Meditation : Mind :: Exercise : Body
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
Meditation is to mind as exercise is to body. Meditation is defined as a family of complex emotional and attentional regulatory strategies developed for various ends (Lutz, Slagter, Dunne & Davidson, 2008). While there are other definitions, this one is the broadest, encompassing the others.
Just as exercises can be classified as aerobic or anaerobic, meditation techniques can be grouped by type: focused attention, open monitoring, body scanning, generative, and analytical. These meditations have different effects. Just as different exercises contribute to overall health and challenge the body in different ways, the type of meditation technique one chooses drives different cognitive-control states. Going further, as a trained athlete can target specific outcomes (e.g. 30-45 minutes of intense exercise while sustaining a targeted heart rate), a skilled meditator can strengthen the neural substrates underlying perception, perceptual decoupling, attention, interoceptive awareness, or affect by choosing the right technique, intensity, and/or time intervals. Training is targeted and specific, just as in athletics. For best results, practice is intentional and deliberate.
You don't need a degree in physiology or biomechanics to begin an exercise regimen, just move. But the more you know, the stronger you become, the faster your recovery time, the less prone you are to injury. Similarly, you don't need to study the science of meditation, but the more you know, the more targeted your practice, the better the results, the more integrated the mind, the less prone you are to frustration or setbacks.
When people take up an exercise, they often begin with a goal or simply with what feels right. For one, it might be to lose weight, for another to explore their limits. One might want to connect with nature, another might want to connect with friends in a team sport. The motivation for one might be to keep up with the grandchildren, for another, to prevent the onset of a degenerative disease. Meditation is like this. We often begin with some compelling end in mind: to reduce stress/anxiety, for self-discovery, pain management, enlightenment; to cultivate more empathy, to improve focus and concentration, to enhance creativity, to optimize performance, to be more present, to manage strong emotions, for mental health, to delay or prevent age-related cognitive decline, or to enhance one's sense of well-being.
Just as exercise is generally recommended for all, age, experience, temperament, health, and conditioning are factors that affect and limit what one can do, at least initially. An 18 and 81 year old will not train alike. Many of these same factors affect what a meditation practitioner can do. Someone suffering PTSD might benefit from a body scan; one seeking to improve concentration might choose to count exhalations.
The routine of a professional powerlifter is not the same as that of a swimmer, a recreational tennis player or a serious runner. Nor is a runner's regimen the same as that of another. A soccer midfielder will not train the same way as a running back who will not train the same way as a marathoner who will not train the same as a ultra-athlete running the backcountry. Not only does training differ, their physiques look different as a result of their training. Similarly, one who practices only focused attention will not have the same affective and cognitive outcomes as one who only practices open monitoring or generative styles of meditation. Structurally, their brains look different under scans.
The science of meditation in the West is nascent. While there are many studies on the benefits of meditation, researchers assess different techniques under the general heading "meditation." Generalizing in this way confounds exploration of the effects and potential benefits of specific techniques. The few studies that do differentiate between techniques show that they work the mind in different ways. Within classical contemplative traditions like Buddhism and traditional yogic practices, meditation is as broad a term as exercise is in the West. There are distinct practices [Note: this is not an exhaustive list]: japa (mantras), tapa or tummo (techniques where practitioners regulate autonomic functions like bodily temperature), dharana (focused meditation), dhyana (concentration on an object- either physical or visual), samadhi (absorption, non-dualism, loss of "self"), vipassana (a type of body scan), yoga nidra (a type of body scan with visualization), shoonya (non-doing, non-dualism, emptying), shamatha (peaceful abiding), shambhavi (breath work + open monitoring meditation), metta (loving kindness), etc. Most practices have variations. There are many ways to focus attention, for example. Each country, moreover, where meditation has taken root and flourished has its own nuance and focus. Meditation practice shapes to culture. Similar mutations are occurring in the West.
The Types of Meditation
Most techniques fall under one of 6 categories: focused attention, open monitoring, hybrids, body scans, generative, and analytical styles of meditation.
In focused attention meditation, the practitioner focuses on a particular object (e.g. breath), word/s, images, sensations, external objects (e.g. candle flame) or phenomena (e.g. sound). Anything else that attracts attention is actively ignored. Attention is constantly redirected back to the object of focus. Mental repetition of a word or phrase, anapana (breath focus), shambhala (focus on exhalation), and zazen (focus on sitting) are some examples of focused attention techniques.
Most focused meditation techniques work the mind in the same way. Practitioners cycle through 5 intervals which involve neural networks that connect different nodes (or parts) of the brain:
1. Sustained attention (Executive network)
Attention is single-pointedly focused on an object (the object of focus could be the breath, a word, a thought, an image, a sound, a sensation).
Active nodes: right parietal cortex, right frontal cortex, thalamus
2. Mind wandering (Default Mode Network)
For beginners, mind wandering is common; it is the default state. Intermediate and experienced meditators may also experience distractions. Depending on their level of training, they can quickly detect and reorient their focus. Adepts can maintain high levels of concentration without interruption and with little effort. Adepts demonstrate decreased DMN activity and connectivity.
Active nodes: posterior cingulate cortex, posterior lateral parietal/temporal cortices, cingulate cortex, parahippocampal gyrus
3. Awareness of mind wandering (Salience Network)
This is the moment a practitioner realizes attention has wandered. This is the most important of the 5 intervals.
Active nodes: cingulate cortex, anterior insula
4. Letting go (Executive function) This is a critical choice point. The experienced practitioner lets go of the distraction.
Active nodes: basal ganglia, lateral ventral cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)
5. Re-orienting (Executive function)
The practitioner redirects attention to the object of focus.
Active nodes: superior colliculus and frontal eye fields, temporal parietal junction and the superior parietal cortex
As a serious body builder trains specific muscles during a workout in a targeted way- working the anterior, medial, and posterior heads of the deltoid (shoulder), for example- so can a meditator approach their training during a focused meditation session with the same intentionality. Understanding the intervals of the attention cycle allows us to train properly. When we become aware that the mind has wandered, for example, we know this is just an interval, we cut mental elaborations and reorient attention. Beginners, by contrast, return to default. They question, they judge, they doubt, they evaluate their performance. Rather than reducing cortical noise, they agitate their minds with more thoughts. Instead of simply cutting and letting go as per instructions, they cling to mental elaborations and become enmeshed in them, blending with them, identifying with them. This is why coaching is so important- both in athletics and in meditation.
Experienced body builders understand biomechanics and physiology (e.g. muscle insertion, direction of fibers, range, hypertrophy, etc.). They use this knowledge to sculpt a more aesthetic physique. In a few decades, the Western meditator will be able to approach their practice with the same depth of understanding and sculpt the mental landscape. For thousands of years, without the aid of technology, skilled meditators developed experiential and exploratory methodologies to understand their minds. Adoption by the West will further the science of meditation. For now, we have sufficient models to inform our practice.
When attention is focused and sustained on the breath, I know by inference that those regions associated with executive control are active. I cannot see the posterior cingulate cortex lighting up when my mind wanders any more than I can see the anaerobic breakdown of glucose in my body after an intense set, but I can feel the effects. In meditation, when the mind is easily distracted and attention is flighty, I can infer that the posterior cingulate cortex is active as this node is associated with mind wandering. I am not unnerved by it anymore than I would be if I felt breathless after sprinting. Understanding is there.
As with exercise, form is key. The squat is a great exercise for building core, quad, and leg strength. Performed improperly, however, the exercise can lead to injury. Focused meditation is like this. Practiced properly, the technique is great for stabilizing the mind as squats are excellent for stabilizing the core. How we deal with mind wandering (form), depends on technique. Cutting ruthlessly, acknowledging, touching lightly with non-judgmental awareness, and labeling are some strategies to correct a vagrant mind. But performed improperly, a beginner can fall deeper into rumination, self-criticism, and self-doubt.
Just as a body builder pushes muscles to failure, a meditator can experience a vigilance decrement, or attentional fatigue. As a runner trains to improve endurance, a meditator can improve their concentration, as well as the length and quality of the hold.
In open monitoring, a practitioner observes whatever thought, emotion, sensation or phenomenon that arises as it arises without attachment, without focusing or fixating on it, without trying to change it in any way (Brewer et al., 2011); attention is flexible and unrestricted. Non-directive meditation, some labeling techniques, Acem, and dzongchen are examples of this type of meditation.
Open monitoring meditation techniques are practiced with a relaxed, but broad focus of awareness that allows spontaneously occurring thoughts, images, sensations, memories, and emotions to arise and pass away freely, without any expectation that mind wandering should abate.
Even though “effortful selection” or “grasping” of an object as primary focus is gradually replaced by “effortless sustaining of awareness without explicit selection,” the core activity of the practice is to sustain attention with the shifting flow of experiences, sometimes detecting emotional tone as a background feature (Lutz et al., 2008b).
As there are aerobic/anaerobic exercises like high intensity interval training or tabata, there are focused/open hybrids. Transcendental Meditation (TM) and Conscious Mental Rest (CMR) are examples.
In CMR, focus is on the position of the eyes in their resting state. The frontal eye fields are active during the reorienting phase of the attention cycle. I suspect this is one reason a focus on eye placement is emphasized in this and other techniques. In TM, a relaxed focus of attention is established by effortless, mental repetition of a short sequence of syllables or non-semantic meditation sound like "da," "vo," or "eng" (Benson et al., 1975; Carrington et al., 1980; Ospina et al., 2007; Davanger et al., 2010; Travis and Shear, 2010). In both CMR and TM, whenever the meditator becomes aware that the focus of attention has wandered, attention is gently redirected to repetition of the meditation sound or the placement of the eyes in their resting state. There is no judgment. Nor is there vigilance as in focused attention techniques, as this implies effort. Attention is not directed toward observing the spontaneous flow of experiences like in open monitoring meditation (Lutz et al., 2008b). Consequently, techniques such as TM or CMR comprise a distinct style of meditation (Cahn and Polich, 2006; Ellingsen and Holen, 2008; Travis and Shear, 2010).
As mind wandering is permitted, brain patterns and activity register differently in EEG tests. TM is characterized by theta and alpha activation. The DMN is active. Focused Attention is characterized by gamma EEG and DMN deactivation (Travis, 2017).
Implication: if the mind is too busy or too dull to sustain focused attention- which requires effortful attention- TM, CMR, or similar technique might be the best practice for that session.
There are additional benefits to this class of meditation and TM specifically. In one study, significant increases in 5-HIAA (5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid) were detected in the urine of practitioners. 5-HIAA is the by-product when the body metabolizes the "feel good" neuromodulator serotonin. Elevated levels of 5-HIAA suggest the systemic presence of serotonin in the body- which translates as calm, rest, relaxation. A decrease in catecholamines (a stress hormone) is also present ( M. Bujatti, 1976).
Body scans, yoga nidra, vipassana/insight, and somatic experiencing are examples of this technique. These techniques are excellent for developing equanimity and resilience, for cultivating interoception (awareness of the mind/body connection), and for reducing cognitive and emotional reactivity. These techniques are useful for those struggling with addictions, for managing strong emotions, for pain management, or simply as a technique for dealing with the vicissitudes of life.
In one study, fMRI were used to assess the thickness of the brains of twenty Westerners who had experience with insight meditation. It was determined that their brains were thicker in regions of the brain involved with somatosensory, auditory, visual and interoceptive processing.
Brown University scientists proposed that practitioners gained enhanced control over sensory cortical alpha rhythms that helped regulate how the brain processed and filtered sensations, including pain, and memories such as depressive cognitions.
In another study, meditators learned not only to control what specific body sensations they paid attention to, but also how to regulate attention so that it did not become biased toward negative physical sensations such as chronic pain.
The findings suggest that these techniques evoke a brain state of enhanced perceptual clarity and decreased automated reactivity, which can be useful for those struggling with addictions or in the throes of a strong emotion.
Generative styles of meditation include metta, loving-kindness, training on compassion, empathy or perspective-taking, visualizations, and contemplative practices. Practitioners seek to cultivate desirable qualities like compassion, forgiveness, or kindness through imagery, visualization, and imagination. Through these practices, we change how we relate to ourselves and others. These techniques often use imagination to evoke certain affective responses which we can then apply to real-world situations. If we are practicing compassion, for example, we might visualize ourselves helping others. We cultivate the feeling associated with it. We create simulations for the mind. When we see someone in distress, the response of the trained meditator will bend toward empathy, compassion, or altruism- not because they are nice people, but because they've trained themselves to respond with humanity to the suffering of others. Our brains are predictive. We've simulated how we would respond to suffering. When the situation arises, we can summon empathy, compassion, or altruism to help relieve the suffering of others. This generosity of spirit and goodwill is rewarded with oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. We feel good when we help others.
Analytical techniques are of two types. The first recruit reason to uproot unwholesome thoughts. Reflecting on the deleterious effects of anger is an example of this practice. The second type of practice overwhelms the logical or thinking mind by giving it a puzzle or self-paradoxical riddle that taxes and overloads it. The Zen koan is an example. "The point of the koan," writes Gary McGee, "is to exhaust the analytic and egoic mind in order to reveal the more intuitive no-mind. They are not about arriving at an answer, but to see for ourselves that our intellections can never provide us with a completely satisfying answer. Some might even claim that koans are anti-intellectual. But they are neither anti-intellectual nor intellectual. They simply point out that reality itself cannot be 'caught.'"
“When both hands are clapped a sound is produced; listen to the sound of one hand clapping.”
Self-inquiry is another variant of the analytical style. The mind is given the task of self inquiry. "Who am I?" is the query used to investigate the nature of the mind. As the thinking mind derives its light from that which cannot be conceptualized, the imagined self comes undone. Awareness beyond thought remains.
Personally, I meditate as I workout. I began working out at 15 and meditating at 17. I've been exercising body and mind for over 30 years. My approach to both is similar. I experiment, study, apply what I've learned, set my intentions, adjust my routines when I plateau, challenge myself, have fun, and remain consistent. I vary my routines and adjust depending on conditions. I practice all of the meditation types and techniques listed here depending on the intention I set for the day. I have mid-term goals as well. Physically, a goal might be a 400+ lbs. squat, 1,000 push-ups for a day, a 100 mile bike ride (yeah, I'm bragging). A meditation goal might be sustained attention on the breath for 20 minutes, correcting for subtle dullness, a jnana, uprooting an undesirable habit (like bragging), or cultivating a desirable quality (e.g. humility).
As we are advised to listen to the body during exercise, I listen to the heart and mind when meditating. I will determine the best meditation technique to use depending on my state, alertness, time of day, emotional state, etc. When conditions are optimized, attention is strong. Like exercise, whatever I choose, I'm doing the body and mind good. As an athlete, when I was training for a competition or event, my day was organized around the sport. Meditation as a sport determines what and when I eat, what time I rest and go to bed, and helps organize my daily activities.
If I am experiencing strong emotions, I usually practice counting (to activate the ACC and executive seat of the brain), a body scan (to sit with the sensations associated with the emotion, focusing on equanimity or non-reactivity), repetition (using a word or phrase to condition the mind), or an analytical style of meditation if I detect cognitive distortions, fallacies in logic, or habitual patterns of thinking.
Usually, as with exercise, I train in circuits and use intervals. I include a focused meditation, body scan, and generative meditation in most sessions. Sometimes, I may isolate and work only on concentration or open monitoring. With exercise, I build muscle tone; with meditation, parasympathetic and vagal tone. With exercise, I build muscle; with meditation, I build equanimity.
Duration makes demands on body and mind. Meditating for 10 minutes and meditating for 10 hours is like running a 5k versus running a 50 mile ultra race. If I have 10 minutes and the mind is alert, I might practice focused attention; if the mind is agitated, I might practice a focused (counting) technique. If I have 20 minutes, I might do TM, or intervals of focused attention. If I have 45 minutes or more, I might do a body scan. With exercise, after 90 minutes, glycogen stores are depleted and athletes hit a wall. Same with meditation. After 45 minutes, physical discomfort and vigilance decrement set in. That's when we can practice equanimity or other generative technique or body scan which causes attention to shift and may compromise form. If I am meditating for 1-4 hours, I may train in intervals: first hour focused meditation; second hour, body scan; third hour, open monitoring or hybrid; fourth hour, generative technique. My formal training (sitting time) rarely extends beyond this, but I practice mindfulness the day long. I usually end all sessions with a generative practice, like loving kindness, compassion, or a prayer.
As with exercise, I focus on nutrition (which affects body and mind), rest, and other conditions that enhance concentration, promote calm, and point me to peace. If I'm rested, for example, my focus is better. Acetylcholine, a neuromodulator, is secreted when a practitioner pays attention to something specific (e.g. the flow of the out breath, the touch of the in breath at the ring of the nostrils, etc.). Attention acts as a spotlight. With heightened alertness, cognitive processes become more flexible and efficient. We can rewire implicit memory, improve neuropatterning, and change biochemistry, or as a therapist might say, overcome traumas, phobias, cognitive distortions, or other hindrances.
When we exercise, the body releases endorphins. When we meditate properly, we improve our ability to control our internal reward schedules. The feel-good neuromodulators- dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin- enhance or suppress brain activity, energy, and motivation. Just as a runner can train both type 1 and type 2 muscle fibers through endurance or strength training, a meditator can improve their sense of well-being.
Dopamine plays a role in how we experience pleasure. When we set goals, the dopamine system is primed to look for milestones. Dopamine is not only released as a reward but also in anticipation of rewards. When we take small, actionable steps toward a goal, dopamine is released. Epinephrine is often released with dopamine. If both are present, we feel excitement; if dopamine is absent, we may feel agitation and stress. The body secretes adrenaline and cortisol.
As a meditator, I set goals. My goals are not lofty. I do not seek enlightenment or even calm. I seek consistency and isolate my goals. Committing to 10-20 minutes of daily practice from 6-6:20 AM, for example, is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-based- achieving nirvana is not. Training the salience network- those 'aha' moments- by keeping the mind focused on the exhalation for 5 sets at 2 minute intervals is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based- excising fear is not. Each time I sit to meditate, I cue the reward system. I am working toward a goal. I am affirming my resolve. I am amplifying the positive effects.
If, however, I have the expectation that I should be calm, that my mind should be empty or focused, that my thoughts should be still, and I do not achieve this, I get a prediction error. The brain signals the habenula to down-regulate dopamine. I feel disappointed.
The pursuit of a goal primes the reward system. When I set the intention to meditate daily, the doing is the reward. I make the conscious effort, during preliminaries, to affirm my effort. After meditation, I set my intentions for the day. That I have already achieved one goal- to meditate- reinforces self-efficacy. It's self-encouraging. I reward the effort, the process and keep my reward system primed as I begin the day.
The serotonin system is also recruited in meditation. It is sometimes referred to as the Here and Now reward system. It promotes quiescence and calm. When serotonin is secreted, we are soothed, content, grateful. When I evoke the relaxation response or practice gratitude, pulses of serotonin are released. When I practice compassion or loving kindness meditation, oxytocin is released. Oxytocin supports bonding.
For best results, train both body and mind daily. The results will take care of themselves. I approach meditation with the spirit of kaizen, a word of Japanese origin that connotes continuous improvement. While this concept is associated with business, I've modified and applied it to the business of training the mind.
May the information presented here be of benefit to you.