Zen and Meditation

by Eugenio Lepine

zen master dogen

MEDITATION AT THE LAB

A century ago, psychologists and other scientists struggled to realize how meditation practice benefited the mind or the body. The main picture was far from being accomplished. Luckily, we were graced with the existence of Carl Gustav Jung, who not only deciphered archetypes and the collective unconscious (among so many other concepts), but also gave a rather accurate description of how the meditation process helps us achieve a better understanding of ourselves and our environment.

He determined that everyone had “disposable” psychic energy, whose latent powers lay dormant in the unconscious, and there they will be used in order to manage each and every conflict our mind and brain determine as such. Now, the interesting part is what happens when conflicts are solved. Then this psychic energy could be liberated and rechanneled. Now it could revitalize novel regions of the psyche. At least at this descriptive level we can imagine how once-wasted psychic energies might become available for more selfless behaviors, including compassion.

In 1980 some scientists already had a glimpse of the specific mechanisms of how this is accomplished, Dr. Deane Shapiro mentioned that with the removal or minimization of cognitive stimuli and generally increasing awareness, meditation can therefore influence both the quality (accuracy) and quantity (detection) of perception. And Brown, Forte and Dysart also point to this as a possible explanation of the phenomenon: “[the higher rate of detection of single light flashes] involves quieting some of the higher mental processes which normally obstruct the perception of subtle events.”

Until not so far ago, meditation was an implicitly forbidden subject of scientific research. The underlying and usually hidden philosophical assumptions of traditional, rationalist science do not value the intuitive. They do not acknowledge the reality of the transcendent or subscribe to the concept of higher states of consciousness, let alone, in the strictest sense, even admit to the possible existence of unconscious forces active in cognitive acts of perception. Not properly acknowledging this fact, we are neglecting our own core.

That being said, meditation techniques have been difficult to measure. A key hindrance that makes any subject of study regarding this areas or any other involving mind or consciousness is the fact that our individual brains show different psychophysiological responses, or that religious experiences affect individuals in different ways. As Jung said: It is not that something different is seen, but that one sees differently. It is as though the spatial act of seeing were changed by a new dimension.

So, a given range of stimuli does arouse some persons more than others. The same input has different reaction depending on each one of us. There also are clear differences in brain function among different personality types. In one EEG study, realized by K. Thatcher, W. Wiederholt, and R. Fischer, the baseline brain waves of subjects classified as extroverts were higher in amplitude than those of the introverts.

brain emoticons

Existing research on meditation has other limitations. One is crucial: no physiological or biochemical measurements can define the precise subjective quality of the meditator’s private state of awareness at any one moment, let alone sequentially.

But from now on all is good news. There are lots of scientific studies towards meditation. Many reviews have now clarified what kinds of changes meditation produces in the body. The consensus: meditation causes secondary physiological and biochemical changes that are appropriate to how much relaxation is involved.

THE RELAXATION RESPONSE

The relaxation response is a common term used to determine these changes. This term was developed by Herbert Benson and he thought of it as an antagonistic of the fight or flight response (this one activated by the sympathetic system). It means being physically relaxed and mentally alert at the same time. Transcendental Meditation researchers even go further and think of the relaxation response as a hypometabolic parasympathetic fourth stage of consciousness.

Dr. James H Austin is an American neurologist and author. He is the author of the book Zen and the Brain, among others. He establishes links between the neurophysiology of the human brain and the practice of meditation, and won the Scientific and Medical Network Book Prize for 1998. Dr. Austin has been a practicing Zen Buddhist since 1974. After eight years of regular Zen meditation, Austin experienced the taste of what Zen practice calls kenshō. The chief characteristic of this experience was a loss of the sense of “self” which is so central to human identity, plus a feeling that “Just This” is the way all things really are in the world. His publications number over 140 articles involving research in the areas of clinical neurology, neuropathology, neurochemistry and neuropharmacology.

Austin’s books are a great compilation of the study of many different meditation techniques. His personal theories will further acknowledge two facts:

1. that our two hemispheres have complementary functions

2. that they engage in subtle dialogues across the subcortical bridge. This means that split-brain patients (wherever the corpus callosum, the hemispheres connector is severed) still have some level of communication between the hemispheres that explain the appearance of complex emotions.

Dr. Deane H. Shapiro is Professor Emeritus at the Psychiatry & Human Behavior School of Medicine, in Stanford University. His research involved developing a theory of human control, a psychological test to measure a person’s control profile (the Shapiro Control Inventory Manual), and a specific therapeutic approach (Control Therapy) to match the most effective strategies to a person’s particular control profile.

So, among his many pages and pages of research, now I will just focus on his findings regarding brain plasticity on meditation subjects, and these findings are:

changes in the bioelectrical brain pattern

– metabolic activation of specific brain areas

– cognitive functions supported by idiosyncratic neural networks, and

– neuroimaging studies showing measurable increases in several brain structures.

This is another scientist that has proven how meditation literally changes and shifts the brain.

leonard cohen zen meditation

Leonard Cohen. Source: Cordon

ZEN AND BUDDHISM

The early Indian Buddhists summarized their meditative approach back in the fifth century. One general pathway was the direct route of insight meditation, Vipassana. The other was the route of calming meditation, Samatha. The latter began with a calm serenity, developed into one-pointed concentration, and finally shifted into the full meditative absorptions of samadhi.

Embedded in the word Zen is the story of how it evolved over the centuries. Its meditative techniques stemmed from ancient yoga practices. At that time, in India, the Sanskrit word for meditation was dhyana. This evolved into the phrase Ch’an-Na, then into the Chinese word Ch’an. Later, Buddhist monks transplanted this Ch’an form of meditation to Japan, where the Japanese pronounced it Zen. Zen, then, stands for the school of Buddhism that emphasized meditation and that evolved further as it spread from India, to China, and to Japan. Zazen is its system of meditation.

Zen is a comprehensive Way of spiritual development, one of its effects are brain modifications through the detection and shift of mind processes, therefore literally reshaping the anatomy of the brain. Controlling the mind we can customize the way our brain perceives things, and as default it always drives this perception towards a clearer understanding of ourselves and others.

Zen uses various approaches to reshape the input to the Ego, to defuse it, and to redeploy its output. Master Dogen also commented on the several steps through which the aspirant passed on the long road to experiencing the objective world. The steps begin, he said, in the quiet meditative context of no-thought, and then proceed to the letting go of self.

In Zen, the brain resolves an existential impasse. In this context, one calls it “enlightenment” or “awakening,” kensho or satori. It is also termed “insightwisdom” or “seeing into one’s true nature.” The two intuitive processes are similar in form if not in content and degree.

The Zen meditative way presents several potential advantages. It proceeds very slowly, voluntarily, legally. It acts spontaneously from the inside, discretely. Overall, the meditative mental landscape is much calmer, clearer. Nerve cells will have been liberated from much of their usual irrelevant synaptic clutter. Dr. James Austin emphasizes the shift in terms of respiration, where experienced monks have somehow longer expiration periods, also needing less volume of oxygen per minute. Whenever we breathe more quietly and prolong the phase of expiration, we are probably quieting the firing activity of many nerve cells, both in the medulla and above.

Buddhist meditative chants are themselves associated with enhanced, rhythmic, synchronous theta activity. The theta range is associated with recall, fantasy, imagery, creativity, planning, dreaming, switching thoughts, deep meditation, drowsiness, access to subconscious images, reduced blood pressure, and more.

CONCLUSION

There exists so much information implying that meditation techniques enhance the so-called Relaxation Response. It’s clear that the practice of meditation literally raises awareness, well-being and several physiologic markers linked to a hypometabolic state of combined physical relaxation and mental awareness.

Finally, and perhaps most important from the standpoint of basic science, investigation has moved from the level of gross physiology to more detailed points of biochemistry and the voluntary control of internal states. From a philosophical standpoint, these studies have also raised a number of issues about the role of spiritual experiences in both psychology and medicine.

It took me a long time to understand why Buddhists say that when you meditate you do it not only for your own sake, but also for the sake of all living beings……to me it seemed sooo new-age. I mean, in what way will the planet be better if I sit for 30 minutes? Now I realize that one should only start working on oneself, and then afterwards can achieve working for and helping others. Also, if I am peaceful and calm (which happens generally when doing active meditation) the people around me feel that, even though sometimes they can’t express it, and if along me there is someone else that also has this characteristics, then the effect is stronger, and so on and so forth.

There exist many studies where Group Meditation alters the community’s accidents or crime statistics. These studies are specially made by the Transcendental Meditation community, which is actively and profusely doing research on the subject to bring evidence of its benefits. 

To conclude, is my own belief that, at personal level, there are various ways that lead towards self-knowledge and development of self, and at global level, there are various ways that lead towards peace. But only one highway for both of them. Meditation is the highway. It has always been and despite the awesome technologic improvements, probably will always be.

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