Taming the monkey mind, as we know it, is no easy feat. The world is a noisy place and the mind no different. Try as we might, it’s hard to find solace even within oneself. The spiral of negative thoughts beckons the mind to swirl into a self-bound state. And the next thing we know, we’re constrained and restless within ourselves. Thankfully, there is a tool that can aid us in this helpless state.
Meditation is one of the most effective tools we can use to hone the mind. It is known to improve memory, concentration, discipline and sleep. But what really is meditation? In her Tedx Talk How Meditation Changed My Life, meditation trainer Mamata Venkat explains: “Meditation is an exercise that trains your mind to regulate itself.” Given the kind of mental congestion and exhaustion most people undergo today, meditation has become a sought-after mental workout regimen.
Not everyone approaches meditation from the same standpoint. Many often associate the practice with mindfulness, the art of focussing on a task at any given moment. However, this is a modern construct. Yoga expert and meditation trainer Rajesh Jain observes, “People talk about being mindful while meditating, but what they’re really talking about is concentration. The true form of meditation requires one to be free of thoughts, not mindful.”
This idea of meditation as a state of thoughtlessness is reiterated in the extensive research by professors of religious studies David McMahan and Erik Braun, in their book Meditation, Buddhism, and Science. In fact, even the 8th century AD Advaita philosopher Adi Shankaracharya is known to have preached ‘Achintaiva param dhyanam’, that to be thoughtless is the highest form of meditation.
Many meditation trainers and practitioners believe that the more spiritually aware they are, the better their productivity in the physical world.
However, thoughtlessness might not be every practitioner’s goal. The experience of meditating varies between practitioners, as do their end goals. Some meditate for improving their concentration, some for inner peace, others for connecting with the divine. Buddhist monk Tenzin Legtsok says, “As individuals, each person can have their own reasons for meditating and their own goals. However, the true purpose of meditation is enlightenment, freedom from suffering, and the perfection of all positive qualities.”
Legtsok’s idea of meditation is a spiritual one, whereby the practitioner strives to achieve a sense of unity with the divine and an end to one’s worldly woes. Similarly, in some Hindu traditions, the goal of dhyana (meditation) is to realise one’s atman (soul), while in others it is to unite the purusha (self) with the prakriti (universal consciousness). One thing that’s common among these beliefs is that meditation invariably leads to an elevated sense of spiritual awareness.
Many meditation trainers and practitioners believe that the more spiritually aware they are, the better their productivity in the physical world. Meditation, they vouch, not only makes them more efficient with their everyday tasks, but also changes their mindset positively, thereby bringing them inner peace. According to pranic healer and Arhatic yoga practitioner Jeanne D’Arc, the physical body, the energy body, the brain and the mind are all in a symbiotic relationship. She explains, “Divine prana (universal energy) has the capacity to alter life and we can derive an infinite amount of this prana through meditation. It flows through the individual’s energy body, the mind, the physical body and the brain.”
The one thing that neither scientists nor healers can put into words is the surreal experience a practitioner undergoes while meditating.
Naturally, scientists are curious about such experiences and have carried out several studies to better understand how meditation really works, and if it can actually impact our cognition and psychology. Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) conducted a study to map the changes in the brain meditation can result in. In a published report, they revealed that their participants showed a decrease in grey matter density in the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with anxiety and stress. This, they note could be the reason for the peace of mind meditating brings about.
What scientists have so far found out is that our brain has an ability to rewire itself through the practice of meditation. Their research shows us that meditation can actually create fresh neural pathways and improve the existing ones. This ability of the brain to rewire itself is called neuroplasticity, and this concept has been vouched for by various neuroscientists. It’s incredible that the brain’s composition can change through something people believe to be spiritual and rarely ever associate with neurobiology.
The one thing that neither scientists nor healers can put into words is the surreal experience a practitioner undergoes while meditating. What happens between the practice of meditation and the meditator continues to be a mystery. Rajesh sums up this feeling aptly. He muses, “It’s like having a good night’s sleep. Do we remember what happened during that sleep? No. That’s why we know it was a good night’s sleep.” Perhaps, just as dreams are a doorway to the subconscious, meditation is a bridge between the spiritual world and the physical world.