Clinical Applications of Meditation

Clinical Applications of Meditation

An Introduction to Meditation

The ancient tradition of Yoga and meditation began in Indian prehistory as a system of mental physical and spiritual exercises. In approximately 500BC the physician and sage Patanjali formalised this tradition into a science with four major and four lesser branches involving ethical restrain, self-discipline, mental focus, physical exercise and meditation. The entire system was used in an integrated fashion and directed at the attainment of a unique state of spontaneous, psychological integration (Neki, 1975). Modern psychologists have described this state as “individuation” (Van der Post, 1975) or “self-actualisation” (Maslow, 1964) and it has been traditional termed “self-realisation”.

Many studies of meditation and yoga have been conducted over the past 50 years with variable results (West, 1987). The advent of Transcendental Meditation in the 1960’s and 1970’s gave scientists an opportunity to study a standardised technique. Many interesting results were obtained in multifaceted studies however problems with methodology and interpretation of data have been noted (West, 1987). Similarly other techniques have been assessed giving results which are often remarkable, but unfortunately inconsistent and difficult to reproduce. The cultic connotations of many of these techniques and the organisations that promote them are also of considerable and justifiable concern and have, no doubt, hampered research in this area (Skolnick, 1992).

Yet the medical practitioner continues to intuitively recognise the role of stress in clinical illness, particularly in relation to the so-called psychosomatic’ diseases (Bridges et. A1, 1991;Cohen,, 1991).

Despite the tremendous advances in modern medicine we are still to develop truly effective strategies to deal with the common public health problems that cause the majority of mortality and morbidity in the wider community. The use of stress reduction has been shown to be beneficial in many diseases as it improves psychological and physical health and lifestyle awareness. Importantly the utilisation of stress-reducing techniques brings us closer to the ideal of a holistic, integrated health care strategy.

Several mechanisms have been proposed to explain the way in which psychological stress translates into physical disease. Some of the mystery has been explained by the “general adaptation syndrome” in which stressors induce psychohumoral changes. In the acute context these changes result in emergency adaptation of physiological function. In the context of chronic stimulation these changes, rather than maintain homeostasis, ultimately result in physical debilitation of body systems (Benson, 1976). The autonomic nervous system and the “parasympathetic response” is another mechanism worthy of investigation (Rai et al., 1988) as is the role of the Hypothalamic pituitary axis.

Regardless of the underlying theories, the majority of clinicians recognise that stress is a major contributor to disease and that a simple stress management technique, such as meditation, once scientifically proven and clinically evaluated, could be widely applied in the clinical setting.

Meditation Research

About 15 years ago in India, a professor UC Rai accomplished some pioneering work with a technique of meditation called Sahaja Yoga. He was head of the department of physiology in a well-known Delhi medical school. He himself had suffered serious angina attacks and was surprised to find that this technique of meditation seemed to alleviate his medical condition.

Prof Rai set up a multifaceted research project. Part of this was a study on the effects of Sahaja yoga meditation on chronic illnesses such as epilepsy and asthma. Rai’s research team found that regular practice of this technique reduced the frequency, severity and duration of his patients’ epileptic seizures, for example. Moreover, when Rai taught another group a mimicking exercise, which resembled but was actually not the real technique, the same improvement did not occur!

The results that Rai’s work achieved in conditions ranging from asthma to high blood pressure were very encouraging so we decided to test this technique under scientific conditions here in Australia. This was the beginning of the Meditation Research Programme.

Other Preliminary Research:
Brain Waves

In order to try and understand what it is about meditation that makes it special we have turned to some sophisticated brain imaging technology. A pilot study of advanced sahaja yoga meditators using QEEG (Quantitative Electro Encephelo Gram) has yielded some very interesting results. This method is able to produce two-dimensional maps of the electrical changes in the brain as the meditator enters into the state of meditation. Our study was conducted on a small group of meditators who were each asked to meditate while wearing a QEEG headcap designed to pickup the tiny electrical signals produced by the brain.

They were instructed to sit quietly for some time then commence meditation and to signal when they had definitely entered into the meditative state called “thoughtless awareness” .The findings were fascinating: All three of the meditators displayed widespread changes in brainwave activity that became more intense as they meditated.

Widespread, intense “alpha wave” activity occurred initially. Alpha wave activity is associated with relaxation and is thought to be a beneficial state. In fact alpha activity has been observed in a number of different forms of meditation. The remarkable thing, however, is that as the meditators signalled that they had entered into the state of mental silence, or “thoughtless awareness”, another form of brain wave activity emerged which involved “theta waves” focused specifically in the front and top of the brain in the midline.

Precisely at the time that the theta activity became prominent the meditators reported that they experienced a state of complete mental silence and “oneness” with the present moment that characterises the sahaja yoga meditative experience.

There are several remarkable features about this pilot study which warrant further investigation. First is that very few meditation techniques have shown this kind of consistent changes in the theta range suggesting that the technique may have a unique effect on the brain. We were only able to find one other study, out of several dozen published in the scientific literature, that showed changes of this nature. This study involved a group of Japanese Zen monks.

The sahaja yoga meditative experience is frequently described as a state of complete mental silence and “oneness” with the present moment. Practitioners often claim to feel the chakras (energy centres) within the head open as the meditative experience intensifies. They assert that it is this experience that is the essence of true meditation and that very few other meditation techniques enable the subject to repeatedly access this experience. The fact that the theta activity is relatively unusual and that it was observed in coincidence with the meditators’ reported experience does suggest that there may be something unique and authentic about the sahaja yoga method and its claims.

Second, it is very significant that the changes observed in the brain images occurred at the moment that the meditators reported experiencing the meditative state. This suggests that the QEEG method may make it possible to directly study mystical states of consciousness! The fact that these changes occurred within minutes rather than hours or longer suggests a relatively effortless or spontaneous process (as suggested by the name of the technique-“sahaja” is sanskrit for “effortless”)

Third, the focus of theta activity at the front of the head and top of the head, both in the midline, suggest that structures deep within the brain, possibly the limbic system, are being activated. The limbic system is responsible for many aspects of our subjective experiences such as emotion and mood so it is no surprise that meditation, which is traditionally associated with blissful states, might involve this part of the brain.

Finally, in speculation, the two areas of theta activity coincidentally correspond to the two main chakras in the brain, according to yogic tradition. The forehead chakra called “agnya” or “third eye” is located in the centre of the forehead while the chakra at the top of the head, is called “sahasrara” or “crown chakra” and is traditionally associated with the limbic system.

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