I'm not exactly clear on how they did it. Something about taking Group No. 1 over here and hooking them up to a nifty array of happyfun electrodes and letting them begin their deep and experienced meditation practice, and then at some point suddenly blasting the sound of a woman screaming in distress right into their prefrontal lobes like a swell little icepick of terror.
And then the researchers simply observed which the parts of the meditators' brains lit up, and noted that it was the hunks related to empathy and compassion and also the parts that say, hey gosh, that screaming can't be good and I think I shall get up right now and go help that poor woman because I am training myself to feel more compassionate and empathetic and helpful all thanks to my deep and calming meditation practice.
Then they did a similar thing with Group No. 2, only minus most of the experienced meditation part, and when this group heard the same woman screaming in distress, their brains also lit up, only this time it was those parts that said huh, chick screaming in distress, how very curious, let us now reach for the remote control and turn up the volume on this delightful episode of "How I Met Your Mother" to drown out that obnoxious sound because, you know, how annoying.
I might be oversimplifying a bit. Or exaggerating. No matter, because the fact remains it is was one of those nice and delightfully foregone studies that deigns to reveal a helpful factoid which millions of people and thousands of teachers and gurus and healers have known for roughly ten thousand years.
It is this: deep meditation, the regular, habitual act of stilling yourself and intentionally calming the mind and working with the breath and maybe reciting a mantra or clearing your chakras or running a nice bolt of golden energy up and down your spine like a swell erotic tongue bath from Shiva, can actually have a positive effect on your worldview, can inject some divine love-juice into your core and make you more sympathetic, kinder, more apt to feel a natural inclination toward generosity and compassion and helping people who might be, you know, screaming.
I know. Totally shocking.
It's a small study that goes handily with the umpteen similar bits of research lo these past years, all of which seem to indicate some other famously healthful aspect of meditation: stress relief, improved heart function, life extension, emotional stability, improved sleep, increased productivity, better orgasms, fewer ingrown hairs, brighter sunshine, better gas mileage and also merely learning to sit still and shut the hell up once in awhile, which I can promise you will make your wife and your siblings and your kids and your dog and even your own manic ego very happy indeed.
Did you already know of such benefits? I'm guessing you did. Hell, here in NorCal meditation is so widespread and normalized it's actually available in the Whole Foods bulk aisle. I do believe over in Berkeley and parts of Marin County you are actually required by law to meditate at least twice a week atop your handmade zafu cushion in your Zen rock garden next to your carefully restored BMW 2002 as you listen to slightly cheesy wind chime music on an iPod-enabled Bang & Olufsen 5.1 home theater system just before you pour yourself a nice glass of Sonoma chard, or the police come and politely take away your Tibetan Nag Champa incense holder for a month.
Ah, but I suppose this is not the case nationwide. I imagine the practice is still widely considered, even after all these millennia and all these studies and teachers and perky New Age bookstores and all the obvious proof that meditating has little, really, to do with religious belief, it's still thought of as some sort of hippie cultish pagan anti-Christian Satanic frou-frou thing more aligned with monks and bells and Hindu wackiness than with everyday gul-dang gun-smokin' 'Merkin life.
And hence I guess we actually still need studies like this to lend validation to a timeless wisdom which, if disseminated more widely, could actually improve the health of the nation. Hey, every little bit helps, right? Enough studies and enough serious medical journals bring alternative ideas like meditation to the fore and maybe, just maybe, we could nudge the culture away from mania and obsession and road rage and a zillion Prozac prescriptions as the only means of coping with the trudging maelstrom of daily existence. You think?
It can't hurt. Because the problem is that we as a culture are still very much trained, beaten, shaped from birth to never, ever, no matter what you do, calm the hell down and breathe more consciously and try to live more fully in the moment you are in. Present-time awareness? Breathwork? Cultivating a sense of loving kindness? Save it for the New Age Expo, hippie. Real men live in some neurotic/psychotic state of need and regret and wishful thinking, all undercut with a constant shiver of never-ending dread. Isn't that right, Mr. President?
But meditation, well, it abides none of that noise. It brings you into the here and now and plops you into the lap of stillness and reminds you that there is more to it all than mania and media and political moronism, that you have incredible power to change your own habits and tendencies and daily love quotients, that god often speaks in whispers and flutters and quiet little licks on your heart and only when you dial down your raging internal dialogue can you actually hear what the hell she's trying to say. Hell, what's not to like?
Of course, you need no scientific study to learn any of this for yourself. But who knows, maybe there will come a day when you can stroll into just about any doctor's office and she will say, what's that? You say you're getting weird rashes and heart palpitations and you feel overwhelmed on a daily basis? You have rage issues? Melodrama? Warmongering and pain and fear of the Other? Sure, have a glass of wine. Take a few aspirin. Eat better. Exercise. More sex, less whining, better books.
And oh yes, also this: once a day, just for a few minutes, go sit very still, close your eyes, shut up, and breathe.