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Thoughtless Awareness

Sahaja Meditation is More Than Relaxation

Sahaja Meditation is More Than Relaxation Therapy

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • The benefits of Sahaja meditation extend far beyond simple relaxation.
  • Meditation produces stronger activity in brain areas responsible for autonomic (automatic or involuntary) emotional and attentional control.
  • Relaxation therapies and relaxation-only meditation tends to provide short-term state effects, rather than lasting emotional and personalty trait effects that have a long-term impact on our mental and physical health and well-being.
  • Sahaja meditation’s state of thoughtless awareness activates and connects brain regions that bring about enhanced attentional skills and and positive emotions, making it a beneficial therapy for people with depression, anxiety and attention-deficit disorders.
  • Thoughtless awareness, compared to relaxation therapy and a non-mental silence approach to meditation, has been found to trigger more significant positive changes in personal ethics, as well as psychoemotional health, including reduction of stress, depression and anxiety.

Historically, meditation has been plagued by the myth that it is nothing more than “a relaxation technique.” It’s certainly true that most all forms of meditation do provide the benefit of relaxation; in fact, some meditation techniques don’t claim to provide benefits beyond simple relaxation. And there’s widespread agreement in the scientific literature that meditation helps bring our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in balance, which reduces physiological arousal and, in turn, triggers such immediate physiological changes as: reduced respiratory rate, heart rate and blood pressure. For that matter, non-meditative relaxation strategies such as breathing exercises, listening to music, or simply sitting quietly may demonstrate similar neurobiological patterns of relaxation.

Mental relaxation feeds back to the body, leading to deeper physical relaxation. Because the mind and body are inextricably linked, it’s fair to say that any technique that relaxes the mind relaxes the body. And vice versa. Brain scans during meditation do reveal some overlap between meditation and simple relaxation, for example:

  • Both meditation and relaxation therapy reduce activity in paralimbic brain regions (e.g., the anterior cingulate and insula) that are known to control sympathetic nervous system arousal (Rubia, 2009).
  • Both generate alpha wave brain activity, which is associated with a beneficial, relaxed state of mind (e.g., Aftanas, 2001 2005; Cahn and Polich, 2006).
  • Both show neural indicators of physical relaxation (e.g., simple muscle relaxation) in brain regions that are known to inhibit movement and motor activity (Rubia, 2009).

But the benefits of Sahaja meditation extend far beyond simple relaxation. Practitioners have long understood that, of course, but neuroscientific studies over the past few years, in documenting the specific neurophysiological mechanisms behind what meditators experience,  have shown how and why.

Above and beyond similarities in activity in neural networks associated with generic relaxation and relaxation-only meditation, Sahaja meditation has been found to trigger stronger activity in paralimbic regions associated with relaxation.

More importantly, regular meditation can positively shift our emotional set-point. Functional imaging studies that directly compared meditation to relaxation have found that meditation also activates key attention (fronto-parietal) and affective or emotional (fronto-limbic) networks involved in internalized attention, emotional regulation and contentment (Aftanas and Golocheikine, 2001, 2002 a, b, 2003; Brefczynski-Lewis et al., 2007; Lutz et al., 2004; Newberg, 2001; Newberg, Iverson, 2003; Cahn and Polich, 2006). This suggests that, compared to relaxation therapies, meditation produces stronger activity in brain areas responsible for autonomic (automatic or involuntary) emotional and attentional control. So while it’s fair to say that there are many relaxation therapies that can help calm and relax us, reduce our emotional reactivity, and improve our ability to focus and manage stressors, it’s a matter of degree. Specific effects. And how long those effects last.

And perhaps most importantly, studies have shown that the functioning of these meditation-specific neural networks can be improved over time with practice, experience and the intensity of the meditative experience. Relaxation therapies and relaxation-only meditation, on the other hand, tend to provide largely short-term state effects, rather than lasting emotional and personalty trait effects that have a long-term impact on our mental and physical health and well-being. (Aftanas, Golocheikine, 2005; Cahn and Polich, 2006)

 

The Thoughtless Awareness Difference

Sahaja meditation’s ability to produce more robust neurophysiological effects that result in important mental and physical health benefits begins with its ability to give meditators the experience of thoughtless awareness, a higher, purer plane of consciousness that is, in essence, achieved by lengthening the gap of time between our thoughts. Thoughtless awareness transcends the ordinary mental, physical and emotional planes of consciousness where we think, feel and analyze, allowing us to “go offline to make repairs” to emotional and cognitive processing. The meditator is able to observe his or her thoughts and feelings in a detached, nonjudgmental, nonreactive way and focus only on the present, rather than ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.

Thoughtless awareness reduces stressful mental activity, resulting in specific effects that improve cognitive functioning and emotional stability. Sahaja meditation has been found to activate and connect brain regions that bring about enhanced attentional skills and positive emotions, making it a beneficial therapy for people with depression, anxiety and attention-deficit disorders.

(Aftanas, Golocheikine, 2001, 2002b, 2003, 2005). In fact, studies show that experienced Sahaja meditators are even able to switch off irrelevant neural circuitry that interferes with their ability to function optimally, allowing them to maintain focused, internalized attention and to inhibit negative, intrusive or distracting thoughts and feelings (Aftanas L., Golocheikine S., 2001).

Neurophysiological studies comparing Sahaja meditation’s state of thoughtless awareness or mental silence to non-mental silence forms of meditation have consistently revealed deeper specific benefits provided by thoughtless awareness.

These include, for example:

  • Increased alpha waves indicative of relaxation are found during the initial stages of a Sahaja meditation session. But studies have found that when Sahaja meditators signal that they had reached a state of thoughtless awareness or “oneness with the present moment,” theta activity appeared in the frontal mid-line areas of the brain (front and top of the brain), indicating a state of positive emotions and heightened attention (Afranas, Golcheikine, 2001a, b). In a waking theta state, we can access and influence the powerful subconscious mind where emotional experiences and behavioral changes are integrated. We are capable of deep and profound learning, creativity, healing, and growth.
  • One 6-week study comparing Sahaja meditation, Hatha Yoga (relaxation yoga) and executive corporate social responsibility (CSR) training found that only the deep introspective nature of the Sahaja meditation technique of thoughtless awareness could significantly improve corporate managers’ social consciousness by shifting their cognitive capacities, emotional capacities and personal values. Their decision­making criteria shifted from self­-interest to more compassionate and ethical criteria. In addition to significantly improving mood, overall sense of well-being and reducing stress, anxiety and negative emotions, Sahaja meditation was found to stimulate self­-transcending behaviors, such as striving for self-improvement, increased openness to change, and developing a broader, more evolved sense of self. (For an in-depth look at this study, see Social Consciousness: How Sahaja meditation’s Thoughtless Awareness Helps Corporate Managers Develop a Social Conscience.)
  • There has been a widespread assumption within the research community that meditation follows a “relaxation paradigm,” triggering physiological changes, such as reducing heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, but increasing skin temperature. One study of Sahaja meditation, however, showed a reduction in palm skin temperature during the state of thoughtless awareness, whereas, the skin temperature of controls performing a simple relaxation exercise increased. This phenomenon suggests that thoughtless awareness is both physiologically and experientially unique, compared to both simple relaxation and other forms of meditation. The degree of skin temperature decreases correlated with the intensity of thoughtless awareness reported by meditators (Manocha et al, 2010).

Sahaja’s thoughtless awareness, compared to a non-mental silence approach to meditation, was found to be, on average, twice as effective in reducing work-related stress, general depressive symptoms and some symptoms of anxiety (Manocha, Black et al, 2009).

 

Neuroplasticity and Long-Term Effects of Meditation

Perhaps the best evidence that meditation is more than simple relaxation — and more deeply beneficial — can be found in studies demonstrating that meditation can have lasting, long-term effects on the mind-body. In addition to providing relaxation and stress relief, Sahaja meditation has been found to have profound long-term effects on functional and structural brain plasticity.

For example, many studies have established that long-term practice meditative practice has a lasting influence on neuroendocrine system activity, both during meditation and after.

Specifically, meditation reduces levels of stress hormones such as:

  • cortisol and ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) (Jevning, et al., 1978; Sudsuang, et al., 1991)
  • noradrenaline and adrenaline (Walton, K.G., et al, 1995; Infante, J.R., 2001; Newberg, Iverson, 2003).

Meditation increases:

  • serotonin (associated with positive mood), especially in long-term meditators (Newberg, A., Iverson, J., 2003; Bujatti, 1976; Walton, et al, 1995; Newberg, A., Iverson, J., 2003; Solberg et al., 2000a, 2004b)
  • GABA, which has a calming, anti-anxiety effect (Elias, A.N., Wilson, A.F., 2000)
  • dopamine, which is involved in pleasure and reward, motivation, motor activity, attention regulation and triggering endorphin release (Kjaer et al., 2002; Lou et al., 1999)
  • glutamate, which is associated with learning, memory and brain plasticity (Hart, et al., 1995).

Significantly greater gray matter concentration and density has been found in the right hippocampus of experienced meditators, which may help explain the ability of meditators to cognitively regulate emotional responses (Hölzel, B., Ott, U., et al, 2008). The hippocampus helps down-regulate or calm the amygdala, our emotion-processing factory. The amygdala and the hippocampus are a pair of small brain structures that work in tandem to generate emotions, attach emotions to memories, and store and index those memories.

The dose effect

Many studies have revealed the experience-dependent “dose effect” of long-term meditation on key neurofunctional networks (Aftanas and Golocheikine, 2001, 2002a,b, 2003; Brefczynski-Lewis et al., 2007; Farb et al., 2007). Several studies comparing the physiology or neurobiology of long-term versus short-term meditators have found key differences in brain activity that result in specific mental health benefits (Cahn and Polich, 2006; Jevning et al., 1992; Aftanas and Golocheikine, 2001, 2002a, b, 2003; Brefczynski-Lewis et al., 2007; Hoelzel et al., 2007).

Both studies comparing experienced meditators to novices and studies comparing initial, lighter meditative states to Sahaja’s more intense state of thoughtless awareness have found that the intensity of brain activity in attention- and emotion-related brain regions during thoughtless awareness correlated with the intensity of thought reduction and meditation-induced happiness that meditators reported experiencing (Aftanas and Golocheikine, 2001, 2002a,b, 2003, 2005).

Meditation activates these neural networks; relaxation therapies do not. And these networks can be progressively improved with new “doses” of meditation (Rubia, 2009). In other words, the more often we meditate, the more we benefit.

The brains of experienced Sahaja meditator’s have been found to be better connected, better balanced, better synchronized, better organized, and more efficient.

One study of Sahaja meditation practitioners used spectral EEG to examine differences in the emotional experiences of short-term and long-term practitioners. Long-term practitioners showed greater positive affect (emotion) and stronger electrical “long-distance” connectivity and coherence (“orderliness”) between brain regions that are required for experiencing positive emotions and are not associated with heavy mental processing (Aftanas, Golocheikine, 2005). Sahaja meditation helps reduce complexity, clarify and optimize our thinking processes in the same way that an accomplished software programmer can write a more efficient, more sophisticated, better optimized application in fewer lines of code.

This study also provided neurophysiological evidence of the long-term effects of Sahaja meditation on emotional stability, detachment from negative events, and greater emotional resilience to stressful life events.

Long-term meditators, compared to the control group, showed much lower psychological and physiological reactivity to stressful stimuli. The regular practice of Sahaja meditation appears to alter brain wave rhythmicity in the thinking (cortical or cerebral) parts of the brain. Experienced Sahaja meditators were found to have higher emotional stability than beginners, characterized by lower levels of trait anxiety and neuroticism and greater emotional intelligence (Aftanas L., Golosheykin S., 2005). Experienced meditators could better identify their emotions, enjoyed a wider spectrum of positive emotional experiences, and were shown to bounce back quicker after stressful events.

Relaxation is a necessary pursuit for ongoing health and well-being, but relaxation alone and quasi-meditation techniques cannot necessarily cure all that ails us, or transform us into the enlightened human beings that we strive to be. Meditation, on the other hand, seems to have a unique ability to harness the brain’s natural plasticity to produce lasting improvements in our cognitive and emotional well-being.

References

Aftanas, LI, Golosheikin, SA. Changes in cortical activity in altered states of consciousness: The study of meditation by high-resolution EEG. Hum Physiol 2003;29:143–151.

Aftanas LI, Golocheikine SA (2001) Human anterior and frontal midline theta and lower alpha reflect emotionally positive state and internalized attention: high-resolution EEG investigation of meditation. Neuroscience Letters 310: 57-60.

Aftanas, L., & Golocheikine, S. (2002). Non-linear dynamic complexity of the human EEG during meditation. Neuroscience Letters, 330 (2), 143.

Aftanas, L., Golosheykin, S., 2005. Impact of regular meditation practice on EEG activity at rest and during evoked negative emotions. International Journal of Neuroscience115(6),893–909.

Cahn, B.R., Polich, J., 2006. Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological Bulletin 132 (2), 180–211.

Farb NAS, Segal ZV, Mayberg H, Bean J, McKeon D, Fatima Z, Anderson AK. Attending to the present: Mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2007.

Hölzel BK, Ott U, Hempel H, Hackl A, Wolf K, et al. (2007) Differential engagement of anterior cingulate and adjacent medial frontal cortex in adept meditators and non-meditators. Neuroscience Letters 421: 16-21.

Hölzel BK, Ott U, Gard T, Hempel H, Weygandt M, et al. (2008) Investigation of mindfulness meditation practitioners with voxel-based morphometry. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 3: 55-61.

Lutz A, Brefczynski-Lewis J, Johnstone T, Davidson RJ (2008) Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise. PLoS ONE 3: e1897.

Manocha R, Black D, Ryan J, Stough C, Spiro D, Changing Definitions of Meditation: Physiological Corollorary, Journal of the International Society of Life Sciences, Vol 28 (1), Mar 2010.

Manocha, R., Black, D., Wilson, L.. (2012) Quality of Life and Functional Health Status of Long-Term Meditators. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Volume 2012.

Newberg, A., Alavi, A., Baime, M., Pourdehnad, M., Santanna, J., & d’Aquili, E. (2001). The measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during the complex cognitive task of meditation: A preliminary SPECT study. Psychiatry Research, 106, 113–122.

Newberg, A., & Iversen, J. (2003). The neural basis of the complex mental task of meditation: Neurotransmitter and neurochemical considerations. Medical Hypotheses, 61, 282–291.

Rubia, K. The neurobiology of Meditation and its clinical effectiveness in psychiatric disorders. Biological Psychology. 2009 Sep; 82(1):1-11.

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The science of Thoughtless Awareness