Meditation and the Brain
When discussing the relationship of brain and behavior, the materialist view of human experience runs into conflict with the historically dominant religious accounts. Recent studies, however, suggests that there may be a "middle view" between the two world-views. Religions, especially Buddhism, stress the role of meditation in one's spiritual growth. Meditation has tangible psychological and physiological benefits, though, which can be explained strictly in neurobiological terms. Understanding of how meditation affects the brain, and, by extension, human behavior, also gives insight into consciousness, the role of feedback loops, and the nature of the I-function.
The goal of Buddhist meditation is to detach oneself from desires and objects which are the cause of suffering. Other forms of meditation, while differing in terms of their metaphysical grounding (1), effectively separate the individual from the transitory nature of the world. In prayer, the effort is largely mental, but Transcendental Meditation (TM) and Zen meditation also involve the body. Body positioning is important to the meditation, and in Zen, the object is to have as little tension as possible in the body. "The body has a way of communicating outwardly to the world and inwardly to oneself. How you position your body has a lot to do with what happens with your mind and your breath . . . Although [Zen meditation] looks very disciplined, the muscles should be soft. There should be no tension in the body" (2). The correlation of physical states with mental states in meditation reinforces the correspondence between neural functions and behavior.
Zen practice also has a revealing theory about the nature of the self, namely that it "has no core essence" (3). Attachment to the idea of the self as a permanent thing is a cause of suffering. Instead of seeing a "soul" or a "mind" as the seat of personal identity, in Buddhism, the self is to be found in processes. Meditation, then, has the therapeutic effect of disengaging the practitioner from self-consciousness, freeing the mind. The view of the world without the construct of a permanent essence enables one to "experience reality as it really is" (3). It is important to note that Buddhism does not distinguish mental processes from other senses. Just as seeing takes a visual object, the mind takes a mental object (1). Just as the eye is free to take in different visual objects, the mind is free, as well. While meditation aims to develop "single-pointedness of mind," it is ultimately to free it from external objects. The focus is on the process of breathing, in Zen, and, eventually, one can reach a state where one is not considering anything (2). Zen considers the "blank-mind" stage to be a higher form of consciousness because it is free from attachments.
Indeed, one of the goals of meditation is the "mindful state," which is awareness of objects, mind-states, and physical states but not attachment...