“Yoga chitta vritti nirodha.” Patanjali
Samadhi is experienced when fluctuations and changes in the meditator’s awareness are restrained and pacified.
(Translation: Roy Eugene Davis)
Neuroscience of Meditation
by Marty Wuttke
The state of stillness is the goal of the practice of inward turning and meditation. It is in this state that our core, our ‘pure essence of being’ is revealed to us. For many on the path, though, this remains an elusive experience, primarily because of the ‘vrittis’, the fluctuations and changes in the mental field. These fluctuations are produced by physiologic and electrochemical signals that are being processed by the brain, drawing our awareness to the result of these processes which we experience as our subjective thoughts and emotions.
The brain is the organ of consciousness. Consciousness is akin to a light shining on the brain and its functions, enlivening it, but separate from the physical organ. Just as electricity is separate from the hardware and software of the computer – and without it, there would be no function. Depending on which part of the brain the activity is occurring we will have corresponding experiences. Therefore it can be useful to understand the necessary changes in the brain the spiritual seeker experiences as he/she progresses towards more expansive levels of awareness.
Seers and teachers of enlightenment traditions understood the necessity of a systematic, self-disciplined approach to the unfolding of divine potential. In order to ‘still’ the fluctuations, which are electrochemical in nature, specific practices were delineated to gradually refine and transform the brain and nervous system so that pure consciousness could be experienced. We now have the technology to look into this process of refinement and understand the profound knowledge these sages have passed on.
Mapping the Mind
Within the temporal lobes of the brain lays the amygdala. It is the function of this tiny area to activate memory circuits in response to both positive and negative emotional experiences. In a study participants watched an emotionally charged movie while the researchers measured the activity of the amygdala using positron emission tomography (PET) scans. Several weeks later the participants were asked to take a test to determine the accuracy with which they remembered scenes in the movie. The researchers found that it was those scenes where heightened amygdala activity was recorded that were recalled with detailed accuracy. The more activated the brain is in a given situation, the more we will create memory. This is so that in the future the brain will automatically either be attracted to or diverted from a situation, depending on how it was interpreted and categorized. This is an important mechanism as it programs our nervous system to avoid danger and to be attracted to pleasurable experiences without our having to make continuous decisions. The amygdale serves as a monitor of our environment to determine emotional –motivational significance to stimulus. However, this automatic mechanism can also be an obstacle for the spiritual aspirant. The hippocampus close by, also participates in this modulation but more so as a damper in order to keep the system from going into over arousal and thus maintain state of quiet alertness. The hippocampus signals another structure, the hypothalamus to release chemicals that will activate or deactivate the systems of the body when needed. It is this flow of stimulus-memory-reaction that creates the activity referred to by Patanjali as the vrittis, or the fluctuations. If we are not able to discern between what is real and what is false, what is imagination, thinking patterns of fear, survival, ego-centered thinking, we will remain in a loop of reactive and unconscious behavior patterns. To break these patterns require a shift of brain function that research has identified as occurring in meditation practitioners. It would appear that the ability to inhibit these reactive patterns and to keep them from triggering other areas of the brain that push us into primitive responses, is important and is a component in the generation of certain mystical experiences. It has been documented that the amygdale, the hippocampus and the neocortex are intricately involved in mystical states and that for these states to occur a rerouting and inhibition of automatic-unconscious responses must occur.
The Neuro-biological Basis of Inner Transformation
If we examine the methods of spiritual paths such as Kriya yoga, we can gain insight into the neuro-biologogical effects of the systematic steps we are given. According to the “eight limbs” as delineated by Patanjali the Yamas are psycho-physiologic in effect serving to create a state of quiescence in the nervous system – by being harmless we perceive no threat, and demonstrate no fear. By being truthful we eliminate inner conflicts in what we know and claim to know. Non-stealing allows us to be ‘Self’ sufficient, knowing and demonstrating that our needs are met by our consciousness of being a part of the whole. Right use of vital energy helps us conserve this energy and non possiveness keeps us free from attachment to objects.
The Niyamas give us the foundation for daily living to correct any negative behaviors habits or patterns that may have been erroneously adopted; purifying us physically, mentally and emotionally. Practicing contentment in all circumstances, engaging is superconscious meditation, Self-study and surrender of the sense of separation form God, all serve to further the neurologic prerequisite for brain activity that is calmer and quieter.
The remaining steps (limbs) further refine and transform the brain and nervous system so that the fluctuations of chitta lessen and higher consciousness can be experienced. Through yoga postures we increase awareness and conscious control of the autonomic nervous system body. Through the practice of breathing exercises we increase awareness and conscious control of breath and life force. Through sense withdrawal we reverse the flow of our 5 senses from external objects. Through concentration we fix our attention to interior awareness. Through contemplation we direct attention away from "I" generated mental events: our subjective thoughts and emotions. Finally we enter Samadhi: fixing attention at the deepest level of Self-experience – the state of pure consciousness.
As a result of our practices and because of the harmonizing and enlivening effects upon the nervous system we become healthier. The mind naturally becomes more clear, our immune system is regulated, our powers of discernment increase, the virtues are no longer a practice but rather are embodied. Our awareness of being individualized units of God – of having the ‘Consciousness of Presence’ is firmly established in our body-mind-brain.