Research into states of consciousness is by no means a new innovation. Since time immemorial the more evolved human beings have sought access to the inner worlds and have devised countless techniques for exploring consciousness and the physical realm, from asana, pranayama and meditation to the whirling dance of the dervishes, sleep deprivation, pain, pleasure, fasting and isolation from society.
All methods have one thing in common, the alteration of the normal perception of reality in an attempt at freedom from the confines and limitations of conditioned 'normality' and material existence, with its built-in component of suffering.
Though psychologists have been trying to synthesise a coherent and workable science of mind they have not even been able to answer the first most basic and fundamental question, "What is mind?", let alone solve their own mental problems through present day psychological techniques. It is not surprising that many psychologists have themselves turned to meditation and esoteric techniques in an effort to heal themselves and develop a synthesis between western and eastern techniques, as occurs, for example in biofeedback, autogenic training and rolfing.
The basic difference between psychological and yogic approaches lies in methodology. The psychologist aims to understand the mind and consciousness through the intellect and, in experiments, through experiences of other people. The yogi aims to experience the mind directly while in a balanced, healthy, meditative state, bypassing the necessity for intellect.
Yoga works on the theory that intellect is only a small and isolated part of the mind, a part which by its very nature is incapable of true understanding and which is better suited to dealing with the ever changing flow of external reality.
Intellectual mind works on the principles of memory (chitta), thought and counter thought (manas) and discrimination (buddhi), and is therefore merely a processor, like a computer, and something we, with our ego or individual identity (ahamkara), make use of to ease our passage through the world of time and space.
True understanding and permanent knowledge, as opposed to facts which change from week to week or generation to generation, lie in the higher realms of mind and intuition. Research into such areas as physics, left and right brain hemispheres, education and learning, and states of consciousness is showing that the reality about us, that once seemed so solid and stable, is not what we thought it was and that our understanding and interpretation is really a matter of our experience and perception, our limitations are self-imposed and a reflection of our own ignorance. Dr Willis Harman of California's Stanford Research Institute has stated that we are today experiencing an expansion of the boundaries of science.*1 He states that, "Science does not deal with reality. Science builds models; it deals with metaphors. Now if there is another set of metaphors that are complementary and which have something to do with reality, fine, we can use these too."
Whereas psychologists and scientists until now have generally followed traditional research lines by starting with the intellect and then aiming at deeper understanding, there is a newer and increasing trend to follow the yogic approach. Yogis dive deep into meditation so as to experience the source of knowledge and understanding within. Only then does intellect have a part to play in terms of translating our experience into words and other channels of creativity. The experience of reality is one, however, the metaphors to describe it are many.
Meditation is both a process and a state of mind that allows internal and intuitive knowledge to permeate our everyday experience, expanding and enriching our perception and understanding. In order to achieve the state we must undergo the process of reawakening certain faculties which have degenerated under the stress and pressure of materialistic and modern living.
Meditative practice must be systematic and persistent, and it is generally a relatively slow process because we have to overcome all our old conditioning, neuroses and complexes if we are to enter the internal spaces safely and sanely. Eventually the process becomes a way of life for we use our time in meditation to improve our everyday, waking state experiences in order to improve our meditative experiences, until ultimately the whole process fuses and no distinction between inner and outer can be made.
By moving inside for a short while, we are not engaging in a futile attempt to escape reality. The process of learning to meditate has many side benefits. For example, research is showing us that meditation actually improves our ability to move through the world. K. S. Blasdell showed that the reaction time and accuracy of meditators, when tested during perceptual motor tasks, was twice as fast and precise as in non-meditators.*2 Other research is supporting these findings.*3
The process of internalisation is called pratyahara and involves the ability to withdraw our attention from the sensory channels of external information and refocus on the internal sphere of our existence. We move into direct contact with the mind because we have removed the intermediary barrier of sensual activity. The deeper we go while retaining conscious awareness, the more contact we gain with the hitherto unconscious areas of mind. Pratyahara, however, is not an end point in itself but is a stage on the meditative path that leads to the bliss of transcendental experience.
In an effort to explore inner spaces and altered states of consciousness, people have devised methods to speed up the traditionally slow approach to going inside. Instead of learning to turn off sense activity, scientists have turned off sensations by developing sensory deprivation tanks which isolate the individual from the environment. From sound proof rooms at McGill University, Montreal, to body temperature, water filled tanks which deny light, sound, touch, taste and smell, scientists have found that after initially falling asleep all subjects lost track of time and found it difficult to think seriously or make normal judgements.*4 Dreams became more frequent and intense and some subjects reported inner experiences of a separate reality that were total, complex and entirely convincing.*5
In an effort to explain such phenomena brain researchers have theorised that as the sensory impulses cease to affect our conscious state the reticular activating system, which selects all important sensory stimuli, becomes less active. The same occurs when we sleep, however, when we wake up in an isolation tank there are no new stimuli and therefore we become conscious of our internal state. Internal awareness, according to Andersen and Andersson, maintains itself by a loop circuit between the cerebral cortex, the thalamocortical co-ordinating system and sub-cortical rhythm generators.*6 This is a concentrated state, called dharana, because energy is not being needlessly dissipated. We can hypothesise that meditators who achieve pratyahara and eventually dharana develop such a circuit over long periods of practice at trying to stay awake during internal states.
Some interesting research on conscious development of different states of awareness comes from Dr Elmer Green, of the Meninger Foundation, Topeka, Kansas.*7 He conducted research on Swami Rama who demonstrated the ability to enter various states of consciousness at will, as evidenced by changes in brainwaves.
He entered alpha waves by visualising an empty blue sky with small white clouds occasionally floating by. Theta waves were produced by stilling the conscious mind and bringing forth the unconscious. He experienced this as an unpleasant, 'noisy' state in which desires, ambitions, past experiences, images and memories are experienced. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the experiment was the swami's ability to remain awake while in a deep sleep-like state.
"Before this test he asked how long I would like to have him remain in the delta state", reported Dr Green. "I said that 25 minutes would be all right and he said he would bring himself out at that time. After about five minutes of meditation, lying down with his eyes shut, the swami began producing delta waves, which we had never before seen in his record. In addition, he snored gently. Mrs. Green, who was in the experimental room observing him during this test, without having told the swami that she was going to say anything, then made a statement in a low voice, Today the sun is shining, but tomorrow it may rain.' Every five minutes she made another statement and after 25 minutes had passed, the swami roused himself and said that someone with sharp heels had walked on the floor above and made a click, click, click noise during the test, and a door had been slammed twice somewhere in the building, and then he repeated Mrs Green's statements verbatim."*8
It seems that as one progresses into meditation the mind becomes a much more powerful tool and faculties hitherto unknown become manifest. Firstly, we must prepare ourselves by making the body and nervous system strong and resilient through asana and pranayama. Secondly, we have to relax and slowly become aware of those hidden psycho emotional neuroses and complexes which cause us so much suffering and use up great reserves of mental energy thereby blocking access to deeper realms. Thirdly, we start to resolve these complexes by the balanced use of meditational practice and karma yoga.
Penetrating deep inside oneself without systematic training is hazardous and dangerous and can lead to the discovery of material which the individual cannot handle. This has been known to even cause psychosis. One researcher who was fortunate to escape the perils of a sudden assault on the subconscious mind was John C. Lilly, who used a sensory deprivation tank combined with L.S.D. He states, 'There was no hope or choice of ever leaving this hell. I was in fantastic pain and terror...'*9 He went to his limit of pain and paranoia and thought he would go mad but then burst through into areas of love and enlightenment. Few explorers of the unknown are as lucky as he was.
The path chosen by Lilly and other brave pioneers is not recommended for the seeker of true wisdom and knowledge of the Self. Slow, steady progress under the guidance of those wise and enlightened yogis who have gone before us, trains us to be patient and is, in the long term, a much more balanced and stable approach.
*1. Fry, P. & Long, M., Beyond the Mechanical Mind, Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1977.
*2. Blasdell, L. S., The effects of the TM technique upon a complex perceptual motor task', Sc. Res. T. M. Collected Papers 1976, 1:322-5.
*3. Apelle, S. & Oswald, L. E., 'Simple reaction-time as a function of alertness and prior mental activity', Perc. & Mot. Stills, Jan. 1974, 38 (3, part 2): 1263-8.
*4. Watson, L., Supernature, Coronet, 1974, p. 239.
*5. Vernon, J. A., Inside the Black Room, Penguin, 1966.
*6. Andersen, P. & Andersson, S.A., Physiological Basis of Alpha Rhythm, Appleton-Century, 1968.
*7. Green, E. 'Biofeedback for Mind-Body Self-Regulation: Healing and Creativity', The Varieties of Healing Experience- Exploring Psychic Phenomena in Healing, The Academy of Parapsychology and Medicine (Transcript) 1971.
*9. Lilly, J. C., The Center of the Cyclone, Paladin, 1974, p.95.