Meditation – What is it?

Meditation usually refers to a state in which the body is consciously relaxed and the mind is allowed to become calm and focused. Several major religions include ritual meditation; however, meditation itself need not be a religious or spiritual activity. Most of the more popular systems of meditation are of Eastern origin.
Another form of meditation is more closely akin to prayer and worship, wherein the practitioner turns spiritual thoughts over in the mind and engages the brain in higher thinking processes. The goal in this case is the receipt of spiritual insights and new understanding.

Meditation generally involves discounting wandering thoughts and fantasies, and calming and focusing the mind. Meditation does not necessarily require effort and can be experienced as “just happening”. Physical postures include sitting cross-legged, standing, lying down, and walking (sometimes along designated floor patterns). Quietness is often desirable, and some people use repetitive activities such as deep breathing, humming or chanting to help induce a meditative state.

Meditation can be done with the eyes closed (as long as one does not fall asleep), or with the eyes open: focusing the eyes on a certain point of an object or image, and keeping the eyes constantly looking at that point.

Besides the physical factors related to meditation perhaps the most important strategy relates to the very process through which the relevant state of consciousness is achieved. The most common approach is to focus one’s full attention on the natural cycle of breathing. As one takes in a breath, one is called to experience that particular inbreath fully, as if nothing else existed in the world at that particular moment in time. Similarly, one follows the outbreath with full awareness. If for any reason the mind should get distracted during this process the key is to acknowledge this shift in attention, slowly pull one’s awareness back to the breath, and continue focusing on its natural cycle. Another common approach is to attempt to block all sensory input (visual, auditory, tactile being key) and concentrate on something other than yourself.

Purposes of meditation

The purposes for which people meditate vary almost as widely as practices. It may serve simply as a means of relaxation from a busy daily routine, or even as a means of gaining insight into the nature of reality or of communing with one’s God. Many have found improved concentration, awareness, self-discipline and equanimity through meditation. The disciplined self-cultivation aspect of meditation plays a central role in Taoism, Sufism, Sikhism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Generally, there is religious meditation, where one meditates to commune with or on the Divine, and focus meditation, where one meditates to improve health or mental faculties. Very often there is significant overlap between these two positions in many meditative traditions.

However, see spiritual materialism.

Samadhi

In the Samadhi or Shamatha, or concentrative, techniques of meditation, the mind is kept closely focused on a particular word, image, sound, person, or idea. This form of meditation is often found in Hindu and Buddhist traditions (especially the Pure Land school), as well as in Christianity (Gregorian chant, for example), Jewish Kabblah, and in some modern metaphysical schools.

Mindful awareness traditions

Vipassana (insight) and anapanasati (observance of breath) are parts of the broader notion of mindful awareness, which is part of the Noble Eightfold Path, which is held to lead to Enlightenment, and expounded upon in the Satipatthanasutra. While in anapanasati meditation the attention is focused on the breath, in vipassana the mind is instead trained to be acutely aware of not only breathing, but all things that one comes to experience.

The concept of vipassana works in believing that the meditator’s mind will eventually take note of every physical and mental experience “real-time” or as it happens, the goal being that it will gradually reveal to the practitioner how one’s mind unknowingly attaches itself to things that are impermanent in nature. Thus, when such things cease to exist, one experiences suffering from their loss. This in turn can gradually free one’s mind from the attachment to the impermanent that is the root of suffering. In other words, in vipassana (insight, or seeing things as they are) meditation, the mind is trained to notice each perception or thought that passes without “stopping” on any one. This is a characteristic form of meditation in Buddhism.

However, in at least some forms of vipassana, notably the Burmese Theravada school as taught by S. N. Goenka, one does not attend to whatever perceptions arise, but purposely moves one’s attention over their body part by part, checking for sensations, being aware and equanimous with them, and moving on. This form of meditation has some resemblance with “choiceless awareness” — the kind of meditation that J. Krishnamurti addressed.

Health applications and clinical studies of meditation

In the recent years there has been a growing interest within the medical community to study the physiological effects of meditation (Venkatesh et al., 1997; Peng et al., 1999; Lazar et al., 2000; Carlson et.al, 2001). Many concepts of meditation have been applied to clinical settings in order to measure its effect on somatic motor function as well as cardiovascular and respiratory function. Also the hermeneutic and phenomenological aspects of meditation are objects of growing interest. Meditation has entered the mainstream of health care as a method of stress and pain reduction. For example, in an early study in 1972, transcendental meditation was shown to affect the human metabolism by lowering the biochemical byproducts of stress, such as lactate (lactic acid), and by decreasing heart rate and blood pressure and inducing favorable brain waves. (Scientific American 226: 84-90 (1972)) The meditative aspects of T’ai Chi Ch’uan and some forms of yoga have also become increasingly popular as means of healthful stress management in recent years.

As a method of stress reduction, meditation is often used in hospitals in cases of chronic or terminal illness to reduce complications associated with increased stress including a depressed immune system. There is a growing consensus in the medical community that mental factors such as stress significantly contribute to a lack of physical health, and there is a growing movement in mainstream science to fund and do research in this area (e.g. the establishment by the NIH in the U.S. of 5 research centers to research the mind-body aspects of disease.) Dr. James Austin, a neurophysiologist at the University of Colorado, reported that Zen meditation rewires the circuitry of the brain in his landmark book Zen and the Brain ( Austin, 1999). This has been confirmed using sophisticated imaging techniques which examine the electrical activity of the brain.

Dr. Herbert Benson of the Mind-Body Medical Institute, which is affiliated with Harvard and several Boston hospitals, reports that meditation induces a host of biochemical and physical changes in the body collectively referred to as the “relaxation response” (Lazar et.al, 2003). The relaxation response includes changes in metabolism, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and brain chemistry. Benson and his team have also done clinical studies at Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayan Mountains. Among other well-known studies within this particular field of interest we find the research of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts who have done extensive research on the effects of mindfulness meditation on stress (Kabat-Zinn et.al, 1985; Davidson et.al,2003).

One of the most important invitations to study the clinical effects of meditation comes from The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet. The Dalai Lama has had many dialogues with Western scientists about this subject and it was at the top of the agenda when he visited Massachusetts Institute of Technology in September 2003 for the “Investigating the Mind conference”.

Meditation and the Brain

Mindfulness meditation and related techniques are intended to train attention for the sake of provoking insight. Think of it as the opposite of attention deficit disorder. A wider, more flexible attention span makes it easier to be aware of a situation, easier to be objective in emotionally or morally difficult situations, and easier to achieve a state of responsive, creative awareness or “flow”.

One theory, presented by Daniel Goleman & Tara Bennett-Goleman, suggests that meditation works because of the relationship between the amygdala, the part of the brain that handles emotions (sometimes referred to as the “emotional brain”), and the neocortex, particularly the prefrontal cortex, which handles reasoning and is also known as the inhibitory centre of the brain.

The neocortex processes information very deeply–so it’s smart and flexible, but also very slow. Meanwhile, the amygdala, which is a simpler structure (and older in evolutionary terms), makes rapid guesses about our perceptions, and triggers an appropriate emotional response. These emotional responses are very powerful–often because they are related to our immediate survival needs. In other words, if you’re an early human standing on the savannah and a huge lion jumps out at you, your amygdala will have you running and screaming long before your neocortex can even figure out what’s happening.

Of course, in making snap judgements, our amygdalas are prone to error, seeing danger where there is none. This is particularly true in contemporary society where social conflicts are far more common than encounters with predators. A basically harmless but emotionally charged situation can trigger our amygdala’s fight or flight reflexes before we know what’s happening, causing conflict, stress, anxiety, and frustration.

Certain kinds of meditation (also, martial arts, yoga, etc.) train attention to watch the entire experience, so it’s possible to catch emotional reflexes before they take over–but at the same time without squashing or denying the emotion (which would only cause additional frustration). The trick is that there is very little time to do this (roughly a quarter of a second) before the amygdala takes over and the person is flooded with emotion. But the idea is that a skilled meditator can quickly reframe fear and anger, and mould them into constructive responses and perhaps even good cheer.

The different roles of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex can be easily observed under the influence of various drugs. Alcohol depresses the brain generally, but the complicated prefrontal cortex is more affected than the comparatively simple and robust amygdala, resulting in lowered inhibitions, decreased attention span, and increased influence of emotions over behaviour. Likewise, the controversial drug ritalin has the opposite effect, because it stimulates activity in the prefrontal cortex.

Some other studies of meditation have linked the practice to increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex, which is associated with concentration, planning, meta-cognition (thinking about thinking), and with positive affect (good feelings). There are similar studies linking depression and anxiety with decreased activity in the same region, and/or with dominant activity in the right prefrontal cortex. Meditation increases activity in the left prefrontal cortex, and the changes are stable over time–even if you stop meditating for a while, the effect lingers.

Adverse effects of meditation

Predominantly, studies of meditation report positive effects. However some studies claim that Meditation might, in certain circumstances, have adverse effects.

If practiced improperly or too intensely, meditation can lead to considerable psychological and physiological problems. It is not uncommon for teachers of meditation to warn their students about the possible pitfalls of a contemplative path. Since the practice of meditation might include a powerful confrontation with existential questions it is not considered wise to engage in intense meditation techniques without an extended period of psychological preparation. Preferably in contact with a credible teacher or clinician. In the case of Asian contemplative traditions there often exist major challenges connected to the way the particular tradition is to be applied to a Western culture, or a Western mindset. The import of eastern contemplative concepts into popular Western culture has not always been sensitive to, or familiar with the cultural matrix that the meditative concept originated from.

A growing body of clinical literature is now starting to address the phenomenon of meditation-related problems (Lukoff, Lu & Turner, 1998; Perez-De-Albeniz & Holmes, 2000). Several side-effects have been reported, among these we find uncomfortable kinaesthetic sensations, mild dissociation and psychosis-like symptoms (Craven, 1989). From a clinical study of twenty-seven long term meditators Shapiro (1992) reports such adverse effects as depression, relaxation-induced anxiety and panic, paradoxical increases in tension, impaired reality testing, confusion, disorientation and feeling ‘spaced out’. The possibility that meditation might trigger strong emotional reactions is also reported by Kutz, Borysenko & Benson (1985). Within the context of therapy, meditation is usually contraindicated when the therapeutic goal is to strengthen ego boundaries, release powerful emotions, or work through complex relational dynamics (Bogart, 1991). The tendency of meditation to disturb object-relations and release unconscious material implies that the beginning meditator should approach the practice with moderation. It usually takes years of dedication to become stable in a contemplative practice, a perspective that is often overlooked by many new religious movements and New Age therapies.

Specific traditions

  • Sikhism encourages the divine meditation on God’s name, through simran.
  • Hinduism’s two major meditation traditions evolved with the schools of Yoga and Vedanta, two of the six limbs of Hindu philosophy.
  • There are three main branches of Buddhism:
    • Theravada or “elders’ tradition”, established from 500BCE to the time of Christ. Today present mainly in Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. It is the monastic system most closely related to the system set up by the Buddha. Practice involves both samadhi or concentration, and vipassana or insight, as well as the development of metta or loving-kindness.
    • Mahayana or “great vehicle” tradition, established from the time of Christ to 700CE. Includes Zen. Today present mainly in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Practice involves various forms of dhyana (Chan or Zen), visualizations, koans, invocation and chanting. Two main branches of Zen Buddhism are Rinzai and Soto.
    • Vajrayana or “diamond thunderbolt” tradition established 700-1200CE. This is the Tibetan branch of Buddhism, whose best-known exponent is the Dalai Lama. Concentration is cultivated through highly structured ritual, leading to deep meditative states. Compassionate action is also emphasized.
  • There are religious meditations associated with Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
  • Taoism has a long history of meditative studies.
  • Many martial arts schools teach forms of meditation, especially based on Buddhist or Taoist models.

References
Academic and clinical

  • Austin, James (1999) Zen and the Brain, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999,
  • Azeemi, Khwaja Shamsuddin (2005) Muraqaba: The Art and Science of Sufi Meditation, Houston: Plato, 2005,
  • Bogart G. (1991) The use of meditation in psychotherapy: a review of the literature. American Journal of Psychotherapy. 1991 Jul;45(3):383-412.
  • Carlson LE, Ursuliak Z, Goodey E, Angen M, Speca M. (2001) The effects of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction program on mood and symptoms of stress in cancer outpatients: 6-month follow-up. Support Care Cancer. 2001 Mar;9(2):112-23.
  • Craven JL. (1989) Meditation and psychotherapy. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. 1989 Oct;34(7):648-53.
  • Davidson RJ, Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher J, Rosenkranz M, Muller D, Santorelli SF, Urbanowski F, Harrington A, Bonus K, Sheridan JF. (2003) Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine 2003 Jul-Aug;65(4):564-70.
  • Bennett-Goleman, T. (2001) Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart, Harmony Books,
  • Kutz I, Borysenko JZ, Benson H. (1985) Meditation and psychotherapy: a rationale for the integration of dynamic psychotherapy, the relaxation response, and mindfulness meditation. Am J Psychiatry. 1985 Jan;142(1):1-8.
  • Lukoff, David; Lu Francis G. & Turner, Robert P. (1998) From Spiritual Emergency to Spiritual Problem: The Transpersonal Roots of the New DSM-IV Category. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 38(2), 21-50,
  • Perez-De-Albeniz, Alberto & Holmes, Jeremy (2000) Meditation: Concepts, Effects And Uses In Therapy. International Journal of Psychotherapy, March 2000, Vol. 5 Issue 1, p49, 10p
  • Peng CK, Mietus JE, Liu Y, Khalsa G, Douglas PS, Benson H, Goldberger AL. (1999) Exaggerated heart rate oscillations during two meditation techniques. Int J Cardiol. 1999 Jul 31;70(2):101–7.
  • Shapiro DH Jr. (1992) Adverse effects of meditation: a preliminary investigation of long-term meditators.Int J Psychosom. 1992;39(1-4):62-7.
  • Venkatesh S, Raju TR, Shivani Y, Tompkins G, Meti BL. (1997) A study of structure of phenomenology of consciousness in meditative and non-meditative states. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 1997 Apr;41(2): 149–53.