Buddha was onto something. “All that we are is the result of what we have thought,” he said 2,500 years ago. Finally science is catching up. In a University of Wisconsin study of Buddhist monks, researcher Richard Davidson used electroencephalograph readings to prove that monks can generate gamma waves, which are associated with attention and learning, for minutes at a time; mere mortals can sustain a few seconds of gamma activity at best. The same monks also showed an unusual amount of activity in the left side of their prefrontal cortices, which are associated with positive feelings. Sure enough, the monks were startlingly alert and happy.
Maybe it’s the saffron robes. Or maybe it’s that shutting down the disjointed monologues constantly running through our heads – the primary goal of meditation – really does get us in touch with a calmer, wiser self.
Meditation comes in many different flavors, but they all rely on “one-point concentration,” which is exactly what the name suggests: focusing on one thing only. It’s simple to describe but surprisingly tough to do, but here are a few tips to get started: In a relaxed position (purists sit on a cushion, legs crossed), bring all your attention to a repeated word (a mantra) or your breathing. Try to establish a daily “sit”: 10–20 minutes in the morning or evening. Now, as you get comfortable on the cushion, your mind will start bombarding you with sex fantasies, trivia, and Really Important Things You’ve Got to Take Care of Right Now! It’s all part of the drill. Don’t fight these thoughts. Just let them fade away.
The long-term goal is to become less tethered to the ego and its constant cravings for novelty, attention, power, sex, food, and so on – and therefore more centered and less stressed out. But even without gongs, robes, and the smiling face of Buddha himself, meditation can make people happier – and perhaps even smarter. In another study by Davidson, a bunch of stressed-out Silicon Valley types registered more activity in the “happy” parts of their brains after they took a meditation-based stress-management course for eight weeks. When Harvard researcher Sara Lazar recently compared the brains of American meditators to a control group, she found that parts of the cortex responsible for attention were on average 5 percent thicker. Lazar is now investigating whether meditation might also ward off the mental fuzziness and poor memory that accompany old age. Doing nothing, it seems, is great exercise for your mind.