Imagine being trapped in a cave, unsure if any help will arrive. Fear and despair have begun to well up. “Is there still hope of survival?” you think to yourself.
That was the situation twelve Thai boys and their football coach found themselves in, in 2018. Trapped in a flooded cave complex for over two weeks with little certainty of rescue, their incredible survival has been credited in part to meditation.
Mr. Ekapol, the then 25-year-old coach of the “Wild Boars” football team, had trained as a monk at a monastery in Mae Sai in northern Thailand for over a decade.
“He could meditate for up to an hour,” said Mr. Ekapol’s aunt in an interview with the Associated Press, “It has definitely helped him and probably helped the boys to stay calm.”
As they awaited rescue in the cave, Mr. Ekapol taught the boys to meditate.
When a video showing the boys sitting inside the cave was widely circulated online, many were amazed at the state of calmness and good spirits the boys were in.
“Look at how calm they were sitting there waiting. No one was crying or anything. It was astonishing,” said the mother of one of the boys.
How Meditation Could Have Helped the Trapped Boys Survive
“The two issues they were facing were lack of food and water,” said Dr. Leah Weiss, referring to the boys trapped in the cave, “as well as a lack of air.”
Dr. Leah Weiss, a lecturer with Stanford University, is a founding faculty member of the CCARE/Compassion Institute Compassion and Cultivation Program.
Dr. Weiss told the Chinese-language Epoch Times that meditation helped the boys and their coach to cope with both of the issues.
“In terms of lack of air, when you meditate, it slows down your breathing, it slows down your whole body’s metabolism, and it helps you stay calm,” explained Dr. Weiss.
Dr. Weiss also pointed out that during the weeks the boys were trapped in the cave, meditation preserved them well with less resources.
Following their rescue, the Navy SEAL unit that led the rescue operation posted the following statement on their Facebook page, “We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the thirteen Wild Boars are now out of the cave.”
Unpacking the Benefits of Meditation Through Neuroscience
Since meditation helps us stabilise mental states, how would our brains react when we meditate?
According to Dr. Weiss, the regions of our brains that correspond with focus, attention and relaxation all benefit from meditation.
“This is because our brains are neuroplastic,” Dr. Weiss explains, “meaning that we can train our brains to respond differently and meditation is one of the most efficient ways that we can retrain our brains.”
Research also shows that meditation has the ability to reduce inflammation and slow down the heart rate and metabolism of the body.
There is even the possibility that meditation can lengthen lifespan.
Telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of human chromosomes, grow shorter as people age, and represent the absolute limit of the number of times a human cell can divide. A growing body of research has found that practitioners of meditation have significantly longer telomeres than non-meditators of the same age group.
“So meditation and even meditation retreats or meditation training lengthens the telomeres, which in turn suggested it gives us an opportunity to actually live longer and be more healthy,” said Dr. Weiss.
Improving Mindfulness and Self-Control as You Meditate
Research has shown that we could reap a host of benefits as we become more mindful, including improved productivity and the ability to regulate our emotions—such as being able to calm down in the face of adversity, rather than reacting in a way we might later regret.
Dr. Weiss also suggested that practicing meditation and mindfulness can help people to unlearn bad habits and form healthier ones.
Meditation also enhances the way we connect and communicate with others. When we are less distracted, our “empathic accuracy”—our ability to correctly understand the emotional state of another person—increases.
Meditation Can Ease Chronic Pain
There is evidence that meditation can help to reduce chronic pain.
In a study carried out in 2011, volunteers had MRI scans of their brains taken, while under induced pain. The scans showed that the volunteers experienced a very significant reduction in pain when they were in meditation, as compared to when they were not.
The ability to be mindful and to train ourselves to work with pain actually has a significant impact on our response to pain, according to Dr. Weiss.
“So we experience subjectively much less pain when we learn functionally how to stop fighting the pain which then creates more stress in our body and then doubles down on the pain we experience if we can relax our mind,” Dr. Weiss explained.
Meditation — A Unison of Traditional Wisdom and Science
Meditation has a long history among oriental religions as a way to achieve enlightenment, including in both Buddhism and Taoism.
It has been an integral part of Buddhism since the earliest part of its history. Buddha was said to have led his disciples deep into the forests of India to practice cultivation through meditation. Legend holds that Bodhidharma, one of Buddha’s disciples, attained enlightenment after sitting in meditation facing a wall for nine years.
Meditation was widely practiced among Confucian scholars.
Confucius once asked his disciple Yan Hui to explain what “sit and forget” (坐忘) meant.
Yan Hui described his experience of “sit and forget” as “I slough off my limbs and trunk, dim my intelligence, depart from my form, leave knowledge behind, and become identical with the Transformational Thoroughfare.”
This ancient emphasis on meditation ties in with what science has now discovered about meditation.
Studies have found that meditation was associated with an increase in grey matter, the part of the brain that is associated with concentration and memory.
In another study, a group of U.S. neurologists discovered that eight weeks of training in meditation improved emotional stability and response to stress by altering the activity of the amygdala—a region of the brain involved in regulating emotions and attention.
Learning Meditation and Mindfulness
Meditation continues to be practiced around the world today. Some continue to practice it as a form of cultivation, and others do it as an effective means of stress relief and self-improvement.
Falun Gong practitioners are internationally one of the largest communities of cultivators who actively practice meditation today.
The Singapore Falun Buddha Society regularly hosts classes where exercises including sitting meditation are taught to the public free-of-charge. To inquire, call their hotline at 97560029 (Mr Freddy Wong).