The Powerful Parasympathetic Effect of Meditation – Science Behind Ancient Contemplative Traditions

Lake with a pine tree

Is there science behind ancient contemplative practices and, if so, how does it explain the powerful parasympathetic effect of meditation?

The element of “letting go” is at the heart of all ancient spirituality.

Letting go is this inner gesture of release – of whatever you are holding on to in the moment. Or rather – of what is holding you.

Until recently, this knowledge was intuitive and experiential. There was no science to confirm the powerful stress-reducing effects of meditation.

But in recent decades, an eye-opening correlation has been found between those ancient forms of spirituality and the activation of the so-called parasympathetic nervous system.

The California-based HeartMath Institute collected data from the functional MRI hooked to the brain of a person actively engaged in meditation.  

The results were astounding! And they show why meditation has such a powerful parasympathetic effect.

What is the parasympathetic effect of meditation?

It turns out that the way we respond to a stimulus in the outer world determines what neural pathways will be activated in the brain.

If we respond to the stimulus with any sort of negativity – which on the physical level feels like tensing up, constricting, freezing, tightening, pushing away, shortening of breath, clinging, clutching, seizing, etc.) – we activate the so-called sympathetic nervous system.

In this case, our lizard brain (the oldest part of the brain that controls the fight and flight mechanism) gets a signal to start pumping stress hormones into our bloodstream and we feel this high-adrenaline fight-and-flight response. 

However, if we respond with the inner gesture of release, letting go, and relaxing this inner resistance, we activate our prefrontal cortex – the rational part of the brain, which brings on a powerful parasympathetic response.

The parasympathetic effect of meditation is the result of the mental gesture of letting go.

It feels like opening up, inner softening, gentle yielding, accepting, consenting, allowing, embracing.

In other words, as soon as we stop resisting whatever we don’t like about the present moment and start welcoming it, our sympathetic nervous system shuts off and the parasympathetic turns on.

As a result, we switch from “fight and flight” to “rest and digest.”

Here’s how it happens in the so-called Centering Prayer – my favorite form of meditation.

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How to Break Free from Addiction for Good — a Surprising Discovery by Bill Wilson

How to break free from addiction for good?

Whether it’s alcohol or social media, if you have battled with addiction for any number of years, you know that it’s not enough to just stop. Stopping is relatively easy. The hard part is not to start again.

Bill Wilson, a co-founder of AA, saw thousands of people quit drinking after “working the 12-step program.” But he noticed over time that many of them eventually replaced their old addiction with a new one.


Why do we keep relapsing?

“How often have some of us begun to drink in this nonchalant way, and after the third or fourth, pounded on the bar and said to ourselves, “For God’s sake, how did I ever get started again?’”

AA’s Big Book, page 24.

Why do we keep relapsing? According to Bill Wilson, an addict will remain an addict as long as they believe in their power.

We go back to our self-destructive behavior because we believe that through it we can control things.

For example, I fall into passive aggression and start pouting every time I feel offended because I believe that this will induce the other person to meet my needs.

The reason I fall into workaholism again and again is that I believe that through overperforming I can control how much I get in life. I reach out for this next piece of chocolate against my better judgment because I believe I can control my mood from outside in.

I believe in my own power. I am God.

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A Simple 10-minute Practice That Undercuts the Root of Anxiety

Green forest and a trail

There is a simple 10-minute practice that undercuts the root of anxiety. Brene Brown, the world-famous shame and vulnerability guru, described it very well in Oprah Winfrey’s show when speaking of the inner workings of shame:

“To grow exponentially, shame absolutely needs three things: secrecy, silence, and judgment. Shame cannot survive two things: being spoken and being met with empathy.”

Destructive emotions feed on secrecy, silence, and judgment. Reversing this pattern involves:

  1. Breaking the secrecy.
  2. Speaking up.
  3. Getting empathy from someone who will not judge you.

A simple 10-minute practice that undercuts the root of anxiety is surprisingly counterintuitive

After struggling with anxiety for about 30 years, I finally found something that works. As of today, I have not been anxious for over a year — which is surprising, given the circumstances I have been through.

My first anxiety attack came at 21 when I was a senior in college — many years ago. It came totally out of the blue — it must have been triggered by a train of thought that I totally didn’t notice. And it felt so bad, I had to excuse myself and go out to breathe it away.

Since then I would get it every once in a while — and always out of the blue. Trying to “figure it out” never helped. In fact, it made it worse. I couldn’t trace it to any external cause.

Of course, I did a bunch of things to get rid of it — talked to therapists, exercised, memorized Bible verses, and read tons of books on self-help, philosophy, and religion. It helped… sort of…until the next time.

Little did I know that the solution was totally non-rational.

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Loneliness – Social Media Exploits Your Need of Validation

According to G.K. Chesterton, truth is often paradoxical. It’s hard to believe that the problem of loneliness is actually rooted in too much interaction.

But this is what Sean Parker’s uncanny insight seems to suggest. Sean Parker is the founding president of Facebook. He explained in an interview why it’s so hard to resist the impulse to constantly check your social media – even while you are driving.

He shared how social media gradually hook you up.

“When Facebook was getting going, I had these people who would come up to me and they would say, ‘I’m not on social media.’ And I would say, ‘OK. You know, you will be.’” Now that this prediction is more than fulfilled, the question is even more intriguing.

Social Media AddictionSocial Media Addiction Engineering

How did they do it?

Sean explains that the founders used basic human psychology – our need for approval. Social media are nothing but a social-validation feedback loop.

It works like this – the moment you contribute some content and people like it, share it or comment on it, you get a little dopamine hit. This makes you want to contribute more content, which, in turn, gives you another hit.

You want more likes and comments. We all like to be liked (who knew?) – and social media provides that.

This fact is not easy to swallow – social media work because we are seeking validation. When we feel lonely, cut off, isolated, we want to get rid of this feeling at all costs. But does “interaction” on social media actually help us solve the problem of loneliness?

Far from it. Of course, we will temporarily feel “high.” Like a shot of whisky, it will medicate the distressing feeling of loneliness for a while. But when its tranquilizing effects wear off, we will feel even emptier than before, craving for more validation.

More likes, more comments, more shares. Our inner void will be growing and gradually become a gaping hole, an insatiable inner monster that gets hungrier with every attempt to feed it. Continue reading “Loneliness – Social Media Exploits Your Need of Validation”