The observed relationship between Sahaja Yoga meditation (SYM) practices and mental health are not similarly as strong for measures of physical health. In many ways this might be expected since the intervention is primarily focused on a mental experience with the specific aim of reducing negative affect, thinking patterns and related behaviours. Mood, thoughts and behaviour patterns are in constant flux, much of it reflecting (and influencing) brain electrical activity and other neuro-behavioural phenomena which change from moment to moment. Aftanas (2001) has shown that the practice of SYM, and the experience of meditation, is strongly reflected in both brain electrophysiology and mood. This might explain why mental health factors are much more likely to be immediately responsive to such an intervention whereas physical health factors, which rely significantly on anatomical structures and mechanical function, will take much longer to manifest (if at all) and are subject to a vast number of other environmental confounders that may obscure any such relationship.

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Neki (1975) describes the sahaja state as a mental health ideal in more detail, asserting that it combines the elements of illumination (the direct experience of reality, devoid of the filtering effect of the mind), equipoise (the absence of emotional turbulence) and its replacement with a sense of underlying joy and spontaneity. It creates a personality that is well adjusted but without pretence, affectation or hidden agenda and also freedom from the desires and motivations that give rise to frustration and destructive behaviours. It leads to harmonisation of the subtle inner rhythms of one’s being and the greater cosmos, a sort of suprasensory perception. All of this suggests a positive, robust and fully functional state of health combined with ongoing and continuous perception of the deeper significance of reality.

Dr Ramesh Manocha

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The Jadad scoring system is a widely used method of rating randomised controlled trials for basic methodological rigour. The Jadad system is inadequately structured to meaningfully discern the methodological standards of meditation trials. This is because the unique issues associated with controlling for non-specific effects and sources of bias are not adequately represented in this system.

Dr Ramesh Manocha

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In brief, when using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to research meditation, the signal of most relevance to meditation research is driven by a difference in the blood oxygenation levels in capillaries and veins compared to the arteries during a particular task (Russell, 2003). Deoxygenated blood is paramagnetic (attracted to a magnetic field) as opposed to when it is oxygenated. On presentation of a specific stimulus, oxygenated blood flow will increase locally within an “active” region of the brain. This will cause deoxygenated blood levels to decrease and subsequently leads to a signal detected by the fMRI apparatus.

Dr Ramesh Manocha

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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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Gyaneshwara

A famous teenage saint from Maharasthra, Gyaneshawara (1275–1296) described the ascent of the kundalini energy in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, called the Gyaneshawari, the awakening of this energy is associated with a unique state of consciousness which includes the experience of mental silence: “…the imagination subsides, activity becomes calm, and the functions of the body and mind become still…” (Noyce, 2006).

Zen

The ancient Japanese Rinzai Zen tradition also encompasses the idea of non-thought — elegantly and famously described in the Koan with the question: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” (Hoffman, 1975). The answer is, of course, that there is no sound and similarly, the state of meditation involves no mental activity. The aim of this kind of riddle is to challenge the mind into realizing the futility of rational thought, thus triggering a sudden leap of consciousness toward the trans-mind state, described in the Zen tradition as satori (Littleton, 1996).

Buddhism

In the Buddhist tradition, the Mahayana school’s The Awakening of Faith described several stages in the practice of Buddhist faith, the final one being “the stage of preventing vain thoughts.” In meditative posture the aspirant is instructed that “all kinds of ideas, as soon as thought of, must be put away, even the idea of banishing them must also be put away” (Richard, 1907).

Dr Ramesh Manocha

1.1.1 Gyaneshwara

A famous teenage saint from Maharasthra, Gyaneshawara (1275–1296) described the ascent of the kundalini energy in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, called the Gyaneshawari, the awakening of this energy is associated with a unique state of consciousness which includes the experience of mental silence: “…the imagination subsides, activity becomes calm, and the functions of the body and mind become still…”224

1.1.2 Zen

The ancient Japanese Rinzai Zen tradition also encompasses the idea of non-thought — elegantly and famously described in the Koan with the question: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”225. The answer is, of course, that there is no sound and similarly, the state of meditation involves no mental activity. The aim of this kind of riddle is to challenge the mind into realizing the futility of rational thought, thus triggering a sudden leap of consciousness toward the trans-mind state, described in the Zen tradition as satori226.

1.1.3 Buddhism

In the Buddhist tradition, the Mahayana school’s The Awakening of Faith described several stages in the practice of Buddhist faith, the final one being “the stage of preventing vain thoughts.” In meditative posture the aspirant is instructed that “all kinds of ideas, as soon as thought of, must be put away, even the idea of banishing them must also be put away.”227

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Trans-mind states are extensively described in ancient India, and are regarded as a characteristic aspect of the spiritually developed condition.

Mahabharata

In one of India’s most ancient texts, the Mahabhrata,(13.294.16) meditation is described as follows:

He does not hear…smell…taste…see…or experience touch…his mind ceases to imagine…He desires nothing, and like a log he does not think… quoted in Feuerstein, 2006. (p97).

Upanishads

The Upanishads are some thousands of years younger than the Mahabharata. Mascaro, an eminent translator of Indian spiritual texts, summarizes the Upanishadic ideas on meditation and consciousness as follows:

In the infinite struggle of man to know this world and the universe around him, and also to know the mind that allows him to think, he comes before the simple fact that life is above thought: when he sees a fruit he can think about the fruit but in the end he must eat it if he wants to know its taste: the pleasure and nourishment he may get from eating the fruit is not an act of thought (Mascaro, 1965, pp1–47).

Mascaro’s authoritative translations of the Upanishads further illustrate these points. In the Kena Upanishad it is stated:

He (God) comes to the thought of those who know him beyond thought, not to those who imagine he can be attained by thought: he is unknown to the learned and known to the simple (p51).

Further, in the Kaushitaki Upanishad it is stated “It is not thought which we should know: we should know the thinker” (p105).

And in the Katha Upanishad:

When the five senses and the mind are still, and reason itself rests in silence, then begins the path supreme. This calm steadiness of the senses is called yoga. Then one should become watchful, because yoga comes and goes (p55).

Patanjali

One of the most well known yogic treatise is Patanjali’s Yoga Aphorisms. Patanjali was a physician who attempted to synthesise the many disparate texts on yogic discipline (such as the Hathayogapradipika, cited above) into single coherent practical guide for those aspiring to experience higher consciousness and self realisation, it is stated:

By being aware of the silent void moments pervading the emptiness between thoughts, one can glimpse and expand the skill of thought subjugation which leads to transformation (Messenger, C).

Dr Ramesh Manocha

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It seems obvious that the non-specific effect of any intervention is closely related to its credibility and plausibility as a therapeutic intervention i.e. its “face validity”. Now, some of the effects associated with meditation must be non-specific, i.e. comprising a mixture of placebo, therapeutic contact, spontaneous improvement, and so on, whereas some, hopefully, are specific to meditation alone. One might even propose that different meditation techniques have varying proportions of specific and non-specific effects. Within the context of an RCT, the control strategy should ideally:

• elicit all the non-specific effects that meditation might have, but have none of meditation’s specific effects;
• not have any specific effects of its own.

By fulfilling these criteria the control strategy makes the RCT methodology sensitive to any specific effects of meditation that might be detectable.

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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The aphorisms of Patanjali on the Yoga Sutras are contained in four chapters and are nearly two hundred in number. The author of the aphorisms is said to be the same Patanjali who wrote the famous commentary on Panini’s aphorisms, under the name of the Mahabhasya or ‘The Great Commentary’. Another work on Medicine is also attributed to him. He was not only a great grammarian and a great philosopher, but a great physician. He prescribed for the body, mind and spirit. The age of Patanjali is now generally fixed at three centuries before Christ.

Patanjali is credited with formalising the spiritual science of India. His writings describe a multi faceted discipline involving physical exercise (Hatha yoga), breath control to arrest thought (Raja yoga), meditation (Dyana yoga) which is achieved after the mind is silenced, pure love of the divine (Bhakti yoga), ethical behaviour (Karma yoga) as well as intellectual study, various cleansing practices, etc., etc.

His system was designed to prepare the aspirant by purifying, balancing and strengthening the energy plexuses and channels that exist as a subtle mechanism in the body. It is this subtle body, said Patanjali, that is the mechanism by which self realisation occurs.

Patanjali’s yoga system is the basis of all yoga systems that are popularly known today. Interestingly, Patanjali did not intend the disciplines to be used separately to the exclusion of others. Rather, he emphasised the need for integrated use of the various techniques according to the needs of the individual, in order to achieve harmony in the body, mind and soul. Nor did he recommend the use of the paradoxical, and now fashionable, so- called ‘sexual yogas’, nor the gaining of ‘siddhis’ (occult powers such as levitation, astral travel, ESP etc). Indeed, Patanjali warned against them as both damaging to the subtle mechanism as well as hazardous to the seeker’s ascent as a whole.

Excerpt from A Seeker’s Journey by Greg Turek. If you would like a copy of the book, Greg would be happy to send you a PDF version. He can be contacted here.

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