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How Meditation Works in Your Brain

The connection between attention, awareness, and emotion

By | Eddie Pease |

Imagine your doctor told you they had a magic pill that would make you feel much better. It would improve your concentration and sleepimprove your relationships, and generally make you feel happier and more content throughout the inevitable stresses and strains of life. There would be no negative side effects and it would be absolutely free. Would you take it? I’d bet yes.

Though not a pill, this hypothetical magic solution exists. It is called meditation.

Interest in meditation and mindfulness has increased steadily in the West for the last few decades. However, most people still report having only a vague idea of what meditation actually is. Though most of us now understand why going to the gym can improve our physical health, we have little understanding of how meditation can improve our mental health.

When people hear that I practice meditation, they often respond with “That’s interesting, but running is my meditation,” or variations thereof. That feels a bit like saying to a fitness instructor that walking to the office every day is your exercise. One can, of course, practice meditation while going about daily activities. But to really build this muscle, you need to go to a “mental” gym and put some time in.

Attention, awareness, and emotion

Meditation is all about improving how your brain perceives the world around you. We tend to think of “attention” and our experience of the world as a single function that’s by and large within our control (“Pay attention!”). But really, there’s a lot more going on. John Yates, PhD and Matthew Immergut explain it incredibly well in their book, The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness. I draw from their explanation here.

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