What Happens When You Meditate

For many years, meditators have been going into medical and physiology labs to be tested, sometimes because they were asked to, and sometimes to show off what they could do. Results from this research have been published in hundreds of scientific journals – Cardiology, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, Scientific American, Science, Behavioral Medicine, Radiology, Nature, Headache, and the Clinical Journal of Pain, to name a few.

Because I lived near the University of California at Irvine from 1968 to 1978, I was often asked to be a subject in the physiological research on meditation. Apparently some of the blood, breath, and brainwaves that were written up in the published scientific articles were mine. I still have scars on my wrists from having needles stuck into veins to sample my blood during meditation. Thanks, Archie Wilson!

The Physiological Effects of Meditation

The research shows that once close your eyes to meditate, your body begins to shift into a state of restfulness that is much deeper than deep sleep, and yet you are awake. Going along with the restfulness is a whole set of changes: blood pressure decreases, your heart rate decreases slightly, your breath rate slows, and your muscle tension decreases. If you look at these parameters in a series of charts, they all go down.

The rate of change is startling. Within the first 3 minutes, oxygen consumption drops by 10 to 17 percent. Oxygen consumption is an indicator of how much work the body is doing, and when you are resting, oxygen consumption drops. In deep sleep, as you get more and more restful, oxygen consumption drops over the course of hours, so that after about 4 or 5 hours, it has decreased by 8% or so. So think of the deepest, most refreshing sleep you have ever had. Now double that and consider what it would be like to have access to that in 5 minutes whenever you want. reference: Robert Keith Wallace, Herbert Benson, and Archie Wilson, A wakeful hypometabolic physiologic state, American Journal of Physiology, September 1971

This is not happening because you tell it to. It’s all a side effect, a bodily response to the subtle attitude you take while meditating. Just as you don’t have to tell your heart to beat faster when you are scared, you don’t have to tell yourself to relax and slow down when you meditate. What you have done with your meditation procedure is invite meditation to happen, and it happens spontaneously, and a whole world of changes begins to occur within you on all levels. You can usually count on it - within several minutes the body begins to shift into a state profoundly different than waking, dreaming or sleeping, but having qualities of each.

In general, you can say meditation is the mirror image of combat mode, the stress response. In terms of survival, it is about giving the organism a chance to more quickly recover from fatigue and stress and train itself to be more efficient at dealing with stress in the future.

At Harvard Medical school in the late 1960’s, a cardiologist by the name of Herbert Benson got interested in meditation when students doing TM came to see him and challenged him: “I can lower my blood pressure by meditating. Measure me and I’ll prove it.” Benson jumped into meditation research and started doing the best, most consistent physiological research ever conducted on meditation. In 1971 he published an article in Scientific American, “The Physiology of Meditation,” which I bought reprints of by the hundreds and handed out at my lectures.

Being a scientist, Benson wanted to “model” TM, and see what the important components were. So he took the TM procedure and basically said, “OK, just use the word ‘One.’ We TM meditators were totally scandalized because he had swiped the technique and, we thought, trivialized it. Well, I was a little bit offended at first. But he started getting good results. The research at Harvard, and replicated in many labs around the world over the decades, indicates that people using this simple procedure could also enter a very restful yet alert state, which he called The Relaxation Response, because it is the opposite of the Stress Response. Throughout this book, I will be using the term “meditation” to refer to this state but keep in mind that the terms mean the same thing. The Relaxation Response as a term has a lot of virtue in that it points firmly to meditation as an innate talent you have, which is not ruled by gurus and systems of external authorities. This is part of your survival mechanism, to help you live a full life and not get too stressed.

Meditation isn’t as screamingly fast as the stress response. The measurable physiologic changes take minutes to show up on scientists’ graphs. And usually, you don’t experience the meditation state beginning to happen in a split-second. It feels like it takes a minute or two just to settle in, to arrive in the chair and get a sense of yourself before beginning.

But sometimes meditative relaxation combined with alertness come to you very fast in daily life, when you need it. The brain is always working very fast, and when you exercise it in the meditation dimension, give it a chance to practice its range of motion from utter relaxation to intensity, you’ll find you have more surprising moments of pure zest in life.

When a technique is tested and shows measurable physiological results, it goes from being considered alternative to being part of evidence-based medicine. Because of all this research more and more ancient yoga techniques and shamanistic visualizations that once were considered alternative are now beginning to be worked into mainstream medicine.

Since the relaxation response works in general, if you customize it to fit the specific ailment, for example with asthma if your meditation is, “breathe in the good, soothing air and breathe out the old, bad air,” then this may have a more powerful effect.

The Mental Effects of Meditation

Subjectively, meditation is a combination of many different states. It is not one, monolithic tone of relaxation. Rather, you’ll find you are mentally very quiet at some times, and extremely active at other times. The rhythm can be quick, a few seconds of inner silence then a few seconds or minutes of inner noise. In fact, you can never predict what you will experience from one moment to the next. That’s part of what makes it interesting and beneficial, but it’s also a challenge.

One of the things that throws meditators, beginners and experts, is that meditation only feels like meditation some of the time. The rest of the time it seems like sitting there worrying, or making lists.

You will find yourself entering states of very deep relaxation, and then suddenly you will recall in some detail a time when you were stressed. In your mind’s eye you’ll see an image, a face, hear a conversation, and in your body you will feel twinges of the stress response. Not the full response, just 1% of it, but you will feel your breathing accelerate and your nerves activate. You might find yourself replaying a situation over and over and over in your mind until you can go through it and have no stress response at all, just relaxation.

What is going on here is that your body’s survival wisdom has hijacked your meditation time for its own purposes. Nature is not stupid. Your body knows that you are not going to go into physical combat with the person at the office who sets your nerves on edge. Or, you are not going to be in physical combat in the next couple of seconds, so turn off the stress juice. The body is saying, “Stop yelling at me to get ready to fight or flee.” This hidden agenda of the body is not an enemy to meditation. In fact, it is a great ally, because it is only through this sort of de-hypnosis, the deconditioning, that you can learn to stay relaxed during your daily life and really enjoy the benefits of meditation.

Your body will use the relaxation and safety of meditation to review all the times during the past when you pushed the panic button.
Everything that bothers you, all the stressors you encounter in daily life, will come up to be reviewed during this relaxed state. This is to give you a chance to renegotiate your responses. After all, who says your heart rate has to accelerate, your digestion has to stop cold, because a supervisor walks into the room? Your worries, your undone to-do lists, the things you forgot, will all rise to the surface. It’s a briefing and debriefing, like soldiers and military pilots go through before and after each mission.

Many forms of psychotherapy are based on this spontaneous healing process. You have the patient be in a relaxed and safe situation, then talk about her troubles until she feels better.

You can’t rest and relax this deeply without letting go of tension. You can’t let go of muscular tension and simultaneously tense your muscles to fend off tense thoughts. What happens is that you are flooded with thoughts, memories, impressions of what you have been perceiving as a situation that calls for fighting, fleeing, or freezing.
Stress is the spice of life. Almost everything good in life has stressful aspects - putting yourself in challenging situations and having to grow into it. Meditation, as the polar opposite to the stress response, is not about eliminating challenge from your life. It is there to enhance your the ability to heal from the wear and tear.
Because meditation is a deeper state of rest than sleep, you can heal more deeply. A lot of the wear and tear is just the way our nerves feel, staying perpetually revved.

The Emotional Effects of Meditation

During your meditation time, you will often find yourself feeling safe and snug, and other times you will be involved in a complete play-through of all the emotions you experienced in the past day or two. In particular, your body will bring up for your review every emotion that you felt but did not express completely. Whatever your natural responses were during the day, that you could not or chose not to express, will flow through your body and you will feel them. If there were shocks during the day, when you really let go you may cry, shake, shudder, moan, or laugh. Or you may just feel an inward gushing of emotion and show no outward sign.

This catharsis is not the point of meditation – the body just wants to come up to date, heal from the past, and be able to approach each situation afresh. But the catharsis is an inseparable part of meditation for those who live in the world and are involved in love relationships. If you have ever gone to a great concert or opera, you know that afterwards there is a cleansed feeling from the emotional catharsis and the sheer beauty. All of that drama was needed to arrive at the feeling of relief. During meditation most people see flickers of images from their daily life, little mini-movies with an emotional track like a soundtrack. Usually this is not dramatic, but it is your opera, or soap opera, so the catharsis is more powerful.

What happens is often like this: one moment you are focusing on your breath, the next moment you are in the movie theater of your mind, watching a soap-opera like scene from your day, and you are noticing feelings you had in your body that you didn’t fully appreciate at the time. It could be anything. You might find yourself hearing an undertone of sorrow in your friend’s voice, and your heart aches. You could realize that you were jealous of someone, but you didn’t admit it to yourself at the time. In your mind’s screen, you might find yourself looking into the eyes of someone you love, and realize with a pang that you haven’t heard from or reached out to her in a long time, too long.

Even if you think you are not an emotional person, you are likely to feel worlds and worlds of emotional nuances during even a 20-minute meditation session. What people report most are impressionistic images and a sensation of texture that is almost physical, like running your fingers over a woven surface – the emotional texture of your daily life, the yearnings, sensations in the heart, and a sense of currents of love relationships.