A friend of mine – who ironically is starting a meditation retreat this week in the US – expressed the opinion not so long ago that sitting meditation was just pointless. I knew what she meant at the time, but knew also that she had to discover its real value for herself. In one sense she was right – sitting practice is waste of time because it is a dedicated period of non-doing. On an outward level it appears to achieve nothing. Another aspect which she drew attention to was the fact that nothing really changes day to day: you sit, you get distracted, you return to the breath, you get distracted, day after day.
One difficulty in meditation is the the results are not immediately tangible while the actual practice can be difficult. The point to meditation, however, is precisely by doing “nothing” and slowing down, gaps are created between activities and we work on our capacity to be aware of what is going on. And it seems that when one is aware, things tend to fall as they should.
However, we can probably find scientific backing for stating that this “pointless” activity is, in fact, achieving something simply while we are sitting. It has been shown that people who meditate activate a different part of their brain that is associated with less anxiety and a better outlook on life. By not activating the anxious parts of the for dedicated periods of each day, our bodies are less likely to be tense, less likely to trigger well-conditioned patterns when faced with difficulties.
Daniel Goleman & Tara Bennett-Goleman*, suggest that meditation works because of the relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. Simply put, the amygdala is the part of the brain that decides, among other things, if we should get angry or anxious, and the pre-frontal cortex is the part that makes us stop and think about things. However, the amygdala is prone to error, such as seeing danger or exaggerating anxiety where there is none. Because there is roughly a quarter of a second gap between the time an event occurs and the time it takes the amygdala to react, the slowing down practicing in meditation may allow us be able to intervene before an automatic response takes over, and perhaps even redirect it into more constructive or positive feelings. In other words, meditation seems to develop emotional brain fitness and therefore this pointless activity may not be pointless after all.
Bennett-Goleman, Tara, 2001. Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind can Heal the Heart, Harmony, (2001).