In their book Altered Traits, Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson distinguish between three levels of meditators. The first level consists of those who meditate for a short period of time (few minutes to half an hour) on most days. The second level consists of those who stick to meditation over the years and accumulate more lifetime hours. At the second level, meditators have a daily practice and might attend weeklong meditation retreats every year or so.
The third level consists of yogis who devote significant chunks of their life to the practice. Yogis comprising the third level have accumulated 12,000 to 62,000 lifetime hours of meditation practice, including years in meditation retreats.
For those in the first level, the beginners, we begin to observe fleeting changes we call states. Many in this level report feeling less stressed. Furthermore, research shows less reactivity in certain brain regions associated with the stress response.
Beginners who practice compassion meditation show increased connectivity in brain regions associated with empathy and positive feelings. In addition to this, beginners experience better focus, less mind-wandering, and an overall improvement in attention. These benefits are states, however, which do not last without daily practice.
Meditators at the second level, the intermediate level, experience lessened stress reactivity, strengthened connectivity in brain regions associated with emotional regulation, and a decreased secretion of the stress hormone cortisol. Furthermore, there is a strengthening of attention, better ability to regulate mind-wandering, and shifts in biological processes including slower breath rate.
For those practicing loving-kindness and compassion meditation, there is an enhanced brain response associated with empathy and a greater likelihood of actually helping. At this stage, effects begin to transition from states into traits. These effects of meditation – improved attention and empathy – begin to transition from states into traits, which are constant and enduring. At the third level, the level of the yogis, research shows the emergence of permanent traits over fleeting states.
One of these traits, or enduring characteristics, is the “inverted V” which is observed when the yogis are exposed to physical pain. The inverted V shows that yogis display little brain activity before the anticipation of the event, an intense but short-lived peak during exposure, and an extremely rapid recovery following the event.
In addition to this, concentration for the yogis has become effortless. Once their attention locks onto a target, it stays with little-to-no effort. Finally, studies show that yogis display a shrinking in certain brain regions which are associated with attachment and grasping.
Photo credits: Tim Goedhart – unsplash.com