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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What is Meditation? Part 3

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana:

I planned originally to write my practice of meditation. But, I changed my mind. We can talk about it personally in details at a later time, when we meet.

In this essay, let me summarize what I have learned about mysticism and what some famous mystics say about mystic experience and meditation. I will also review available evidence for the neurobiological basis and neurological correlates of meditation and related states of altered consciousness.

The word meditation means different things to different people. The meaning has changed over the centuries, with translation from Sanskrit or Pali to Chinese and back to Sanskrit. For example, the word dhyan became chin in China and then zen in Japan. When translated to western languages, the meaning has changed even more. The word yoga is used for both wide varieties of practices and also for practices with single focus (physical postures or special breathing technique).

To add to the confusion, the word meditation is often used in conjunction with mysticism. They are related, but not the same. Meditation is an activity. Mystic state is an experience. You can meditate without ever getting into a mystic state. You can meditate for goals other than reaching a mystic state. You can get into a mystic state without meditating. Some of the experiences associated with mystic state such as “out-of-body experience” and “sensed presence” can also be experienced during prolonged isolation, intense fear, and following exposure to many drugs and alkaloids. Indeed, drugs and plant alkaloids were and are often employed, knowingly or unknowingly to get into a mystic state.

Although meditation is an integral part of the vedic religion (Hinduism), it is part of other traditions too. Buddhist writings suggest that their practitioners had a deep understanding of the way human mind works. Indeed when I read Patanjali, I see so many passages which are the same as or similar to what I read in Buddhism. Buddhism received its inspiration from Hinduism and built meditation on a deeper understanding of the way mind works.

Judaism, Islam and Christianity also have a tradition of meditation. However, it is not emphasized in these traditions and mystics have been viewed with suspicion. However, the experience of mystics such as St.Theresa of Avila, in which there is “a methodical elevation of the Soul towards God” is well-known in the theological literature as “orison”. Orison is the equivalent of dhyana. Christian and Islamic mystics have described their meditations and mystic experiences in detail and it is no surprise that they are similar to those described by mystics from India and the far-east.

In ancient India where all of this started, the deep thinkers noted how transient human life is and how happiness acquired by sensory means is also transient. They also noted that what makes you happy now makes you unhappy or brings grief at a later time. Therefore they sought permanent happiness and noted that this is possible by merging the individual life principle (atman) with the original source of our being (Brahman).

They further noted that the cause is in the effect. Taittreya Upanishad (VI: 1) says thath srushtva thadeva anupraavishath, meaning that after creating the other, the Original Source entered it. Therefore all of us have a part of the Original Cause. All the Upanishads tell us that if only we can stop going after the temporary happiness obtained by satisfaction of senses, withdraw the senses from their objects and calm the mind, we can experience that Original Source which is inside each one of us all the time. The path to this yoga, union of the individual soul with the Supreme, includes meditation.

Patanjali Yoga sastra says that meditation is “ for removing the obstructions that cause pain and reach union with the Self (II;2) (samaadhi bhavanaarthah, kleshathanukaranaarthah cha). It also says that it consists of “blocking the extroversion of the mind”, going after sense objects and restraining the mind. (1:2) When you control the mind and the thoughts subside, what remains is one’s own natural state (Yoga vasishta III:2.18-19). With practice and effort, this state will take you to the source, so you can experience It.

This state cannot be reached by reading or listening or discussing. So say the mystics and the scriptures. In the words of Kathopanishad (I:ii; 23) this is stated as follows “ na ayam atma pravachanena labhyo na medhaya na bahuna sruthena”. In Chandogya Upanishad, Narada says “mantravit asmi, na atmavid” meaning I know the words; but I have not experienced It”. The aim therefore of an aspirant of enlightenment is the experience of mystic union with the Original Source so that he/she can say “sprushto anuvitho mayaiva”, which means “I have touched It and experienced It myself”.

What has neuroscience learned about meditation? From the neurosciences point of view the term meditation is used too freely to denote an extremely wide range of practices from pranayam and yogic practices of the vedic hindu religion, Tai chi of China, to the orison of the Christians, zikr of the Sufi’s and the mindfulness of zen Buddhism. Recent advances in cognitive and affective neurosciences and neuro-imaging have made it possible to study meditation. But, contemplative practices also are varied and include visualization of a deity, recitation of a mantra, visualization of “energy” flowing in the body, focusing of attention on the breath, , and various forms of objectless meditations.This makes a scientific study difficult since for a mental state to be studied, it has to be defined first. You cannot study a subject or an activity with many variables. Controlling the variable is one of the foundations of any scientific study.

Neuroscientists focus on Buddhist monks who practice meditation  in which contemplation is emphasized. This gives a homogeneous group of subjects to be studied. Both novice with very little experience and masters with several years of experience have been studied. During meditation they show physiologic changes such as those in the autonomic functions, brain waves and blood flow to the brain. These include slowing of the heart and respiration and lowering of the blood pressure. Some have been able to increase the temperature of toes and fingers. Some behavioral and attitudinal changes have also seen.

Changes in EEG (brain waves)have been documented. There are several kinds of these waves, some related to normal alert state (beta), some when your mind is following several channels of thought (alpha), some during the twilight state just before falling asleep (theta). During meditative state there is a combination of alpha and theta waves. Recitation of mantra in deep absorption produces a brain pattern suggestive of decreased processing of sensory or motor information. Meditation with emphasis on focused attention caused increases in specific forms of EEG waves. Interestingly, these waves were similar to those seen during drowsiness. There are also differences in the wave patterns of novices and long-term practitioners suggesting that mental training can alter the brain-waves.

Neuro-imaging studies have shown activation of specific areas of the brain  during the expression of maternal and romantic love. Positive and negative emotions elicit responses in the right half of the brain different from the left half. Pain in oneself, observing another person who is experiencing pain and self-generated emotional states have all been studied using neuro-imaging studies. Based on this data, when practitioners of “compassion meditation” of Buddhism were studied, they showed activation of brain regions associated with one’s state of feeling positive emotions and maternal love. These changes also showed correlation with the practitioner’s stage in training.

The most important points are: human consciousness is composed of several units such as awareness, attention, and emotional response to events outside. These internal states are associated with compassion, happiness etc which form the 51 items in the Buddhist list of mental formations. These states have physical correlates in the brain in the form of localization (which part of the brain lights up during specific emotions etc), activation of neural circuitry and electrical and metabolic responses. All of these are now accessible to objective study and documentation.

It is no wonder then that the neuroscientists have started studying meditation since it is defined as altered state of consciousness. Buddhist monks have started collaborating with these studies. Both the Dalai Lama and Thich Naht Hanh have sponsored conferences on the neuroscience of meditation. As pointed out earlier, some of the observed changes in the electrical activity of the brain and activation of neural circuitry during meditation show similarities to these activities during natural expression of love, sleepiness and calming down etc.

This should encourage widespread practice of secular meditation since there are documented beneficial effects on physical and emotional health. A few may and will get deep into meditation in a formal way with a Guru and initiation for spiritual purposes. What is most intriguing (based on the differences in brain activity between novices and experienced practitioners of meditation) is that attention, awareness, compassion, love etc are traits that can be acquired by training. This is what our ancestors said. That is also the basis of modern cognitive psychology.

How do you recognize those select few mystics who have truly experienced that union with the Source? 

They can be recognized by their outward behavior and their actions. Yoga vasishta describes the characteristics of the Siddha, the enlightened (III: 3) as follows. Such a person is indifferent to pleasure and pain. He is free of anger and fear. He is engaged in action as and when needed, but is pure within.  His intellect is not tainted with ego when engaged in action. He is not afraid of the world and the world is not afraid of him. His thoughts are not limited. He is calm and contended. His possessions are minimal and even that he uses as if they belong to others.

Jacopone da Todi, asks a mystic "What have you gained from this vision?"The mystic answers “An ordered life in every state”. He has a clue by which to live, a practical realization of the proportions of life and hence responds in tune with the need.

In another place, Yoga Vasishta says (V:X: 5, 69) that a realized soul is samaa (full of equanimity), samarasa (of good disposition), sowmya (gentle), and sathatham satvrittayah (always virtuous). In yet another place, it says (XXXI: 1:22) that he acts wholeheartedly on whatever he has to do, but internally he has given up all attachments.

There are similar descriptions in other texts. William James describes the “composite photograph of universal saintliness “common to all religions as follows. These saints live a life wider than one focused on self-interest. They act with a conviction of a force larger than all of us to which they have surrendered their self-interest. They are in a special mood of elation and bliss. They have no ego and have loving harmonious relationship with others and with the world. They are pure at heart and full of charity.

You do not have to meditate or be a mystic to acquire these qualities. There have been several great human beings full of compassion and love but did not meditate or were not mystics. Some of them may even have even been atheists. Indeed, Buddha's teaching is called an atheistic by some. These humane qualities, high moral values and compassion can be acquired without meditation or religious inspirations. Modern-day humanists will attest to that.

What is a mystic experience? How do the mystics describe their experience? How is it different from the hallucinations and delusions of the mentally ill? 

Evelyn Underhill who studied the recorded experiences of the western mystics such as St.Teresa of Avila and Plotinus thinks that the essence of mysticism is the clear conviction of the mystic that his/her personal self is living in unity with God. This is true of mystics from all traditions.

William James suggested four characteristics as marks of mystic experience. First, the mystics do not have words to explain their personal experience of merging with the Absolute. It is a state of feeling and not of intellect. It is not something that can be explained in words, they will say. It has to be experienced. When words are used, the descriptions full of paradoxes and negative statements, in all cultures and all languages.

Kenopanishad (I;3)says: Na thathra chakshur gatchathi no vak no manah Na vidmo na vijanimo yath ethath anushisyath meaning that eyes cannot go there, nor can speech, nor mind. The rishi (the mystic) goes on to say” I do not know Brahman; how can I instruct you?” In another sloka (Kenopanishad II:3) it says: yasya amatham thasya matham, matham yasya na veda sah which means: “It is known to him to whom It is unknown; he does not know to whom It is known”.

Isa Upanishad (5) says: Thadejathi thannaijathi thad dhooray thadh anthikeh meaning “It moves; It does not move. It is far off; It is also near. It is outside; It is inside”.

Yoga Vasishta (III:2:20) says Words return back powerless on its encounter with this experience.
Brahadaranyaka Upanishad says: nethi, nethi na hi ethasmat, anyat param naasthi (2:3, 6) meaning, “not this, not this, It is neither this nor that”.

St.Teresa of Avila describes her orison, as follows: “ the soul is fully awake as regards God, but wholly asleep as regards things of this world………. During the short time the union lasts, she is as it were deprived of every feeling…….. When He raises a soul to union with Himself, suspend the natural action of all her faculties”. ….”… the truth that God’s mode of being in everything must be either by presence, by power or by essence………But how, can one have such certainty in respect to one he cannot see? This question, I am powerless to answer”. Also, “How this, which we call union, is effected and what it is, I cannot tell”.

In another passage she says “…. for if a person like myself should speak of a matter of this kind, and give any explanation at all of that for the description of which no words can ever possibly be found….”

Dionysius, the Areopagite says: “The cause of all things is neither soul nor intellect; nor has it imagination, opinion, or reason, or intelligence; nor is it spoken or thought. It is neither number, nor order, nor magnitude, nor littleness, nor equality, nor ineaquality, nor similarity nor dissimilarity. It neither stands, nor moves, nor rests…. It is neither essence, nor eternity, nor time….not one, nor unity…”

Meister Eckhart :”How then am I to love the Godhead? Thou shalt love Him as is: not as God, not as Spirit, not as a Person, not as an image, but as a sheer pure One. And in this One we are to sink from nothing to nothing…”

William James’ second mark of a mystic experience is that it is beyond sensory experiences and beyond ordinary knowledge. It is actually another state of knowledge, a deeper knowledge of the Unity of life arising out of insight and illumination.

Plotinus says “ He changes, he ceases to be himself, preserves nothing of himself. Absorbed in God, he makes but one with Him, like a center of a circle coinciding with another center”.

Another Western mystic describes his experience as follows: “ It consisted in gradual, but swiftly progressive obliteration of space, time, sensation and the multitudinal factors of experience which seem to qualify what we are pleased to call our Self. In proportion as these conditions of ordinary consciousness were subtracted , the sense of underlying or essential consciousness acquired intensity. At last, nothing remained but a pure, absolute , abstract Self. The universe became without form and void of content.”

Vivekananda says: “……there is another work which is above consciousness….. There is no feeling of I, and yet the mind works, desireless, free from restlessness, objectless and bodiless. Then the Truth shines in its full effulgence….”

Richard Bucke, a Canadian Psychiatrist who has had mystic experiences coined the term “Cosmic consciousness” and defined it as “a consciousness of the cosmos, that is, of the life and order of the Universe”, together with a sense of immortality in the present moment.

Plotinus finds it hard to use words to describe.  "Its definition, in fact, could be only "the indefinable"..... what is not a thing is not some definite thing. We are in agony for a true expression; we are talking of the untellable; we name, only to indicate for our own use as best we may. And this name, The One, contains really no more than the negation of plurality: under the same pressure the Pythagoreans found their indication in the symbol "Apollo" [a= not; pollon= of many] with its repudiation of the multiple".

Sufi mystic says: “ I never saw anything without seeing God therein”. Kabir said: “ …. In Thatness I have seen beyond Thatness, in company I have seen the Comrade Himself”.

Third, these experiences are usually transient. You might have seen photographs of Ramakrishna frozen in such a state. The mystics are not in the mystic state all the time, unlike the mentally ill. But, their attitude to life has changed. They live with detachment and universal love.

Finally, these states cannot be willed into one’s experience. It is a passive process.  Kathopanishad points out that It takes over one’s will and “reveals itself” ( vivrunuthe thanum svam) That is why both the eastern and western mystics talk about surrender as the only means for this experience.

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