The fact that the mental silence construct, more than any other factor my research, correlated positively with a wide range of health measures raises interesting implications in several areas of study. The findings emanating from my research imply that the notion of mental silence and its associated yogic philosophy, may be important in the ongoing development of our understanding of meditation and the various definitions and taxonomies that relate to it. It also provides some new clues for scholars interested in the “essential factors” of religiosity and the question as to why some forms of religiosity are beneficial and others not. Furthermore, it provides empirical data that may help to progress the ongoing debate about the theoretical differences between “religiousness” and “spirituality”. Perhaps most important of all they provide empirical evidence of a positive relationship between a well-defined state of consciousness and health and wellbeing. That, it is asserted, constitutes a significant contribution to the nascent field of consciousness research as well as our understandings of health. It implies a nexus between religiosity, consciousness and health that is accessible to measurement. The practical ramifications are that meditation may have a valuable role to play in the promotion of mental health and the prevention of mental illness primarily as a result of the beneficial impact of the mental silence experience.
Dr Ramesh Manocha
The diversity, and apparent impotence, of many meditative practices makes the construction of sham meditation quite feasible since researchers can develop rationales to justify almost any method that approximates the expectations of trial participants.
For instance, Smith’s (1995) RCT compared TM to an imitation exercise designed to closely mimic the entire technique, except for the proprietary mantra. Forty four participants practiced one of the 2 techniques for 24 weeks, with the same instructions for frequency and duration only to find that no difference between the 2 methods was detectable. This study used well validated self-reporting measures shown in other studies to be quite sensitive to the effects of meditative practices.
Similarly Dua (1992) compared a form of meditation that he developed to a “negative thought reduction” method as well as to a “negative thought enhancement placebo” for the management of anger in a small RCT and found no differences between the practices in any of the outcome measures at the end of the treatment period.
On the other hand, Wolf (2003) compared a meditation based on a traditional Sanskrit mantra (the maha mantra) with a pseudo mantra and observed substantial differences in post treatment outcomes.
In smaller trials, Rai (1988, 1993) observed a number of significant differences when he compared Sahaja Yoga meditation to “mimicking exercises” in the treatment of asthma, hypertension and stress.
Dr Ramesh Manocha
This graph shows a comparison of the health of a group of experienced mental silence (Sahaja Yoga) meditators and three other groups including a group of Presbyterian clergy from America, a group of non-mental silence meditators, and the general Australian population. Health was measured using the Short Form 36 survey. The mental silence meditators’ health profile is generally better then the other groups. These results demonstrate an association between the mental silence experience and positive health.
From Manocha R and German E. Meditation, Health and Quality of Life: A Census of a Meditating Population.
Dr Ramesh Manocha
Examining randomised controlled trials exploring meditation in my review, control methods were presumptively categorized according to their face-validity into low, moderate or high face validity categories.
The low face-validity controls used strategies that were:
• Passive and unstructured: Participants were involved in minimal or no activity relating to the trial and had no interaction with researchers as a result of being allocated to the control group (e.g. waiting list, no treatment, self-directed reading, or referral to community resources). This kind of comparator controls for minor non-specific effects, such as regression to the mean, the natural history of disease states and environmental factors common to all participants. It does not however, control for any non-specific effects that may be elicited by behaviour therapies.
The moderate face-validity controls use strategies:
• Passive and structured. These involved some sort of regular and structured interaction with personnel associated with the experiment (e.g. regular lectures, specific reading, structured educational sessions on unrelated topics, regular blood pressure checks). This controls for the same confounders as Category 1 in addition to the effects of therapeutic contact and sense of active involvement.
• That were active in nature and generated some expectation of benefit but did not have effects or credibility as either a method of relaxation or meditation e.g. support groups, education about health factors measured in the study, or lectures on stress and lifestyle management. This controls for the same as Categories 2 and 3 in addition to the effects of social support, improved lifestyle, etc. Social support has been repeatedly demonstrated to be effective in improving mood and quality of life and reducing the severity of disease symptoms. “Standard treatment” was included in this category.
High face-validity controls use strategies that were:
• That were active in nature but not designed to generate significant expectation of therapeutic benefit (e.g. exercise). This controls for the same as Category 2 in addition to the effects of regular physical activity. Regular physical exercise has been shown to improve mood.
• Active in nature, generated some expectation of benefit and elicited the simple physiological effects on rest but did not have specific credibility as a meditative method (e.g. progressive muscle relaxation, other relaxation methods, hypnosis, biofeedback, psychotherapy).
• The same as above but also had credibility as a meditative method (e.g. meditation techniques, strategies designed to convincingly mimic meditation) or constituted a legitimate form of psychotherapy (e.g. desensitisation, cognitive behaviour therapy, counselling).
Dr Ramesh Manocha
The observations of previous randomised controlled trials assessing meditation could lead to three possible conclusions:
1. Meditation is in fact no more effective than other approaches to rest and relaxation. Yet meditative traditions have existed for thousands of years and at least in India, are widely perceived to have specific and unique features. In other words history and culture do not agree with the idea that meditation is simply a method of mundane relaxation. While this “test of history” does not provide proof of efficacy, it does encourage the undertaking of a thorough examination of the phenomenon before it is discarded as mere folklore and superstition.
2. The measures which have so far been used to assess the effects of meditation are not sensitive to the specific effects of meditation. The wide variety of outcome measures used means that if the specific effects of meditation are not detectable, then the effects are either too small or too esoteric for mundane study. Yet classical descriptions of meditation suggest that despite the metaphysical basis of meditation, its effects do manifest themselves in mundane dimensions such as health and behaviour, implying that at least some of the many measures available to researchers should be able to detect a differential effect. Again, while this might be satisfactorily applied to the genre as a whole, there appear to be isolated exceptions which suggests that certain as yet undetermined categories may be able to generate specific effects. Yet our analysis of the aggregated data has not yet yielded a pattern with sufficient clarity to identify the features of that category.
3. The methods that have been labelled as “meditation” in the trials do not consistently reflect the true nature of meditation. This is the most interesting and important issue and therefore merits considerable discussion. The functional and conceptual definition determines the nature of the intervention, which in turn influences the choice of the control method that ought to be used and therefore the validity and generality of the findings. Yet defining meditation has proven to be a difficult challenge for modern researchers. While early empirical reports seemed to show that measurable distinctions between meditation and rest or simple relaxation existed, rigorous trials did not support these perceptions. As a result, much of the research work on meditation has been based on the assumption that meditation techniques are much the same despite minor external and superficial differences. Indeed Western researchers have proposed that most meditative processes are physiologically similar to simple rest and relaxation and the high quality physiological trial data seems to support this. These perceptions have thus given rise to an assumption of “psycho-physiological uniformity”.
This last idea is the key to the problem because in fact both Western meditation enthusiasts and Western scientists, despite their opposing views, have failed to apprehend a key factor that underlies the ancient tradition of meditation: The idea that meditation necessarily involves the experience of mental silence.
Dr Ramesh Manocha
The graph represents the results of a survey conducted on long term Sahaja Yoga meditators. They were asked the question “how often do you achieve thoughtless awareness/ mental silence for a few minutes or more?” Almost half of those surveyed responded that they achieved mental silence “several times per day or more”.
Dr Ramesh Manocha
The conceptualisation of meditation as involving mental silence is virtually absent in Western scientific discussion. Why has this important notion been ignored? How did contemporary, popular notions of meditation become almost diametrically opposed to the ancient Indian ideas which form their source? Some explanations are examined below.
When René Descartes made the philosophical statement “cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am) in his Principles of Philosophy he laid down a foundation element of Western philosophy. The “cogito ergo sum argument” essentially states that “I am thinking therefore I exist”. 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 influence of Descartes’ “cogito” on Western thought is widely acknowledged and cannot be overstated. It offers some explanation as to why the idea of mental silence has failed to find currency in the Western scientific literature on meditation. For example, Wright (2001), in an attempt to dispel myths and misconceptions about meditation (as he, a Western scientist, sees it) completely contradicts the Indian tradition when he states:
When we close our eyes to meditate our mind does not go completely blank, void of thoughts at one with the universe, because just as hearts are meant to beat and lungs to breath, brains are meant to think and will never be completely devoid of thought, perhaps until they are dead.
Wright’s comments in many ways are a reflection of Descartes’ cogito argument. It suggests that Western scholars having been brought up in the milieu of a Western philosophy built on the notion of “I think therefore I am”, might have difficulty acknowledging the possibility that a state of consciousness which is devoid of thought might be possible.
Dr Ramesh Manocha
Sahaja is one of a number of terms that have been used to describe the trans-mind condition. Sahaja is derived from the Sanskrit saha, meaning “together” and ja, meaning “born” and can be translated to mean “innate”. It is a term that has long been associated with Indian mystical thought and practice, although its popularity has fluctuated as different Indian spiritual movements encouraged, revised or ignored it. Davidson provides seven contexts in which sahaja has been used over the recorded history of Indian, especially Buddhist, spiritual thought. The most pertinent to this discussion include the assertion that sahaja is:
“[A] fundamental, irreducible condition, decidedly a noun. It is roughly equivalent to svabh¯ava or svar ¯upa, and is used to described the inherent and inalienable attributes that exist irrespective of accidental circumstances.”
“The present moment when one thing occurs with another, a temporal value differentiated from the prior and subsequent moments, when the two items were not associated.” (Davidson, 2002)
Synonymous terms and ideas include jivan mukta, “Buddha state” and “liberation”. Modern Western equivalent descriptions might include, but are not restricted to, “unitive state”, “self-realisation”, “self-actualisation”, “peak experience”, “sainthood” and “state of grace”.
Sahaja signifies one’s natural or spontaneous self, divested of all external influences and the mental conditioning produced by them. This natural state is demonstrated by young children, for example, who are free of the complex adult mind and its attendant pretences, “hang-ups” and neuroses. The sahaja state flows naturally to the one who has attained the depths of meditation and is therefore a logical consequence of the mental silence or “trans-mind” principle — a kind of renascent freedom. It can be described as the optimal state in which the body, the psyche and the soul find a synergistic integration to realise the potentiality that exists within each human being.
Dr Ramesh Manocha
In my systematic review of 120 randomised controlled trials, twenty eight trials used a “multimodal” approach in which meditation was used as part of a “blunderbuss” of interventions woven into a single coordinated program. Most of these programs involved other practices aimed at reducing stress such as yoga postures, exercise, breathing techniques, or group support. Such approaches may be more clinically effective but the adjunctive use of non-meditative techniques obscures any effect that may be specifically attributed to the meditation component. They are therefore not useful in trying to understand the nature of meditation per se. Similarly, examining the 16 trials that were more or less based on Kabat Zinn’s Mind Body Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) clearly indicates that this interventions is only one component of a larger collection of practices including hatha yoga, simple cognitive therapy and breathing exercises. Therefore, although the MBSR is frequently equated with Mindfulness, for scientific purposes it would be more appropriately relegated to the multi-modal category.
Dr Ramesh Manocha
Follow-up data, data obtained some time after the trial, is important as it gives an indication of how durable the effects of meditation might be. Unlike modern Western therapeutic thinking however, meditation was not originally designed to be used as a course of treatment so much as to be part of an ongoing lifestyle thus implying that the benefits of meditation are likely to persist in the follow-up phase only so long as the person chooses to meditate regularly. Meditation instructional programs are usually relatively intense and it is therefore worthwhile determining whether changes brought on by the instructional program can be maintained when participants are left to continue unsupervised with whatever skills they have acquired in the more formal phase of their training. Given that consistent evidence for a specific effect is lacking even within the intervention phase of the 120 randomised controlled trials my review, it is even more unlikely that evidence for an effect will be detectable in the follow-up phases. Of the entire sample of 120 studies in my review, 76 studies did not include any follow-up assessment strategies.
It might also be argued that, since researchers tend to be hampered by lack of resources, the primary question as to whether meditation has any specific effects ought to take priority over questions about the durability of its effects, if there are any. It is therefore understandable that many trials have not included follow-up assessments in their design. For this reason, it was decided that more in depth analysis of follow up data would be of little value to the primary questions set out in my review.
Dr Ramesh Manocha