Meditation Can Transform Lives
An Interview with Louis A. Ritz
Louis A. Ritz
Louis A. Ritz, Ph.D., serves on the faculty of the department of neuroscience of the University of Florida College of Medicine, where his focus is on education of medical and graduate students. He is also the director of the campus Center for Spirituality and Health, which offers workshops, academic programs and interdisciplinary research ventures exploring the impact of spirituality on health. He is a speaker at the 2017 Veggie Fest, sponsored by Science of Spirituality, held from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., August 12 and 13, at Benedictine University.
What is the foundation of personal growth?
As we journey through life, we are constantly changing and evolving. Personal growth may come in the areas of education, health and wellness, psychology or spirituality. In order to grow spiritually, it has been suggested we must alter our thought patterns and our subsequent behaviors. Central to these changes is the human central nervous system. Medical science is now exploring how meditation influences the brain and how meditation may be used as a therapeutic intervention for vexing medical challenges which are associated with the central nervous system, such as intractable pain, addiction and cognitive decline.
What is the meaning of brain “plasticity”?
For much of the past century, medical scientists believed that the adult human brain was hard-wired. The pathways and connections between nerve cells in the brain were thought to be fixed and immutable. If nerve cells or their connections were injured or destroyed, there would be a loss of functions related to those nerve cells. If the brain is hard-wired, it would be difficult to change or improve our thoughts or behaviors. However, since the early 1990s, there has been an increasing appreciation for “neuroplasticity” within the central nervous system. That is, our neuronal connections can be altered through various experiences such as physical exercises, learning and memory tasks, and practice with musical instruments. Of note, scientists are starting to explore the impact of meditation on brain circuitry to determine whether meditation can have a role in neuroplasticity.
Does meditation have a positive impact on the brain?
The physiology of meditation was first described by Drs. Robert Wallace and Herbert Benson in 1972. These researchers described how meditation resulted in a hypometabolic state in which respiration and heart rate were decreased, blood pressure was reduced and overall stress of the body was diminished. It appears that meditation can affect the central nervous system by decreasing the activity of our “fight-or-flight” response and increasing the activity of the rest and digest response: the two functions of the autonomic nervous system.
The next wave of medical studies in more recent years has mapped out regions of the human brain that are activated or deactivated during meditation. It has been demonstrated that areas of the cerebral cortex, the site of higher cognitive functions, can actually be enlarged through meditation. Through the spiritual practices of meditation, our brains can be altered.
How does meditation help to control the wandering mind?
Within the human brain are two prominent neural circuits. One circuit is called the attention network and the other is called the default mode network. The attention network allows us to maintain our focus and concentration while engaged in a given task or while meditating. The default mode network promotes mind wandering and daydreaming. When one circuit is active, the other will be inactive. To be successful in life, no matter what the task, one must be able to maintain one’s focus and concentration. Whether one is an athlete, a businessperson, a musician, a scientist, an engineer or a physician, concentration is the key to success. Meditation helps to strengthen the attention network and to minimize the role of the default mode network in our daily activities.
How does meditation help modify our behavior?
Working through the brain’s circuits, meditation can aid us in changing and improving our behaviors. There is mounting scientific evidence that meditation may help with behavioral problems associated with compulsive disorders, autism, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD]. By training our thought patterns with meditation, we may be able to alter brain circuits that cause undesirable behaviors.
What is the path to self-transformation?
The goal of life, according to Sant Rajinder Singh Ji, author of Spark of the Divine, is to know our true nature. While it may appear that we are our body or our mind, we are really our soul—a spark of the divine. Transformation into an individual centered in our true self; our spiritual nature, requires a lifestyle involving meditation and ethical living. The process begins with developing a right understanding of spiritual teachings and understanding of the true values of life. From right understanding, by working through the circuits of the brain, we can develop proper thinking, proper speech and proper actions. This spiritual transformation will allow us to experience that which is sacred within each of us. By doing so, we will fulfill the primary goal of our life: to know our self and to know God.
Veggie Fest admission and parking are free. Location: 5700 College Rd., Lisle. For more information, call 630-955-1200 or visit VeggieFestChicago.org.