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.

Science meets Meditation

In this video Professor Katya Rubia, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience from the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London presents an overview of Scientific Research into the health benefits of Sahaja Yoga Meditation, which is always offered free of charge.


https://vimeo.com/89101187

Topics in this overview are:

the 4 states of consciousness, de-clutter your brain, obsessive thinking, schizophrenia, ADHD, better attention, better productivity, feeling of joy and bliss, anxiety, depression, enlightenment, Buddha, Holy Ghost, detachment, better physical and mental health, love, compassion, decrease in blood-pressure, decrease in heart-rate, effects of mental silence versus mind-fullness, stress, strong emotional feelings, positive emotions, deep concentration, paranoid thinking, “getting high” without drugs through meditation, addictions, detachment, work-stress, emotional stress, resilience to negative impacts, epilepsy, menopause, asthma, hormone replacement therapy,  positive effects of Sahaja Yoga Meditation versus other forms of meditations and/or therapies

‘reaching the top’—reloaded

This is the inspiring story of Ed – about never giving up hope and how Sahaja Meditation changed his life

‘reaching the top’—reloaded.

It was Christmas, back in 1981, just one hundred and sixteen days before everything changed. I returned from a small family gathering at my mom’s place to my shack by the tracks, a tiny rented house I called home. It was nestled just out beyond suburbia between the Burlington Northern Railway line that sent noisy freight trains rumbling by several times a day up from the United States, and a cow farm that supplied all the flies to my kitchen during the warm months. There was a steep, grassy hill that rose above the front yard. It carried the traffic up onto the bridge that led over to the wealthy, forested neighborhood of Sunshine Hills, and saw a steady stream of traffic every weekday morning and evening as commuters came and went from their jobs in the city. (My house was eventually torn down to make way for the new overpass when the big highway was laid through Burns Bog just down the road — the largest domed peat bog in the world.)

A couple of weeks before, I’d returned from a short stint in the Rocky Mountains where my old hippy buddy Steve, who had worked his way up into a senior railway position, offered me a job on his team out repairing the tracks near Mount Robson. (He’d been down on the coast to pick up a supply of narcotics. Unluckily, a team of aggressive undercover police officers had barged into my house to search for drugs while he was visiting me, but we had hidden everything so well, they ended up leaving disappointed.) I only lasted a few days this time out in the mountains, catching a bus back home because my toes kept freezing out on the job. I’ll never forget the long walk along the snowy tracks from our siding back to the nearest town, through pristine wilderness. It was safe this time of year, when all the grizzly bears were fast asleep. No other soul around for as far as the eye could see, out over endless white peaks and valleys. Awesome.

The kitchen was now cold and dark when I arrived back with some new socks and a new coffee mug from under my mom’s Christmas tree. I didn’t at first bother looking into my normally empty fridge, my stomach being still full of turkey and mashed potatoes. I had quit my job as a construction laborer in the city the previous month (where we had found the body of a murdered woman in the lane behind the site, first day on the job) and I got into the habit of throwing parties on weekends to buy food for the week with cash from all the refundable bottles that friends left scattered in and around my house. But before I went to bed, I remembered that there was still a bit of orange juice left. I opened the fridge to a scene that could have appeared there from of a fairy tale: It was packed full of every imaginable kind of food and drink! Although I spent the following weeks trying to find out which friends had snuck in with such a generous Christmas surprise, and got several smiles in reply, no one ever told me who exactly was involved. I was so happy to have friends.

A few days later my good fortune subsided again. I was just on my way home late at night in my super cool ’67 Camaro (that another friend had given to me as a present!) when I stopped to wait for someone to make a left turn into a driveway. I happened to glance into the rearview mirror in time to see a car hurtling towards me. I had less than a second to crank my steering wheel to the right and slam on the gas pedal. The rogue driver rear-ended me at full speed. The corner of my front bumper just grazed the back of the car in front of me, and I came to a standstill over on the opposite sidewalk, flames bursting out the back of my once beautiful sports car. To make matters worse, the older brothers of the underage driver who had just destroyed my vehicle showed up threatening me with violence. I eventually got my wreck home, depressed and numbed.

The following week I embarked on an even more tragic adventure, going out to visit a girl who I had a terrible crush on. She liked me too, but I was so shy that I never went to see her. On this Saturday morning I summoned the courage and made my way to her parent’s ranch, where she was expecting me. The event turned out to be a suicidal disaster, as she had also invited her ex-boyfriend and a couple of his buddies. I spent two or three excruciating hours there, trying to be cheerful and nonchalant, before heading back to my shack, feeling like a pimple on the bottom of a black hole.

http://s0.wp.com/wp-content/plugins/audio-player/player.swf?m=1317676838g

I had spent almost half of my life — my entire youth — lost in drug and alcohol intoxication and a fog of self-doubt. I had achieved nothing and I saw little or no hope in my dismal future. If there is a God, it is time for You to show up, right now, was the idea that flashed through my darkened mind as I stumbled into the little kitchen, collapsed onto a chair, hung my head down until my long hair touched my shoes, and burst into tears. I picked up my bongo drums and began pummeling them and shouting the lyrics to My Sweet Lord.

There was certainly an ocean of potential somewhere in me, waiting to lift me skyward out of my vortex, enabling me to play my part in humanity’s glorious story. I was making a final attempt to reach out to anyone who could help rescue me from this maze of misery.

My heartfelt exhibition was brought to a sudden halt when a branch started whipping against the kitchen window. There had been no wind outside when I walked in the door a few minutes before. I stepped over to the portal and looked out into the night. A storm seemed to be raging out there, like the one in my heart, but it dramatically stopped a few seconds later. The feeling that Someonemuch larger than myself had just been listening to and communicating with me overwhelmed me, and I started to laugh. The new drops that now ran down from my eyes contained sparkles of hope. I went to bed and woke up the next morning with a smile.

Three months later, on a sunny spring morning, Ron (the school friend who had given me his 1967 Chevrolet Camaro) showed up on my doorstep. I thought he was making a rare visit to buy some drugs, but his actual reason was the last thing in the world I would have expected.

Ron very enthusiastically described to me a wonderful experience he had enjoyed a couple of days before, saying that he was sure I would be interested in it. It had to do with a simple, inner happening referred to as self-realization. He had, by chance, met someone who quickly and easily introduced him to an unprecedented way of seeing and feeling oneself. It had nothing to do with extreme emotions or intellectual concepts. He had gone home afterwards clearly feeling, throughout the length and breadth of his body, a perception of reality that had not been available to him just hours before. As he lay awake most of the night, he was amazed to feel subtle perceptions in his nervous system. His heart was happily wide open and sensations in various organs indicated what he knew to be obstructions, the sources of problems in his life. He could feel these complications melting away. From the palms of his hands and the top of his head a gentle cool breeze was flowing out, bringing a sense of intense wellbeing and clarity.

I listened politely to his joyful monologue, but declined his offer to go with him to find out more about this experience for myself, insisting that Sunday was a good day to get drunk and go party at the beach. He left with my vague promise to accompany him on Tuesday evening.

Ron showed up unexpectedly two days later at about six in the evening. He convinced me to get into his car for the half hour drive into the city. It was the twentieth of April, 1982, a day that, like my birthday, will remain precious to me as long as I live. After eight years of trying to meditate, I was about to spontaneously learn how to finally achieve that, my highest goal.

Now, bear in mind that meditation back in 1982 was still an esoteric subject. The word was rarely spoken in reference to a unique and essential state of awareness, and only occasionally seen, mostly on health food store pin-boards beside strange, mystical symbols. So when we arrived at an old house in South Vancouver and were led through its basement to a small room that smelled of incense, where several people sat cross-legged with closed eyes on the floor, it all seemed quite appropriate. (Just for the record, this same valuable meditation technique is presently taught — always for free — in corporate offices, high school classrooms and furniture fairs all over the world, and limitlessly through the Internet; and is practiced in the homes of hundreds of thousands of families from every religious background.) The person, a writer and teacher, who showed me how to raise my dormant spiritual energy from the base of my spine to the top of my head, had recently returned from India. He was one of three friends who, five months previously, had been the very first Canadians to learn this precious knowledge and its practical application when a visiting Australian yogini happened to rent a room in their Vancouver apartment.

I felt lighter and happier afterwards, but the initial experience may have been somewhat dulled by the weekend long intoxication binge I had just come down off of. So, when I got home, I turned to my most trustworthy friend, the I Ching, that famous, ancient Chinese oracle whose great value as an accurate elucidator of life’s daily mysteries I had discovered just a few weeks before. When I asked about Sahaja Yoga meditation and its founder, Shri Mataji, I was surprised to read the highest praise I have ever received as an answer from the I Ching texts.

Starting the next morning, I spent twenty minutes, twice a day, sitting on a chair with palms turned upwards and eyes closed, gradually feeling more and more of what my buddy had described to me. To try to ensure that I was really getting the best possible vibrations in my attempts, I placed a photo of Shri Mataji on my desk. Within two weeks I stopped doing drugs and soon moved to a remarkably beautiful island just off the coast, symbolizing my escape from the suffocating cocoon that had enveloped me for so long. I felt like I had suddenly awoken from a nightmare that had slowly turned into my reality. Since the end of my childhood, over a decade before, I had been holding my breath, and now I knew what it was like to breath again.

I spent the first half of that summer waking at sunrise to the sounds of birds and ocean waves, walking in the forests that housed playful deer and squirrels, and basically settling into the new awareness of my true self. But I soon returned to the mainland, got a good job, traveled, met the woman of my dreams and married her. Then I moved to Europe, where, apart from enjoying a life rich in experience in the field of professional arts, I’ve been teaching others how to meditate.

I’m an old man now (heh heh — sounds more profound when I put it like that) and I’ve seen and felt this phenomena changing the world in and around me, and the lives of countless others. It’s not just a sampling of one-of-many-interesting-things-available-out-there. Meditation is an actual, necessary state that has to be lived by all. Thoughtless Awareness or alert, Mental Silence has now been proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to improve every aspect of our health and state of mind, bringing us into essential equilibrium.

If there’s one thing that can bring world peace and a permanent end to corruption, it is that. Our devastating individual and collective problems have begun in human beings, and there they will end when we become connected to the Source of happiness within us.

.

%d bloggers like this: