How Meditation Changes the Brain

By Tergar Staff • 8 min read


The Soft Machine

In the Buddhist tradition, the body is seen to have channels (nadi), energy that moves things (prana), and “drops” (bindu). There are prana, bindu, and nadi from head to feet, including in the brain: electrical impulses are prana, neurotransmitters are bindu, and the nerves themselves are nadi — all of which together generate connections that make up thoughts, memories, associations, and all that good stuff.

Born This Way

Until quite late in the game, neuroscientists didn’t think a brain was capable of really changing. If somebody was born unhappy, too bad, they’d probably be unhappy for the rest of their life. If they were an anxious baby, well, they were out of luck too: they could expect to be an incurable worrywart for as long as they lived. If they came into this world with a tendency to get angry, they could expect to be ill-tempered forever after.

. . . Or Not

More recently, though, neuroscientists have made a few discoveries that completely upended their old view. For one thing, it turns out the brain has neuroplasticity, meaning it can change. For another, contemporary neuroscientists are learning that mental connections are made via neural pathways, like highways (or hyperlinks) in the brain. And ultimately, they found that neurogenesis, or brain development, continues long after birth — in fact, our brains can continue growing in certain ways throughout our lives.

“The more precisely scientists scrutinize mental activity, the more closely they approach the Buddhist understanding of mind as a perpetually evolving event rather than a distinct entity.”

– Mingyur Rinpoche –

Give It to Me Straight, Doc!

But even though it is so simple, we quickly discover that we can’t stay aware of our breathing for very long – after just two or three breaths, we totally forget about our breath and wander off into thoughts, memories, plans, self-evaluation, and so on.
When this happens, it’s okay! It’s totally normal. In fact it’s unavoidable! So what to do? Nothing needs to be done. As soon as we notice that we were distracted – “Oh yeah! I’m supposed to be aware that I’m breathing!” – we have already come back to awareness.

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

The idea here is not to struggle to see how long we can stay in awareness, but rather to simply return to awareness of breathing again and again – you can remember this with the phrase “short times, many times.” For the duration of our meditation session, we just allow ourselves to come back like this again and again. Just continue: aware, forget, aware, forget, aware, forget.

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More Resources

How Meditation Changes the Brain

Watch this video where Mingyur Rinpoche discusses the connection between modern scientific understandings of the body and the brain and the traditional Buddhist presentations of what is known as the “subtle body.”

Intro to Meditation

Free course for beginners.

Do you want to try meditation, but don’t know how to start? This free course is specially designed for beginners, and takes only a week to complete.

About the Author

By Tergar Meditation Community Team

Tergar Meditation Community supports individuals, practice groups, and meditation communities around the world in learning to live with awareness, compassion, and wisdom. Grounded in the Tibetan Buddhist lineage of our guiding teacher, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, our online and in-person programs are accessible to people of all cultures and faiths, and support a lifelong path toward the application of these principles in everyday life.

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