Reprogramming the Human Bio-computer
Meditation is a catalyst for experiencing comfort and equanimity. At times those feelings expand into a translucent experience of our holistic nature – an awareness of an essential ‘presence’ that permeates the world. Some pragmatists suggest that such experiences are merely a rush of endorphins that create a physiologic euphoria. I prefer to believe that meditation facilitates a connection with our mystical nature, the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty that our dull faculties can comprehend. This transcendental perspective (or delusion) allows me to feel less finite and more significant. Choosing to be an intimate part of a grand scheme is more satisfying than being limited in human nature.
Relaxing in shavasana after a period of yoga asanas often stimulates a feeling of translucence. Calming breathing techniques (pranayama) can clarify the mind. Visualization of mandalas and/or deities as internal energetics can produce experiences that transcend the senses. Meditation techniques such as ‘conscious focusing’ on the breath, ‘mindful meditation’ on the flow of thoughts, and ‘internal listening’ to a mantra can trigger similar transcendental experiences. Both mystics and scientists agree that application of these techniques over long periods of time can produced lasting changes to the body and mind.
Extensive scientific research attests to the long-term benefits of meditation. In 1975 Harvard Medical School Professor Herbert Benson published The Relaxation Response, a definitive work on the mind/body connection and the benefits of meditation on managing the effects of stress. For over thirty years Dean Ornish and his colleagues at the University of California’s Preventive Medicine Research Institute (PMRI) have demonstrated that yoga and meditation can facilitate the reversal of chronic diseases.
Richard Davidson, professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, asserts that long-term meditators have the power to train their brains in ways that create beneficial changes to their “Emotional Style” (The Emotional Life of your Brain, p. 225). He suggests that the “neural plasticity” of the brain provides for behavioral interventions in one’s emotional patterns.
Gary Kraftsow, Founder and Director of the American Viniyoga Institute recently posted on his Facebook page that “A mantra is like a psycho-emotional digestive enzyme that dissolves neurosis.” If his analogy is correct, an extended exposure to meditation should enhance one’s psychological outlook and health.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali asserts that meditation can resolve human suffering. He states that sorrow (dukham) is experienced in life because of ignorance (avidya) and associated ‘causes of affliction’ (klesa) that nurture ‘fluctuation of the mind’ (citta vrtti) (YS II.3, II.15). Patanjali suggests that meditation (dhyana) dissolves the impacts of klesas and thereby mitigates ignorance and suffering (YS II.10-II.11). In addition, he states that the practice of yoga and meditation eventually blooms into a full awareness of consciousness (purusa) and primordial nature (prakrti) and the capacity for discriminative discernment (viveka-khyatir) (YS II.26 and II.28). Through meditation one can develop mastery (nirodha) of the mind’s fluctuations and a realization of our more expansive spiritual nature.
In the book Zen and the Brain, James Austin provides a neurologist’s perspective on the ability to “etch out” undesirable mental programs (pp. 653-659). His description supports Patanjali’s suggestion that klesas can be dissolved to eliminate dukham. He asserts that the brain’s own “excitotoxins” can be potent agents that “etch” away nerve cells and facilitate ongoing stages of enlightenment.
Ancient scriptures and modern science advocate the practice of yoga and meditation for a more healthy, productive and fulfilling life. However moving beyond a temporary translucent experience to more permanent effects likes reversal of disease or ‘neural reprogramming’ requires a disciplined meditation practice. Like any type of exercise, it takes effort to build endurance for an extended meditation practice. There are numerous starts, stops, and varying levels of commitment to such a practice. But over time you begin to become aware of a quiet ‘presence’ that is there between the mind’s manufactured thoughts.
The calm ‘presence’ that can be experienced during meditation is subtle and elusive. It is a ‘presence’ of ease balancing strength. It is a ‘presence’ of stillness found between inhalation and exhalation. It is a ‘presence’ of equanimity that resolves the drama of life. It is a ‘presence’ that transcends the world’s dichotomy of beauty and suffering. It is a ‘presence’ that reconciles the dissonance between loving-kindness and maliciousness. It is a ‘presence’ of pure-conscious-awareness where opposites dissolve into coincidence.
The question remains whether the enjoyable ‘presence’ experienced in meditation is a mystical state or a state of mind-body. Meditation develops the physiologic capacity to control activity between the central nervous system and the cerebral cortex. The hypothalamus, hippocampus, and zona-incerta, located in the region of the ‘spiritual eye’ (ajna chakra), coordinate those physiologic functions. Neurologists suggest that these regions can generate religious and spiritual experience by inhibiting the transfer of information from one aspect of the brain to another (Austin, p. 182-196). Perhaps the ‘presence’ experienced in mediation is merely a physiologic interruption of neuron and hormone transfers between the limbic system and the cerebral cortex.
As stated in the preamble, I prefer to believe that meditation connects me with my mystical nature. William James suggests that each of us literally chooses, by our way of attending to things, what sort of a universe we shall inhabit (The Principles of Psychology, p. 402). I believe that the practice of yoga and meditation conditions or ‘tunes’ the mind-body neurophysiology to make us sensitive to transcendental experience. It is comforting to know that the ‘presence’ I experience through meditation is a glimpse of our Divine nature.