Neurobiology of Meditation

Neurobiology of Meditation

Danilo Forghieri Santaella (Sports Center, University of São Paulo, Brazil)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3254-6.ch004
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Meditation should not be considered a simple activity that is performed with focused attention; this is concentration. When practicing concentration correctly, with a good “anchor” for attention, a specific state of mind takes place, in which logic relaxation happens, and there is a relative freedom from self-identification. Such states of mind are to be experienced and cannot be practiced; thus, meditation techniques (concentrations) are the means to reach this goal. Those who achieve such a state experience positive neurophysiological effects, which have been studied for decades, such as increased functionality and connectivity of the brain, and also increased gray matter volume in specific cortical areas, whether in the young or in the elderly. Meditation has, thus, a proven potential role to help one maintain a healthy cognition and should be included in daily life routines of everybody who wishes for it.
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What Is Meditation?

Exactly in the second sutra given by Sri Patañjali – who supposedly lived in the 2nd century B. C. (Taimni, 2014), the great yoga master states that yoga is meditation, since it is said that “Yoga is the cessation of the agitations of the mind.” In fact, the whole Yogasutras are meant to be a practical guidebook towards achieving the state of advaita (non-duality), or the experience of interconnectivity amongst all living beings, which may only be lived and not explained, and needs the absence of the self to occur. The path for reaching this state is then, described into eight limbs (Ashtanga Yoga), all of each pointed to the same aim, samadhi (the permanent state of utmost multifactorial health of the living being). Although not necessarily sequential, practices tend to be conducted in such a way in the Hatha Yogic approach (yogic approach which developed many techniques to help practitioners achieve what Sri Patanjali prescribes; it describes many practices such as postures, breathing exercises and meditations); thus, yamas (restrictions of behavior) and niyamas (observances of behavior) are learned and applied to asanas (postures); a comfortable and steady posture which means no violence nor self deceive or attachment for the practitioner is necessary and prepares for the good practice of pranayama (breathing practices); when practiced respecting and keeping the previous components applied to it, within the orientations of the most experienced and well-intentioned master, the correct practice of pranayama brings the sadhaka (practitioner) and his/her mind to the state of pratyahara (abstraction of the senses), in which the most tenacious and richer inner experiences of yoga begin; away from external interferences, untouched by sensorial inputs, the practice of dharana (concentration) is made possible, and one focuses his/her mind in a given object (what we have called “anchor”). In the state/practice of dharana, the self or individual existence/experience still remains – there is the observer and the object of observation; mind and attention come and go, as the waves in the shore; although fluctuations of the mind, these waves of thoughts and/or perceptions and memories are much subtler than those experienced in ordinary states of mind. The deepening of possible states of consciousness goes further, and Patanjali shows that the next possible achievable state is called dhyana (meditation), before the utmost one named samadhi. In a dhyana state there is supposed to be a fusion of the observer and the object observed; a state of momentary disintegration of individual identity in which one observes the absence of thoughts, since thinking is a function of the identified mind. Such a state and experience may not be practiced; conditions for its manifestation must be built, and it is what Sri Patanjali does in his Yogasutras. Thus, the mere translation of dhyana with the Western term meditation is a reduction of its meaning and reach and makes it possible for people who have experienced and practiced dharana to misunderstand one for the other. The dictionary definition of “to meditate” is “to think about a specific subject”, what may resemble Patañjali’s definition of dharana, but not, by far, dhyana. Then, some of the so-called meditation techniques which are practiced worldwide are in fact concentration exercises, which may help the practitioner to achieve the state of dhyana.

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