A University of Montreal study following 17 Zen meditators and 18 non-meditators found that Zen meditation increases the thickness of grey matter and therefore reduces the sensitivity to pain. This conclusion was based on Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to map the structure of the brain, and the first hand experience of the meditators who were given thermal pain in the form of a heated plate to the calf of the leg.
The researchers are contributing to the decreased pain sensitivity to the “extreme” position in which one holds themselves during a Zen meditation practice as well as the ability to reduce the rate of the breath. The average breath rate of a Zen meditator was 12 breaths per minute compared to the an average 15 breaths a minute for non-meditatiors. The results concluded that Zen meditators have an 18% reduction in pain sensitivity overall.
This study provides specific proof that Zen meditation plays a significant role in the structure and ability of our physical body, an aspect of many styles of meditation and hatha yoga that modern science is continuing to validate. This study is yet another example of how the western psychological and medical fields are increasingly developing a body of research that prove the positive effects of what were once considered etheric practices.
Because so many practitioners are initially drawn to these practices to deal with physical and mental ailments, this compendium of research is allowing the reach of these highly beneficial practices to stretch beyond the stereotypical practitioner. It does place a greater responsibility on the teachers of these practices, though, to be aware and knowledgeable about the physical aspects of the practices in addition to what would be considered more etheric by many. For every study that further proves the positive effects of these practices, the bar is raised on its teachers and students.
This, in my opinion, is not a negative thing. In Sanskrit, the term, which refers to elevating our level of knowledge and responsibility is Adhikara. Some traditions and styles refer to it as studentship, while others define it as qualification. As the positive benefits of meditation and yoga become more and more scientifically proven, those who choose to share it become more and more responsible for elevating their level of understanding. Our knowledge of the physical body and the effects of practice are put to the test every time we have a new student with an ailment or injury step into our class, but as teachers and dedicated practitioners, we are also called to advance our level of subtle understanding of the power and potential results of the practices which we teach.
I would offer that in addition to gross physiological reactions of the body in response to practices like Zen meditation and many others like it, that these experiences also affect subtle aspects of our experience, which make us less likely to focus (or feel) the negative. Committed practices put us more in touch with the positive aspects of the human experience, and teach us to concentrate less on the negative. So the tendency to feel pain, on any level, is lessened because our overall balance is heightened. When we take the time to tap deeply into ourselves, we are less influenced by superficial difficulties and distractions. So as we increase our own level of Adhikara, we not only become more aware of the ways in which we can help others through our chosen practices, but we also model the behavior of a committed practitioner and in that way support all of the beneficial aspects of practice.