It’s been about 4 years since I started practicing Transcendental Meditation daily (with a few exceptions). Before having decided to learn this specific technique, which is extremely easy and can, if you will, be learnt by yourself, I had tried meditation many times, through other simple techniques (such as meditation through the following of your breathing) in an intermittent fashion.
My interest in meditation comes from a long time, the first time I did it objectively I had 16 years, much by influence of esoteric doctrines. The interest was always there although I never practiced it in this continuous fashion until 4 years ago.
I have never written about the subject before (the original in portuguese was written and shared in April, 2013) but I have talked about it with several friends and acquaintances and today I decided to write my ideas about meditation, with special attention to Transcendental Meditation. I will start by mentioning some thoughts based on other persons opinions and works and then share my own.
The process that is taught is very simple, following the initiation ritual (which is simply a flower offering to Jay Guru Dev) you’re given a word, a mantra. This mantra is a sound with which you practice meditation. Then your taught to sit in a comfortable position (or a lotus flower position or any other you can do) with your eyes closed and mentally repeat this sound, during a period of 20 minutes.
If you want to know more information about the several techniques you can easily find them, either on the net, in books or by going to a free appointment, or you can also see a lot of written studies and video presentations about the “real” effects of meditation. I will mention some and speculate about some others.
In general all them show a better functioning of the organism in all its dimensions:
What researchers at Harvard Medical School discovered is that, in long-term practitioners of relaxation methods such as yoga and meditation, far more ”disease-fighting genes” were active, compared to those who practised no form of relaxation.
In particular, they found genes that protect from disorders such as pain, infertility, high blood pressure and even rheumatoid arthritis were switched on. The changes, say the researchers, were induced by what they call ”the relaxation effect”, a phenomenon that could be just as powerful as any medical drug but without the side effects.
“‘We found a range of disease-fighting genes were active in the relaxation practitioners that were not active in the control group,” Dr Herbert Benson, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who led the research, says.
Sara Lazar, during TedX Cambridge, talks about the findings she made during a study of persons that meditated against controls who didn’t, regarding brain neuro-plasticity capacity. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8rRzTtP7Tc
There’s a huge amount of studies, sincerely, too much to be ignored since all them seem to point to an endless list of benefits.
Although this is cool, what I would like to explore in this text are others things, not the bio/physiological part of it, because even though it seems extremely important to me it doesn’t seem to be the most important.
I’m not an expert but I have my own experience and I would like to say some things related to it. When I mention meditation/s I’ll be referring to the 20 minute intervals in which you repeat a mantra. The experience is usually just a natural state of relaxation, without anything “transcending” really happening, but sometimes, you can actually experience what would be called transcendent experiences, from being totally detached from your body to what seems to be lucid dreams or completely abstract perceptions. I say this out of my experience.
What I think that happens is that once you start to focus on the repetition of a sound, or the breathing for instance, the brain has moments in which it totally “tilts”, where it simply turns off the rational dimension and experiences what would be called “pure consciousness”, unbound from the physicality and material limitations of the body. It makes sense, I think, because associated to the repetition of the mantra it’s taught that when a thought comes to our mind, wether it’s “good” or “bad”, that we should simply acknowledge and go back to the repetition of the mantra, in other words, we should let thoughts come and go without focusing our attention in them. The brain gets tired of this continuous repetition, because it doesn’t develop into anything else, and once it gets used to this state (and to the practice) it easily turns off, because it “recognises” that state from the everyday practice.
We usually are unaware of it but the truth is that when we are awake, with our eyes open, in movement, or using any of our senses, our brain is in constant and complex activity.
For instance, the formation of the images we see require light to hit the photo-receptors we have in the back of our eyes (little brains all by themselves), where it’s translated into electro-magnetic impulses that travel all the way to the back of our brain and where through complex and elaborated processes that information is composed into the “image” we see.
When we are sitting, with our eyes closed, comfortable and focusing in a mental “sound” alone (since it’s not exteriorised) a great percentage of our brain goes to rest. It also seems natural to us the images we see, that the world is actually like we see it, when, to speak the truth, the end result of what we call vision is a highly complex process, where real information is mixed with information acquired from continuous experience, in order to quickly and dextrally build the image of what is the outside world (and I won’t even dwell into semi-optics, color theory, suggestion, brain and chemical imbalances, etc, that shape all visual perceptions).
This is seen in various levels, but at a basic one, the example of how we use peripheral vision, the way our brains and eyes are wired to detect rapid changes in the field of vision, etc, are all points where you can easily see that our vision is not 100% about what really is out there. It’s for that reason as well that if we look at something that is masked (camouflage) we see it as being part of the natural landscape for instance, because our brain sees patterns and from those similarities it transforms it along the landscape, mimicking what surrounds it BUT, if we are shown it, we can easily see and recognise the camouflage and actually see it as quite detached from the landscape we previously saw as not even being there. I write about this only to make you realize that even something as natural as “seeing” requires an extensive brain activity, but since it’s so natural, it doesn’t seem to require any effort at all, and the same applies to talking, moving, tactile perceptions or listening.
When you meditate all these activities diminish considerably (since your not focusing on them) and after 10 minutes I would risk to say that many of your sensory systems go into “sleeping mode”, giving rise to some “psychadelic” experiences. It’s important in my own point of view to repeat this, that’s the only dogma associated to meditation I believe, it has to be continuous, daily, an habit, to really work. You can’t expect any of these effects after a week because your brain will still “look” at this state as something new, so it won’t turn off so easily.
We all have our worries (no drama intended), that can go from the simple I have to go shopping for the dinner, cooking, washing the clothes, finish a job or appointment, at 7 o’clock I have to pick up my kids at school, among many others, to other more deep or philosophical.
When we meditate, in the beginning, these worries come up to the conscious mind, but once we start returning to the repetition, they begin to vanish and with the practice, these superficial and “immediate” questions stop, being substituted but others more deeply ingrained in us, sometimes, things we were never aware of to begin with.
This process of letting go the thought that crystallises in the conscious mind is cathartic, it allows for a deep relaxation and acknowledgment (and I use acknowledgment but without the rational dimension), in a very empirical way, of the thought process, and the key to get it is this simple repetition (be it a mantra or the following of the breathing).
Many psychologists talk about the psychologic repression we force upon ourselves, and the weight it has in our wealth, be it that conscious or unconsciously we repress, forget and change facts, events and others things about ourselves and the others that enter in contradiction with what we would like to be, with what we think of ourselves, or that cause us pain (among many other reasons).
By letting EVERYTHING that crystallises as a conscious thought come and go without paying it real attention, you allow the letting go of these small repressions, providing the inverse of the psychological smothering, because the thought comes, but instead of being masked or repressed, it’s faced as what it truly is, a simple thought, something that isn’t real in itself. By doing this you allow it to release itself, loosing its weight and density and, it follows, stopping to be a threat (be it to our constructed identity, to our memory or anything else).
Another thing that comes out of this is the deconstruction of the structures of thought we have. The ideas we have in a determined moment are an extremely extensive construction of many “micro-ideas”, that we absorbed and kept throughout our lives. This happens with ideas themselves but also with the perception of reality.
Imagine for instance a group of people sitting at a table. Suddenly one of them starts floating until the ceiling. This would cause immediate surprise to everyone there, because everyone of them knew, rationally but also because of daily experience, that a person can’t simply start floating in the air. But if among them was a 6 month baby, he wouldn’t probably think of it as something weird, because he didn’t have enough contact with reality to have a pattern of what is normal or not, in other words, for him the possibilities, even if totally unaware of that, are limitless, whereas for everyone else it’s something simply impossible, due to all the routine and limitations they have already interiorised (either rationally or empirically).
About ideas themselves. We recollect a huge amount of “micro-ideas” that sustain the structure of the world we believe to live in. Please note, this is ESSENTIAL to our existence as social human beings, hence, everyone else does it, me included. For this to happen we have to have a connection between the “persona” we are in a certain moment, the past (memory) and the future (projection). This happens in every moment of our waking life, and its due to it that we are creatures of habits (repetition), that we keep on doing in the present and in the process project for the future, perpetuating the same. It’s also because we rely on habits to have a sense of self and because habits shape our biology and psychology, that it becomes very hard to break them. Usually this happens when we experience a traumatic event (not only in a bad sense, but in marking sense – for those interested in photography it could be understood as Roland Barthes “punctum”, applied to life in general), or when we are confronted with a flux of contradictory information that breach through our sceptical barrier, making us see something through another prism and somehow accepting that new view as something more “correct” than our old one.
It must be also because of this that, as Sir Ken Robinson mentions when he talks about divergent thinking test, very young children show a great capacity for divergent thinking, but as they grow up, this percentage diminishes considerably (because the structures of thought become less flexible – more rigid; you can find some of his talks in ted and youtube, if you haven’t seen them yet I urge you to)
Where does meditation relate to all this? Well, I think that by focusing ourselves in the exact moment when we are alive (the only real “present”), through meditation or other, without worrying about the past or future (all things big and small we have to worry in order to exist), we are somehow making these thought structures and associations, created by habit, less rigid and fomenting (derived from the high abstractness of the transcendental experience) new relationships between neurons. This way we are increasing our capacity to integrate “strange” variables into our thought structures, allowing for an exponential growth of visible possibilities (creativity). There are a lot of practitioners and scientists that point to an increase in creativity as a result of continuous practice of meditation.
Another idea that I contemplated relates to mirror neurons. These neurons have been identified in many animals and also in human beings, although their role is not yet fully understood. It seems to be true though that they’re responsible for the fact that we can experience a movie as something real, of being able to feel real emotions when watching a scene in a movie, and the research done up so far seems to indicate these neurons are responsible for the human empathy capacity.
What got me thinking about these mirror-neurons (that are the same as the other ones with the difference that they’re activated by external events to us, this way making an experience that isn’t our to be experienced by our brain as if it was – to put it simply) was the fact that I noticed I was much more sensible to scenes in the movies, but really much more sensitive.
In the meanwhile I saw and read some studies about the effects of meditation on the brain, specially in the amygdala (responsible for many things amongst the way we process and associate emotional information, regulate serotonin and cortisol levels, depression, anxiety, etc). Meditation has been shown as effective in increasing the absorption of serotonin and diminish amygdala size, this way decreasing the sense of depression, panic attacks, anxiety and stress (I don’t have much medical knowledge to talk about it extensively). As a result it leads to an increase in the sense of “empathy”, compassion, well-being and mental health.
But even so, I don’t think it justifies by itself the reaction I started to have in many movie scenes, and that’s why I believe meditation is also implied in the strengthening of the mirror-neurons.
Being this total speculation, although taken from my own experience, in the case it’s true, it’s something really big. As we move into an increasing digital world, where the contact with virtual interfaces, avatars, and the such increases exponentially, the strengthening of these neurone could be something really useful for this age, allowing for a much deeper exchange of experiences, that would otherwise be lost in the digital sea. At the same time it would help the integration of these technologies in our daily lives, in a more interesting way I mean.
On other hand, it’s already shown the role of meditation in the fight against depression and increasing of compassion/empathy. I think this happens in two ways. One is the reduction of the amygdalae (flight-fight response) and the other one is because through the practice of meditation we start to become more aware of ourselves (as a whole, the “good” and “bad” parts) and it becomes easier to see that on other persons, we actually start seeing that other persons’ “good” and “bad” sides are pretty much similar to ours, which makes identification with others easier and the judging of them more difficult.
Another thing that seems to be accepted in the scientific community is the fact that meditation increases the capacity for concentration and memorisation (effectively preventing the ageing of certain parts of the brain – in the Sara Lazar video you can view some of the research she did into this). On other hand the simple fact that you’re sitting and focusing on a mantra for 20 minutes every day will certainly stimulate your focusing capacities. I usually say, kidding, that if you can do that, you can focus on anything else, and I believe that’s not very far from truth. To finish, but to me the most important aspect of it, when you meditate you become nude, in the sense that you don’t search for control over the thoughts that come to you and that alone allows you to have a much clearer perception of what you are.
As the old saying goes, “Know Thyself”. And I believe it to be the most important aspect of every meditative practice.
For those who believe that meditation has something to do with utopia, and being “good” can dismiss that idea. I think it’s pretty much more complex than that. You in a sense become much more “raw”, if you understand what I mean.
I think that the “illumination” many “sacred” texts talk about isn’t related, as I see it, to any great “truth” or secret knowledge, it’s simply the acceptance of the brutal subjectivity we exert in order to exist and perceive the world, which in turn allows us to understand the same brutal subjectivity others exert.
Do you meditate? IF so please share your thoughts on it if not please share just the same.
Have a great day!