By Alistair Shearer
The three different types of widely practised meditation, each known for its own characteristic physical and mental parameters
Despite its ubiquity, the word meditation is notoriously imprecise. Meaning different things to different people, the term is used to cover almost anything in addition to a formal sitting practice: walking the dog, pottering in the garden or enjoying a quiet days fishing can all qualify. Benign and restorative such activities may well be, but that is just the point, they are still activities, whereas real meditation, deep mind-yoga is the gradual lessening of all activity and a commensurate entry into silence.
From around the end of the first millennium, Hindu Tantric and Mahayana Buddhist schools (especially the Tibetan Vajrayana), advocate the use of mantras and visualisation. A more emotive approach emerges in medieval times, with the culture of surrender to divine love through the means of theistic worship (puja), devotional chanting and singing (bhajan, kirtan) or dedicated service (seva) to a deity, such as Krishna, Rama or the Divine Mother in one of her many forms. Within all these systems there are further distinguishing factors, such as the different uses of sound, whether the eyes are open or closed (and the way this changes the meditative experience), and the distinction between a method employing awareness of the breath, or other physiological functions, as opposed to a purely mental focus that is detached from bodily grounding.
Nevertheless, whatever the practice, meditators themselves have always known that it has definite subjective effects, which is presumably why they bother to continue. Scientists, on the other hand, the high priests of our secular age, are slower in the uptake, generally beginning to take interest in a phenomenon only when it becomes noticeable as an economic and cultural factor in society. This tipping point has now been reached with yoga and meditation, whose success over many decades indicates that they are no mere passing fad, but reflect deeper needs, ways of thinking and changes in society at large. Realising that an examination of yoga can tell them something about how people live under the taxing conditions of modernity, researchers have been exploring the territory over the past forty years or more, and continue to do so with enthusiasm.
Featuring prominently among the data accumulated so far are the physical changes accompanying meditation, or what we can call the bodily imprint of mind-yoga. The general state of the meditating body can be measured by its breathing rate and volume, and its level of rest as shown by these, the metabolic rate and galvanic skin response, as well as various chemical and hormonal changes in the system. More excitingly, concomitant changes in brain-activity are monitored by examining the electroencephalogram (EEG) readings of the brainwaves, which show the electrical activity of millions of neurons as they rise and fall at different frequencies, depending on our state of consciousness and what we are doing. Two American researchers, Fred J Travis and Jonathan Shear, have recently proposed a useful model which identifies three basic types of meditation, each with its own characteristic physical and mental parameters.
This first type of meditation involves focusing the attention on some object or perception, by concentrating on a single point and disallowing the mind from wandering off it. The object of such a focus could be virtually anything: a candle flame, a geometric yantra diagram, or a regular bodily rhythm is all methods typically employed in such a system. The aim is to train the attention to hold steady in one place and thereby to frustrate its natural habit of jumping from one thing to another. The shorthand term monkey-mind is used in many teachings, likening our chronic mental restlessness to the movements of a monkey that leaps from branch to branch, chattering incessantly. Such instability, so the argument goes, can only be overcome by forcibly centering the attention so that it remains undistracted on the present point of focus. EEG imaging techniques have identified the various areas of the brain associated with mental meandering, as well as those associated with registering distraction, re-orienting awareness and holding a sustained focus.
These show that in this Focused Attention meditation, the EEG movement is rapid, rising and falling twenty to thirty times a second to produce what is called beta wave EEG. It can be even faster, in the range of thirty to fifty times per second which is known as gamma wave EEG. Studies cited in Scientific American suggested that, as one might predict, practising this type of meditation improves the minds ability to focus. However, high frequency EEG is not a restful, calm or expanded state but a relatively active, even tensed, one, consistent with concentrating in a focused, and exclusive, manner.
Another general category of meditation is Open Monitoring. This employs a volitional control of the mind, in order to change how it reacts to stressful information. The practitioner of this type of technique observes their thoughts, experiences and emotional reactions as they appear and disappear, and tries to maintain a non-judgmental attitude towards them. Continuously cultivating a neutral response to whatever sensations arise and pass away in the mind, and remaining free of reactivity to them, develops the strategic habit of separating the experiencer, the I, from his mental impressions. This separation works to correct, redirect or even inhibit his spontaneous reactions. With sufficient practice, this habit persists outside of meditation as well. So, for example, if patients suffering from depression school themselves to monitor the memories, and observe the feelings, they find problematic, they will become better able to manage sadness, anxiety and so on, in everyday life. When and if such feelings do arise, they will carry less force and be less dominant.
Neuro-imaging studies confirm that Open Monitoring reduces activity in those areas of the brain involved in anxiety and the technique has been shown to help people deal with symptoms of depression and anxiety. One dramatic example is that of war veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. Open Monitoring also decreases disturbed sleep patterns. This type of meditation is characterised by a slower EEG wave pattern, called theta, which oscillates only five to eight times a second. Theta EEG occurs naturally when someone is preoccupied for example, while reading a book and is no longer aware of outside stimuli, such as surrounding noise or other sensory input from the environment. This lack of attention to ambient information is due to changes in the functioning of the thalamus, that part of the brain responsible for processing incoming sensory data. While Open Monitoring can be seen to correspond to what Patanjali calls pratyahara the withdrawal of the sensory focus in an inward direction as the attention settles down it still requires continuous focus and thus some degree of mental effort is involved. This effort is less than that required in the Focused Attention method, and may not be experienced as onerous, but it still works to engage the awareness in a focus which is limiting and exclusive. Because of this, the mind is still con- fined to a relatively surface level of thinking and perceiving.
The third type of meditation corresponds to the process that Patanjali advocates in his classic text, which is to say, a progressive interiority that culminates in the settled state of the mind known as samadhi (coming together or coherence). What is crucial about this process, and what distinguishes it from its two predecessors, is the fact that it is non-volitional and proceeds automatically. In other words, the awareness easily and effortlessly settles inwards of its own accord.
The subjective experience is one of thought becoming increasingly quieter and less defined; rather as if the volume of the radio were gradually being turned down until it becomes silent. This progressive renunciation of experience is felt as a growing peacefulness and quiet enjoyment. The surrender of experience culminates in a state free of sensory perceptions, thoughts or emotions, whatever their content or character. Mind-yoga teachings call this pure consciousness the word pure meaning free of all admixture describing it as a state of undisturbed being, free of all mental input. With the cessation of its activity, the limited sense of self as volitional agent is gradually transcended. During self-transcending, a middle frequency EEG wave pattern typically occurs, at seven to nine cycles per second.
This is called alpha-1 and is characteristic of reduced mental activity and increased relaxation. We can imagine these coherent alpha waves as functioning something like the conductor of an orchestra, working to bring all the different instruments into a harmonious whole. This orderly activity in frontal alpha waves was first discovered in practitioners self-transcending meditation over forty years ago. More recently, a meta-analysis published in the American Psychological Associations Psychological Bulletin in 2006 cited seven studies showing that in self-transcending meditation alpha EEG coherence increases between the left and right sides of the frontal brain and continues spreading until the whole brain becomes synchronised and coherent. Such synchrony appears to enliven a coherent state of consciousness that has beneficial effects for both mind and body. When the mind settles, the level of biochemical and physiological stress decreases significantly. This reverses our ancient biological inheritance, the fight-or-flight response, that is marked by an increase in heartbeat, respiration rate and the production of powerful stress hormones, such as adrenalin and cortisol, as well as stress-related compounds such as lactic acid.
This stress-reflex is still hard-wired in the human animal because our early ancestors were stationed squarely in the middle of the food chain, eating smaller creatures but in constant danger of being eaten themselves. Our high-alert setting continued until relatively recently in evolutionary terms, and such ancient and intrinsic biological mechanisms cannot just be wished away by conscious intention. However, when mental activity settles down naturally, without any coercion and of its own free will, the direct opposite to the fight-or-flight response seems to occur in the body. Self-transcending techniques bring about a stay-and-play physiological response, marked by a reduction in stress chemicals and a generally benign blood chemistry.
It seems the repeated restfulness of this state allows for not only the spontaneous dissolution of accumulated physical fatigue and tension but, over time, the neutralising of those deep-rooted psychological and emotional impressions that Hans Selye identified as the persisting effects of distress. One clue as to how this self-healing or to use a yogic phrase purification happens may lie in its analogy with dream- less sleep.
Self-transcending techniques mimic sleep, but practitioners do not lose consciousness and they also register different types of physiological changes from those brought on by sleeping. Studies published between 2012 and 2015 show that in sleep, the brain switches on an internal detox-system that uses the cerebrospinal fluid moving between the brain and spinal cord to wash out cellular waste from the central nervous system. This so-called glymphatic system uses the cells batteries the mitochondria to flush out up to three pounds of waste proteins a year, in much the same way as the lymph system in other organs removes waste to the kidney and liver. If this cleansing and revitalising process is, in fact, activated by the restful nature of dreamless sleep, it may well be replicated and augmented by the deep rest of regular meditation.
Subjectively, the relief of being free from the burden of any sort of thinking, whether directed or not, is immense. From a yogic point of view, this process is a gentle withdrawal of awareness from the habitual outward pull of the senses (pratyahara), followed by the gradual settling of the waves of thought and feeling (chitta-vrittis) as their content is purified and released. Eventually there comes a falling back into what Patanjali calls our true nature (sva-rupa). In this way, self-transcending meditation allows the practitioner eventually to become consciously familiar with the core of their being, an area that lies beyond all mental activity, which yoga teachings identify as purusha, the Person, that is to say, our irreducible essence.
An extract from The Story of Yoga, with permission from Penguin Viking
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