Meditation is an ancient state of “Being” well known to Eastern spiritual traditions, both Hinduism and Buddhism, but it has also been practiced in various forms in Western spiritual traditions too. In modern medical-physiological terms, it is deﬁned as one of the four states of existence. The other three are wakefulness, sleep, and dreaming.
One beauty of meditation is that a person does not have to be religious or spiritual to get advantages from its practice. These beneﬁts can be divided into physical, mental, and spiritual.
The physical beneﬁts of meditation have been known since ancient times. But they have become better known in the West since the 1960s when meditation as practiced now was brought to the West by spiritual leaders such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of Transcendental Meditation fame. In addition, research by various Western universities using lab studies and modern-day instruments such as the EEG (electroencephalogram) and brain scanning equipment have helped bring these beneﬁts to light.
Multiple physiological beneﬁts have been discovered. The meditative state has been found to elicit the “relaxation response,” a term ﬁrst coined by Herbert Benson, MD, of Harvard Medical School, and also known as the “rest and repair” state. The relaxation response is the opposite of the “ﬁght or ﬂight response,” which is a necessary reaction found in both humans and lower animals when faced with danger.
In the ﬁght or ﬂight response, the sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive to help the organ-ism survive the danger. The response consists of various physiological changes that take place through the activities of neurotransmitters and the emission of certain hormones. As a result, heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose consumption increase, and a heightened mental state occurs as the animal prepares, in the face of the danger, to ﬁght or to take ﬂight.
Though the ﬁght or ﬂight response is common to both animals and humans, there are important dif-ferences. For one thing, after danger passes, the animal goes back to normal baseline. For example, as often seen on television, a gazelle when faced with a lion goes into this hyper state and runs for its life. But a few minutes later, when the danger has passed, one sees the gazelle grazing calmly as if a few minutes before there had been no danger at all.
In contrast to the gazelle’s behavior, when we humans enter the hyper state, we may continue to live in that state for long periods. This is largely because humans often perceive a much wider range of possible “dangers” than animals do, and these perceptions continue for long periods of time. For example, humans may enter the hyper state simply from perceiving threats in areas such as relationships, ﬁnances, work, personal eﬃcacy, and future success. Faced with such concerns, we may feel threatened virtually all the time. This can result in chronic stress and various stress-related physical ailments such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. These ailments are partly the eﬀects of abnormally stress-heightened levels of hormones such as epinephrine, cortisol, and ACTH.
A major physiological beneﬁt of the regular practice of meditation is that it helps bring hormone lev-els back to their baseline and thereby helps to heal some of our modern day stress-related ailments.
Chronic stress can also have adverse psychological eﬀects, including depression. In addition, various addictions may arise. To compensate for continual stress, the individual may seek relief through mind-altering chemicals such as alcohol, narcotics, or other drugs.
Meditation has been shown to have a calming eﬀect on so-called hyperactive patients. The eﬀects of meditation on the brain can be measured in modern laboratories. Under the inﬂuence of meditation, the hyperactive brain calms down, as is shown by reduced red areas on PET scans. On the EEG, the so-called brain cardiogram, ² (beta) waves that represent the hyper state are replaced with slow ´ (delta) waves.
The regular practice of meditation has become a part of modern addiction programs. By counteract-ing the eﬀects of stress, there is less need for the individual to seek out chemicals to alleviate the stress.
The rest and repair state brought about by meditation helps calm the mind and emotions and often instills a sense of serenity in the practitioner. Meditation helps heal psychological trauma, be it from childhood, post-traumatic stress syndrome, or other sources. It does this partly by helping put events, issues, and concerns into perspective, and by substituting a freer-ﬂow style of thinking for the more analytic thinking that may accompany and stir up anxieties.
Meditation as a spiritual path has been practiced since ancient times. Often, repetition of various mantras (representing various aspects of God) is done as a form of common meditation.
Meditation in the spiritual sense can be viewed as a means for communing with a higher reality, whether that is called God, our True Self, or the all-pervading Prana or in Hawaiian Mana. In this way, it is seen as a method to help the practitioner grow from the outside-in, leading to more contentment with and gratitude for life.
Meditation as a path to God has been known by various names in Eastern culture, including Dhyan Yoga and Janan Yoga. The term “yoga” in this original sense means union with our True Nature, God, and thus means much more than practicing various stretching exercises and postures.
Meditation can be seen as taking us to the so-called Gap State as deﬁned by the writer Wayne Dyer. It takes us to the gap between our thoughts, where there is nothing. It thereby connects us to the universal “Black Hole” from which, according to some, the whole universe has come into existence. According to some Eastern traditions, this nothingness is the Formless that gives rise to the forms that constitute the reality that we perceive through our senses.
Meditation as a spiritual exercise can also be viewed as helping us connect with a supreme all-pervasive intelligence, a divine creative consciousness. This connection might then lead to a “breakthrough” experience in which the Divine manifests itself through a new wonderful piece of music, art, writing, or some other achievement.
In conclusion, the beneﬁts of meditation are numerous. We all should make a regular eﬀort to meditate. It is a state to be experienced, not just read about. Reading many books on swimming is of little beneﬁt until one experiences it by going into the water. Much the same can be said about meditation.
In the end, one does not even need to know how it works, but it does work. Let’s all experience it for ourselves.
To respond to this blog and engage with the DYING to WAKE UP/HEALING Community, please click here.