Meditation and Stress

Patanjali defines meditation as that state "when the mind becomes free from the awareness of subjective and objective experience". This is the highest state of meditation and is meant for the spiritual aspirant. As a technique of relaxation, meditation is unsurpassed in therapeutic applications. Several techniques of meditation are taught either as an adjunct to, or as a therapy in itself.

Many years ago, psychologists had warned that with the age of technology, another age would dawn-the age of mental unhappiness. A similar situation prevailed in India during its golden ages. Material prosperity had brought along with it mental tensions. Sage Kapila then formulated the system of Samkhya yoga, to bring happiness to the neurotic and the confused.

Patanjali later modified Kapila's philosophy and his Yoga Sutras define yoga as the science of mental control, and of control over all patterns of personality and behaviour. Though the present times are quite different, there has not been much change in man's thinking. He is assailed by the same helpless feeling in coping with the world.

Meditation is dhyana and through dhyana, we are able to view our problems in proper perspective. Through dhyana, we are able to realise that our disappointments, our unhappiness and other problems are internal, self-made. Through dhyana, we learn to discover our inner self, to achieve inner harmony. This practice needs no particular belief system. The type of meditation most often used in a medical setting is what is known as 'concentrative meditation'. It involves focussing the mind on a symbol or sound.

Physiological changes during meditation

One of the most profound changes that takes place in the body during meditation is the slowing down of the metabolism, i.e. the rate of breaking down and building up the body. There is a sharp reduction in the oxygen consumption and the carbon dioxide output. Up to 20% decrease in oxygen consumption during meditation have been measured because the respiration rate is slower. The reduced metabolic rate is due to the control over the involuntary nervous system which one develops through meditation.

Meditation has a noticeable influence on the blood pressure, which drops much lower than normal, both during and after meditation. The heart rate slows down, while the blood flow increases during meditation, A function of the autonomic nervous system is to constrict blood vessels, which in turn reduces the blood flow. During meditation, however, the activities of the sympathetic nervous system are reduced, and therefore the constriction of the blood vessels is automatically decreased, resulting in a greater flow of blood.

Meditation is the perfect method of reducing the lactate level and, consequently, of reducing blood pressure and all types of anxiety symptoms. Medical tests show that the level of lactate is higher during stress, anxiety and neuroses than when the individual is calm and tranquil. People suffering from high blood pressure have markedly more lactate in the body than people with normal blood pressure.

How meditation reduces the lactate level

Daring periods of intense activity when the muscles are performing extensive work, a so-called energy debt is incurred. The muscles must expend more energy than the oxygen supply to the muscles allows for. At such times, lactate is produced to provide for the much required extra energy. During periods of rest, lactate is slowly broken down into other substances since enough oxygen is now available to the muscles.

Though the total intake of oxygen is actually less during meditation, the increased blood flow ensures that oxygen is more efficiently delivered to the muscles and that lactate is more quickly and effectively removed. At the same time, intake of oxygen into the cells during the metabolic process is reduced. Further, production of lactate is stimulated by the sympathetic nervous system. Inhibition of this nervous system during meditation automatically reduces its production.

Effect of meditation on the limbic system

The function of the limbic system in the brain is to intensify emotional responses, in case the sense data received are not in harmony or in conformity with our previous conditioning or memory. When the limbic system analyses a sensation, it immediately creates an emotional reaction, such as anger, stress, etc. Yet, the septal region acts in the opposite direction. It reduces our emotional responses, it releases and creates relaxation of the whole body and mind. Through meditation, the septal part of the limbic system begins to operate for the predominant part or even all our life.

Meditation acts as a holistic, or whole treatment for stress. Since meditation is concerned with the whole mind-body complex, it is a more widely encompassing method of managing stress. The deep state of relaxation achieved through meditation helps the body processes recuperate to their normal level of activity. In a sense, meditation can be regarded as the counterpart or the counterbalance to the activities of the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands.

Meditation practices

There are several stages to meditation and the practices of meditation starts with pratyahara or sense withdrawal, and goes on to the stages of dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation in the traditional sense of the word), and samadhi.

Pratyahara tackles the problems of stress right at the source of the sense stimulation, i.e. at the very sense organs. It is through the sense organs that our mind is bombarded with a continuous flow of 'data' from the outside world.

Dharana or concentration in the next stage involves fixing the mind totally on one object, to the exclusion of all others. As the mind becomes totally absorbed in the object of concentration, it automatically leads to meditation. The practice of dharana is essential for the removal of stress and the root of stress embedded in the mind.

Dhyana or meditation is the stage in which the mind does not keep wandering away from the object of concentration (dharana) but is able to be continually absorbed in the object of meditation. The climax of dhyana is samadhi, at which stage the individual is not only free of all stress but has transcended to a state beyond.

Some of the practices of pratyahara are japa, ajapa japa and antar mouna.

A mantra is the first requirement for japa yoga practice. Mantra is a grouping of sound vibrations which have an effect on the mental and psychic consciousness of man. In japa, there is a continued rotation of consciousness centred on the mantra and the mind becomes concentrated and relaxed, which tends to bring all the physical and mental faculties of man to their most efficient working state. Japa is an ideal practice for those who are not able to sit in any of the meditative poses, or to sit still.

Japa becomes ajapa (spontaneous) japa when the mantra automatically repeats itself without conscious effort. The practice of ajapa japa will eventually bring all hidden desires, fears and complexes of the mind to the mental surface. Ajapa japa relieves the mind of all tensions, which in turn removes the root cause of most physical and mental ailments.

Antar mouna means inner silence. This practice is used in a modified form in Buddhism, known as vipassana. Some of the principles of antar mouna are used in modern psychiatry practices.

In our daily life, our minds are almost continually eternalised. We see and hear only what is going on outside of us. We have little understanding of the events taking place in our inner environment. The practice of antar mouna is designed to turn this around. For at least a short period while we are practising it, and later on for longer and longer periods throughout the day, we can see the working of our rational and irrational mind. Antar mouna can be practised spontaneously, any time of the day or night. Antar mouna is the first step to a permanent state of inner quietude and understanding.

Antar mouna is practised in five different stages. The first stage involves the awareness of all outside sounds as well as other sensory perceptions such as smell or touch. In the second stage, we withdraw ourselves from all outside stimuli and become aware only of the workings of our mind: what it is thinking, how it is reacting, and what images are surfacing from the subconscious.

In the third stage, it is the conscious development of a particular thought or image at will. In the fourth stage, we develop spontaneous thoughts. In the fifth stage, we suppress or remove all thoughts to become aware of inner silence. This stage is followed by the state of dharana or one-pointed concentration.

The concentration practices for dharana are trataka, visualisation, psychic symbol, chidakasha dharana, nada yoga, prana vidya, tattwa Shuddhi, all of which lead to one-pointed concentration, which is the most direct and effective way to control stress levels and to restore mental equilibrium, clarity and accuracy. It improves memory and thinking power and all mental functions. When dhyana and samadhi dawn spontaneously after dharana, it indicates that the deeper conscious levels are free of tension and stress and are in a state of awakening. The man who is able to experience spontaneous dhyana or samadhi is no longer subject to stress and tension.