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 4th Step: How To Feel Vibrations

vibrations in hand)In the steps 1-3 we talked about the Inner Energy and how we can actually feel it, when it is awakened. Although many people do get the experience of feeling the cool breeze and – what we call – the vibrations, there are also many who do not feel it right away. I was one of them, when I started to meditate. I did not feel anything at all, but I felt very relaxed and peaceful inside. This, and that I was never asked for money, made me go on with this meditation. It might sound strange to give importance to the fact that I did not have to pay for this meditation, but I always thought of meditation as something spiritual, where we connect with something higher, be it our own higher self or a higher power, and it always felt dishonest to me when people made a money business out of it.
Shri Mataji, the founder of Sahaja Yoga Meditation, always emphasised that this knowledge cannot be sold.

 A Personal Recollection

My first experience of actually feeling the vibrations was maybe after two years. There were workshops from time to time where someone would sit behind a person and help clearing the energy centers (that will be a subject for a later post where you can learn how to help another person to balance their energy centers). In one of those sessions a lady “worked on me” and suddenly I felt a cool breeze spreading all over my back which was a quite interesting feeling as it was winter time and I was packed in a warm sweater, but the coolness came from under the sweater.

Therefore, please: Don’t give up!

never_give_up1

Helpful Tricks

Luckily, there are some “tricks” to help.

We will make a big jump forward to one of the energy-centers that is placed at the level of the throat, called the Vishuddhi. This center allows us to feel the vibrations, so if we don’t, it indicates that this center is constricted.

VishuddhiWe will have a deeper look into it later on, but for now it is enough to know that one of the main aspects of the throat-center is self-esteem.

If we do not respect ourselves, or are buried in guilt-feelings, this center is very likely blocked.

Let’s do a small test:

Take a paper and a pen.
Within 1 minute write down all your negative sides, your weaknesses, and negative habits.
Turn the paper around.
Now for another minute write down all your positive sides, your strengths and positive habits.

Who was the winner? The negative side, or the positive one? Most of the time it is the easiest thing for us, to find faults after faults with ourselves and feel terribly guilty about them, but when it comes to our qualities, we start thinking…

The 4th Step

We will work on several levels to open up the throat center.

There are some simple physical exercises and treatments we can use.

Regular meditation helps a lot. When our Inner Energy is awakened, she starts going into all those energy-centers that are constricted and starts removing all negative energies there. With time we start feeling an inner freshness and lightness,  when more and more of these inner blocks are dissolved.

It is also important to become more mindful about how we deal with ourselves. Are we kind, loving and patient with ourselves and forgiving when we made a mistake? Or are we harsh and aggressive to our inner being, throwing one unkind guilt-feeling after the other on us, never being good enough for anything? Here is your new slogan:

How you want others to treat you, so treat yourself.

love yourself

The Goal

We want our throat-center to open up more and more which will result in

  • feeling vibrations (at the beginning it can be very faint, sometimes cool, sometimes warm)
  • to be mindful towards oneself
  • to let drop-out all guilt feelings

It is very important to see how we deal with mistakes we might have committed.
When guilt feelings are pressing down on us, we tend to justify our actions, thus not really facing what we have done wrong, and most of the time continuing with it, feeling more guilty, needing more justifications, and soon we are trapped in a vicious circle.

Sometimes we also have the misconception that we think if we have done something wrong, the only way to repent for it is feeling guilty – that is very wrong and one of the main reasons, why our throat center is blocked.

If we have done anything wrong, the best way is to face it, take up responsibility and never do the same mistake again. If we have accepted a mistake, and are committed to never repeat it again, there is no need to feel guilty anymore – we have learned a lesson that made us richer in our experience and it is time to go on. .

Sometimes it can happen, that we feel guilty without having done anything wrong at all. If this is the case, ask yourself again and again, why you feel guilty, and confirm to yourself with full confidence: I am not guilty at all!

The Exercise 

For those who have not done yet the meditation to awaken the Inner Energy, please do that first, as all the other exercises will only work efficiently if the Inner Energy is awakened. You can find it in step 1.

Do the following twice a day if possible, in the morning and in the evening – it takes about 20 minutes.

Repeat these exercises as long as it takes to feel the vibrations in the hands and over the head.

  1. Take the small test from above, counter all negative aspects with positive ones and write them down – read the positive qualities of yourself every day as a loving reminder
  2. Gargle with lukewarm salt water
  3. massage your neck and shoulders with a little bit of olive oil
  4. Press your chin to the chest-bone, roll the tongue back, breathe relaxed and slowly in and out for 1 minute.
  5. In the following short video Shri Mataji showed some simple exercises to help the throat-center open up more

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  6. Vishuddhi affirmationPut the right hand on the left side of your neck, turn the head to the right and say 16 times aloud and with full confidence: I am not guilty !
    .
  7. Meditate

I wish you a wonderful week with beautiful meditations and maybe the first hints of the cool breeze in your hands!

Your´s, Angi

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