With regard to the physiology of meditation, research designs can be divided into 3 categories:

1) Case studies of meditation featuring small numbers of participants in which there is no attempt to control for confounding variables. While these are useful for generating hypotheses, they do not provide scientifically valid insights into meditation’s purportedly unique effects.

2) Own-control studies use participants in time sequential series (ie ab, aba or similar designs) in which the “a” condition is pre-meditation or non-meditation and the “b” condition is meditation. The “a” and “b” conditions are then compared. These studies have generally demonstrated significant differences (interpreted to be in favour of meditation) but they suffer from substantial limitations because they compare meditation to non-meditation and then assume that any differences are due to meditation, whereas they may in fact be due to methodological factors not specific to meditation at all (such as rest, expectancy, researcher demand and environmental issues). Further, this design is vulnerable to the possibility that one condition might be contaminated by carry-over effects from the preceding condition. A further important consideration applies especially to the case of novices — if the meditator is not sufficiently skilled then they may have difficulty in generating physiological changes and the effects (although potentially real) may not become detectable.

3) Experimental control studies are much more reliable as they involve two independent groups in which one meditates and the other engages in a control activity such as rest. There are however, methodological difficulties associated with this approach as well. First, use of novices (who are introduced to meditation during the trial) may mean that the effects of meditation are not large enough to generate a detectable change. Second, while use of advanced meditators (those who have practiced meditation over many years) may ensure that the necessary magnitude of effect is achieved, the question of selection bias becomes a significant consideration.

An ideal strategy would involve an experiment in which participants are randomly assigned from the same sample to either a meditation or a control group. This approach is rarely feasible however, since it would conventionally require many months or even years of practice before the participants achieved competence. With such lengthy time-lines the accumulation of drop-outs may in any case lead to selection bias. Therefore, a reasonable compromise strategy might involve using experienced meditators and comparing them to non-meditators who have either been matched for parameters including interest in meditation, or have been randomly selected from the population. This latter design was selected for the study described in this chapter.

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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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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Within the yoga tradition, meditation is defined as an experiential state of awareness specifically involving control over all aspects of mental activity. Feuerstein (2006) explains that “the initial purpose of meditation is to intercept the flux of ordinary mental activity.” He translates Patanjali’s explanation from the Yoga Sutras (aphorism 1.2) as follows: “Yoga is the control of the fluctuations of the mind” (p98).

In this paradigm the highly developed meditator is not only less stressed and more relaxed but also experiences beneficial effects on health and psyche, having activated a previously latent potential for positive psychology and optimized wellbeing.

The mental complexities with which one gradually becomes encumbered as one progresses through life can be loosely termed as “mind” and they increase in strength as one becomes more involved in the mundane. Yogic systems in fact identify the mind as not only the source of “illusion” that prevents perception of reality, but also as the ultimate source of disease. According to the yogic tradition the true aim of life is to resolve these complexities and therefore progress toward a more profound understanding of one’s self. Feuerstein translates the passage of the Yoga Bhishya (1.1) in which the five fundamental behaviour patterns of the mind are described as follows:

  1. mudha – dullness;
  2. kshipta – restlessness;
  3. vikshipta – being intermittently distracted;
  4. ekagra – being focused
  5. niruddha – a state of control.

The order in which these states are cited is important; indicating a hierarchy in which the controlled mind is the most preferable. The Guru is traditionally seen as someone who, having mastered his own mind and soul, sets out to help others do the same.

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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The yogic idea of mental silence implies first, that taming of the mind is the key to successful personal development and second, that the untamed mind is a fundamental factor in the development of disease. These ancient ideas are reflected in modern scientific evidence which demonstrates the deleterious impact of stress and negative affect (emotion/mood) and the constructive impact of positive moods on health. In fact this evidence forms the basis of modern theories such as the bio-psychosocial model of health, positive psychology (and specifically the ideas of mental hygiene, flow state, peak experience and plateau experience) and the religion–health connection (to be discussed later). It represents a development of the idea of psychosomatic disease postulated in the 1970s, psychoneuro-immunology and mind-body medicine.

For more discussion on the aims of yoga check Dr Ramesh Manocha’s site.

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