The Neurochemistry Behind Our Meditation Practice

Aura Health Team
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Aura Health Team
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The Neurochemistry Behind Our Meditation PracticeThe Neurochemistry Behind Our Meditation Practice

By Kristy Arbon. Kristy is one of Aura’s meditation teachers. This article comes from one of the lectures in her HeartWorks Nourishing Practice self-paced online program.

Motivating ourselves to practice can be a grueling task, especially if we feel that we don’t enjoy practice and we’re not sure of the benefits of it for us personally. Hearing other people talk about the benefits can be useful, but we’re all so unique that it might be easy to think that we’re not the kind of person who can meditate or stick to a path of practice.

In this article we’ll look at tangible ways to overcome this challenge by revealing:

  • The effect of neurochemicals on our motivation
  • The importance of relaxing around practice

The Effects of Neurochemicals on our Motivation

Striving and Dopamine

Bill Morgan found that striving was a strong trend amongst western meditators (1991). It makes sense – our western culture values achievement, swift results, and getting ready to move on to the next thing. What is it about striving that is so appealing to us? One answer is our neurochemicals.

Our brain is rewarded when it experiences thoughts about finishing something. Dopamine floods our system when we think about completing a task, winning a jackpot or eating a meal we’ve spent time preparing. Dopamine is the neurochemical that motivates us to strive for the next thing. Originally, in our evolution the purpose of dopamine was to motivate us to pay attention to the things that helped us survive – to notice and reach for the fruit in the tree (survival of our body), or to notice an opportunity to be useful to the group and to move on it (social survival). It’s not the situation itself that gets the dopamine going in our body, it’s what we’ve learned to associate with dopamine, which is why we all have different dopamine triggers. My dopamine trigger might be planning to eat chocolate while someone else’s might be thinking about hitting the jackpot.

So, how much dopamine is involved in the traditional practice of sitting still for 30 minutes in meditation? Not a whole lot. Which is partly why we can find it boring and can question its relevance. Our neurochemicals do not see meditation as a way to get ahead in life, and that’s OK. There is no need to chastise our modern culture, our brain chemistry or to think that we should rise above it all in order to be able to meditate. We can bring in our dopamine-loving system to help motivate us to meditate.

We can support ourselves by using a meditation app. Aura reminds you periodically throughout the day to tend to your practice, offers short meditations customized to how you are feeling at the time, offers the opportunity to journal about your experience, and specializes in meditations designed to help you feel empathically connected to the teacher. Aura harnesses our tendency to connect, and our tendency to look forward to a rewarding task. We get a dopamine boost when we think about reaching a practice goal, seeing our progress over time or when we look forward to a meditation lead by an empathic teacher’s voice.

Socializing and Oxytocin

Oxytocin is the neurochemical that motivates us to spend time with others who we feel safe around. Its evolutionary survival mechanism is partly so that we will take care of our young and they will feel nurtured so that they can thrive, and partly to keep us in a herd, so that when any member of the herd perceives danger, we all run together. Oxytocin is part of the mammalian caregiving system.

How can we harness the motivational power of oxytocin to help us practice? By being social about it. Many of us feel much more motivated to meditate with a group, be it in-person or online, than to meditate alone. When we know that there is a friendly group waiting for us, who expects us, acknowledges us, and feels safe to be in, we get a boost of oxytocin.

Joining a practice group in your local area or an online or in-app meditation community can be just the boost you need to connect to your practice through connecting with your tribe. Aura reminds you during the day to practice, saying, “Hey, here we are, come and meditate!” Aura sends you encouraging emails that acknowledge practice goals you’ve met, letting you know that your efforts are registering with someone, that you are connected.

The Importance of Relaxing Around Practice

Stress and Cortisol

Another neurochemical designed to help us survive is cortisol. Cortisol motivates us to do things like seek food when we are hungry and to notice threat and move swiftly away from it. In our modern age, we are not often physically threatened, but we are socially and emotionally threatened. We even threaten ourselves through self-criticism.

When we’re feeling stressed and we are looking for ways out, we might think about meditating as a remedy. Sitting down to meditate in a safe, comfortable place can help to down-regulate our amygdala (the part of our brain that determines if a situation is threatening or not) and decrease the cortisol in our system. But if we tell ourselves that we are not doing it well, that we are a failure at meditating, that we can’t take care of ourselves through meditation, then that will increase our cortisol levels because our amygdala tells us there is a threat – the threat of being told we are not good enough to be accepted, coming from our own inner-critic.

This is counterproductive to our practice, but it is really important to notice that this is going on. One way we might think of to address this is to just “try harder” but if that motivation is coming from fear (cortisol) rather than pleasure (dopamine), then the result will be more fear and the potential to contribute to the long-term negative effects of cortisol in our system (like high blood pressure, disrupted sleep and lowered immune functioning). So “trying harder” is not an effective strategy (but give yourself an “A” for effort if that’s what you’ve been doing – no judgment here!).

Comfort and Oxytocin

A better way to respond to an inner-critic that pumps cortisol into your system is to introduce a practice that pumps one of the feel-good chemicals into your system, one that will override the stress chemical. Oxytocin is a lovely antidote to cortisol. And if you’re feeling an aversion to sitting on a cushion for 30 minutes, then you’re in luck because practices that evoke an oxytocin release include things like listening to an encouraging guided meditation for 3 short minutes, sitting on the couch with a warm cup of tea, taking a hot shower, listening to music that soothes, and connecting with a dear friend over the phone.

These are all self-care practices that are part our self-compassion repertoire. If it feels as if cultivating oxytocin is not “real” practice, give yourself a break. If it feels good and it helps you to be with yourself in a nurturing way, then go for it. The aim of practice is not to get really good at meditating; it’s to tend to yourself and be your best friend.

So how does cultivating oxytocin help us to practice? Simply by training us that if we do feel uncomfortable during some kind of practice, we promise to actively soothe ourselves and listen to the wisdom of our body. If we are sitting in meditation and our knee starts to hurt we’ll notice that, offer some kind words to ourselves, and then mindfully move our leg to a more comfortable spot. If we notice we are becoming bored or irritated or impatient during meditation we will take the time to validate that feeling, to offer ourselves some kindness because we are suffering, and if some part of us tells us that meditation is really not serving us in that moment we’ll stop and do something that does serve our wellbeing. If a 30 minute practice feels overwhelming, a 3 minute practice can feel like coming home to something completely “doable.” Practicing self-compassion in this way helps us to feel safe to practice, lets our amygdala know that we are safe from self-criticism, and helps us to relax into the moment.

Enjoyed reading about the science behind motivation and relaxation? Share this article with friends and try Aura, a 3-minute micro-meditation app (get started on iOS | Android).


  • Morgan, B. (2016) The Meditator’s Dilemma: An Innovative Approach to Overcoming Obstacles adn Revitalizing Your Practice
  • Breuning, L.G. (2016)Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels

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December 9, 2019
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