Christian mysticism

Importantly, the experience of “thoughtless awareness” and its connection to higher states of consciousness is not exclusive to the East (although it is more systematically described in that culture than any other). There are isolated descriptions throughout the religious history of the West. For example in the anonymous Christian mystical text The Cloud of Unknowing, the writer encourages the development of a profound, introspective understanding of God that is accessible in the non-thinking state, “strike down every kind of thought under the cloud of forgetting” (Walsh, 1981).
St John of the Cross described the state as “silent music” and “the sound of solitude” (Herrera, 2004) while the poet Wordsworth (1849) suggested it in his ode Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood which is a meditation on the possibilities and limitations of consciousness: “Our noisy years seem moments in the being of the eternal Silence”.

Dr Ramesh Manocha

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Despite the scientific establishment’s equivocal conclusions about the efficacy of meditation, positive perceptions are evident among the Western lay population because of the increasing popularity of the philosophy, metaphysics and folklore associated with the ancient and traditional Indian ideas of meditation. So it is important to develop an understanding of meditation, in the words of Taylor (2005) in the context of its:

“…particular spiritual tradition, situated in a specific historical time period, or codified in a specific text according to the philosophy of some particular individual.”

While the biomedical Cartesian worldview that developed in the West from the mid-19th century weakened the connection between health and spirituality, this did not occur in India. There strong associations between health and spirituality were made and utilised to promote better physical wellbeing and quality of life. Typical of this health philosophy was the practice of yoga, which combined spiritual teachings with more mundane health factors such as lifestyle, diet, physical exercise and positive psychology in order to achieve its ultimate aim, the development of consciousness (this will be explained at greater length below). Similarly, the ancient and still widely used Ayurveda health epistemology was used to cure illness and enhance wellbeing by combining spiritual practices such as meditation, mantras and prayer with lifestyle measures such as exercise, diet and massage. Proponents of this epistemology also advocated the use of an extensive herbal pharmacopoeia, while its diagnostic system was based on psychological predisposition and personality type (Chopra Et al., 2002). In fact the followers of Ayurveda proposed a perspective of the human corpus in which the mind was not contained within the confines of the brain, as in Western perceptions. Instead, it was seen to be closely intertwined with the physical body, thus forming a body-mind whole in which physical health status was seen to be a direct reflection of consciousness and vice versa.

Dr Ramesh Manocha

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Meditation is widely perceived in the West as an effective method of reducing stress, and enhancing wellbeing. In Australia, a survey conducted by Kaldor (2002) of a randomly selected but representative sample drawn from the state of Western Australia (n=1,033) found that 11% of respondents had practiced meditation at least once. The Australian Community Survey (ACS), conducted by the National Church Life Survey (2004) found that 1.5 million Australians had tried meditation within 12 months of the time of the survey and that while 29% of those surveyed found prayer to be a source of peace and wellbeing, 24% had used meditation to achieve the same effect! Only 21% reported church attendance as a source of peace or wellbeing. In fact the ACS reports that although only about 20% of Australians attend church monthly or more often “around 33% of Australians pray or meditate at least weekly”.

This situation in Australia reflects trends in other Western countries. In 2002 a National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), undertaken by the Centers [sic] for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States administered to 31,000 representative adults, demonstrated that 8% of respondents had practiced meditation at some time. That biomedically trained physicians in Australia were also advising patients about the therapeutic effects of meditation, was demonstrated when Pirrotta conducted a survey of Australian GPs in 2000.

Dr Ramesh Manocha

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While the strong metaphysical linkage between Eastern religiosity, its psycho-spiritual practices, and health may offer important new perspectives on the relationship between religiosity and health, there are a number of practical difficulties associated with studying the epidemiology of non-Western forms of spirituality. These include:

  • differing criteria of religiosity
  • new confounding variables relating to language, culture, ethnicity, diet and environment
  • an absence of validated and reliable measures
  • accurate data regarding the background population may be unavailable.

Given these considerable limitations, the study of a Western sub-population that has adopted a well-defined aspect of Eastern religiosity may be particularly useful as it allows comparison with well-developed, validated databases and commentary while avoiding a number of the confounders mentioned above. Studies such as this may provide important conceptual bridges by which researchers can extend their understandings of the relationship between religiosity and health in non-Western groups using a common set of empirical scientific tools.

Dr Ramesh Manocha

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The rise of Western “pop culture” and “alternative lifestyles” in the 1960s, was a crucial social change that led many Western consumers to dabble with spiritual ideas and practices, especially meditation. Symbolising this development was the Beatles’ much-publicised trip to a meditation retreat in Rishikesh, India. The fact that the Beatles left the retreat in disappointment and acrimony not long after their arrival, serves to illustrate the other side of this social phenomenon; that the ancient tradition has been misused by entrepreneurs and cultic organisations who have exploited Westerners’ naiveté and ignorance of the historical, philosophical and cultural context from which meditation emerged.

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The failure of the proponents of meditation in the West to produce conclusive data on its specific efficacy in the health sphere (see Ospina’s definitive treatment of this issue), has been due to understandings having been largely confined to Westernised versions of the practice. Such understandings have meant that the original ideas about meditation as developed in South Asia and particularly on the Indian sub-continent, have been substituted by more culturally accessible but less effective Western concepts.

Thus our research programme proposes that any solution to the current scientific impasse needs to involve a re-examination of the cultural contexts in which meditation is practiced. Of particular importance in this regard are South Asian cultural themes embodied in ideas such as yoga, moksha, and sahaja. It is argued that Western conceptualisations and definitions of meditation need to be reshaped to more accurately reflect the original meaning of the practice, particularly the experience of mental silence.


Dr Ramesh Manocha

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For those people who imagine that yoga consists of pretzel-like postures, the term “yogic science” will seem contradictory. But this year, the world’s first masters degree in applied yogic science will be awarded to students studying at the “yoga university” Bihar Yoga Bharati (Munger, India). And worldwide, interest is increasing in the biological effects of this ancient practice. Full text available from the Lancet: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(05)79010-3/fulltext

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Ezekiel 1:1-28 ……In the midst of the living creatures there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches moving to and fro among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. 14 And the living creatures darted to and fro, like a flash of lightning. 15 Now as I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel upon the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. 16 As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of a chrysolite; and the four had the same likeness, their construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel. 17 When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went. 18 The four wheels had rims and they had spokes; and their rims were full of eyes round about. 19 And when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

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