There are many forms of meditation, ranging in complexity from strict, regulated practices to general recommendations.
If practiced regularly, meditation is thought to help develop habitual, unconscious microbehaviours that can potentially produce widespread positive effects on physical and psychological functioning. Meditation even for 15 minutes twice a day has been shown to bring beneficial results.
Most theories are based on the assumption that meditation is a sophisticated form of relaxation involving a concept called the parasympathetic response. Psychological stress is associated with activation of the sympathetic component of the autonomic nervous system which, in its extreme, causes the ‘fight or flight response’. Meditation and any form of rest or relaxation acts to reduce sympathetic activation by reducing the release of catecholamines and other stress hormones such as cortisol, and promoting increased parasympathetic activity which in turn slows the heart rate and improves the flow of blood to the viscera and away from the periphery.
Other neurophysiological effects
Other proponents claim that meditation involves unique neurophysiological effects; however, this remains to be proven. Research at the Meditation Research Program suggests the limbic system may be involved in Sahaja Yoga - Meditation since significant effects involving mood state have been consistently observed.
Defining what we mean by meditation
The most important issue that must be addressed in this field of research is to clearly define meditation and then subject that definition to scientific testing.
Meditation is popularly perceived to be any activity in which the individual’s attention is primarily focused on a repetitious cognitive activity. This very broad definition is, in the opinion of the Meditation Research Program, the main cause for much of the inconsistent outcomes seen in meditation research.
If one closely examines the authentic tradition of meditation it is apparent that meditation is a discrete and well defined experience of a state called ‘thoughtless awareness’. This is a state in which the excessive and stress producing activity of the mind is neutralized without reducing alertness and effectiveness.
Authentic meditation enables one to focus on the ‘present moment’ rather than dwell on the unchangeable past or undetermined future. It is this state of equipoise that is said to be therapeutic both psychologically and physically and which fundamentally distinguishes meditation from simple relaxation, physical rest or sleep.
Dr Ramesh Manocha
Meditation Research Program – Royal Hospital for Women, Sydney