Monday, September 8, 2014

Brain Research and Meditation Methods

One of the more intriguing current trends in brain research is that over the course of the last decade or so, neuroscientists have been paying more attention to altered states of consciousness produced by "mystical" practices such as meditation. While I am not a proponent of the "mind as epiphenomenon of the brain" model of consciousness, at the same time it's clear that subjective experience can be related to neural events.

One of the more recent developments that came from this research is "mindfulness meditation," a non-sectarian meditation method similar to the Buddhist shamatha method. In this practice, thoughts are observed as they arise, and whenever the practitioner notices his or her attention being drawn to them, the attention is returned to the breath. This method produces a physiological state that researchers call the "relaxation response."

In this state, both the mind and the body are calmed. Studies have shown that the relaxation response can reduce everything from anxiety to inflammation, and that the benefits of this can be obtained after a relatively short period of practice. It should be no surprise to anyone familiar with neuroanatomy that the relaxation response achieves those results by activating the parasympathetic, or calming portion of the nervous system.

This explains in part why Theravada Buddhists who primarily practice this sort of meditation abstain from alcohol. Alcohol behaves like a stimulant in low doses because while it is a depressant, it depresses the parasympathetic nervous system before it acts upon the sympathetic, or arousing nervous system. So in fact there is a clear physiological reason why consuming alcohol interferes with Theravada practice - it undermines the primary mechanism behind the relaxation response.

In some cases, mindfulness meditation can produce the same sorts of cognitive problems that Buddhist teachers also sometimes encounter with shamatha. Again, this should be no surprise since the methods are so similar. Earlier this summer an article was published by The Atlantic discussing the work of Dr. Willoughby Britton, who is investigating cases in which the mindfulness meditation technique goes wrong.

One of Britton's subjects, a man named David, provides an example of the sort of problems she is exploring.

His first retreat was "very non-normal," he says, "and very good … divine. There was stuff dropping away … [and] electric shocks through my body. [My] core sense of self, a persistent consciousness, the thoughts and stuff, were not me." He tells me it was the best thing that had ever happened to him, an "orgasm of the soul, felt throughout my internal world."

David explains that he finally felt awake. But it didn't last. Still high off his retreat, he declined an offer to attend law school, aggravating his parents. His best friends didn't understand him, or his "insane" stories of life on retreat. "I had a fear of being thought of as crazy," he says, "I felt extremely sensitive, vulnerable, and naked."

Not knowing what to do with himself, David moved to Korea to teach English, got bored, dropped out of the program, and moved back in with his parents. Eventually, life lost its meaning. Colors began to fade. Spiritually dry, David didn't care about anything anymore. Everything he had found pleasurable before the retreat—hanging out with friends, playing music, drinking—all of that "turned to dirt," he says, "a plate of beautiful food turned to dirt."

With the understanding that mindfulness meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system it is pretty straightforward to see what went wrong. David activated his parasympathic nervous system, but for some reason seems to have "overshot." If the parasympathetic nervous system becomes too dominant, it can inhibit motivation and arousal as well as anxiety.

It is not clear yet why this happens to some meditators and not others, but according to Buddhists it has been observed in some percentage of practitioners for as long as the Buddha's teachings have existed. It is almost as if, as with many drugs, some individuals are especially sensitive to the practice and their nervous systems react much more strongly to the relaxation response.

If research such as Britton's can show the way to identifying some physiological similarity among those who encounter problems with the method, we may be able to determine ahead of time whether mindfulness practice is a good idea for any given individual. Or, alternately, if a practice could be developed that activates the sympathetic rather than the parasympathetic nervous system, perhaps such a method could create balance between the systems and counteract the parasympathetic overshoot.

This brings me to a recent study performed by researchers at the National University of Singapore comparing the Theravada practices of shamata and vipassana with the Tibetan Vajrayana practices of self-generation-as-deity and rigpa. What they found is that the Vajryana methods do in fact activate the sympathetic or arousing nervous system.

Assoc Prof Kozhevnikov and Dr Amihai examined four different types of meditative practices: two types of Vajrayana meditations (Tibetan Buddhism) practices (Visualisation of self-generation-as-Deity and Rig-pa) and two types of Theravada practices (Shamatha and Vipassana). They collected electrocardiographic (EKG) and electroencephalographic (EEG) responses and also measured behavioural performance on cognitive tasks using a pool of experienced Theravada practitioners from Thailand and Nepal, as well as Vajrayana practitioners from Nepal.

They observed that physiological responses during the Theravada meditation differ significantly from those during the Vajrayana meditation. Theravada meditation produced enhanced parasympathetic activation (relaxation). In contrast, Vajrayana meditation did not show any evidence of parasympathetic activity but showed an activation of the sympathetic system (arousal).

The researchers had also observed an immediate dramatic increase in performance on cognitive tasks following only Vajrayana styles of meditation. They noted that such dramatic boost in attentional capacity is impossible during a state of relaxation. Their results show that Vajrayana and Theravada styles of meditation are based on different neurophysiological mechanisms, which give rise to either an arousal or relaxation response.

Traditionally Theravada teches the first two methods, while Vajrayana teaches all four. Unlike Theravada, Vajrayana makes use of alcohol in some rituals, likely those intended to bring attention to the sympathetic nervous system with less interference from the parasympathetic. Also, Vajryana methods teach the transformation of the energy of arousal into a vehicle for elevating consciousness.

Here we can also see a possible physiological breakdown for Aleister Crowley's "three schools of magick," which he defines as the black, the yellow, and the white. As he explains in Magick Without Tears, chapters VI and VII:

The Yellow School of Magick considers, with complete scientific and philosophical detachment, the fact of the Universe as a fact. Being itself apart of that Universe, it realizes its impotence to alter the totality in the smallest degree. To put it vulgarly, it does not try to raise itself from the ground by pulling at its socks. It therefore opposes to the current of phenomena no reaction either of hatred or of sympathy. So far as it attempts to influence the course of events at all, it does so in the only intelligent way conceivable. It seeks to diminish internal friction.


The Black School of Magick, which must by no means be confused with the School of Black Magick or Sorcery, which latter is a perversion of the White tradition, is distinguished fundamentally from the Yellow School in that it considers the Universe not as neutral, but as definitely a curse. Its primary theorem is the "First Noble Truth" of the Buddha—"Everything is Sorrow." In the primitive classics of this School the idea of sorrow is confused with that of sin. (This idea of universal lamentation is presumably responsible for the choice of black as its symbolic colour. And yet? Is not white the Chinese hue of mourning?)


The central idea of the White School is that, admitted that "everything is sorrow" for the profane, the Initiate has the means of transforming it to "Everything is joy." There is no question of any ostrich-ignoring of fact, as in Christian Science. There is not even any more or less sophisticated argument about the point of view altering the situation as in Vedantism. We have, on the contrary, and attitude which was perhaps first of all, historically speaking, defined by Zoroaster, "nature teaches us, and the Oracles also affirm, that even the evil germs of Matter may alike become useful and good." "Stay not on the precipice with the dross of Matter; for there is a place for thine Image in a realm ever splendid." "If thou extend the Fiery Mind to the work of piety, thou wilt preserve the fluxible body."

The schools, then, can perhaps be classed thus on physiological grounds:

White School: Sympathetic activation.
Black School: Parasympathetic activation.
Yellow School: Balanced activation of both systems.

Crowley designed Thelema to combine what he considered the best of the white and yellow schools, and was rather down on the "existence is unavoidable suffering" model of the black school, which he saw at the base of religious traditions such as the extreme Christianity of his youth that considered all basic human nature sinful. At the same time, as research into the relaxation response has shown, there are some benefits to its practices and it's likely that Crowley's comments reflect a strong personal bias.

However, as the problems Britton has observed show, mindfulness meditation is not the full picture. Bringing in techniques such as those found in Vajryana gives the modern meditator a full set of tools for working with and manipulating consciousness. Western magical methods that employ complex visualizations and godform assumptions likely work the same way, especially godform assumptions which are very similar to the self-generation-as-Deity practices explored in the Singapore study.

Traditionally Vajrayana requires study with a lama (that is, a guru) who is qualified to teach all of the specific practices of his or her school and when to use them, and while it regards itself as the fastest path to enlightenment it also cautions that it is the most dangerous, especially when practiced without proper guidance. This is understandable given that, while activation of the sympathetic nervous system can produce drive and creativity, it can also also produce anxiety and overwhelming emotions.

It would therefore seem that the function of the lama in this context is to, in a sense, regulate the practices of students in such a way that they can activate both elements of the nervous system in a controlled and balanced fashion. Having an experienced, outside perspective on one's work can be quite helpful in terms of evaluating the effectiveness of the practice and "tweaking" the methods employed as you go.

In physiological terms Vajrayana practices appear to be quite effective. Matthieu Ricard, a Vajrayana practitioner and collegue of the Dalai Lama, has been found to produce the highest-frequency gamma brainwaves ever measured. Whether this makes him the "most enlightened person" or somesuch is open to debate, but balanced activation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems over a long period of time should produce such results, in which the neurons of both systems fire together at a very high rate.

It would seem, then, that the logical answer to the problems with mindfulness meditation would be to develop a similar non-sectarian system that produces results similar to those of Vajrayana methods. Rigpa is less structured than self-generation-as-Deity in terms of Tibetan cultural forms and would probably be a good place to start. The more complex piece will be working out a method that allows the practitioner to judge his or her overall practices and know what to do when, and how much. Perhaps the latest generation of brain monitoring tools will be able to help in that regard.

As I practice it, Thelema is a complete practice like Vajrayana. It includes a combination of meditation practice and ceremonial rituals involving godform assumptions that should result in similar neural activation of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Actual magical operations, directed at influencing the physical world, have yet to be addressed by brain researchers, and it is possible that given the bias against paranormal effects in the physical sciences such research may remain far off. Still, skeptics once considered meditation paranormal, but scientific study of the practice has identified all sorts of physiological benefits to the mindfulness method.

Similar research on Vajrayana-based methods is probably the next logical step. Researchers should see if they can develop a simplified, non-sectarian form of "arousal meditation" based on the techniques in the study, and then demonstrate that it works the same way. This may also help those who encountered problems with parasympathetic overshoot when attempting the mindfulness method, as an effective method of sympathetic activation should put their nervous systems back into balance.

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Unknown said...

Thanks for the interesting article. For the most part I agree, and I've been studying Dzogchen and Mahamudra as taught by the Tergar Meditation Community for some time. Their shamatha based "Joy of Living" programs provide a straightforward gateway toward those more advanced teachings as taught by the sons of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Shamatha is emphasized at first to provide a foundation in meditative stability before introducing the "Path of Liberation" teachings which include Dzogchen and Mahamudra. (Rigpa etc.)

Scott Stenwick said...

You're welcome.

It makes sense that you probably wouldn't want to take up an arousal-type practice until you get basic anxiety under control, at least to a degree, as shamatha does. Otherwise I could see an arousal-type practice strengthening problematic patterns of behavior such as aggression and so forth.

So probably a "stripped down" generic technique would start with basic mindfulness meditation, and then at a certain point move on to the Vajrayana-inspired method, whatever that turns out to be.

Unknown said...

Unfortunately those advanced practices have their own pitfalls which end up being quite similar to the dangers which befall modern Western Tradition practitioners, i.e. mistaking the first plateau for the summit, taking all manner of transient pleasant experiences, insight, clarity, etc. as evidence of one being now "enlightened" or God Like etc.

Scott Stenwick said...

One of the things that would be interesting to see about a simplified, non-sectarian method that has similar neural effects is how those problems would manifest.

If it's non-religious, that would probably exclude any sort of specific deity practice that might lead one to see themselves as godlike. Also, if what we're talking about is a system for managing regular mental states rather than a system for creating advanced mystics, getting practitioners to a "first plateau" might be enough.

The mindfulness meditation system avoids any talk of "enlightenment" and simply treats it as a system for managing the mind. I imagine the sort of practice I'm talking about would be framed the same way. So the "elitism" pitfall, at least, is somewhat mediated. The practice you're doing isn't making you better than other people, it's just making you better than you used to be.

I'm sure there are still going to be problems; after all, no method is perfect and individual psychology varies widely. But it would be especially telling if said problems wound up behaving differently without the surrounding cultural baggage of Tibetan Buddhism or for that matter Western Esotericism.

Scott Stenwick said...

I just had another thought, too. If you look at the problems that arise in mindfulness meditation versus those that arise in arousal-based meditation, what you're really looking at are the symptoms of depression (dark night of the soul and so forth) versus those of mania (egotism, feeling god-like).

So maybe that has some bearing on who will run into problems with contemplative practices and what those problems will be. And maybe that also means we should be looking at the balance point between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to develop new treatments for bipolar disorder.

Unknown said...

Very interesting indeed! I think this is dealt with fairly well in the Vajrayana though often through emphasis on ideas like compassion and the Path of the Bodhisattva, ideas that emphasize a kind of selflessness or service mindset which can be an antidote to inflation. In otherwords Bodhicitta. Also the emphasis on the lineage comes into play as one grapples with what an seem a loss of groundedness one can find some anchoring and modeling in the teacher and the various manefestations of the lineage gurus going back to Shakyamuni and even beyond to Primordial Buddhas. Some of these guide posts and anchoring points don't translate very well into non religious language, and I think this is one of the reasons we tend to see a lot of puffery coming out of the Western tradition. Cut loose from models and grounding, even if they are arguably useful abstract concepts. It is telling that the ideas of lineage and the teacher is even more strongly emphasized in these practices, even while the student is opening up to the idea that they themselves are without necessary limits.