In the last installment of our series on spiritual psychology, we explore meditation and how it affects the brain and your mind, and how it facilitates your spiritual growth. We discuss:
- What happens in the brain when you meditate
- How meditation can help you think like a younger person
- How to cultivate self-directed neuroplasticity to direct your mind and brain to function at optimal levels
- How meditation can reduce anxiety and improve sleep
- Meditation and self-realization
Debra Maldonado 00:28
Hello, welcome to another episode of Soul Sessions. I’m Debra Maldonado, here with the amazing Dr. Rob Maldonado, my partner in crime. We’re ready for another incredible episode, continuing our series on spiritual psychology. But before we begin, I’d love for you to click on this button here and subscribe to our channel. If you’re listening to this podcast on a podcast service, don’t forget to subscribe, so you don’t miss another episode. The title of this episode is The Transcendent Power of Meditation. I want that transcendent power. Can you tell us how we can get there?
Robert Maldonado 01:09
Let’s go back because we started with this idea of visualization. Visualization is a component of many meditations. Then we went into contemplation and framed it as the bridge between the ordinary state of consciousness and this deeper meditation, or the meditation practices we’re going to be talking about.
Debra Maldonado 01:41
For contemplation, if you look at the room, and there’s objects, contemplation is putting your mind where no objects are. Instead of focusing on an object, you’re going to let your mind empty. We talked about being in nature, where your mind is just empty, you’re not focusing on one thing, you’re in awe of nature. Almost in a way like when you’re driving, and your mind goes blank, you’re not paying attention to the road, your mind is in this creative space. I have my best ideas in the shower because your mind is not focused on any one thing. You’re in that routine, so your mind is empty to to do creative things. But meditation is a little different. It’s not this unfocused attention. It’s actually a focused attention.
Robert Maldonado 02:38
A note on meditation. Of course, these are our ideas. If you have a meditation practice that works for you, by all means, follow it, stick to it. Meditation is a technique. It’s not a spiritual practice in itself. A lot of people miss that. They think that because they plucked the meditation technique from Eastern philosophy, from yoga, from Yogananda, or somebody like that, it’s a spiritual practice. But in itself, a technique can’t be a spiritual practice because it’s a technique. It’s a way of cultivating something, not necessarily a spiritual element.
Debra Maldonado 03:30
It’s a tool, the way to get to the spiritual knowledge or access your spiritual nature, but it’s not a spiritual nature itself. A lot of people that meditate don’t have that. We talked in the last episode about having the higher knowledge, understanding the philosophy behind the mind, understanding deeper states of reality, who we are. If you’re meditating to de-stress, it’s not really spiritual. It’s a path to there, you can get there. But if it’s not couched in the underlying philosophy, you’re not using it as part of a system, it can be disjointed, like going to yoga and saying it’s a workout versus yoga being a spiritual discipline.
Robert Maldonado 04:16
We’re going to talk about the brain, what it’s doing in meditation, what meditation does to the brain. This is based on actual research, pretty current stuff that’s coming out. The mind is a little bit different than the brain. We always mention that we can look at the brain as the hardware, the computer, the wires, the glass, and all that stuff that makes up the computer. But the mind is the software because it’s the meaning and the experience in the machine.
Debra Maldonado 05:04
The brain doesn’t have a mind of its own. It’s a mind-body experience. They work together in a system. Before we get into what meditation does to the brain, let’s clarify what meditation is, what we see as meditation. We talked about it being more focused. You’re meditating on an object, you’re meditating on a point on the wall that’s very specific, meditating on an idea. How would you describe it?
Robert Maldonado 05:41
There are different genres of meditation. Davidson, the University of Wisconsin, is doing a lot of work categorizing these different meditation techniques into their own little families. You see certain types of meditations that are focused on developing your cognitive skills, or working with thought and emotion, very active way of working. That’s a type of meditation. There’s also other ones that most people are familiar with, to calm down the mind so that you experience the mind’s natural state of being. The ones that focus on breathing, on clearing your mind, stilling the mind, they’re their own genre of meditations.
Debra Maldonado 06:46
We used to go to this Buddhist center in Westchester in White Plains, the teacher was really great. He talked about a glass with dirt in it. He said when you stir the glass and the dirt, our mind is busy and distorted. It looks like the mind is dirty. But if you wait till it settles, the water becomes clear. If you look at it under a microscope, the water molecules and the dirt molecules never collide. The dirt just covers over the water molecule, so it gives the appearance of the cloudiness. With meditation, what we try to do is purify the glass of water, letting the noise of the mind settle and become the still clear focus.
Robert Maldonado 07:43
Let’s look at the brain, then we’ll talk more about its effect and impact. When we look at the brain, we see that the impact meditation has on long-term meditators is incredible. It’s hard science. It isn’t New Age thinking, it’s coming out of people that look at the brain in a serious way, study it, measure it, figure out what’s going on in the brain of meditators. One of the studies shows that 50-year-old meditators — not people that have been practicing meditation for 50 years, they’re in their 50s, but have been practicing meditation for a while, maybe a few years — their frontal cortex, which is the logical thinking and directing part of the brain, is just as young as a 25-year-old. These are incredible results. Why is this not front-page news and all over the place? Meditation is very popular, that’s great. But a lot of people don’t understand why it’s so important and what it’s doing to your mind-body. Other studies show that it increases gray matter density in the areas of the brain responsible for stress management, sense of self, empathy, as well as memory. It’s making you smarter, more sensitive, more responsive to life, more in tune with yourself, memory, who doesn’t need more memory? In intelligence, the gamma waves are the last waves to be studied. But you can think of gamma waves as light bulb moments. When the oxygen hits the brain, it all comes together, you feel in alignment, you feel the clarity. Actually, the brain is doing it before you experience it. The brain is doing some work.
Debra Maldonado 10:50
Meditating will help you have more lightbulb moments and more clarity in your life versus when your mind is busy. With that untamed mind, how can you figure out problems, how can you make decisions from a clear place, if you haven’t even disciplined your mind. It’s less about what you’re thinking, like, “I am positive about myself, I know I can make this happen and have great success in my life.” But if you are not training your mind, you’re not going to have that clarity to focus. It’s a tool to use your mind to help you create the reality you want. It’s like a step back. Let’s look at the machinery we’re using to create first. When I first started thinking positive, doing affirmations, I was doing it with a noisy mind. It wasn’t as effective as if when you start meditating. You’re in control of yourself, in control of your mind.
Robert Maldonado 12:52
Then we start to get the bigger picture here. If the brain is responding to us sitting down and looking inward — because that’s what we’re doing, we’re using what in the East is called self-inquiry, and in the West, we call that introspection. Introspection means looking inward as well. This looking inward and taking time to still and calm the mind seems to give us the ability to self-direct neuroplasticity. If you think about neuroplasticity, it’s the brain’s ability to rewire itself, restructure itself, beef up some parts and reduce other parts that aren’t needed.
Debra Maldonado 13:46
You’re saying that we do that automatically, the brain does this on autopilot every time we learn.
Robert Maldonado 13:54
We’re doing it continuously in response to the environment. But meditation is self-directed, we’re consciously saying, “I want to grow my frontal lobes, I want to reduce my fear response”, therefore my amygdala starts to shrink.
Debra Maldonado 14:15
When you increase your frontal lobe, you’re reducing your amygdala?
Robert Maldonado 14:20
No, I’m just saying, increasing the frontal lobes would give you better control of your senses, better control of your thinking, the logical directive part, the executive function.
Debra Maldonado 14:34
If you’re more focused and more in control of your thoughts, you’re less fearful?
Robert Maldonado 14:45
Not necessarily, because these are two different structures in the brain. The frontal lobe is very recent, very new in evolutionary terms. It’s the latest part we developed in the brain, whereas the amygdala is an ancient system. You see it in very early mammals, they already had this limbic system set up. It’s the emotional part. It’s a fear response, almost all animals have the fear response. It’s a very old structure we inherit in our brain. They’re very different as far as their function and structure. But meditation can hit both of them. You can increase your ability for executive functioning as well as reduce stressful sphere responses.
Debra Maldonado 15:44
I’d think that if your mind is more disciplined, you’re less pulled away by fear all the time, like a monkey mind, that’s triggered all the time. You’re starting to be more self-aware and less reactive to life. I think fear happens when we lose control, we feel like we’re out of control. If we’re able to focus and control our concentration, it gives us a sense of control that would inhibit that fear response.
Robert Maldonado 16:22
Looking at the research, I came across people that were looking at Einstein’s brain. Einstein did not himself donate his brain to be studied but his family said, “Might as well take his brain and study it to see what it tells us about his incredible intellect.” It wasn’t necessarily bigger, although some parts of it, like we were talking in neuroplasticity, the executive functioning was a lot denser. His visual-spatial areas were a lot more refined.
Debra Maldonado 17:10
Because of the visualizations that he used to do? We talked about visualization in the previous episode.
Robert Maldonado 17:16
Here you get into the chicken or the egg thing. What comes first, his ability to visualize or does the brain give him that?
Debra Maldonado 17:26
I’d think that by default, some people are really good at visualization and some aren’t. You can develop that though, couldn’t you?
Robert Maldonado 17:37
It’s a two way street. That’s where meditation and the idea of self-directed neuroplasticity comes in. If we start to understand that our brain works in this way, there are certain components that do these operations, there are areas for visual-spatial learning, there are areas for language processing, we can consciously, through meditation, focus on developing the skills.
Debra Maldonado 18:11
In meditation, we could direct our mind to say, “I want to reduce the fear response”, we can direct our mind to say, “I want to increase my focus and my executive function.” We can set the intention for “I want to be more creative” and meditate on creativity or using imagery.
Robert Maldonado 18:35
The mind is the one that’s directing and focusing on the physiological components, growing them.
Debra Maldonado 18:50
What if a person can meditate on the parts of the brain where that function is, increase it, imagine light in there? With ADHD, you worked with kids, to focus on the frontal lobe, to bring the blood flow there. Would that work, intentionally focusing on an area of your brain to stimulate it?
Robert Maldonado 19:21
They’ve done research with kids and adults with ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and sure enough, it helps them regulate their behavior because it just like the drugs. What the drugs do, like Adderall and some of the stimulants that are used to treat ADHD, they’re activating certain parts of the brain that regulate behavior, that pay attention to how we’re acting and monitor that. If we can use meditation and teach people how to grow those areas of the brain, beef them up, make them work just as effectively, as the drugs do.
Debra Maldonado 20:14
Awesome, drug-free treatments, and you’re in control of it, you get to do natural exercises to stimulate.
Robert Maldonado 20:26
Incredible research shows that meditation helps people with anxiety. If you look at anxiety and the medications that are used currently, good drugs for anxiety do not really exist because they have so many side effects. You can’t just hit those parts of the brain that are causing anxiety, you have to relax the whole nervous system, which means the whole body. You’re putting drugs in your system that are numbing, sedating your whole nervous system.
Debra Maldonado 21:11
Also the side effects on your gut health. That also increases anxiety, they found that our gut biome impacts our mood and our stress responses. The medical model is like “Take a drug, fix this little thing”, but not treating the whole system.
Robert Maldonado 21:33
It’s almost the reverse with the medication because it is affecting everything, not targeting anxiety.
Debra Maldonado 21:41
It’s treating the whole system but not transforming the whole system. It’s actually inhibiting the intention to treat, but actually working against them.
Robert Maldonado 21:56
You can focus meditation precisely on the anxiety, you can target the amygdala, which is the fear response, and train it to calm down. It actually shrinks the part of the brain responsible for the anxiety.
Debra Maldonado 22:18
When I got laid off for my job, in September, it’ll be 20 years, I had meditated a lot. I was probably doing a mishmash of it but I actually practiced a lot of meditation. When that upheaval happened in my life, everyone was wondering why I wasn’t more stressed about it, there was some kind of peace within me. You do this work, then there’s an upheaval in your life, which we all have at one point in our life or many times in our life. Meditation helps us cope with these stressors of life, like deaths of people, jobs, being laid off, financial problems, all these things we deal with as humans. I know it firsthand, people were amazed at how calm I was, they were like, “Why aren’t you stressing out? Why are you being happy?” It was because I also knew I was supposed to move on and do something else. But I was able to focus my mind on potential, peace, and what’s next versus being upset, letting my mind focus on the fear.
Robert Maldonado 23:26
You were using contemplation, which is a great skill to have because meditation becomes a lot easier.
Debra Maldonado 23:37
When we started to seriously meditate, that structured meditation, I found it takes it to another, deeper level. I thought I was meditating, but actually, when I did discipline of focusing on a diet or focusing on just your breath, it was really hard at first, but it takes you to another place. It’s just another level of consciousness that you go to.
Robert Maldonado 24:08
Also depression, which is a huge problem worldwide now. It’s considered one of the primary killers of young people because suicide increases when someone is depressed. Meditation helps people with depression without the drugs. Very powerful way to work, you’re not dependent on the medication. You’re relying on your inner strength, your own ability to regulate your own mind, which is an incredible skill to have. It not only helps you in the moment, but in everything you do in life. Meditation has this power to help people with depression, anxiety, ADHD, insomnia. We know it’s also a huge problem with all the anxiety in the world, people can’t sleep.
Debra Maldonado 25:07
They go to bed with their cell phones and portable electronic devices, they’re on their phone at night. It stimulates the mind, it doesn’t allow you to relax, it actually causes anxiety when you’re scrolling on social media.
Robert Maldonado 25:27
There’s another connection with meditation and insomnia. If we look at meditation, what we’re doing in meditation is we’re tapping into deeper resources we naturally tap into during deep sleep. But we’re doing it in a conscious way. We’re not just allowing the body to fall asleep, we’re sitting down, keeping our awareness, then training the mind-body to go into that state of deep sleep but staying awake.
Debra Maldonado 26:11
That’s why I always recommend for people who meditate, they like to lay down and then say, “I tried to meditate but I fell asleep.” You have to sit up, you have to keep your back straight, you have to have the right posture, the posture itself will keep you alert, but relaxed. It’s about learning all the nuances of the poses, the focus, and the technique, so that you can enter those states versus I’m just going to lay down and see what happens, which I used to do.
Robert Maldonado 26:48
What’s happening is, you’re getting the benefits of restorative, deep sleep in the meditative state.
Debra Maldonado 26:59
It’s training your body to go there. When you go to sleep at night, it’s like carving the little path for your mind to go at night without the roadblocks of anxiety, worry, and fear that stops us from sleeping. We’re carving that lane for our mind to just dip right into sleep.
Robert Maldonado 27:18
If you suffer from insomnia long enough, it will start to impact your overall health. The research with animals shows that if you prevent them from going into deep sleep, they’ll get sick and die eventually. But the restorative power of deep sleep is well documented and well understood. If meditation allows us to tap into that power and rejuvenate ourselves through meditation in a much shorter time, that’s the key, we don’t have to spend eight hours sleeping. If you go into deep meditation, you can gain those benefits in half an hour or an hour. It’s a lot quicker, a lot more effective, and you have the control.
Debra Maldonado 28:21
And lastly, the spirituality peace.
Robert Maldonado 28:25
Last but not least. When we plucked these techniques out of the ancient systems and used them for our own benefits, to sweat like some people do, or for stress management, there’s nothing wrong with that. The world has evolved, these practices have evolved along these lines for thousands of years. But if we look at the original intention, because they’re still there, the Upanishads are still with us, we can read what they’re talking about, the Mandukya Upanishads is especially clear about meditation. It says there’s three states of consciousness that we go through in a 24-hour cycle. We’re awake for a few hours. We are dreaming for a few hours. And we’re in deep sleep. Those are three basic states. It says there’s a fourth state, which is not really another state, but the foundation from which those states of mind arise. That fourth state is that pure awareness.
Debra Maldonado 29:49
Which is what the ohm symbol represents. Our logo’s based on the ohm symbol if anyone wondered. That dot is the pure awareness that they think is basically the center of our existence.
Robert Maldonado 30:06
The Mandukya Upanishads and some of the other Upanishads are manuals for our awareness, for our consciousness. They’re very clear they’re not mythological or religious texts, like some of the other books. They’re simply instructions on how to use your mind for your own benefit.
Debra Maldonado 30:33
It’s amazing how they did that thousands of years ago. We have all this technology, and it still comes back to what makes us happy, what makes us fulfilled in life, what makes us transcend this little ego human experience to have a more profound experience of life. It’s right here within us, it’s inside, it’s not out in that big house or vacation you’ve always wanted to go on or the love of your life. It’s actually already within you. It’s giving you instructions on how to access that.
Robert Maldonado 31:07
Meditation is the key to that. When you enter that state of meditation, you’re cultivating the fourth state of mind, which is pure awareness. You’re touching and resting on the ground of being, because where does the waking state arise from? From self-awareness that is pure awareness, pure consciousness.
Debra Maldonado 31:39
It’s like the ocean and the waves that rise up from the ocean. There is all the movement, then you go down into that pure depth of calm. It’s all one, the wave can’t live without the ocean, the ripples in the currents aren’t separate from the ocean. We want to get to that calm depth of who we really are. I love when you say that we’re sipping the nectar of immortality. When we go to deep sleep, that’s where we go. It’s like a place we don’t remember, but we remember we weren’t awake. We have an awareness of it. But we don’t have awareness in it.
Robert Maldonado 32:25
In the waking state, our energy is directed outward because we’re looking at the objects of the world and the appearance of the world. In dreaming, we’re making up our own world, experiencing everything as if it was another reality. Most of the time when we’re dreaming, we believe we’re experiencing reality, we’re thinking we’re awake. But in deep sleep, we’re falling very close to that pure awareness, except that we’re unconscious, we’re in a comatose state. Meditation is a way to reach that level in a conscious way, where the stream of awareness is very direct, very pure and unbroken. It has the power to restore our mind-body, incredible energy, this pure conscious is like pure jet fuel for the mind-body, pure joy, pure bliss, pure awareness, pure consciousness.
Debra Maldonado 33:38
It’s like the emptiness the Buddhists talk about sometimes, it’s empty of objects, empty of thought. It’s a space within us that’s eternal. When we talk about raising our consciousness and being more aware, needing to go in here, it’s not like more intellectual understanding, but we need to be more self-aware of this self, the groundedness of being is to be aware of that. Not to be just aware like I know how things work now, I understand how life works, I understand myself, I understand my past. That’s one level of awareness. It’s more like intellectual awareness. This is more of a beingness where we don’t feel afraid anymore. Natural anxiousness comes from the ignorance, from the ego believing we’re this body that’s flailing in the world, that is precarious and dangerous and can die at any moment, or shamed at any moment, all those things we worry about in life, human problems. Going to that deep place is very rewarding and grounding. It’s a stillness. When I was really scared a lot of times when I first started out as an entrepreneur, I’d say there’s nowhere to fall. I’d just imagine my ego self falling back into this void of light. I’d lay back and be like, “That’s who I am, this little Debi that’s trying to build a business, make her bills, and deal with life. I am just the light.” It helped me, it gave me a foundation where you feel not afraid anymore. You’re not afraid of life. You feel supported by life, it’s the internal support, your support doesn’t come from anything external. We’re going to have a new series coming next week.
Robert Maldonado 35:55
We’re going to be looking at psychology of transformation.
Debra Maldonado 36:01
This is a good segue to that. Meditation, contemplation, visualization are very great tools. What does it really take for someone to transform their life? What is the mechanism, psychologically and spiritually, that enables someone to have a transformation?
Robert Maldonado 36:19
Meanwhile, if you’re suffering from anxiety, depression, insomnia, ADHD, any of those things, look into meditation. There are many teachers out there now. We’re planning to train some teachers as well.
Debra Maldonado 36:36
We also have on our YouTube channel tons of guided meditations you can use to focus your mind. Not just go and dance with the beautiful rainbows and live your dream meditations, but more how to focus, how to relax, there’s some really great ones. Look on our channel, there’s a playlist just for meditations that you can check out as well. Have a great week. Allow yourself to have some self-directed neuroplasticity with your meditations. We’ll see you next time.