A Ph.D. in Happiness: What 10,000 Hours of Meditation Actually Does to Your Brain
Gary Weber is an interesting guy.
Over 15 years ago he was the CEO of a multi-million dollar company, with a thousand or so employees under his leadership.
Everything was going normally, except on one morning when something very strange happened to Gary.
He lost his mind.
Gary was doing his morning Yoga ritual and went up into a pose that he had done thousands of times. He was practicing a simple self-inquiry meditation, and when he came down, his mind was gone.
When I say lost his mind, I don’t mean he lost control (he would say he never had it). What I mean is he lost all self-referential thoughts; the never-ending stream of noise that goes through ours heads every single day.
But let me give this some context because this wasn’t spontaneous. In fact, Gary says that it was probably about 20,000 hours and 25 years in the making.
So here Gary was, sitting on his Yoga mat with no mind.
And now he had to go to work, with no thoughts.
So off he went to a meeting “expecting to be stoned or deified,” and you want to know what happened?
No one even seemed to notice a change.
According to Gary he’s stayed that way for 17 years now, except when his blood sugar gets low, or he’s very tired – then occasionally the thoughts will creep back in.
“You look like you’re the smartest person in the room because you’re the only one IN the room that’s there for the whole meeting.” – Gary Weber
Since having this awakening experience he has reported that
- Life has become easier
- Experiences are now richer and generally better
- His mind is cleaner and decisions are a lot simpler
- His creativity is almost superhuman
- His cognition is much sharper
Gary, like many others who are having this experience in the modern world, are careful with the use of the term ‘enlightenment’ which often comes with a lot of cultural baggage and can overcomplicate the process.
“Actual enlightenment is about a Ph.D.’s worth of work.” – Vinay Gupta
10,000 hours to Mastery
In 1993 Anders Ericsson, a Professor at the University of Colorado released a paper that highlighted the role of practice time in the acquisition of mastery in different skills.
The study looked at the habits of violin players throughout their life. Those who had become masters of the instrument by adulthood had on average practiced 10,000 hours compared to those who were less capable players and had practiced around 4,000 hours.
If natural talent played such a significant role, as previously thought, elite level performers would have emerged after about 5,000 hours, but this wasn’t the case.
Surprisingly, Ericsson’s work also suggests that there is no correlation between IQ and expert performance in a number of disciplines including acting, computer programming, ballet, writing, chess, and surgery.
The initial study has gone on to be replicated in a number of areas, including darts players, and contested by other studies but the general belief is that the 10,000-hour rule is still an effective guide.
It is also generally agreed upon that the 10,000-hour rule will vary greatly depending on the complexity and nature of the skill in question, the genetics of the individual, and the nature of their practice.
As more complex tasks have been found to have more variation in times to mastery, and meditation (or awakening) is a highly varied and very complex task, we can theorise that awakening times may vary greatly between individuals.
While (unsurprisingly) each skill is acquired differently, and there are dozens of environmental and genetic factors that will make times for mastery vary greatly, we can still start to take a more measured approach to the study of meditation.
The Superhuman Monk
In the mid-90’s Social Psychologist Daniel Goleman teamed up with neuroscientist Richard Davidson, a leading researcher on emotions, Paul Ekman, and none other than the Dalai Lama himself, in order to perform some of the first scientific studies on the mind of a master meditator.
The Dalai Lama suggested that they study his right-hand man, Lama Oser, also known as French-born Matthieu Ricard. At the time he had 30 years and well over 10,000 hours experience with meditation.
The results were nothing short of remarkable.
After practicing a number of different meditations under a functional MRI and an EEG analysis, Lama Oser was found to have:
Unprecedented Levels of Happiness, Joy, and Energy.
The ratio of left-to-right prefrontal cortex activity measured in Lama Oser’s brain was literally off the charts. What this means is that he has more neural pathways on the left side of his brain than anyone every tested, which is associated with greater happiness. It is also a predictor for how quickly you are able to recover from physical or psychological stress.
Superhuman Body Language, Expertise, and Empathy.
He also had a remarkable ability to recognize what are known as ‘microexpressions,’ subtle expressions in people’s faces that tell you what another person is feeling. Lama Oser not only outperformed all the college students that had been tested, he beat out everyone that had ever done the test, from clinical psychologists to police officers to FBI agents.
Zero Potential for Anxiety.
When looking at the right prefrontal area of the brain (opposite to the happy side), neurologists are able to gauge the potential for distressing emotions. Because there was such a significant tilt towards the left side of Oser’s brain, it’s unlikely he is able to feel stress or anxiety the way we would, not in any measurable degree anyway.
Likewise, psychologists have been studying what is known as the startle response for decades. Essentially what happens is that whenever something loud scares you, your body reacts, you jump or move or even just blink. This even happens with trained policemen when their guns go off, and it is directly correlated with the experience of anxiety. When meditation, Lama Oser was able to suppress his startle response, completely.
Following the study with Lama Oser, Richard Davison and a number of other researchers have gone on to look at a larger sample of meditators, each with 10,000 to 50,000 hours of experience. Similar results have been found, meaning that these incredible skills are not limited to Oser they are in fact replicable.
But how is this relevant to me?
So the first thing that you’re probably thinking;
Well, this is all well and good for them, but I don’t have time to become a monk and sit for 10,000 hours!
Yes, for most of us that’s going to be true. But just because the studies mentioned above have been on those with 10,000 to 50,000 hours of experience, doesn’t mean that you need to do even 1% of that much work to see noticeable benefits.
As was mentioned earlier, it’s important to note that genetics, environment, diet, and mentors will influence meditation. However, with the following number of hours practice, you can generally start to expect to see at least some of these benefits:
Note: these have been taken from meditation studies, personal experiences, conversations and interviews with long-term meditators, and consistent reports from various books and online forums.
- Less stress and anxiety
- Less fear
- Fewer feelings of loneliness
- Increased optimism
- Increased self-esteem
- Increased focus
- Improved immune system and energy
- Almost superhuman focus compared to coworkers
- Sense of being driven, aware, intuitive
- Will have experienced deep, psychedelic states
- Increased capacity to experience love
- Reduced need for sleep
- Increased physical and emotional sensitivity
- Much sharper in anything that requires intense concentration
- Significantly higher tolerance for pain
- Very little attachment to any point of view
- Much of your ego will dissolve
- Won’t obsess over emotions, if something comes up you’ll be able to drop it pretty much instantly
- Deep feelings of peace will pop up unexpectedly and stay for unpredictable amounts of time
- Much more control over automatic reactions, so things like worries, fears, anger, hatred will not stay around long enough to impact you
- Boredom won’t occur
- Monkey mind will not disappear, but will be calm and can be seen with complete clarity
It’s important that we start to take a scientific view of meditation so that we can what Ericsson has called ‘deliberate practice’ – practice with a focused strategy and intended outcome.
Fortunately, with the Internet, we now have the ability to study and learn from individuals like Gary who have achieved this state. It’s impossible to know exactly how many are out there, as many of whom may likely keep their experience to themselves, but given the global rise in the popularity of meditation since the 1960’s, it could well be hundreds or even thousands.
If you want a great article that summarizes all of the benefits of meditation with supporting studies, check out this article over at the blog Live and Dare.
If you’d like to hear from more people who claim to have had these awakening experiences, take a look at the following interviews:
What experience have you had with meditation? How has it helped your life? Let us know in the comments!