When Dr Shanida Nataraja was growing up in London during the 70s and 80s, meditation wasn't an esoteric, mystical practice done by hippies in baggy orange clothes. It was what her parents did.
"I was raised in a family where meditation was a central part of life. My father is Indian, from a Hindu background, and my mother is Dutch and Catholic. Over the course of growing up, I saw them embrace different meditation approaches: Hinduism, Buddhism, and then a Christian approach. I rebelled. We hate to believe that our parents know something we don't, so, when I became a research scientist, I wanted some concrete proof that what they were doing didn't work," Nataraja says.
"I really didn't expect to find that meditation plays such a role in optimizing brain function and health, from cognitive abilities to cardiovascular wellbeing."
The fruits of her PhD in neurophysiology and post-doctoral research at the neuroscience department of Johns Hopkins School Of Medicine, Baltimore, are presented in her new book, The Blissful Brain: Neuroscience and Proof of the Power of Meditation. The key to meditation's success, it seems, is the concept of whole brain integration. According to Nataraja, Westerners use the left halves of their brains too much.
"Generally speaking, the left hemisphere is associated with analytical, rational and logical processing, whereas the right hemisphere is associated with abstract thought, non-verbal awareness, visual-spatial perception and the expression and modulation of emotions. In the Western world, most individuals navigate through their everyday life in a fashion dominated by left-brained thinking."
Missing out on right-brain activity results in too much thinking going on, and not enough feeling. Too much frantic doing, not enough being; or, as Bruce Lee puts it after slapping an overly thoughtful pupil in Enter the Dragon: "Don't think, feel!"
There is a Buddhist expression, "You are not your thoughts," which refers to the tendency for our ceaseless flood of thoughts, characterized as chattering monkeys, to overwhelm us, leaving us stressed and unable to take a calm step back and realize this is not all that we are.
Nataraja's research, using galvanic skin response meters (which detect emotional changes through the skin) and electroencephalograms (or EEGs, which measure electrical activity produced by the brain), demonstrates that entering a meditative state can bring about the calmness, the stilling of the chatter, the shift into right-brain mode that we need.
Increased alpha brain wave activity is detected, a sign that we're activating the parasympathetic nervous system, as opposed to the adrenaline-releasing sympathetic system. More parasympathetic activity means less stress and therefore better heart health.
In these overly stimulating times, reaching a meditative state is not necessarily easy. Even an apparently simple activity such as silently counting "one" at the end of an exhalation, then "two" after the next, and so on up to 10, can be scuppered by intrusive thoughts. The key, says Nataraja, is to be kind to yourself, and not to take a punitive approach.
While she encourages people to try to put aside 15 minutes at the beginning and end of every day to quietly sit and focus on being "in the moment", she is keen to stress the importance of being mindful throughout everyday life.