Mental Health Benefits
Meditation is A Window Into Human Consciousness
- Meditation shifts control of our attention, which results in a shift in conscious awareness or altered state of consciousness
- This altered state of awareness allows us to switch off incoming information that’s distracting, disturbing or irrelevant
- Meditation is not hypnosis or dissociation; the practitioner has full control of cognition and will, both during meditation and after
- Meditation reduces complexity in the brain and helps the brain become better connected, better balanced, better synchronized, better organized and more efficient
- Thoughtless awareness — the “fourth state of consciousness” — triggers neuroplastic changes that can help “states” become lasting traits
- Experienced meditators have quieter, calmer minds, even when idling in “default mode”
We all think we know, from first-hand experience, what it’s like to be conscious. (For example, if you’re reading this, it’s safe to say that you’re conscious.) Consciousness is a subjective, first-person experience for which you develop your own subjective, first-person perspectives. Consciousness can be thought of, simply, as your brain’s integration and interpretation of all information available to it at a given point in time.
Is meditation an altered state of consciousness? The answer is yes, of course. But how is consciousness “altered” during meditation? Attempting to fully describe the nature and experience of this mysterious state of consciousness gets more complicated.
Meditation shifts control of our attention, which results in a shift in consciousness — a shift in our conscious awareness. And it is through this shift in conscious awareness, in slipping through this window that transcends the ordinary mental and physical planes of awareness, that we receive the benefits of meditation.
Numerous studies have shown that meditation induces an altered state of consciousness. So while meditation does produce an altered state of consciousness, it’s the good kind.
Sahaja meditation is not hypnosis or dissociation. The practitioner has full control of cognition and will both during meditation and after.
Hypnosis is an artificially induced trance, characterized by heightened suggestibility and a willingness to follow someone else’s direction. Dissociation is a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity or perception that may result in psychiatric disorders such as Dissociative Amnesia, Dissociative Fugue or Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder).
Meditation involves voluntarily inducing an altered state of mind, which, with continued practice, can lead to positive long-term trait changes that stick with us, even when we’re not actively engaged in meditation.
In Sahaja meditation, repeatedly inducing the fourth state of consciousness — thoughtless awareness — causes neuroplastic changes that improve the inner workings of the brain.
Numerous studies show that the regular training of neural mechanisms through the practice of meditation can have direct, significant effects on a person’s long-term health and well-being. Over time, the brain rewires itself and shorter-term “states” can become lasting emotional traits (Aftanas, L., Golosheykin, S., 2005; Cahn, B.R., Polich J., 2006).
Meditation alters consciousness in such a way that higher brain regions (e.g., the frontal cortex) can inhibit or exert control over incoming sensory impulses, allowing us, for example, to ignore pain or noises in our environment.
This capacity to inhibit trickles all the way down to the level of the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS controls arousal; that is, brain states such as our ability to wake up every morning or our ability to ignore stimuli and inhibit impulses during meditation. For an in-depth look at the RAS and how altered consciousness happens, see: How Altered Consciousness Happens.
One 2015 fMRI study found that during meditation, long-term Sahaja practitioners experienced activation in fronto-parieto-temporal regions involved in sustained attention, and in limbic regions involved in emotional control (Hernández et la, 2015). After passing through an initial intense neural self-control process necessary to silence the mind, Sahaja meditators experienced reduced brain activity commensurate with the deepening of mental silence (across the right inferior frontal cortex/insula), reflecting an effortless process of attentional contemplation associated with the state of thoughtless awareness.
Meditation can ultimately alter our conscious perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. Ordinary consciousness involves a subjective experiencing of our environment — our minute-to-minute existence. These perceptions are characterized by the sense that there is a “self” who is experiencing these events… our emotions, thoughts, sensations, and, paradoxically, also our selves. But this self is the physical, material or “outer” self — the body, the mind or the hedonistic id within us.
Sahaja meditation, like most other forms of meditation, is designed to generate pure attention, a pure awareness of the present moment. During thoughtless awareness, the self is only present as the subject of the experience and this self is the pure inner self that does not associate itself with thoughts, emotions or sensations.
If you’re monitoring our own attention during meditation, this form of pure awareness may include some degree of self-referential awareness; that is, a self as object (the outer or material self) and a self as subject — an observing self, or self that merely observes.
In simple terms, what this means is that the meditative thoughtless awareness state helps you identify your inner self, while becoming a detached witness to anything else that you were involved in or even thought of as being associated with “yourself.” This ability to detach allows you to exercise more control over your thoughts, emotions, urges and desires.
At a purely physiological level, this awareness can be described as a form of visceral awareness or interoception, which is our sense of the physiological state of our bodies or material self. We have a distinct sense of our own homeostatic activity and the physiological condition of all tissues in our bodies, including, for example, pain, temperature, sensual touch, itching, muscular and visceral sensations, hunger and thirst. Our visceral awareness or interoceptive system relies on homeostatic metarepresentations generated in the brain (right anterior insula), which may be the basis for the subjective image of the material self as a knowing, feeling (sentient) entity. This phenomenon is what we think of as emotional awareness (Craig, A.D, 2003).
Such self-referential awareness is indicated by activity in the brain’s default mode network (DMN), which is the brain’s standby mode. The DMN kicks in we’re not attending a particular task and aren’t focused on the external world (Tagini, A., Raffone, A., 2010). In an unquiet mind that is too preoccupied with its own thoughts, the DMN can play a role in disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, PTSD, depression and anxiety. Studies have shown that experienced meditators show reduced activity in this brain network even when not meditating and can, in fact, even literally turn it off during meditation (Brewer, J., 2011).
One Sahaja meditation study using MRI and Voxel-Based Morphometry (Hernández et al, 2016) found that long-term Sahaja practitioners (compared with non-meditators) had significantly larger grey matter volume in right hemispheric regions (insula, ventromedial orbitofrontal cortex, inferior temporal and parietal cortices) associated with, in part, interoceptive perception and self-monitoring of autonomic functions. Increased gray matter volume in these attention and emotional regulation regions suggests that regular Sahaja practice may enhance interoception neuroplastically; that is, provide lasting changes across the practitioner’s lifetime.
Numerous studies have shown that the altered state of consciousness brought about by meditation triggers important positive neurophysiological effects. For example, EEG studies have shown gamma band oscillations in — and long-distance synchronies between — brain areas, which may explain how various aspects of conscious experience and perceptions are bound together, neurophysiologically speaking, into our subjective state of moment-to-moment awareness (Aftanas and Golocheikine, 2001, 2002b, 2003; Lutz A., Thompson E., 2003; Sauvé, K., 1999). The result is a brain capable of more efficient, better integrated information processing. Meditation’s inherent ability to allow us to attend to the present has been found to create better balanced, better integrated functioning of the left and right cerebral hemispheres (Earle, J.B., 1984). The result is more holistic, simultaneous, synergistic thinking.
Several studies of the meditating brain, including studies of experienced Sahaja practitioners, have shown that the state of thoughtless awareness one experiences during meditation is accompanied by differences in the brain’s electrical activity. Studies of experienced Sahaja meditators have shown that thoughtless awareness increases long-distance theta wave connectivity (correlating to positive emotional state), and increased overall alpha power (heightened attentional state). Long-distance theta connectivity indicated increased intensive information processing during thoughtless awareness, compared to a resting state (Aftanas, L., Golocheikine, S, 2001).
Meditation has been found to increase the “orderliness” of the brain, often referred to as coherence in EEG studies (Khare & Nigam, 2000). Sahaja meditation has been found to reduce complexity in the brain; i.e, it reduced the number of cell assemblies activated, which is considered to be an indicator of the complexity of neuronal computations going on in the brain, (Aftanas & Golocheikine, 2002). This reduced complexity also reflected the meditator’s ability to switch off irrelevant or distracting neural connections in order to reduce incoming information and maintain internal attentional focus during this altered state of awareness (Aftanas, L., Golocheikine, S., 2002).
Meditation offers a fascinating window into human consciousness, psychology, and experience. It teaches us about the relationships between mental states and body physiology, between emotion and thought processing, and ultimately, perhaps, the neurological correlates of spiritual experience.
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