Let’s look at advanced meditation and what science reveals about it.
The defining feature of this level is that the benefits of meditation deepen and eventually become permanent, particularly in the latter one.
In my first article on the science of meditation, where we focused on beginners, we defined a beginner as a meditator with up to 100 hours of practice. Though the early benefits are fleeting and temporary, science shows that meditation at this level is effective against stress, anxiety and depression, boosts several aspects of attention, and has various positive physiological effects.
Here we focus on practitioners with at least 1000 hours’ meditation, all the way up to the veterans who have accumulated over 12,000 hours. As in the previous article, I only use studies that meet top design standards, and point out any design flaws.
Knowing about the science can help you stay on the path when it gets tricky. It helps you realise that meditation isn’t some hokey trend but a real, proven, powerful practice. And it gives you a long-term roadmap for your growth, all the way to advanced meditation.
Let’s start with the long-term meditators. In the studies, these are the meditators who have been meditating most days for many years, have accumulated 1000 to 10,000 lifetime hours of meditation practice, and do annual retreats.
Overview of Advanced Meditation
Here’s a quick overview of the benefits found in this population:
- Deepening of effects found in beginners and emergence of new ones,
- Emergence of neural and hormonal indicators of lowered stress reactivity,
- Lower cortisol release in stressful situations,
- Lovingkindness and compassion meditation increase resonance with suffering of others and likelihood of helping,
- Attention strengthens in several ways: selective attention, attentional blink, sustained attention, readiness to respond,
- Reduced self-obsession and mind-wandering,
- Changes in biological processes,
- Suggestion of structural and functional brain changes,
- Suggestion of trait effects,
- Daylong retreat by seasoned meditators benefitted immune response at genetic level.
We can group these benefits in four broad categories: lower stress reactivity, empathy and helping, attention, and biological processes.
Lower Stress Reactivity & Advanced Meditation
My approach to teaching meditation is not to induce relaxation as an antidote to stress, but to give meditators tools to skillfully deal with stressful situations when they arise. I talk about meditation giving you poise, a sense of presence among the chaos. And there’s plenty of science that lends credence to that.
Seasoned Zen meditators were asked to “not meditate” in a brain scanner during a thermal stimulator, where subjects are exposed to their pain threshold for 10 seconds without receiving skin damage.
The most experienced meditators were able to endure more pain than the control group. When experiencing their pain threshold, the meditators displayed much less activity in brain regions related to executive, evaluative, and emotional areas, which usually activate when we’re under intense stress.
Practically, this means the meditators split pure sensory experience from their evaluation of it, leaving them mentally unreactive. This is called functional decoupling.
After applying meditation to pain sensations during difficult emotional and physical experiences, I can vouch for its power: it offers a completely new way of experiencing pain.
In the same investigation, researchers found that the maximum pain threshold of the Zen meditators was two degrees higher. Though this difference seems small, it’s huge in the world of pain thresholds.
Remember that during this test, the meditators were specifically told not to meditate! So these findings suggest a trait difference, a permanent increase in resilience, though aren’t entirely conclusive. It may be that experienced Zen meditators start with a higher tolerance to pain in the first place, so careful longitudinal studies are needed if we want to be certain that meditation was the cause.
But still, these findings have been repeated, and correlate meditation teachers’ claims that it brings greater poise and lowered reactivity, particularly advanced meditation. Mindfulness-based treatments for chronic pain now exist too, which suggests meditation helps us manage pain better.
The Trier Social Stress Test and Advanced Meditation
The Trier Test is the go-to stress trial in science. It has two parts – a mock job interview followed by a maths challenge – and reliably activates our stress hormones and circuitry.
A group of school teachers, who were novice meditators, did the Trier Test before undertaking an eight-week meditation programme. They then repeated the test several times afterwards.
They showed a lasting improvement in blood pressure recovery after the Trier Test, even until five months after the end of meditation programme. Their recovery level correlated with their number of practice hours, suggesting that meditation means stronger stress-recovery muscles.
During the same test, seasoned meditators (average 9,000 lifetime hours) showed reduced production of cortisol, a key stress hormone, compared to novices – when not deliberately meditating. They also perceived the test to be less stressful than non-meditators did.
Those same experienced meditators were then shown a series of disturbing images and showed lower amygdala activity than age-matched volunteers and new MBSR participants.
They also exhibited increased connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, a sign of improved emotional regulation and stress management. This link is so crucial that you can use it alone to predict a person’s level of distress.
Conclusion? Those long-term meditators experience less emotional hijacking, greater resilience and improved ability to cope with distress. Further research suggests this ability correlates with hours of practice.
Again, we see this evidence of poise, of being less affected by external circumstances, and more able to manage one’s reactions to them.
In another study, seasoned meditators with a lifetime average of 8,800 hours showed no difference in amygdala activation compared to a novice control group. But when the seasoned meditators were split into two groups, it became clear that highly advanced meditation leads to lowered amygdala activation.
This suggests that there are levels within levels, and that the effects of meditation correlate with the number of practice hours.
Cortisol and Inflammation: The Stress Signature
Back to the dreaded Trier Test! A group of participants in an eight-week mindfulness programme showed lower inflammation during the Trier Test than the active control group, even to a four-month follow-up, but no difference in perception of distress, cortisol levels, or their levels of cytokines, which trigger inflammation.
In the same test, meditators with an average of 9000 hours of practice had less inflammation-inducing chemicals in their skin, 13% lower cortisol and reported better mental health than age- and gender-matched volunteers.
What’s more, the meditators were not deliberately meditating during the study, suggesting that this higher resilience and lower reactivity are lasting traits.
Let’s move on to attention.
The Science of Advanced Meditation: Attention
I discuss selective attention in depth in my article on the core attention skills.
We all have selective attention, and it’s a crucial skill. Without it, our attention would be totally uncontrollable: pulled here, there and everywhere by incoming stimuli. But truth be told, most of us could use more selective attention, and almost all kinds of meditation help us train it.
From the previous article, we know that eight-week meditation programmes boost selective attention in novices, but a more dramatic finding came from retreatants at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachussetts.
Participants in a three-month retreat at IMS showed ordinary levels of selective attention during tests prior to the retreat. But when they did similar tests afterwards, their levels had improved by 20%.
Sustained attention is the ability to keep our attention on a chosen object – it’s the opposite of mind-wandering. Again, this skill is a key part of most meditation instructions, and there’s plenty of science to prove that this skill temporarily improves in novice meditators.
What’s more, long-term practitioners often report effortless awareness, contentment and undistracted awareness during meditation. And we have the brain science to back up their anecdotes.
Zen meditators with 3+ years of experience showed less activity in the Default Mode Network while practicing breath meditation, indicating greater presence. And the less activity there was, the better they performed on attention tests outside the scanner, at rest.
This is slight evidence of trait effects, and we have more: five months after an IMS retreat, participants had maintained the gains in sustained attention they’d achieved during the retreat.
Could it be that our level of sustained attention is proportional to our total meditation hours? Intuition says yes, but we’ll have to wait for further studies to draw precise conclusions based on science.
As we discussed in the previous article, the attention blink is our when attention goes offline and our ability to track our senses is hijacked. On the flipside, a lack of attention blink means we’re able to notice small sensory changes.
For a long time, scientists believed that the attention blink was fixed – for life.
But a group of vipassana retreatants from IMS showed a 20% reduction in attention blink from before their meditation retreat to after it.
Doesn’t that make you wonder about what other human traits we have mistakenly believed to be set in stone, but which we can retrain through simple procedures lke meditation?
Empathy, Concern, Helping
Our response to others’ suffering has a signature neurological response: when we perceive it, it triggers the amygdala and other distress areas connected to insula. The insula then activates the autonomic nervous system, upping our heart rate and breathing and preparing us to take action. The amygdala is the alarm system; the insula is the response system.
In the previous article, we spoke about the neurological and emotional effects of compassion and lovingkindness in beginners. Good news – in long-term practitioners, those slight hints of change become more pronounced.
In one study, long-term meditators generating compassion showed a strong increase in their amygdala response to distressful sounds when compared to rest state, indicating greater arousal to suffering of others. A control group showed no such increase.
Yet in another study, when long-term meditators were asked to focus on small light when exposed to those sounds, their amygdala response was lower and concentration higher than that of volunteers. This suggests they’re able to direct attention at will despite distractions – their heightened selective attention made the difference.
The Science of Advanced Meditation: Biological Processes
We now have strong evidence that advanced meditation improves cell lifespan – here’s the short explanation of why.
Telomeres are the caps at the end of DNA strands reflecting lifespan of cells, so that longer telomeres means longer cell lifespan. And there’s an enzyme that governs telomere length – it’s called telomerase.
Here’s where meditation comes in: a meta-analysis of studies involving 190 meditators found that mindfulness is associated with increased telomorase activity.
Another study came to the same conclusion with meditators who practiced intense mindfulness and lovingkindness for three months, and a pilot study found longer telomeres in women who had an average of four years of lovingkindness practice.
Leading neuroscientist Richie Davidson measured, at rest, the breath rate of long-term meditators and compared them to age- and sex-matched subjects. They averaged 1.6 less breaths per minute than their match.
That doesn’t sound much, but that amounts to over 2000 less per day if you include sleeping time. Slower breath indicates reduced activity in the autonomous nervous system, better mood, and good health:
These extra breaths are psychologically taxing, and can exact a health toll as time goes on. As practice continues and breathing becomes progressively slower, the body adjusts its physiological set point for its respiratory rate accordingly.Richard Davidson
Though many studies claim to prove that meditation grows the brain, popular studies are problematic. In The Science of Meditation, published in 2017, Richie Davidson concluded that no studies had convincingly shown that meditation causes increase in brain volume. We await further research.
Bearing in mind his reservations, we should mention that his reserach group found that meditators with an average of 7,500 lifetime hours had less grey-matter volume in the nucleus accumbens than age-matched controls. This means less connectivity between brain regions that work together to create our sense of self.
The Science of Yogi-level Advanced Meditation
Now it’s time to move to the cream of the meditation crop: yogi level meditators who have accumulated at least 12,000 hours of meditation practice and spent many years in retreat. This population is ideal for studying advanced meditation.
Warning: we’re getting into territory that outstrips neuroscience’s ability to measure it. Truth is, we don’t have anywhere near a complete map of the physiological and neurological side of spiritual transformation.
Here’s a quick summary of what we know:
- At this stage, practitioners convert meditative states to traits, and meditation merges with daily activities,
- Signs of altered traits in brain function and structure, along with highly positive human qualities,
- Dramatically increased gamma activity at rest,
- During compassion meditation, brain and heart relate in ways never seen before,
- Sharp inverted V brainwave pattern during pain experience,
- Effortless concentration; attention circuitry goes quiet once focus locked on to a target.
21 meditation veterans, with 12k to 62k hours of lifetime practice, practiced four 1-minute cycles of three kinds of meditation: compassion, spacious equanimity, and laser-sharp focus.
Researched observed that they all entered and left the different meditative states at will, and showed equally striking shifts in brain activity, particularly in their gamma activity.
Gamma waves are associated with moments of insight, creativity and vivid imagination. Unfortunately, ordinary gamma bursts last no more than one-fifth of a second.
At rest, the yogis had high-amplitude gamma waves lasting the full minute of baseline measurement: the gamma activity, usually for us a tiny glimpse, was a trait.
That’s not all – their gamma activity was way more intense than that of mere mortals. On average, the height of the gamma waves were 25x that of control group. This was the first ever measurement of such gamma activity.
It seems that the higher sustained attention found in long-term meditators reaches remarkable levels in those with 12k+ hours of practice, and that meditation becomes effortless at this level.
Richie Davidson did a study with advanced mediators in which he had them focus on a small light.
He observed very little activation in the pre-frontal cortices of the most advanced meditators as they meditated. Some activity appeared as they were establishing their focus, but once their focus was strong, their PFC activity dropped considerably. This is likely the neurosignature of effortless awareness.
He then repeated the test, playing emotion-stirring sounds to attempt to distract the meditators. The most advanced meditators were hardly distracted: the amygdala remained near silent, reflecting their supreme concentration on the light.
And here’s another staggering detail: there was a 400% difference in amygdala activation between the group of 40k-hour practitioners and the 19k-hour group. This is more evidence of levels within levels.
Compassion and Willingness to Act
A crucial aspect of advanced meditation is to embody compassion and service, and compassion meditation is a proven tool for inducing positive affect and action towards others.
During sessions of compassion meditation, empathy-related brain areas were more active in yogis than novices when they heard sounds of distress, as was the amygdala. This was coupled with a huge boost in action-inducing circuits, and this didn’t occur at rest or in other kinds of meditation.
They also exhibit lower activity in the postcingulate cortex, a key region in self-focus, and greater connection between the PFC and the PCC, which suggests lower self-concern.
Pain: A New Paradigm Through Advanced Meditation
Let’s return to the thermal simulator and see how the yogis fared when compared to age- and gender-matched novices.
The novices were taught an open presence technique, which comprises having the senses fully open and having equanimity with everything that comes up. After a week’s practice, they were given the thermal heat-point test and asked to practice open presence, as were the yogis.
The yogis and novices were tested for their pain threshold. Researchers then told them the plate would gently heat up for 10 seconds before reaching their threshold temperature, where it would stay for 10 seconds.
The novices showed the typical pattern for pain response. All pain regions in the brain began activating as soon as the plate was heating up, as though they were already experiencing the burn. The activity jumped a little bit when they were exposed to their threshold temperature, and remained high during the 10-second recovery period.
In other words, the novices suffered and recoiled ahead of time, almost as much as during the truly painful experience. This is called anticipatory anxiety, and it’s how we typically relate to pain.
On the other hand, the yogis showed little activation in the heating-up period, pronounced activation at threshold temperature, followed by a rapid diminishing of activation when temperature was lowered. What’s more, the activity primarily showed up in sensory circuits, rather than emotional circuits.
This indicates much reduced anticipatory pain and much speedier pain recovery.
And more broadly, it shows us a new way to relate to our difficulties. As Robert Greene and Ryan Holliday discuss in this video, we “borrow our suffering in advance”. As the Roman philosopher Seneca says,
We suffer more in imagination than in reality.Seneca
All this research makes me look at meditation with wonder. The benefits are just remarkable, particularly at the higher levels of practice. What is this practice really doing? How can it produce so many verifiable benefits? What is it about meditation that is so powerful? What is the potential of advanced meditation?
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