they are in the MRI scanner. "

Why do you recommend meditation?

Dr. Ott: For me, meditation is an important tool for self-regulation. With meditation I can relax physically, focus my attention on an object or widen it and influence my emotions in a positive way. Anyone who wants to live more self-determined can use this. Meditation can especially help people who are under a lot of stress, be it because of their job or because of an illness.

How can meditation positively influence emotions?

Dr. Ott: When you meditate, relax and your emotions cool down. But emotions can also emerge during meditation when you are aware of your body sensations. If you perceive them with serenity, they will disappear again. Because the emotions lose their energetic basis because you don't get into them. You learn to be more relaxed about your feelings.

When meditating, you also interrupt unfavorable circles of thought, such as those that arise when pondering. There is a very close connection between brooding and depression. In meditation you keep returning your attention to the object on which you are focusing. This will prevent brooding.

Also, if you think about your emotion and decide whether it is justified and you should act or if it is self-inflicted stress, your emotion will change.

How does the positive effect on the feelings arise?

Dr. Ott: In meditation you watch yourself thinking and feeling. You get to know yourself: What am I doing with my inner dialogue? Inner dialogue is very important for your feelings. In meditation, you encounter yourself in a benevolent, appreciative manner.

It's not easy at first. Those who are very strict curses themselves at the beginning for not getting their thoughts under control. Sometimes it takes time to develop a benevolent manner towards yourself. But with this accepting attitude towards your thoughts and feelings, you gain the freedom to change your thoughts. When a thought occurs, you can say 'stop' even outside of meditation.

Meditation changes the mental system

When you are more experienced with meditation, it is like reprogramming computer programs that run automatically in the background. You are fundamentally changing your own mental system. As a result, you no longer react automatically to the cues that previously triggered anger in you, for example. You gain inner freedom, so the key stimulus that would otherwise automatically enrage you no longer works. You are more aware of what is happening and can make up your mind. Automatisms, on the other hand, affect our freedom.

Why is an accepting attitude so important in meditation?

Dr. Ott: Acceptance is a central aspect in most forms of meditation. For example, in mindfulness meditation, you focus your attention on the present moment and accept all sensations as they are. That doesn't sound very spectacular at first, but it has astonishingly positive effects.

This has been well researched, for example in the case of chronic pain. Much of the suffering comes from resisting the pain. The primary painful sensation is often only the trigger for a cascade of negative assessments of one's own body and life that lead to depression and anxiety. Here it is very healing when patients learn to accept their body with its ailments and to take a positive, benevolent attitude towards themselves again. Instead of blocking, suppressing, or splitting off the pain, they focus on the actual sensation. The impartial, non-judgmental observation from moment to moment alone can have a healing effect.

What do you recommend to people who want to learn to meditate?

Dr. Ott: I recommend that beginners first take an MBSR course, a course in "mindfulness based stress reduction", a method of mindfulness meditation. In Germany these courses are also known under the title "Stress Management through Mindfulness". In such a course you can gain your first experiences with meditation and gentle yoga exercises. In the meantime, such courses are offered in every major city. The course lasts eight weeks, with one meeting per week and a CD with instructions for daily practice at home.

Can meditation also harm, for example mentally unstable people?

Dr. Ott: Yes and no. Mentally unstable people can benefit from meditation. For example, it has been proven that a special variant of mindfulness meditation for depressed people helps prevent relapses. Special groups for depressed patients or for pain patients can have a lot of positive effects. But one should be very clear: Meditation cannot heal everything!

Today there are many more people with mental disorders coming to the meditation centers than in the past. Inspired by the many books and the positive press, they want to heal themselves through meditation. Meditation teachers and Zen masters tell me, however, that they feel overwhelmed by it. Because many of them are not trained to work with people who have mental disorders.

Meditation is not always useful

If you are mentally unstable, you should avoid meditating for hours at a time over several days. Long meditation times can lead to hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms in those with a corresponding disposition. Here it is safer to take the first steps in a group under competent guidance and, if necessary, to coordinate this with a treating doctor or therapist.

Emotions also appear in meditation. Meditation is therefore relatively contraindicated for stress reactions after a severe trauma, for example, if one was the victim of an act of violence or a natural disaster or had a serious accident. Then the trauma can reappear in meditation. Precautions must be taken here. For example, these people should not take an MBSR course 'Coping with Stress through Mindfulness'. It is suitable for people who want to cope with stress, even with chronic stress, but not for massive mental disorders.