Migraines are not sufficient reason for meditation
If we ‘google’ Alzheimer’s and mindfulness meditation, we will get a dozen articles about the benefits of this practice in the slowing of the fateful disease. Should we meditate to elude the prospect of dementia in our late years? Certainly not, for two reasons.
Let’s look at the first one. Everything that defines a person as a specific individual and everything that person knows and can do is encoded in the brain. Such code is his or her software. The brain itself, following with the technological comparison, is his or her hardware. It is in this hardware where the Alzheimer’s disease seems to inflict the pernicious damage that leads to the malfunctioning of the whole hardware/software complex.
Since the end of the 20TH century, numerous studies -the earliest with Buddhist monks, the most recent with meditation apprentices-that have revealed remarkable changes in the brain, as results from the intensive exercise of mental silence. Some researchers have detected significant increases in neuronal activity in certain areas. Others, more striking, reported physical changes to the concentration of grey matter. Such finds are not surprising since the brain is the control of everything, whether intellectual activity or meditative passivity.
A pilot project at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston in 2013 suggests that the brain changes associated with meditation practice may contribute to slowing the upsurge of the cognitive disorders related to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
“This was a small study… but we’re very excited about the initial findings because they suggest that mindfulness based practices may reduce hippocampal atrophy and improve functional connectivity in the areas of the brain most affected by Alzheimer’s disease”, says project lead author Dr. Rebecca Erwin Wells.
The optimism is an obvious consequence of the scientific eagerness to soon find solutions to such serious condition. It should be stressed, however, that the American Alzheimer Association acknowledges the current science ignorance about the cause of the disease. Some plaques and tangles in the neural fibers of patients are the main suspects of the death of affected cells and the loss of tissue in the brain. The illness seems then to originate in physical damages and not as a problem of neuronal connectivity.
Through comprehension tests and observations of behavior, doctors may conjecture that the dementia of a patient may come from Alzheimer’s, but it is only his or her autopsy what will confirm unequivocally that the person suffered from this terrible evil. The changes detected by instruments on meditators’ brains are not sufficient to establish that a soft treatment such as meditation will prevent a disease whose unequivocal presence will only be known after death. In consequence, the potential delaying of the Alzheimer’s disease does not seem to be a good enough motivation to start meditating.
Let’s review the second reason. We should never have expectations when we close our eyes and favor mental silence, because any illusory desire arising will become part of the noise that we want to silence. We must not even pursue the elimination of anxiety or stress, the prime movers of countless psychosomatic ailments.
With much humor, S. N. Goenka (1924-2013), the great promoter of the Vipassana technique for mindfulness meditation, chronicled the sequence of his own learning, which he received directly from U Ba Khin, a lay sage from Myanmar. Master Goenka recounted that his first approach to Ba Khin originated from some devastating migraines that he suffered and that would heal, as someone had advised him, through meditation. When he explained that this was his motivation to attend the Vipassana retreat, the rejection he got was categorical. “A migraine is not sufficient reason to meditate,” said the Burmese sage.
Shortly afterwards, Master Goenka understood the message. The experience he went through during his first retreat, to the fortune of millions of people, led to the progressive creation of the one hundred and seventy Vipassana Meditation Centers that there exist today around the planet.
The picture of our eventual dementia is, without any doubt, terrifying. But if, in your particular case, dear reader, the prevention of Alzheimer’s is your motivation to meditate, it will probably be a waste of your time. Neither should you start meditating because you suffer from migraines. Approaching meditation, determinedly and uninterestedly, all your psychosomatic ailments will go away, headaches included… And so, at the right time.
Atlanta, November 10, 2016