A national survey of Sahaja Yoga meditation practitioners using standardised measures revealed that meditators experienced significantly better levels of quality of life and mental health as compared to population data drawn from national health surveys using the same instruments. Similar surveys of populations practising Western forms of religiosity also reported better health than the general population but the meditators appeared to experience substantially greater advantages. Remarkably, analysis revealed a robust and consistent relationship between reported frequency of mental silence experience and health scores, especially mental health, thereby providing support for my central hypothesis that is that the experiential mental silence aspect of meditation is associated with health benefits. An association however does not prove causality and so it became necessary to conduct observational experiments to determine if meditation, and more specifically, mental silence, was specifically responsible for the health benefits observed in the health survey.
Dr Ramesh Manocha
A reduction of autonomic arousal leads to diversion of blood flow to the viscera and away from the skeletal muscle of the body. Accordingly this leads to increased blood flow to the surface of glabrous skin and thereby an increase in palmar skin temperature. Sahaja Yoga meditation practitioners appear to perform exactly the same overt task as conventional meditators since, like conventional meditators, they appear to sit quietly. If however the physiological changes that occur are different then it would suggest that despite overt similarities, the biological events are quite different. This would suggest that Sahaja Yoga meditation (and hence presumably the mental silence experience) is physiologically atypical. The mental silence experience may be associated with a unique spectrum of physiological activity.
A detailed summary of the physiology of skin temperature can be found at Dr Ramesh Manocha’s website.
In order to contrast the traditional Eastern ideas of meditation with ideas that are currently prevalent in Western culture, it is useful to examine popular, broadly consensual definitions of meditation as an insight into how the modern Western consumer has come to conceptualise it. Both basic and advanced Google searches were conducted using “meditation” and “definition” and “definition of meditation” as search terms.
An informal content analysis was performed to identify key terms and ideas. The two most common definitions of meditation are as a mental exercise that involves either “contemplation” or “continuous thinking” while the third most common definition is as an exercise involving focused attention.
The more specific notion that it involves control of the mind is considerably less widespread, despite the fact that these factors are repeatedly mentioned in traditional Indian texts. Interestingly, the more specific notion of reducing thinking activity appears to be little known, while the key notion of mental silence was mentioned only once.
Find more information about the Eastern and Western perspectives of meditation at Ramesh Manocha’s blog.
Findings suggest that the mental silence experience may be associated with a specific pattern of activity in both the central nervous system and autonomic nervous system which is more complex than simple reduction of arousal and yet different from the cognitive changes seen in association with mindfulness meditaton.
Thus, although Eastern and Western ideas of meditation may seem externally similar (as might meditation and relaxation) and may initially share a number of physiological similarities, the point of both physiological and philosophical divergence between the two paradigms may be with the onset of the mental silence experience.
The sahaja yoga meditator aims to achieve and cultivate the experience of “thoughtless awareness”. As in the notion of “mindful awareness” the meditator aims to sustain that experience even while not formally meditating. Unlike Mindfulness however, the state is not one of introspective, non-judgmental observation of one’s cognitions, but rather a state in which unnecessary mental activity is eliminated. An adequate analogy for the practice of sahaja yoga meditation is that it can be likened to surfing, in that the meditator tries to capture a “wave” of mental silence, usually during the formal meditation at the beginning of the day, and then to ride that wave for as long as possible. The wave may last for a few seconds or for minutes or hours. As the meditator becomes more skilled, their ability to ride the wave increases. Moreover the state can ebb and flow throughout the day and the meditator learns over time to recognize the onset of the state and maximize it. With more experience the meditator also learns by trial and error, which internal and external factors can recreate the state, and over time adjust their lifestyle to optimize this.
In this excerpt from his thesis, Dr Ramesh Manocha discusses the problem of differentiating meditation from relaxation.
“Early uncontrolled or own-control studies of meditation suggested that psycho-physiological parameters such as heart rate could change quite dramatically in a single meditation session and this led to initial enthusiasm for meditation as a potentially unique self control strategy.
“Later however properly controlled studies reported considerably less positive outcomes. For instance, a controlled study comparing TM, general relaxation training and muscle relaxation using electromyographic (EMG) biofeedback, demonstrated that while TM significantly reduced parameters associated with arousal (i.e. a significant within-group difference), it was not any more effective than the comparator interventions. In other words, there were no significant between-group differences. Similarly a study comparing TM to listening to music, found that oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production dropped in the meditating group (consistent with reports in uncontrolled studies) but that the same change occurred in a non-meditating control group (who simply listened to music) and that there were no significant differences between the two practices. In other words, when meditation was compared to rest, and relaxation or other appropriate controls, it demonstrated minimal differences in both the magnitude and direction of any major parameters. Thus emerged the notion that meditation, contemplation, prayer and rest and relaxation, were psycho-physiologically equivalent.”
More information about Dr Manocha’s thesis can be found at his website.