In this post we want to discuss mental changes that occur while and after meditation.
The type of meditation you do is a factor in determining what happens, but there are many commonalities shared by various types of meditation. Relaxation of mind and body are very basic ones. We discussed this relaxation of mind and body in our previous post, and we followed Herbert Benson’s lead in dubbing it “the relaxation response”.
Since Benson is a cardiologist, it should not be a surprise that he focused on physiological reactions relevant to how the heart and blood vessels react. Obviously these changes are important for all of us. But there are also important changes in the way our minds function when we meditate. And these changes impact how we view the world and how we feel and behave.
A very valuable change has to do with getting control of the constant chattering that goes on in our minds.
Limiting the chatter/background noise is essential to developing a mind clear enough to be able to make our perception of reality clear. In Yoga it is seen as a form of enlightenment and in the more scientific framework of Information Theory it is a matter of reducing our mental “noise” level enough to tell whether an input contains something meaningful, a “signal”, or is merely noise.
We see the ancient views from Yoga and the modern views from information theory as expressing basically the same concepts, though within different frameworks.
One of the classic accounts of meditation and its consequences is in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The first line of the Yoga Sutras says that “Even-mindedness is Yoga”. In this view, the mind can be likened to a pond that responds with waves when something is dropped into it. If the pond is calm, without waves, even dropping a small pebble into it will result in easily noted waves.
In the middle of a storm, the impact of that same pebble may be impossible to detect.
With meditation, our minds have increased clarity and a wider awareness than they had prior to meditating. This clarity and extensiveness of awareness goes beyond mere facts. After meditation, things you have passed by many times with little reaction may suddenly reveal their beauty and trigger a sense of awe in you. So meditation also clarifies a more emotional aspect of what we experience.
Until the 1960s, Western science paid little attention to claims that healthy changes could result from meditation. Such claims were generally ignored or seen as hokum. In the early 1960s this easy dismissal was called into question, and research began to be published that confirmed some of the claims.
Interesting early work by a psychiatrist, Arthur Deikman, made a start in recognizing that our perceptions of many aspects of reality and our reactions to that reality are intensified and improved by meditation. He did a small study in which he got various colleagues to meditate on an ordinary blue vase. He simply asked the colleagues to sit in a room and keep their attention on the vase, putting aside distractions that came to mind.
Participants reported a wide range of reactions. Here is an illustration from an article written by Deikman describing a shift in perception of the vase that occurred quite generally:
Sooner or later they experienced a shift to a deeper and more intense blue. “More vivid” was a phrase they used frequently. Ss experienced the vase as becoming brighter while everything in their visual field became quite dark and indistinct. The adjective “luminous” was often applied to the vase, as if it were a source of light. For example, subject B, Session #6, “The vase was a hell of a lot bluer this time than it has been before . . . it was darker and more luminous at the same time.”
(When Deikman wrote this article, the term “Subject” or “S” was in general use when referring to volunteer participants in psychological experiments.)
If you do a search in Google Scholar for research on meditation today, you will find many confirmations of beneficial effects of meditation.
We will continue discussing changes due to meditation in our next post.