Please visit Amazon Author Page at

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Meditation Part 4 B

Neurobiology of meditation:
In neurobiological terms, meditation is an altered state of consciousness (ASC), just as sleep is, coma is and one stage of anesthesia is. Mystic state is one such state of altered consciousness. During sleep all sensory inputs are in abeyance, but the person is not aware. During meditation and mystic states, the sensory inputs are under control and the person is aware fully or at a different level of awareness. These experiences are called religious experiences when they include religious symbols or special pantheon of Gods.

Out-of-body experiences described during meditation can also be experienced by those on stimulant drugs and psychedelics. Out of body experience “is an experience in which a person seems to perceive the world from a location outside their physical body”. People with this experience report greater sensitivity of their vision and hearing. Time and space seem to disappear as in mystic experience. Prolonged periods of reduced sensory input and disruption of body image can also result in out-of-body experience. Psychedelic drugs and an anesthetic agent called ketamine can induce some of these experiences.

There are descriptions of the mental state following inhalation of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and chloroform that are similar to the visions of those who practice meditation. Visual hallucinations and feelings of omnipotence which are reported to occur at a certain stage in meditation have been known to be symptoms of mental illnesses also. Obviously, the mind and its base, namely the brain, are capable of attaining these states. Therefore, one has to decide when these experiences are genuine mystic experiences and when they are not.

This is particularly true of “sensed-presence”, which is a feeling that there is one other person besides you, even when you are totally alone in the midst of an ocean or a desert. This "other" person may be one's favorite deity or angel. Recently, a whole book has been written on this subject (The Third Man factor by John Geiger. Penguin, 2009). The intriguing part of this state of altered awareness is that solo sailors, solo pilots (eg. Charles Lindbergh), and high endurance athletes have also experienced such a “sensed-presence”, except that the other “person” was not an angel or God. Therefore, it appears that our brain is capable of such experiences which are felt as part of mystic experience also.

Neuroscientists are trying to explain these phenomena. One such explanation is that when one is in isolation for a long period of time, the right hemisphere of the brain experiences anomalous sensations which are reinterpreted by the left hemisphere. There is support for this view based on work with people whose mid-line structure of the brain was cut for medical reasons.

Other states of altered consciousness are those induced by “street drugs” (hallucinogens such as marijuana), sleeplessness and hypnosis. Similar states can be brought about also by natural plant products as used during religious ceremonies in ancient India (soma juice) and by shamans of the native american tribes (alkaloids).

Religious groups, priests and shamans, have practiced these techniques ever since the dawn of civilization. Putting non-believers under stress, intense fear, and starvation are time- honored methods of conversion. The priests themselves used or smoked hallucinogens and had their visions which in turn made believers out of non-believers. These are well-documented in several books. (Varieties of Religious Experiences by William James, Battle for the Mind by John Sargent, Silence by Susan Maitland and Essentials of Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill).These techniques have been refined and used in more modern times for political purposes, to obtain confession from political prisoners and to control the masses.

In a famous experiment, Doctor Walter Pahnke gave a psychotropic drug to 10 divinity students before the traditional service on a Good Friday and gave a control drug to 10 other students. Eight of the ten who received the psychotropic drug experienced intense religious feelings whereas the control group experienced only mild feelings.

Preparation for meditation requires “purification” according to all schools of meditation. This may be in the form of fasts (starvation), postures, exposure to heat and sun (native American Sweat lodge), self-infliction of injury, handling of objects that induce fear (like snake or sacrifice and blood) or talks of “hell and purgatory”. Intense rhythmic sounds such as the use of drums and chanting are also part of religious ceremonies. All of these have been shown to modify the suggestibility of humans and animals. There is also a mass hypnotic effect when these rituals are practiced as part of a group activity. In such a state, the individual is suggestible and may experience visions of God as in true mystic experience. At this state, it is also easy for the priest to plant his ideas of salvation by following his path.

Buddha starved so much that he was found in semi-conscious state by a milkmaid. Ramana Maharishi talks about how his quest started when he was gripped with intense fear of death.

Such altered mental states can also be induced by prolonged silence, prolonged voluntary or forced isolation and living alone in an island or in the midst of an ocean as documented by Susan Maitland in her book on Silence (Granta, 2008). She studied the diaries of people who had no religious motivation but got stranded in the midst of an ocean or a desert. She herself went into self-imposed isolation for six months. During that time, she kept observing herself and kept detailed notes of the mental states throughout her self-imposed world of isolation and silence. Here are the stages she went through, in her own words: “intensification of physical and physiological sensations, dis-inhibition, a sense of “connection”, auditory hallucinations, boundary confusions, an exhilarating consciousness of being at risk and finally a state of bliss and ineffability”. She points out how these or similar mental states were described by others who were adrift in the sea or in a desert alone. These states are also similar to the states experienced by mystics.

There is an interesting passage in Chandogya Upanishad (VI:7;1). The father (Uddalaka) asks the son to fast for 15 days and come back to him for initiation. The son is allowed to drink, however. The son obeys this order and comes back after 15 days. The father asks the son to recite rk, yajr and Sama Vedas. The son says: “na maa prathibhanthi”. That is to say he is not able to remember. The father asks the son to go eat and come back. The actual statement is “ashaana, atha vignanaasi”, meaning, “eat, then you will understand”. Indoctrination and instilling special concepts when the body is under stress is known to all traditions.

It is clear that the human brain is the “seat” of all these states of mind. It is the connection with religion or a spiritual force that makes it a mystical experience or not. Any ordinary individual may experience part of these phenomena under severe stress or when deprived of sensory stimuli for prolonged periods. How am I to know that these are not the normal expected responses of the brain under stress or suggestion?

For all these reasons, I question the glorification of all these experiences as divinely mediated. I, as a scientist, conclude that the states of ecstasy and visions described by those who practice meditation are within the realm of possibility of the human brain and are not mediated by “divine intervention”, except for an extremely small number of individuals. The same state can be reached or forced upon human mind by various means with or without religious motivation.

Mystic intuition may be certain for the individual and cannot be denied. But it cannot prove that contrary intuitions are not possible or same intuitions may be had through other methods.

That does not mean that I reject the notion of mystic union. I only say that most people who describe visions and ecstasy are not experiencing the spiritual.

I know that for those of you who consider Brahman, Consciousness etc as sacred, this will be blasphemous. Let us face reality. This entire field of consciousness is under the scrutiny of neuroscientists. Consciousness is not a “taboo” subject any more. We may find that what we call consciousness is a property of the neural network, that it is a minute by minute reconstruction of our experiences, feelings and inferences and that the feeling of “I” is a “nested loop”. This is what Buddha said centuries back. This is the direction neuro-scientific studies are pointing to.

Finally I wish to make a comment on various schools of yogas which make complicated rituals out of simple preparatory steps such as seating, breathing etc. These schools teach elaborate complicated body postures to practice. They teach you to focus on special energy fields (chakras and mandalas). During pranayama (special breath control techniques) they teach you to use esoteric channels (ida, pingala etc). I do not know whether there is any basis at all for these ideas. There may be; there may not be.

My main objection is that simple steps such as proper sitting and breathing in preparation for meditation get elaborated into various schools of thought and cloud the goal and the path. Nay, I would say that the teachings of our ancestors get high-jacked. Why focus on esoteric unproven concepts when you can spend your energy to calm the mind and focus on how to merge the Individual Energy (wave) with the Universal energy (ocean)? Just as Buddha pointed out, when the finger points to the moon, what can you gain by looking at the finger?

References to read:

Srimad BhagavatGita Rahasya. Bal GangadarTilak. Tilak Bros Publishers. 1935
A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. Counterpoint Publisher. 2009.
Meditation and the Neuroscience of Consciousness. Antoine Lutz, John D. Dunne, and Richard J. Davidson [In press in Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness. Edited by P. Zelazo, M. Moscovitch
and E. Thompson.]
The Essentials of Mysticism. Evelyn Underhill EP Dutton Inc New York. 1960
A Source Book in Indian Philosophy. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan and C.A.Moore. Princeton University Press. 1957
The Sarvadarshana Sangraha of Madhvacharya. Cowell EB, Gough AE. Motilal Banarsidass. 1996.
The Varieties of Religious Experience. William James. Mentor Books. 1958
The Battle for the Mind. William Sargant. Malor Books. 1997
Transformation at the base. Thich Naht Hanh. Parallax Press. 2001
The Heart of Buddhist Teachings. Thich Naht Hanh. Broadway Books. 1998.
Hunting the I - Lucy Carnelssen Sri Ramanashram 2003
What is Meditation? Vimala Thakar. Vimal Prakashan Trust 1998
Meditation Sogyal Rinpoche. Rider Publishers 1994
Ten major Upanishads (Vedanta Press Series)
Consciousness – An Introduction. Susan Blackmore. Oxford University Press 2004
The Life of St.Teresa of Jesus of the order of Our Lady of Caramel. Translated from Spanish by David Lewis. Third Edition. London: Thomas Baker, Benziger Bros New York MCMIV (From The Gutenberg Collection)
I am a strange loop. Douglas Hofstadter. Basic Books 2008.
The Perennial Philosophy. Aldous Huxley. Harper Colophon. 1970.
The feeling of what happens: Body and emotion in the making of consciousness. Antonio Damasio. Mariner Books. 2000
The Six Enneads. Creator: Plotinus. MacKenna, Stephen (Translator),Page, B. S. (Translator). From the Google Books Project

Friday, June 4, 2010

Meditation Part 4 A

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana,

Before I start this final essay on meditation, let me share with you some other thoughts.

I have quoted many books in these essays for three reasons. First, it is to show that meditation and mysticism are not in the special province of one culture or one tradition. If human mind is capable of it, it will be experienced by anyone interested, from whichever part of the world he comes from, at any point in history. My quotes are in support of that position. The second reason is that I am used to write medical and scientific articles. In science, we have to provide evidence in support of our statements. This has become a habit. Finally, I wish to encourage you to go the original source and check it out for yourself.  You can check me out for accuracy. You may also find a different angle or explanation. You may say that you do not know Sanskrit or Tamizh. May be, this will be a stimulus for you to learn an ancient Indian language.

Now, back to the completion of this series.

How can we recognize a true mystic from the mentally ill?  One can recognize the true mystics by their actions and attitudes to life. As noted earlier, a mystic is full of equanimity, compassion and universal love. He lives a simple life. As pointed out by William James, he lives a life of asceticism (not self- torture) and poverty (minimal needs, not retreating to the caves). He involves himself in necessary worldly activities, but internally he has given up all attachments. He may behave odd sometimes like a freak, but “his action is not a mere restless striving after the discordant objects of a scattered attention, but an ordered movement based on the contemplation of reality”.

The behavior of the mentally ill is obvious most of the time. It is centered on their inner fears and anxieties and altered perceptions. The mentally ill live in response to fantasies and selfish needs. Therefore, their actions are unpredictable. They are oblivious to the consequences of their action on others. Mystic is not selfish. Indeed he is altruistic. Also, the mystic experience lasts for only a brief period. The mentally ill have hallucinations and delusions for prolonged periods.

What are the stages mystics go through before they experience this Unity with the Original Source (mystic union)?

 Vedic Hindu scriptures and Buddhist scriptures described these stages millennia ago. For example, Patanjali says that the dawn of wisdom comes in several stages (Yoga sutra 2:27) starting with detachment from objects of senses, to stage of ideation and finally total absorption in the Infinite.

Other books talk about Savikalpa Samadhi with four stages and Nirvikalpa Samadhi with two stages.
In the Savikalpa stage, the mind is still functioning and there is still duality. It starts with awareness of objects of thought, moves to abstract thoughts (eg: I am Brahman), then on to thoughts of external objects with the realization that objects with name and form are impermanent and finally to awareness of the Subject of the awareness itself, only a stream of self-consciousness.

In Nirvikalpa Samadhi, the mind ceases to be active. There is no duality, no knower and the known. Yoga vasishta says (III:2; 18-19) that when thoughts subside, one’s own natural state remains. In the first stage, the mind is “like a flame in a windless plane, steady, indifferent to sounds and objects”. It is like “an empty pitcher placed in the sky, having nothing inside or outside”. In the final stage, the meditator is in a state of bliss, completely absorbed in the Brahman, completely indifferent to the manifest world (Nirbija Samadhi). He is like “a pitcher placed in the sea, full inside and outside”.

The four big statements (mahavakyas) from the Upanishads indicate the stages of ascent. They are  thath thvam asi (Thou art that) from Chandogya upanishad; ayam atma Brahma meaning this life is Brahman from Maandukya Upanishad; prajnam Brahma (jiva is Isvara; Individual life is Universal life) from Aitreya Upanishad;  and Aham brahmasmi (I am That Brahman) from Brahadaranyaka Upanishad. The ascent is from the dual mode (that thvam asi), to the witness mode (ayam atma brahma), to the undivided mode in pragnam brahma and finally to the undivided essence (aham Brahmasmi).

In Yoga Vasishta, a ladder of seven steps of knowledge is described. It starts with auspicious wish (virtuous), reflection on virtuous conduct and true meaning, non-attachment to objects of senses, entering the  realm of true being, non-union, non-ideation and fixity in one’s on true being. (Yoga Vasishta VII: 60-70)

According to Buddhist writings, there are nine levels of meditative concentrations. They may be divided into two realms. The first four are concentrations in the “form” realm (body, feeling, perception and mental modifications) and the next five belong to the “formless” realm. The fifth level is concentration on limitless space. At the sixth level, the focus is on limitless consciousness. The seventh level is concentration on nothingness (signlessness, interconnectedness, sunyattha).  At the eighth level, there is neither perception non non-perception. Ninth level is that of cessation of ignorance. At this stage, the mind is transformed and internal modifications get purified. In this system, Samadhi actually means concentration and “mindfulness” is the method.

Most Christian mystics describe three stages: purification or purgation, illumination and finally union or communion with God. St. Teresa of Avila lists her ascent as “ladders of perfection”. These are: giving up extroversion and start in search of truth internally; detachment from the fears and pains; seeing the reflection of the Eternal Light; giving up external roles and duties; gradual withering away of all other interests and becoming indifferent to social conventions etc; obtaining some unusual mental powers; and finally a state of bliss.

In addition to the mystic experiences on the way to the state of Divine Bliss, there is a stage at which practitioners may acquire special powers as described in Patanjali’s Yoga sastra in chapter 3. These powers include ability to read the mind of another, knowing about past lives, entering the body of another, becoming invisible, becoming light of weight etc. Patanjali warns against getting stuck at this stage. In his own words samaadhaavupasarga vyutthaane siddhayah (3:38)  meaning that these powers of the worldly state are obstacles to samaadhi.  Interestingly, after describing these powers, Patanjali goes on to say thadvairagyaadhapi dhoshabeejakshaye kaivalyam meaning “detach from these powers and go beyond for freedom”(3: 51).  Some decide not to follow that advice. As noted in an earlier patagraph, St.Teresa of Avila also refers to this stage.

In my view, some cult figures are at this stage. Alternately, they might have had the true mystic experience, but for some reason have decided to “use”  powers acquired during the process for other purposes.