Episode #5 of the course Understanding meditation and the science behind it by Colin Pal
Over the next few days, we’re going to dive into the particular pillars of the brain associated with skills we want to train through meditation: calmness, happiness, and focus. First up is training calm. We all know that through meditation, we have the ability to increase calmness. How does that actually work?
The power of calmness comes from the breath and our heart-brain connection. Our core brain is the area responsible for much of our stress and anxiety. The core brain is a thick trunk of nerve fibers and clusters of nerve cells located at the brain stem just above the nape of your neck. It connects the rest of the brain with your spinal cord. It includes the cerebellum and is the unconscious center of your brain responsible for the most important human function: survival. It’s the home of the fight-or-flight response and the dissonance between the rational parts of the brain. This primitive core brain is what creates stress and anxiety when left unchecked. The problem is that it’s unconsciously working all the time.
Your Majesty, the Vagus Nerve
Meditation is the practice of paying attention and consciously calming our core brain. It’s done with a bottom-up approach, using the direct heart-brain connection called the vagus nerve. It’s the tenth cranial nerve connecting our heart to our brain. It orders the parasympathetic interventions, like a queen ordering calmness. When the vagal tone increases, it triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which puts our body back into the rest and restoration state, a state of calmness. To increase the vagal tone, we need to increase our heart rate variability (HRV), the variation in time intervals between heartbeats. One of the best ways to increase HRV is to lower your heart rate and synchronize it with your breath. See where this is going yet?
You often get told to breathe or take deep breaths when you are stressed, nervous, or anxious. And for some reason, taking a few deep breaths actually works in calming you down a bit. Never understood why? Now you know. By breathing deeply, you lower your heart rate and increase your HRV and your vagal tone, which sends a signal up to your brain, letting it know that you’re actually safe and there’s no need to be in fight-or-flight mode. This activates the PNS, calming your brain and your body—all simply through breathing deeply and consciously.
You may notice that when people have panic attacks, their breathing becomes shallow and their heart rate increases. This only creates more stress and anxiety. But once you get them to start breathing more deeply, their physiology will do its work in restoring balance and calming their heart and brain. So, the next time you’re feeling anxious, stressed, or angry, take a moment to stop what you’re doing and come back to your breathing. Practice a few minutes of meditation, consciously paying attention to your breath. You’ll notice you’re able to attain calmness instantly through your breath and attention.
“When we give ourselves permission to breathe out fully: We are not forgetting the past, we are letting go of the past; we are not dodging the future, we are making way for the future.” —Tweet this.
Challenge of the Day
Practice deep abdominal breathing, focusing particularly on the out breath. Take ten deep and slow breaths. With each breath, try to let it sink in deeper into your belly (abdomen) instead of just your normal chest breathing. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but with practice, it’ll become more natural. The deeper breathing not only allows more efficient oxygen intake for the body, but it’s also more effective at slowing down your heart rate. The next time you feel anxious, pause for a moment and take ten deep and slow breaths.
In tomorrow’s lesson, we’ll talk about training happiness.
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