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Ideas Presented in Chapter 2

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[800 words]

Idea #3: Human Makeup Contains a Specific Natural Meditative Function

This idea is the most important key to building a solid understanding of what Natural Meditation is, how to do it, and how its benefits unfold. As we said in Chapter One, meditation is not just something you do. It is also something that happens to you. In this course, we refer to the effect of meditation as the meditative function, although a generation of well-respected scientific reporting on mind/body medicine has called it the relaxation response. The essence of the meditative effect is the refinement of consciousness, not the relaxation of the body. And even within the body, as we will see, the complexity and intelligence of the response far exceed what is carried by the term relaxation.

According to meditation theorists, the meditative state is a fourth state of consciousness, considered to be a peer of the three major states—waking, dreaming and sleeping. Each of these four states is unique. The meditative function is unique in that it consists of high awareness with very low physiological function. The following chart displays the four states in a matrix, sorted by awareness. High awareness on this chart is open, fluid, and light. It isn’t awareness of lots of objects, but of the essence of the self.

State of Consciousness

Awareness

Mental Activity

Bodily Activity

Meditative Function

High

Lower-Lowest

Lowest

Waking

Moderate

High

High

Dreaming

Low

Low&High

Low

Sleeping

Lowest

Lowest

Lower

It is not necessary to understand this chart in detail. The main point is that the meditative state of awareness stands in good company with other major states of awareness. Viewing it this way suggests that the fourth state is as necessary as the others for a healthy, balanced daily diet of consciousness and physiology.

In the early 1970s a burst of scientific research on meditation and relaxation techniques unveiled for scientific scrutiny the fact that meditation produces physiological effects that have long been associated with healthy conditions—deep rest, relaxed muscles, quietly organized brain waves. By the mid 1970s, the body of research, especially on Transcendental Meditation (commonly called “TM”), showed that meditation produces a coordinated and unique effect in the mind and body, an effect that cannot be “manually” created by brute intention. Within five minutes or so, the body slips into a unique physiological state. This state could never be created by brute intention because it sends us off in opposite directions at once. The body is sent in the direction of sleep’s restfulness—and beyond—while the mind is sent in the direction of waking alertness—and beyond. Meditative awareness brings reduced tension, greater blood flow to extremities, reduced blood pressure, slower breathing and reduced consumption of oxygen (a measure of metabolic level), increased brain activity associated with relaxation and happiness (alpha and theta waves) and dissolution of fatigue. Metabolically, the rest goes deeper than sleep. This has been demonstrated repeatedly in clinical studies over that last 30 years. So, it is an established scientific fact (although a poorly advertised one) that,

Humans come “pre-wired” with the capacity for meditative restful awareness

Since this is so important an idea, and one that makes a claim about the physical world (our bodies), it is important to hold it up to the light to see if it is solid. You can easily demonstrate for yourself, through doing a non-striving form of meditation such as Natural Meditation, that your own body and mind possess a natural ability to slip into physical and mental restfulness. But we cannot really, on our own, claim to know that there is a complex, intelligent function at work within ourselves when meditating. We cannot study our blood chemistry and brain waves while we are engaged in our own meditation. So let’s take a brief, but detailed, look at some reports on what scientists have discovered.

First, let’s recognize how busy they have been. In 1988 Michael Murphy and Steven Donovan of the Esalen Institute published The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation and reported 1,253 scientific and literary studies on meditation going back to 1931. When they published a second edition in 1996, they had added about 400 more studies. During those eight years, they reported, growth in research “has been nothing short of spectacular” with investigations moving beyond the gross physiology to subtle changes in biochemistry and voluntary control of internal states.

Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School was one of the first to make a long study of meditation. The following quotation comes from his best-selling The Relaxation Response (Morrow, 1975) about his studies on TM and later on the method he devised, called Relaxation Response.

The experiments showed that during meditation there was a marked decrease in the body’s oxygen consumption… The major physiologic change associated with meditation is a decrease in the rate of metabolism. Such a state of decreased metabolism, called hypometabolism, is a restful state. Like sleep, another hypometabolic state, meditation causes bodily energy resources to be taxed less... There are differences in the rate of oxygen-consumption decrease during sleep and meditation. During sleep, oxygen consumption decreases slowly and progressively, until after four or five hours it is about 8 percent lower than during wakefulness. During meditation, however, the decrease averages between 10 and 20 percent and occurs during the first three minutes of meditation. It is not possible for a person to bring about such decreases by other means. For example, if you hold your breath, your tissues will continue to utilize the available oxygen at the same rate and there will be no change in the amount of oxygen you consume…Another physiologic difference between meditation and sleep has been documented with the electroencephalogram. Alpha waves, slow brain waves, increase in intensity and frequency during the practice of meditation but are not commonly found in sleep…Other brain-wave patterns during meditation are also distinctly different from those during sleep…Meditation is therefore not a form of sleep; nor can it be used as a substitute for sleep. [p.62-64]
Benson’s original work has held up well. In 1996 Murphy and Donovan reported:
Some forty studies have shown that…oxygen consumption is reduced during meditation (in some cases up to 55%), that carbon dioxide elimination is reduced (in some cases up to 50%), that respiration rate is lessened (in some cases to one breath per minute when twelve to fourteen breaths per minute are normal), and that minute volume is also lowered……Such quieting of the organism, however, happens for the most part in quiet meditation of the TM or zazen type, not in active, high-arousal practices such as Ananda Marga Yoga.  pp. 69-70  [They cite 45 studies between 1957 and 1991]

Evidence indicating that meditation leads to an increase in alpha rhythms (slow, high amplitude brain waves extending to anterior channels and ranging in frequency from eight to thirteen cycles per second) is extensive. Studies using many types of meditation, with subject groups of one to more than fifty including beginners and Zen masters, reach that conclusion. p. 57 [They cite 36 studies between 1955 and 1987]

EEG synchronization/coherence with respect to the distribution of alpha activity         [8-13cps] between the four anatomically distinct regions of the brain—left, right, anterior, and posterior—may indicate the effectiveness of meditation. It has been positively correlated with creativity (1977).  p.59  [They cite 25 studies between 1955 and 1984]

A previous graduate student of Dr. Benson, Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D summarizes biochemical effects of meditation:

Meditation is the only activity that reduces blood lactate, a marker of stress and anxiety. The calming hormones melatonin and serotonin are increased by meditation, and the stress hormone cortisol is decreased. Meditators secrete more of the youth-related hormone DHEA as they age than nonmeditators. Meditating forty-five-year-old males have an average of 23 percent more DHEA than nonmeditators, and meditating females have an average of 47 percent more. This helps decrease stress, heighten memory, preserve sexual function, and control weight.

[Meditation as Medicine, p. 8, Pocket Books, 2001]

Dr. Khalsa’s vision regarding the physiological interior of meditation is unusually rich. We will take the following quotation as our closing. This almost amusingly entwined description of the interactive flowing of impulses and juices may be too much to grasp and may leave a “medicine-y” taste in the mouth. But it makes our point—nature is up to something when we meditate.

It has long been recognized that a person’s cognitive and emotional processes have a profound impact upon health. For the most part, this impact is mediated via the endocrine system. When you meditate, your rational thought processes, housed in your cortex, begin a quiet dialogue with your brain’s emotional centers, the hippocampus and amygdala, both of which are in your limbic system. When your cortex and limbic system agree that it is appropriate to relax, they relay the message to the hypothalamus, which connects the brain to the endocrine system. This releases a flood of calming neurotransmitters and hormones, which soothe the entire body. The immune system then secretes its own molecules of information, some of which return to the brain, helping to complete this circuitry of healing. You shift into a relaxed alpha brain wave pattern, and your nervous system is dominated by the inhibitory parasympathetic branch. When the parasympathetic nervous system is favored, you send relatively more nerve signals to your organs and glands of immunity, such as your thymus. As this occurs, you reach the ideal condition for healing—what mystics call the sacred space.

[Meditation as Medicine, p.30]

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