If the eye cannot see itself,
can the brain heal itself?
Seeking spiritual, mental or physical healing through meditation
By Maya Khankhoje
In a small provincial town in post-independence India, a half-naked man lay in the middle of the road. There was no traffic, not yet. A girl on her way to school stopped her bike and closely observed his chest. There was no visible pulse or telltale rise and fall of his ribcage. Her own pulse was racing as she decided to fetch a constable but then she stopped. The man’s body was splayed in the traditional shavasana or yoga corpse pose. When the girl realized that this man was in a deep meditative trance, she mounted her bike and took off to school leaving the man alone.
In Mexico City a young girl was undergoing a painful procedure at the dentist. She took a deep breath and then exhaled slowly and started observing the pain as if it belonged to someone else. The pain lessened its hold on her.
In the Turkish City of Cappadocia, several tourists sat in a caravanserai, eager to be privy to a promised mystery. Several men, clad in long woollen skirts and coiffed with tall hats that looked like upended flowerpots, made their appearance in the court. Their arms were held wide open, their right hand pointing skywards, their left hand seeking the ground. As they whirled faster and faster their eyes glazed over. The audience held its breath. These men were Sufi mystics whose meditative practices belied the immobility required by other contemplative traditions.
In the Bahamas, a handful of Canadians dressed in simple cotton garments, held a silent pre-dawn walk along the beach, oblivious to the impending storm.
In New York City, a 103-year old Buddhist monk interrupted his mundane duties as a Cambodian refugee adviser to the UN, to share a meditation session with a handful of people. His calm demeanour was so soothing that an anxious woman dissolved into tears of relief.
This disparate group of people from different continents shared one thing in common. They were all meditating in their own unique way. What was in it for them?
… first control the outgoing senses and harness the mind. Then meditate upon the light in the heart of the fire – meditate, that is, upon pure consciousness as distinct from the ordinary consciousness of the intellect. Thus the Self, the Inner Reality, may be seen behind physical appearance.
– Svetasvatara, The Upanishads
If asked, they would all say they were seeking some form of healing: spiritual, mental or physical. And they were all doing it by meditating, that is, by concentrating on their breath or silently repeating a word or observing themselves and their environment.
Some of the examples mentioned in this brief enquiry are meditation techniques closely linked to different religious traditions. The reason for this is that meditation, mindfulness, communion, introspection and other terms denoting techniques to calm the ever-chattering brain, have been traditionally associated with some religious traditions.
However, this brief enquiry into the nature of mindfulness is purely from a secular and evidence-based perspective. Does meditation produce changes in the mind and body, and if so, are these changes temporary or permanent?
‘Of all teachings, the ultimate is emptiness, of which compassion is the very essence.
It is like a powerful medicine, a panacea that can cure every disease in the world.’
Some might argue that anecdotal accounts of meditational experiences have no place in a brief exploration of meditation as medicine. But then again, since meditation is perhaps the most intimate of all mental activities, subjectivity is par for the course, but, who knows, science might surprise us and be able to measure the incommensurable. In any case, the Dalai Lama, supreme meditator and modern man of science, has always enjoined his followers to choose science over beliefs, in case of conflict between the two.
There are many schools or styles of meditation, if you wish, and most of the ones presently in vogue in the West seem to come from the East. Most, if not all, traditional societies incorporate some form of meditation into their spiritual or healing practices.
First of all, what exactly is meditation? And here goes a purely personal take: from a spiritual perspective, it can be considered to be a practice that connects a human being to a higher level of consciousness. From a secular perspective, it can be summed up as a technique that induces a shift into lucid consciousness. From the perspective of a harried individual living in very interesting times, meditation is a means of reducing stress and remaining a productive member of an ever-shifting economy. In other words, the meaning of meditation varies according to the practitioner. What seems perfectly clear is that it fulfils a very human need, whether it is biologically determined or socially constructed.
‘To practice without learning is like a cripple trying to climb a mountain.
To learn without practicing is like a blind man lost on a vast plain.’
– Oral Tradition
Ever since meditation made its way into the Western world in a big way in the sixties, psychologists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists and other evidence-based physicians started studying how it affects the mind and body of its practitioners. The spread of Buddhism in the West, particularly the growth of Tibetan Buddhism, has further encouraged the scientific study of meditation. The Dalai Lama himself, for spiritual and perhaps even for temporal reasons, has actively promoted scientific research on Buddhist meditation. The availability of Tibetan Buddhist monks, who have rigorously practiced their discipline over long years and in complete isolation, has further facilitated longitudinal in-depth studies, a fact which is of great importance in scientific research.
The main types of meditation popular in the West are Transcendental Meditation, Kriya Meditation, Vipassana, Kundalini Meditation and Zen Meditation. Some of these meditation traditions have been renamed as Mindfulness Meditation, Single-Point Meditation, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindful Attention Training and so on. This is not an exhaustive list but a mere sample.
Transcendental Meditation or TM for short, made its first appearance in the West thanks to the high profile of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles’ guru, but it has somehow waned in importance with the decline of Beatlemania and the rise of celebrity Buddhism as espoused by Hollywood A-listers like actor Richard Gere.
But the fulgor of Hollywood stars has not dimmed the illumination sought, and often found, by myriads of anonymous practitioners around the world. Most meditators in modern Western societies seek better mental, emotional and physical coping mechanisms. This includes better concentration and memory, more focused attention, enhanced sleep patterns, lower blood pressure, better impulse inhibition, reduced negative ideation and lessened anxiety. Most first-person reports confirm these results. Let’s see whether rigorous scientific research agrees with these experiential findings.
‘Contemplative traditions on the whole have historically emphasized subjective, first-person investigation of the nature and functions of consciousness by training the mind to focus in a disciplined way on its own internal states.’
– His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard-trained cardiologist, decided to find out. He was one of the first scientists in the West who was open to experiments on the links between meditation and blood pressure. Dr. Benson founded the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard, which he used as a platform for his research during the sixties and seventies. He also coined the term “relaxation response” as a substitute for “meditation” after discovering that meditation does indeed appear to lower blood pressure.
However, the findings of such experiments may vary according to research methodology. A poorly designed experiment can yield faulty results. This is particularly true in the case of meta-analyses of clinical studies with cardiovascular disease patients. Results, in such cases, have been encouraging but not necessarily conclusive.
Longevity is another parameter believed to be influenced by meditation. It has always been held that human life expectancy is fixed and not susceptible to change and that only an individual’s life can be marginally extended with better health practices and environmental conditions.
The latest research points to a possibility of upgrading our epigenetics, or the manner in which genes express themselves in response to stressors. Telomeres are the caps of the DNA strands that determine how long a cell will live. “Telomerase is the enzyme that slows the age-related shortening of the telomeres; the more telomerase, the better for health and longevity.” Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, authors of Altered Traits, report a meta-analysis of four randomized controlled studies, which concluded that mindfulness meditation was associated with increased telomerase activity, hence extended longevity. Please note, however, that the word association does not imply causality.
‘The meditation of all beings is spoiled by effort. While there is nothing at all to be meditated upon, one should also not be distracted for even an instant. This, I proclaim, is the meditation of Mahamudra.’
– Saraha, great Indian Master
Neuroscience has greatly benefitted from the latest imaging technologies that have allowed scientists to take a peak into the brain. With fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) they have even succeeded in looking at brain functions at work. Some of the research involves reduction of the neural plaque associated with Alzheimer’s, neurogenesis or the growth of new brain cells, neuroplasticity, or the reshaping of the brain with repeated experiences and so on.
Richard J. Davidson, Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology and director of a brain laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has studied long-term meditators who had a mean of 9,000 hours of Vipassana meditation under their belt. The results were astounding. Dr. Davidson reports “the emergence of neural hormonal indicators of lessened stress reactivity. In addition, functional connectivity in the brain in a circuit important for emotion regulation is strengthened, and cortisol, a key hormone secreted by the adrenal gland in response to stress, lessens.” Voilà, Dr. Benson’s preliminary research decades ago on the relaxation response was heading in the right direction.
And since we are touching upon the brain’s activities, how does meditation affect a person’s emotional makeup? Robert Wright, psychologist and author of Why Buddhism is True, has written extensively on the links between science and religion. One of the areas he has studied in great depth is the nexus between physical pain and emotions. He is keenly aware of the importance of the fight or flight response as an evolutionary mechanism to ensure survival of the species.
However, he also recognizes that this response does not serve us well in our modern society and is actually at the root of many illnesses, both physical as well as psychical. In fact, he cheekily states that, “the human brain was designed – by natural selection – to mislead us, even to enslave us.”
To buttress his claim, he quotes Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a meditation teacher in the Buddhist tradition, “Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.” However, Wright cautions against using meditation as a short-term fix to improve self-esteem or induce equanimity. Meditation, in his opinion, can only truly help in the long run within an ethical and moral context.
‘We believe profoundly in silence – the sign of a perfect equilibrium. Silence is the absolute poise or balance of body, mind and spirit.’
– Ohiyesa, XIX Century Santee Dakota physician
Hard science does not concern itself with ethics and morality, but it certainly aims to effect real change. Does meditation merely alter a physical or emotional state or does it alter a trait permanently?
Even though permanency is anathema to Buddhist and Taoist philosophy, Dr. Goleman and Dr. Davidson inducted beginner, long-term and yogi practitioners to find out. Their results differed according to each category. The amygdala is that part of the brain that belongs to the limbic system and is strongly involved in emotions and motivations. Beginners’ brains show less amygdala reactivity to stress as well as improved attention, enhanced working memory and a marginal reduction in markers for inflammation.
The results for long-term meditators are more solid. Brain and hormonal indicators showed lowered reactivity to stress and lessened inflammation, lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol and greater neural attunement with those who are suffering. A stronger selective attention, fewer self-obsessed thoughts, a slower metabolic rate and signs of meditative states during sleep were also observed.
The results for yogis, that is, meditators with an average of 27,000 hours of lifetime meditation, were “Olympic” level, in the authors’ words. An added bonus was that, “yogis’ brains seem to age more slowly compared to brains of other people their age.” Their final conclusion: “… the yogis’ brain states at rest resemble the brain states of others while they meditate — the state has become a trait.”
Buddhism is often defined as the science of consciousness, with meditation as its methodology. Others consider Buddhism to be the oldest school of psychology. Karl Jung himself was greatly influenced by Buddhism because, as he often said, “Buddha stood for rational insight” and, unlike other religious figures, Buddha placed man at the centre and not God.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a contemporary mental health practitioner, would agree. He is responsible for having developed MBSR at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester. This type of meditation helps people to change their relationship to pain in order to achieve pain relief without the use of analgesics. Pain relief, at a purely physical level, can also be attained by reducing stress since the latter can cause “neurogenic” flare-ups of inflammatory disorders. While pain is experienced locally and then transmitted by nerves to the brain, it is at the brain level that pain perception takes place.
Consciousness, once again, is the key to understanding this process and meditation is the door to consciousness.
These accounts of personal experiences with meditation as well as an ever-growing body of scientific experiments, allow us to conclude that meditation, or mindfulness, can certainly be viewed as medicine. Now, whether some of these healing practices are merely placebos, others merely temporary solutions and yet others permanent transformations – but only for life-long deep practitioners – is a question that remains to be answered. The eye might not be able to see itself, but it is in the nature of the brain, or rather the mind, to keep asking questions.
Feature image: Pixabay
Maya Khankhoje is a retired conference interpreter, a writer by vocation and a long-time resident of Westmount.