Olga Sutikova, Yaroslav Tokarev: "Psychophysiology of meditation"
Though the essence of all living beings is identical in the face of the Absolute, but true individuality of each creation and the way inherent only to it demand a variety of ways for comprehension…
For the last one hundred years a considerable quantity of Eastern self-knowledge techniques has been opened for the West. However an obvious difference in perception of the World between eastern and western people imposes a set of restrictions in using intuitive methods that are not based on science by analytical minds.
Psychophysiology of meditation (based on an example of Vipassana method)
Recently, due to positive responses of friends about one meditation technique, I managed to step over a threshold of congenital skepticism to all “scientifically unreasonable”. After I have tried this most interesting meditative technique I was convinced in its remarkable results in my own example.
Probably, the reader would be inspired by the story about some specific experiences, discoveries and achievements that can be revealed during ten days of Vipassana meditation course in tradition of S.Goenka, a Buddhist teacher living in India. However, during the practice it becomes clear enough, why one of the rules of the course is observing complete silence... Besides, you cannot get identical impressions during Vipassana as everyone experiences something special - what the mentality is capable to catch and apprehend at present moment. Vipassana is a dialogue with your self that occurs without intermediaries...
Thus being biophysicists by education we would like to spill a few light on psycho physiological aspects of meditation to the extent of the limited possibilities of a modern science.
But in the beginning for those not many who faces a concept of meditation for the first time there are some words about its purpose.
Many have explained to themselves long time ago (and possibly, having a gift of eloquence, explained it to traditionally Christian environment of relatives and friends) that in comprehending the world there is no principal difference between Buddhist and Evangelical (or any other) saints and there cannot be, as there is only one purpose: to know the God, or the Higher Power in all its manifestations, to live in harmony with the Law of Nature…
And despite the set of different approaches, all systems of spiritual development use techniques of meditation which fulfill, at least, such important functions as clarification of mind, and consequently spirit.
What for do people meditate? The prose and poetry of life give the following answers:
- To get an answer to exciting question or to find a problem decision…
- To feel a flow of thin energies…
- To get rid of sufferings of body and mind…
- To comprehend yourself in the God…
- To bring love and peace to this earthly world…
- And so on up to the infinity!
Every person who wishes to get knowledge about himself is capable to make all these discoveries. But what are physiological and mental advantages that open before the human such prospects in comparison with other living beings?
Consciousness from the point of view of brain physiology
In fauna there are many various levels and forms of consciousness exist so it is impossible to draw an accurate line between animals with consciousness and without it. Higher animals (birds, mammals) have many signs of conscious behavior. First of all, a qualitative transition from instinctive behavior to conscious behavior happens due to the occurrence of cerebral cortex - a layer of highly specific nervous cells (named “grey substance”). Presence of cortex allows to quickly develop conditioned reflexes (those reflexes which are not congenital instinctive reactions of an organism but arise as reciprocal adaptive reaction to the changes of environment conditions).
Under the influence of various environmental factors chemical and electric changes happen in an organism. Electric impulses which arise in sensory organs are transferred to brain cortex where they are processed, and response to them is formed according to the willed decision, instead of according to the inherent unconditional instinctive program.
However, in an evolutionary row birds and higher mammals have cortex as well and their brain structure differs a little from ours…
Modern researches in the sphere of neurophysiology prove that in comparison with animals higher abilities of a human to thinking, training, speech are not connected with occurrence of any special nervous cells, and also there is no direct dependence on volume increase of brain or cortex area (as it was considered before). Development of these features is caused by the increase in number of neural networks involved in processing the information that is most expressed in neocortex (“new cortex”). Speaking easier, the difference in intellectual development between the first-grade student and Einstein is defined not by the brain size but quantity and quality of connections between its cells. In the course of learning new information new connections appear… However, in due course these connections weaken and we forget skills and impressions received. They pass to subconscious area which renders essential influence on our life though we may not realize it.
Now it is only possible to approximately estimate the capacity of a human brain to realize. Repeatedly taken calculations give unflattering results. Thus our consciousness can keep in its long-term memory only about 1% of the information received during the whole period of life! Still some part of the information about external and internal worlds is caught by our brain unconsciously, and also goes to the area of unconscious processes. For example, attitude to this or that object (subject) can have nothing in common with its real characteristics, but arises due to unconscious association with something or someone from the past influencing our impression in the present.
So, what does unconscious area which knows “us” better than we know ourselves include? Conditionally, components of the unconscious can be divided into three groups:
1) unconscious mechanisms of conscious actions (for example: involuntary movements; actions carried out automatically; patterns of mental reactions which have been put by education; facial expression and pantomimic behavior, and also a big range of vegetative reactions accompanying actions and conditions of a human)
2) unconscious stimulus of conscious actions (suppressed instinctive inclinations; unpleasant memoirs intentionally superseded from memory, etc.);
3) “over conscious” processes (expansion of borders of the unconscious up to infinity)
For a person not inclined to introspection very often it is difficult enough to notice that there is a certain unconscious attitude that influences his “conscious choice”… Limitations of our consciousness force us to slavishly serve our own instincts, behavioral patterns, automatisms… Here it is true – “a human is God’s slave”…
From all aforesaid a conclusion arises that we have to expand borders of our consciousness through restoration of lost connections and installation of new ones between brain neurons. It will lead to a state of the enlightenment or absolute possession of own mind…
To explain better the mechanism of cellular interactions and perspectives of its perfection let’s look at some physiological and physical processes occurring daily with each of us.
Psychophysiology of negative emotions
Modern science is not able to say what is a physical carrier of this or that emotion or thought, but there is a range of intermediaries in signal transmission. They can be various molecules or electric impulses (microcurrents generated every second by cells of an organism).
For example, stimulus of pain (a prick, a blow, etc) is perceived by corresponding receptors located on skin or in internal organs, and via shoots of nervous cells it is transferred to the nervous centre which is in spinal cord or brain depending on the place pain occurs. The stimulus arrived is processed in the nervous centre and as a response to it an electric signal arises which comes back to the damaged organ or a part of skin and leads to a muscular spasm or drawing away a part of a body.
From physiological point of view, pain is a hint to an organism to urgently pay attention and to eliminate the cause of pain. But what to do when it is impossible to get rid of the cause of pain in principle or at least temporarily? For mentality occurrence or constant presence of pain can have destructive consequences…
All beginners who start trying any of meditation techniques face a problem of overcoming corporal discomfort: a pain from asleep legs, knees, tension and spasm in muscles of the back (repeatedly increasing in case of the slightest scoliosis)… Why is a change in perception of painful impulses by our mentality so necessary for further advancement in meditation? Modern physiology has already come to a conclusion that all processes in our organism are interconnected by reflex: any change in internal environment leads to a chain of reactions concerning other chemical processes, cells and organ systems. In a greater scale, we may speak about interrelation of environment with an organism, the cause and effect law or the law of karma.
Many of us know on own example that negative emotions and experiences are always accompanied by frustration at physical, corporal level (which if not notable immediately arises a little bit later). Hence, the contrary is also fair: the ability to dispassionately perceive physical pain, so to say “trains the brain” not to become influenced by pernicious perception of mental pain. We are not talking about developing emotional dullness (as happens with people incapable of sympathy), but about the ability to unbiassedly concern difficult tests that gives us our life. There is one convincing example:
It is known that “cancer” patient who believes in God approximately lives, even without any surgery, for five-six years longer than the one who does not believe in God. Why? Because when the person learns about the disease, fear holds him down, meaning that there is the strongest activation of negative zones of the brain (the zones sending destructive impulses to many cells of the body). It leads to fast destruction of immune system of the organism and quick death. In this case a pray or meditation help at least to get rid of fear of death. The person deprived of fear is able even to recover completely. Examples of miraculous self-healing exist in traditional medicine as well; however, absence of rational explanation does not allow accept them as facts.
Thus, the ability to observe physical pain (as well as other corporal sensations, positive or negative) with detachment teaches us to similar perception of any stressful situations.
Similar to painful stimulus, all corporal sensations (audition, sight, taste, olfaction, tactile perception) and physiological reactions (food digestion, palpitation, expansion or compression of vessels etc.) have their own receptors, nervous ways and representations in the central nervous system (spinal cord or brain). Certainly, all listed sensory systems exist in earlier forms of the evolutionary row. Processing of signals from these systems does not require involvement of consciousness. All information that comes from organs (considering deeper - from each cell) is transferred to subconsciousness.
So, every second our nervous system receives information about millions of biochemical reactions and electric impulses. Considering that chemical and electric reactions happening in healthy and sick cells differ essentially, it is reasonable to assume that subconsciousness catches, for example, the germing of a cancer cell… But why then we know nothing about it until a tumour starts to be felt as pain from compression of the nearby organs or nervous ways? The answer is clear if we recollect what our consciousness is grasped by as soon as we wake up… It starts to be whirled by a vortex of thoughts, emotions, desires that are directed outside - on external objects, it is never occupied with recognition of signals from within until they become painful!… If for anyone it is difficult to imagine, try to close your eyes and try not to think about anything, not to imagine anything at least for one minute… Even more difficult is to try to feel some internal organ… without projecting your idea about its work (which is called auto-suggestion) on sensations and to feel the reality that takes place in cells…
And on the contrary, the enlightened mind, capable to direct its thoughts and to concentrate on an idea can with identical ease observe the structure of an atom and the organization of Solar system! For many it sounds like a fantasy… But, how would you explain the existence of detailed maps of Solar and other space systems, mentioning about electric and magnetic fields and other highly technological scientific data among ancient civilizations of Egypt, Hindustan and China?
Now we know that any happening (boiling up of magma in a volcano, a break of tectonic plates, accumulation of positive or negative emotions towards you in other person etc.) is characterized by own vibrations perceived by our subconsciousness through body cells. And this is not a hypothesis: long time ago the science has proved the existence of a wave-particle parallelism of electron (the smallest component of animate and inanimate nature). As all of us are aggregates of electrons, it means we are bunches of wave vibrations generated by them.
From mentioned above it becomes clear why sometimes especially while dreaming (when our consciousness has rest and subconsciousness continues to perceive signals from body cells and from surrounding space) people can feel some approaching events (recover or illness, unexpected gift of destiny or natural disaster…) For example, animals, that are more focused on perception of signals from subconsciousness rather than own ideas and thoughts, can feel a threat of upcoming natural cataclysm much faster than us.
Besides, dreams can promote important scientific achievements. It is known that Mendeleyev discovered the periodic table of chemical elements while he was dreaming; the idea of relativity theory has come to Einstein in a dream; Elais Hou finalized the invention of sewing-machine in a dream too… Many famous writers get plots of their compositions also while they are dreaming.
Vipassana gives a meditative technique that allows us to come closer to achieving similar experience.
Prose (or how meditation works at physical level)
Vipassana is a ten-day course of meditation (if it concerns the beginners); its technique and philosophy have been developed in ancient India. Gautama Buddha granted this meditation technique to his disciples after transformed it on his own experience.
This meditation, with truly directed effort and understanding of an ultimate goal (explained in details during evening lectures of the course), allows to reestablish broken connection between subconscious and conscious structures of the brain, without coming unto a forgetfulness of dream. Certainly, this short ten-day course will not make anybody to become an enlightened, a medium or, at least, an absolutely healthy person. A problem is not in the technique, but in our far from perfection perception and constantly fluctuating desire to change. But it is possible to guarantee to everyone who wants to become better that they would achieve a considerable calmness of mind and understanding of themselves and the world around in greater number of life situations than it was before the course.
At initial stages the technique uses a process of breath as “a bridge” connecting conscious and subconscious structures of the brain. The matter is that breath unlike other physiological processes (palpitation, digestion etc.) can be regulated by a willed decision (consciously, by means of cerebral cortex) or it can occur without participation of mental control (unconsciously, through subcortical structures). Therefore breathing process is a very convenient “object” for concentration. So, gradually studying to focus all the attention to sensations connected with process of inhalation and exhalation, within the first days a person gets used not to distract from his breathing. A little later he is able to feel other physiological reactions of the organism to which his cerebral cortex “had no business” in a daily life. The deeper is meditation (the less the consciousness is involved in circulation of thoughts and images, the longer lasts internal silence) the greater spectrum of sensations is caught and transferred to cerebral cortex for analysis.
Besides, practice of meditation decreases the level of fear, meaning that the person starts to react easier to frightening stimulus and does not notice at all the less significant. Researches show that a decrease of concentration of lactate (a substance which in the absence of physical activity leads to fear occurrence) in blood and also a considerable fall of level of hydrocortisone (a hormone of stress developed by adrenal glands) can be biological reasons for this. Gradually being fixed in metabolism, these phenomena accompany the practitioner in his daily life.
Many psychiatrists and psychotherapists have come to a conclusion that practice of meditation helps their patients: it considerably facilitates and accelerates restoration process, allows effectively remove this or that complex, emotional problem, depression…
Cellular mechanism of meditation is poorly studied, and results of taken researches sometimes are too contradicting to give an adequate explanation of this unique process. However it is possible to speak about some synchronization and strengthening of transfer of impulses between brain cells. In my opinion, neither the physiology, nor the psychology ever can decipher up to the end the phenomenon of meditation as logic analysis along is not enough for its comprehension.
The advantage of meditation does not end just with restoration of lost communications between “forgotten” parts of the brain and those that are in focus of our awareness. Certainly, an extensive scale of these ancient techniques (provided that they are received from an authoritative source) opens to the seeker boundless spiritual horizons. Modern psychology recognizes that now the mankind faces the area of the superconscious which till now was available only for the few chosen. But even in our days of all-penetrating information technologies “those having the ears will hear, those having the eyes will see”…
According to meditation theory, concentration of attention on a certain object (for example, on organ of the body or an idea) directs the energy to it. Thus meditation can be a method of wave therapy.
Modern medicine already knows different kinds of wave therapy: infra-red rays, ultra-violet range, high-frequency irradiation of cancer tumours (though it is difficult to consider the last method as treatment). Recently enough among progressive scientific circles an idea appeared to measure electric potential of the organ that causes suspicion and, at its deviation from norm (established on a healthy organ of the same type) to conduct electromagnetic therapy. It has appeared not so easy with treatment, but diagnostics give quite good results.
Many non-traditional healers say that their treatment is based on additional charging of a person with “positive energy” so that the organism can fill up its “power breakdowns”. Meditation starts to work in a similar way…
It can be added that despite the simplicity of Vipassana technique, it is not easy to meet its requirements due to chaotic character and restlessness of our mind that often is occupied with processing insignificant information. You should be ready to struggle with these disadvantages and to learn how to win, more often which each time…
The technique that initially works at level of human psychophysiology has a set of advantages: the result achieved does not depend on anyone’s will (there are no hypnotists or psychics suggesting you false sensations); you make as many discoveries about yourselves as your mentality is capable to sustain at present moment; philosophical grounds of Vipassana does not have a religious shade but only morally-ethical.
So, why do not you try to open something new in yourself?!
You can get more detailed information about Vipassana in S.Goenka tradition on www.dhamma.org