Meditation, mindfulness and mind-emptiness

 This article was published by The Conversation

Mindfulness essentially involves the passive observation of internal and external stimuli without mental reaction. Image from shutterstock.com

Ever been unable to sleep because you can’t switch off that stream of thoughts that seems to flow incessantly, mercilessly through your head?

When your mental noise distracts you from the task at hand, makes you forget why you walked into a room, or keeps you awake at night, you’re a victim of what is known in the East as “the monkey mind”. It is this thought stream that, according to Eastern tradition, is the source of much of our modern day stress and mental dysfunction.

So, what can you do about it?

Meditation

In the West, meditation has become a woolly term under which many different methods have found a home. Mindfulness is the latest, and certainly the most popular, addition.

Scientifically speaking, all approaches to meditation – be they relaxation, mindfulness, visualisation, mantras or otherwise – are associated with measurable but non-specific beneficial effects. So too are all stress management-style interventions even if they are not labelled as “meditation”.

So, does meditation have a specific effect or is it just another way to relax and de-stress? These are the questions that the scientific community continues to struggle with. Importantly, we can only answer this question if we have a clear understanding of what meditation is (or isn’t).

Our research shows that by defining meditation as “mental silence”, which is an evolution of the mindfulness concept, we can effectively answer the key scientific questions about meditation.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness essentially involves the passive observation of internal and external stimuli without mental reaction. It is most explicitly, but not exclusively, laid out in Buddhist meditation texts.

 

The Buddhist connection is one reason Mindfulness is so popular. Image from shutterstock.com

 

Mindfulness has become immensely popular for several reasons: its connection with Buddhism, which is very much in fashion; its secular style; and its suitability as an adjunct to many other mental health counselling strategies such as cognitive behavioural therapy.

There is no doubting that mindfulness has a useful role to play in preserving health and promoting wellness. But despite its hundreds of clinical trials, there is no consistent evidence of an effect specific to mindfulness itself.

In fact, the vast majority of evidence concerning mindfulness relates to clinical trials that do not control for placebo effects. This is something relatively few researchers seem to want to talk about, either because it’s too difficult or too politically incorrect.

Mental silence

Perhaps surprisingly, the oldest known definition of meditation predates both Buddhism and mindfulness by thousands of years. In the ancient Indian Mahabharata, the narrator states that a meditator is “… like a log, he does not think”. In other words, the earliest definitions describe the key defining feature of meditation as an experience of “mental silence”.

Many other explicit examples of this definition can be found in Eastern literature from virtually every historical period. Lao Tzu, for example, urged us to “Empty the mind of all thoughts” in the Tao Te Ching.

Yet Western definitions of meditation have consistently failed to acknowledge its significance. Perhaps this is because of the predominance of the Cartesian dictum “cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am) that has come to characterise not only Western philosophy but the psyche as well.

This might explain why for most people in the West, including the academics and researchers on whom we rely to generate our scientific knowledge, mental silence represents both an alien concept and an illogical experience.

Yet the results of more than a dozen years of scientific research here in Australia tells us that mental silence-orientated approaches to meditation are in fact both achievable and associated with specific benefits above and beyond those seen in non-mental silence approaches.

Take, for instance, my 2011 Meditation for Work Stress Study, involving 178 full-time Australian workers; it’s one of the most thoroughly designed randomised controlled trials of meditation in the scientific literature.

 

Mental silence is responsible for many of the benefits of meditation. Carnie Lewis

 

Participants were randomly allocated to one of three groups: either mental silence meditation, a relaxation-orientated intervention (non-mental silence) or a no-treatment control group. Their stress, depressive feelings and anxiety levels were measured using scientifically validated measures before and after the eight week program.

While people in both intervention groups improved, those in the mental silence group manifested significantly greater improvements than the relaxation group and the no-treatment group.

randomised controlled trial of meditation for asthma sufferers mirrored these findings by comparing mental silence-orientated meditation to a stress management programme promoted by the state department of health. Not only were the psychological improvements significantly greater in the meditation group but there was also a reduction in the irritability of the airways.

Although further work needs to be done to identify the mechanisms, this change is likely the result of the modulation of chronic inflammation pathways, presumably through altered signalling from the brain.

Other larger surveys as well as smaller trials also demonstrate promising outcomes – all pointing toward the idea that mental silence is the key defining feature of meditation, responsible for effects specific to meditation.

Brain studies report some interesting findings. First, the experience is associated with a characteristic pattern of brain electrical activity – increased alpha-theta activity at the front and top of the brain along the midline. This is associated with reduced anxiety and improved attentional focus.

There was also a strong correlation between these objectively measured electrical changes and the subjective experience of the quality of the meditation experience.

Second, meditators exhibit reduced stress responses in the brain compared with non-meditators. This implies that the benefits are occurring at a neurophysiological level rather than being just a suppression of emotion or of its peripheral features.

 

The effects of meditation seem to be beyond the ability to suppress emotional responses.Flickr/premasagar

 

Meditators, therefore, seem to be fundamentally modifying the way they generate negative emotions in response to the environment.

Reduced negative emotional reactions to stimuli should logically lead to reduced stress and an improved sense of well-being. But until studies where the brain changes are simultaneously measured alongside clinical changes, we can’t definitively state that these brain changes are the cause of the specific effects uncovered in our clinical studies.

Mind-emptiness

So how does this all fit together?

The mental silence paradigm is both complementary to and a progression of the mindfulness concept. While mindfulness involves the passive observation of stimuli with the aim of reducing mental reactions, mental silence involves progressing this experience to, and attaining, a state of no-mental-content-at-all, while remaining in full control of one’s faculties.

The original intention of mindfulness is as a method to facilitate the attainment of mental silence rather than being an ends in itself.

This shift in our understanding resolves many of the paradoxes that were hitherto insoluble – while at the same time offering consumers and clinicians a practically useful way to understand and benefit from meditation.

You can try the evidence-based techniques that we have evaluated for yourself by going to www.beyondthemind.com.


Ramesh Manocha is the author of Silence Your Mind, published by Hachette.

The 5th Step: Clearing Techniques

After a long summer break we are back and as the weather is still great to do all sorts of outdoors activities we thought of sharing some helpful treatments for clearing the subtle system which we usually do indoors but are also great to do out in nature.

Here is an overview of the various clearing techniques that allow us to get rid of stuck and negative energy and recharge our subtle systems.

FOOTSOAK
a treatment to dissolve stress, angry feelings, tension, edginess and too much thinking

The most recommended clearing technique is to take a foot-soak (around 10-15 minutes) every day after coming home from work or before going to bed.

Here is a short video clip how to do it at home. If you are near the sea or a lake or a river, you ca have your foot-soak there.

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Other techniques including the water element:

  • Walking or standing barefoot in the morning or evening dew
  • Standing barefoot on Mother Earth, pouring water over your feet

ICE-PACK
an emergency treatment to immediately calm down any stress feelings; great after a special stressful working day

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CANDLE  TREATMENT
great to balance the emotional side and get rid of sadness, lethargy, depressive feelings etc

Take one candle and move it up and down the left side of your body.  Do this for around 10 minutes. The flames help to pull out all negative energies from the emotional side. Please do not hold it too close to your clothes or any other inflammable objects.

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Another simple technique is to sit outside and let the sun light chase away all sad or depressive feelings. Please choose times of the day where the sun is not too hot.

MOTHER EARTH

It is an extremely simple technique:  sit on the ground and put both hands flat on the ground. Let the earth absorb all tensions or negative energies.

All these techniques help a lot to clear our subtle body and allow the vibrations to flow more freely.

As long as the weather allows, try some of these techniques outdoors. Let Mother Earth give you a great treat and charge you with lots of fresh energy.

Yours, Angi

Meditate Away Your Stress (including a 10-minutes-meditation for home)

Back to normal life again after the holidays? Missing the peace and relaxation? Feeling as if you cannot keep up with everything on your head? And then someone comes your way saying: hey, spend some more time (exactly that what we do not have) to meditate?

It is true, it might take 20 minutes more of your day’s schedule but it’s effects are priceless! Here is an interesting description what ‘stress’ really is:

Stress is the individual perception of losing control of his or her own life, a miss-match between expectation and reality. It is not the external events that are stressful but our perception of them. Thus stress may be viewed as an inner phenomena rather than an outer event.

Does it mean if we can change our perception we become more calm? Listen to what Brenin tells us how meditation helped him:

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Now, if stress is something created inside ourselves then how can we un-create it? Here is a short film (about 7 minutes) from India explaining how stress is created through an imbalance in our subtle system and how Sahaja Meditation can help:

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So, as we have learned now how stress is created by an imbalance in our subtle system, more precisely by an imbalance of either the left channel or the right channel we can easily counter it by just balancing these two channels. So here it is, our weekly meditation guide:

A 10-Minutes-Meditation on Balancing The Right and Left Channel

(sit wherever you like, the most important thing is to feel comfortable)

  1. Awaken Your Inner Energy
    The meditation will only work when you have awakened your Inner Energy! Here is a guided meditation (approx. 20 Min.) to awaken your Inner Energy by the founder of Sahaja Meditation, Shri Mataji. If you went through it already skip step 1). This is done only once. When your Inner Energy is activated it will stay so, there is no need to repeat the affirmations (although you can do so if you like).
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  2. At the beginning and the end of each meditation we do what we call “raising the energy” and give ourselves “a shield of protection”.
    Here is a nice animation how to do it: charlie.swf
    You can also find a detailed description in our Meditation Tips on page 4 and 5:  Meditation Tips
  3. Put your right hand on your head for some seconds, put the hand down again but keep focused on top of your head where your hand was.
  4. Balancing your left side: Put your right hand down towards the earth, keep the left hand open on your lap. You can ask your Inner Energy:
    “Please remove all imbalances of my left side”
    Sit like that for several  minutes and allow your Inner Energy to clear your left side

    Balancing your Right Side: With your right hand open in your lap, bend your left arm upward, with your left palm facing the back. You can ask your Inner Energy:
    “Please remove all imbalances of my right side”
    Sit like that for several  minutes and allow your Inner Energy to clear your right side
  5. Then keep both hands on your lap, palms upwards,  keep the focus on top of your head.

    If you feel like it have some pleasant music.
    In this time we allow our inner energy as well as the all-pervading power around to work on us – we do not need to do anything, just surrender to it.
  6. After the 10 minutes hold your hand over your head and see if you feel vibrations coming out – it might feel like a cool breeze, sometimes also like a warm breeze, like a tingling, or simply “somehow different”.
  7. End the meditation again with ”raising the energy” and giving yourself  ”a bhandan” (shield of protection).

view detailsHere one small tip how to find out which side is in imbalance (you can only feel this when your Inner Energy is awakened as only with this awakening you become aware of – what we call – vibrations):
Hold out both your hands, palm upwards. Now feel if your hands are cool or warm. You might discover that there is a difference between both hands. If one hand is warm or hot it indicates that this is the side of the imbalance.
If your left hand is warm your left side is out of balance. That means that you may feel very emotional or depressed. If your right hand is warm of hot it tells that the right side is out of balance. That means that you might be overworked and stressed-out. If one or both hands are cool it means that the respective sides are in balance.

I wish you a peaceful and relaxed week and that in any stressful situation you can face it like a rock in a storm, calm and strong.

Yours, Angi

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