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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health of meditators vs general population and clergy

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

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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

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Skin Temp over time - Sahaja yoga meditation verses generic meditation

The graph displays a key difference between mental silence based meditation and other types of meditation.

Previous definitions of meditation have not differentiated between meditation and relaxation. A key feature of relaxation is that skin temperature increases with the reduced physiological arousal.

This graph shows data from a heuristic physiological study where mental silence meditators manifested reductions in skin temperature during meditation thereby contradicting the “reduced physiological arousal” conceptualisation of meditation.

Dr Ramesh Manocha

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relationship between mental silence and health

This graph shows the mental health of people sorted by how frequently they meditate with the mental silence based Sahaja Yoga. The graph depicts a correlation between the frequency of meditation for people who meditate and their mental health score. Mental health was measured by the mental health subscale of the Short Form 36 questionnaire.

The correlation was analysed and found to have a correlation coefficient of +0.36 with p<0.001.

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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As stated previously, the association between religiosity and mental health is not always positive. Larson’s (1992) review of studies exploring the relationship between religious commitment and mental health reported that while 72% described a positive relationship, 16% reported a negative relationship. This proportion is somewhat higher than would be expected by chance alone. Some scholars propose that this wide variation in benefit/detriment may be explained by underlying “essential factors” which although common to all forms of religiosity, vary in their presence, magnitude and the interactions between various other factors.

The persistent association between mental silence experience and health outcomes inevitably leads to the idea that the valence of internal experience might provide some explanation for the association between religiosity and health, across different forms of religiosity.

You can read more about the link between religiosity and health at Dr Ramesh Manocha’s blog.

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