Scientific Evidence of Thoughtless Awareness
In the 1990s, the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) defined meditation as: “a conscious mental process that induces a set of integrated physiological changes termed the relaxation response.”
But in recent years, NCCAM has shifted its understanding of meditation to include a new primary feature: “Meditation refers to a group of techniques, most of which started in Eastern religious or spiritual traditions. In meditation, a person learns to focus his or her attention and suspend the stream of thoughts that normally occupy the mind.”
Quite a shift in perspectives, isn’t it?
This redefinition reflects a shift in perspective of meditation as primarily a physiological response (“relaxation-response”) to a more experiential (suspension of thinking activity) perspective, one that can include a rich, impactive experience like thoughtless awareness.
That thoughtless awareness is “real” is not speculation. It is a verifiable experience that’s available to everyone with practice. It would be, in fact, impossible to mimic or fake in the modern world of neuroimaging and electroencephalograms.
Thoughtless awareness, is an extraordinarily inspired state of calm, alert and intuitive consciousness with self-integration. And it can be explained and understood within the framework of modern neuroscience (Deshmukh, V.D., 2004).
Many studies of the meditating brain, including studies of Sahaja meditation practitioners, have shown that the altered state of consciousness one experiences during meditation is accompanied by differences in the brain’s electrical activity. Researchers view electrical brain patterns as an objective language with which they can analyze and differentiate the experiences of various meditative practices, as well as to differentiate states of consciousness within a particular meditation session.
What does thoughtless awareness look like in the brain? Recent spectral EEG studies of Sahaja may yield some clues about the neurophysiological mechanisms underlying thoughtless awareness…
Many EEG studies have shown that intense, widespread alpha wave activity, which is associated with relaxation and believed to be beneficial, is found during meditators’ initial readings — i.e., the first few moments of meditation.
But studies of Sahaja meditation found that when the meditators signaled that they had reached a state of thoughtless awareness or “oneness,” theta activity appeared in the frontal mid-line areas of the brain — the front and top of the brain (Afranas, & Golcheikine, 2001).
Increased theta connectivity in these regions indicates a positive emotional state and increased overall alpha power correlates to a heightened attentional state. In Sahaja meditation, these brain regions are associated with two chakras: the Agnya (optic chiasma) chakra, which is located at the front of the brain in the center forehead area, and the Sahasrara (integration, limbic) chakra, located in the limbic (emotional) region of the brain.
Researchers speculated that these results may suggest that the inner energy (kundalini) flowing through these chakras or energy centers might be responsible for the meditators’ increased alpha and theta wave activity and emotionally positive experience of bliss. Theta activity has long been associated with introspective states such as meditation, dreams and other states characterized by the inhibition of external perceptions and processes.
“Long-distance” theta activity during Sahaja meditation — connectivity across multiple brain regions — indicated heightened and intense information processing during the state of thoughtless awareness, compared to a resting state. But the experience of thoughtless awareness, for the meditator, can be thought of as a resting attentiveness.
So, while thoughtless awareness feels restful, it has a built-in capacity, through sharper, internalized attention, to bind together various aspects of our attentional, perceptual and emotional experience into a state of purer, unified awareness.
Other studies have shown similar, distinctive patterns of theta activity in the frontal brain regions of Sahaja meditators during thoughtless awareness, accompanied by reduced activity in parietal-occipital brain regions, which indicates reduced mental processing associated with self, space and, time (Baijal, S., Srinivasan, N., 2010). The experiences of thoughtless awareness and positive emotions during meditation actually have known speciﬁc neurophysiological correlates. These experiences activate and connect brain regions that bring about internalized attention and emotional regulation. This enhanced long-distance connection between frontal and parietal regions may even be required for the intense, internalized attentional state of thoughtless awareness that is characteristic of Sahaja meditation, and has been associated with deeper mental health benefits (Aftanas and Golocheikine, 2001, 2002b, 2003).
A 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 the effortless process of attentional contemplation associated with the state of thoughtless awareness.
Neuroscience is beginning to explore the neurochemical and neurophysiological bases of thoughtless awareness. Meditation has been found to deliver positive mental health benefits (such as, calmness, stress relief, pleasure, elevated mood, enhanced motivation, improved sleep quality, enhanced immunity) by increasing levels of neurotransmitters and neurohormones, such as dopamine, serotonin, GABA (gamma-aminobutyricacid), melatonin, glutamate and beta-endorphins and decreasing stress hormones such as, norepinephrine, epinephrine, cortisol, adrenocorticotropic hormone. Meditation has been found to enhance attention, learning and memory by increasing neurotransmitters such as arginine vasopressin, dopamine and acetylcholine. (For details and scientific evidence, see: Evidence of Meditation’s Impact on Neurotransmitters & Neurohormones.)
Evidence of the Benefits of Thoughtless Awareness
Many studies have examined the preventive and therapeutic benefits of meditation. One 2016 Sahaja meditation study using the brain structure imaging techniques of MRI and Voxel-Based Morphometry found that long-term Sahaja practitioners (compared with non-meditators) had significantly larger grey matter volume (GMV) across their entire brains, a phenomenon that has not previously been found in practitioners of any other meditation technique (Hernández et al, 2016). No GMV increases were found in non-meditators.
This study also found increased gray matter volume in right hemispheric regions (insula, ventromedial orbitofrontal cortex, inferior temporal and parietal cortices) associated with sustained attention and cognitive control, emotional control, self-awareness, interoceptive perception, monitoring of autonomic functions, and feelings of empathy and compassion. Increased gray matter volume in these attention and emotional regulation regions suggests that regular Sahaja practice may enhance the functions controlled by these regions.
GMV was also found to be greater in Sahaja practitioners’ left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and left insula, regions involved in attention, improved performance in cognitive tasks and emotional intelligence. Increased GMV in the insula has been associated with increased self-actualizing, “good life” traits such as, personal growth, self-acceptance, purpose in life, self-directedness and autonomy.
Another neuroimaging study found that Sahaja meditation may exert top-down emotional regulation, improving our ability to appraise an event’s emotional-motivational significance without overreacting emotionally (Reva et al, 2014). The study suggests that long-term Sahaja meditation may cause neuroplastic changes that enable this ability to gradually become automatic.
One global study investigated the short-term health impact of the thoughtless awareness state on patients from different continents and diverse cultures, including: the United States, Canada, Australia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, Russia, the Middle East, India, Hongkong, China, Singapore and others (Sandeep, R., et al, 2010). Some participants had physical ailments, such as diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease, asthma, jaundice, arthritis, hypothyroidism or cancer, while others were physically healthy.
Results showed that only one week of Sahaja training improved the general health of patients with a variety of health conditions. Participants suffering from anxiety and depression showed clinically relevant improvement after one week of meditation. Improvements in psychological well-being were even found for patients who were psychologically healthy at baseline.
Thoughtless awareness was found to trigger positive changes in psychological, neurological and autonomic functions. Sahaja meditation was found to reduce stress, fear and anxiety, increase psychosocial coping abilities, and help build long-term resilience against emotional challenges.
Thoughtless awareness was believed to modulate limbic (emotional) system activity, which can, in turn, modulate sympathetic nervous activity and regulate endocrine and neurotransmitter functioning via the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus regulates certain metabolic processes such as bodily temperature and other autonomic activities. Other studies have found that conditioning of these regions through a Sahaja meditative practice may help restore normal functioning of such homeostatic mechanisms (Aftanas L., Golosheykin S., 2005).
The study concluded that the ease of achieving thoughtless awareness through Sahaja meditation techniques makes Sahaja meditation promising both as a primary and adjunct treatment for diseases and disorders for which psychological stress is a significant risk factor. But perhaps most importantly, it was found to be an important lifestyle modification technique and resilience-enhancer, even for the psychologically healthy.
The benefits of thoughtless awareness appear to increase with the frequency with which we experience it. For example, an Australian study examining the overall health of 343 experienced meditators (2 years or more) found that thoughtless awareness may be the most significant contributor to the meditator’s functional health, and that the more frequently people experienced thoughtless awareness, the better their health. But the study also showed that meditators who experienced thoughtless awareness even once or twice per month had better functional health, vitality, and quality of life than the general population (Manocha, Black, Wilson, 2012).
Thoughtless awareness is a refreshing experience of no experience, which some researchers have proposed may be somewhat similar to a state of non-REM alertness — waking up from a sound, non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement), no-dream sleep (Deshmukh, V. D., 2006). Neurobehavioral energy and mentation (thought) is thought to exist in either a potential or kinetic form.
During dream sleep and normal interactive consciousness, energy and thought are in kinetic form. During non-REM alertness, as well as during non-REM sleep, conscious mentation (thought) exists only in a potential form. The moment one leaves thoughtless awareness and resumes directed attention, potential neurobehavioral energy becomes kinetic.
Thoughtless awareness is often described as creating a sense of boundless energy, unlimited capacity, and overwhelming sense of well-being. It is a state of resting attentiveness that offers global, nonspecific meta-awareness, or “awareness of awareness.” In thoughtless awareness, the essential self experiences itself.
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