In some ways the fact that specific effects appear to be associated with the mental silence experience poses a challenge to the philosophical underpinnings of Western culture by not only describing a state of non-thought, but also demonstrating that this state is accessible and of practical importance to the general population.

The cogito ergo sum argument essentially states that “I am thinking therefore I exist”. To some extent Western culture’s difficulty in apprehending the idea of non-thought is the result of its Cartesian underpinnings — the idea that one cannot exist if one is not thinking. The metaphysical implications of Descartes’ phrase, which equate thinking activity with self identity contrast sharply with the Eastern metaphysical idea that existential reality can be perceived only when one is not thinking, which might be stated in Latin as sum cogito ergo (I am, therefore I think)!

The ancient Eastern perspective on meditation, the mind, consciousness and health has here been demonstrated to have an important potential role to play in the health and wellbeing of people both in the East and West.

Dr Ramesh Manocha

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Of great interest is that the yoga tradition does not just describe philosophical, moral, metaphysical associations between mind, behaviour and health but actually describes the mechanism by which they are interconnected. This is the system of chakras (energy plexuses) and nadis (energy channels). Described since ancient times, the physical body is said to be energized via a complex network of 72,000 nadis and their associated chakras, not unlike the ancient Western understandings of the four “humors”—blood, bile, phlegm and pneuma. Yogic exercises and disciplines are directed at manipulating the subtle energetic system in order to bring about shifts in energy flux which not only impact on physical function, but also on cognitive style, mood and consciousness.

States of enlightened consciousness, whether they be described as self-realization, moksha or sahaja can be characterized by the awakening of an energy called kundalini. This energy is said to lie dormant at or near the base of the spine. At the time of awakening it rises through the spine to enter the brain and then exit via the crown of the head. The kundalini has been described variously and has been compared to many other psycho-cultural and archetypal symbols. For a useful diagramme, see Subbarayappa, 1997.

The ancient subtle-energetic mechanics of the chakra system may offer important clues in the quest to comprehensively describe and integrate the otherwise rather disparate psycho-physiological pathways that are coming to be recognized in modern science.

Dr Ramesh Manocha

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In a letter to the American Heart Journal, Kothari et al. (1973) described a remarkable feat in which an ECG was attached to a yogi before he entered an eight day meditative trance. Remarkably, on the second day of the yogi’s trance, the ECG recorded minimal heart activity indicating that the meditative trance had slowed the yogi’s heart dramatically. The authors of the study ruled out mechanical disturbance or failure, and concluded that a likely cause was that the meditative trance allowed the yogi great control of his heart rate, however conceded that feat could have been a cleverly disguised trick.

The study can be found here.

Tristan Boyd, Dr Ramesh Manocha.

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In 2000 Pirrotta et al. published the results of a widely publicised survey of family physicians in Australia. Remarkably it reported that almost 80% of respondents had recommended meditation to patients at some time in the course of their practice, yet less than 35% had any formal training or education in the field. This reflects, on the one hand, the growing legitimacy of what was once regarded as a fringe concept and on the other, a lack of quality education on the topic. The medical community’s manifest interest in meditation is often construed by consumers as tacit endorsement of the practice.

Meditation arose from an ancient spiritual tradition centred in India. It has achieved substantial popularity in Western societies as a therapeutic tool as well as a method of self development. In both the East and West it is widely perceived to have potent, specific effects on both the body and mind. In Australia, a survey 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. This reflects trends in other countries. In the United States for instance, a survey administered to 31,000 representative adults, conducted in 2002 as part of the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), showed that 8% of respondents had practiced meditation at some time.

Dr Ramesh Manocha.

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Probably the most thorough and up to date review of meditation research was published in 2007 by a team led by Ospina, specifically contracted by the US Department of Health and Human Services to assess the evidence base. They included both randomised and non-randomised trials. In their assessment of more than 800 studies they concluded:

“Many uncertainties surround the practice of meditation. Scientific research on meditation practices does not appear to have a common theoretical perspective and is characterised by poor methodological quality. Firm conclusions on the effects of meditation in healthcare cannot be drawn based on the available evidence.

Ospina’s review represented a massive effort by a large team of researchers. Its thorough and comprehensive nature ensures that its contribution to the field of meditation research will be of great value. There are a number of features in the review’s design however that would seem to prevent important questions about specific effects and related issues from being clearly answered, such as:

  1. The inclusion of a wide variety of comparative studies, not just randomised controlled trials.
  2. Techniques that may not be widely accepted as meditation, such as Yoga, Tai Chi and Qigong. These practices include meditation as a component of their practice but also include many other practices such as physical exercise, dietary modification and other lifestyle choices whose confounding and non-specific effects are difficult to separate from any effects of meditation.
  3. Effect size calculations did not seem to take into account the heterogeneity of control groups and their widely varying ability to confound outcomes since the control methods themselves elicit both non-specific and, in some cases, specific effects.

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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Xu (1994) described and discussed the adverse effects of Qigong, which has been described as both a therapeutic practice as well as the “Chinese equivalent of Indian meditation”. The clinical consequences of inappropriate use of this technique has been described as the “Qigong deviation syndrome”, which has become a diagnostic term “now used widely in China” and is associated with a range of somatic and psychological disturbances. The commonest somatic symptoms include headaches, insomnia and discomfort caused by abdominal distension, while common psychological symptoms include anxiety, agitation and depression. Extreme psychological symptoms can include uncontrollable behaviours, psychosis and suicide.

For further reading regarding adverse effects arising from the use of Qigong, check Dr Ramesh Manocha’s blog.

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Goleman (1996) proposed that meditative styles might be classified into two types, Mindfulness and concentrative, depending on how attention is directed during meditation. Andresen (2000) meanwhile suggested that these two categories might be better understood as two poles on a continuum upon which most other meditative techniques can be positioned. On the other hand, Cahn (2006) acknowledged the limitations of this taxonomy and suggests that a different way of categorising techniques may be according to the underlying experience that the various techniques aim to elicit.

For further reading regarding the taxonomy of meditation, check Dr Ramesh Manocha’s Website.

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Since its inception, Sahaja Yoga has been propagated worldwide by a grassroots movement of volunteer practitioners. Its proponents claim that it is now practised in over 80 countries around the world. Instruction in the technique, in keeping with the founder’s philosophy, has been on a free-of-charge, non-commercial basis.

For more information on Sahaja Yoga head to Dr Ramesh Manocha’s blog.

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The ideas of yoga, sahaja, self-realization and meditation orbit around another central theme in the spiritual culture of the East which, simply put, relates to the idea that one’s perception of true reality is obscured by one’s own mental complexities (preconceptions, emotions, opinion and intellect). Meditation represents the opposite condition to mental complexity because its essential element is the experience of a trans-mind state.

More information regarding the philosophy behind meditation can be found at Dr Ramesh Manocha’s blog.

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