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

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.

What are the three steps of Centering Prayer?

According to Cynthia Bourgeault, a leading practitioner of Centering prayer, this mental release is not just an attitude in your mind but rather a physical embodiment of the inner gesture of letting go.

Every time we manage to let go of a thought in Centering Prayer, “consenting to the presence and action of God within,” the gesture is actually physically embodied. It’s not just an attitude; something actually “drops and releases” in the solar plexus region of your body, a subtle but distinct form of interior relaxation…

This physical dimension of letting go has been captured in another study that used PET imaging to study the effects of meditation on people with coronary heart disease. The results were published in the Journal of Nuclear Cardiology – those who made meditation part of their rehab routine increased their cardiac blood flow by more than 20%.

So, what makes this simple practice so beneficial for relaxation and stress reduction?

The three steps of Centering prayer are surprisingly simple:

  1. Choosing a sacred word/setting an intention (my favorite is “be still”);
  2. Sitting in silence and observing your mind;
  3. When you catch yourself thinking, ever-so-gently let go of the thought and return your focus to your original intention.

In other words, be as alert as you can, and when you notice a thought, don’t cling to it, let it float away, and return to the objectless awareness – the inner alertness.

Thoughts will keep coming, and it’s perfectly okay.

The more we practice, the more we change the neural structure of the brain – release and non-clinging will become habitual, automatic, almost instinctive.

What does breathing mean spiritually?

Surprisingly, the “drop and release” sensation that Cynthia Bourgeault talks about correlates well with the ancient idea of the Spirit of God as the breath of the world.

The ancients pointed out that God himself courses through our bodies as the breath of life and through nature as wind.

The Spirit (wind) breathes where it will, and you hear the voice thereof.

John 3:8

When we let go of our obsessive thoughts and compulsions we return to the Ultimate Breath – both literally and spiritually.

Literally – because the mental release allows us to breathe more freely. Our breath is no longer shallow.

Spiritually – because we return to the Breath of God and experience unity with Being on both mental and physical levels.

The result is the feeling of relaxation and improved mental clarity that feels like purification.

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Purgatory is portrayed as a mountain with seven circles. The souls circle around the mountain in an upward spiral, always returning to the same place where they started – but each time a little higher. 

As a purifying practice, meditation also feels like going in circles. We always return where we began – to our pure intention. But with each circle, our ascent takes us a little higher.

We circle our way up the mountain and end up in Paradise.

Eckhart Tolle put it this way:

All you really need to do is to accept this moment fully. You are then at ease in the here and now and at ease with yourself.

This is the ease of letting go, the “drop and release” of surrender, the deep breath of attunement with the Spirit.

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