Archive for the ‘Meditation’ Category
We concluded our recent discussion of Buddhist mindfulness by exposing a fatal flaw in the approach to meditation that seems to have become de rigueur in certain circles of the self-improvement industry. Specifically, a movement that purports to be all about enhancing awareness has failed to take account of one of the fundamental paradigms of New Age thought – the verifiable fact that our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions impinge directly on the quality and details of our physical reality. Any notion of “right mindfulness” that does not enhance our awareness of this constant creative process is leaving us in the dark instead of enlightening and empowering us. We need an approach that focuses our attention on the fascinating interplay between inner and outer reality – an approach that encourages us to create the best personal realities we can.
In this post, we shall employ an analogy from political science to flesh out one way of maintaining the kind of mindfulness dictated by a recognition of our personal, creative power. Although this analogy may prove inaccessible to people with little background in the social sciences, the language of politics is steeped in concepts that deal with the distribution of power and with hierarchies of authority. The analogy is imperfect (and there is little to be gained from attempting to make it “fit” more closely) but I hope it will help you to think about how effectively you are using your own power at any given time, and thereby remind you just how much power you actually have.
The Supreme Law of the… Mind
As Constitutional scholars know all too well, Article VI, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution declares that the federal Constitution is the supreme law of the land, trumping all other sources of law, such as state or federal statutes, that do not comport with its dictates. In the case of personal reality, there is also a supreme law; namely, that we create our own reality with our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. (Yes, physical actions are relevant, but they are subsidiary. The actions that really count are the ones we take with our mind, for they determine all others.) If this concept is alien to you, or strikes you as implausible, then you might as well stop reading here. There are other things you need to read first. (Our review of The Secret contains a couple of recommendations – not including the subject of that review!)
The U.S. Constitution, among other things, established three branches of government – legislative, executive, and judicial. Explained in the simplest terms, the legislative branch (the two houses of Congress) makes federal laws; the executive branch (the president and his administration) applies and enforces those laws; and the judiciary (the federal court system, headed by the Supreme Court) interprets the laws in cases of confusion and ensures that the laws are consistent with the Constitution itself – the supreme law of the land. This latter function, known as judicial review, is quite controversial in politics, because if the Court does not interpret the Constitution correctly it can be (and often is) accused of imposing its own, subjective opinions on the political branches of the government, which are – unlike the Court – elected by the people. For our purposes here, we do not need to concern ourselves with this controversy, but the idea of a high court reminding the rest of the system to adhere to first principles is absolutely crucial.
In the U.S. system, there is a separation of powers, in which each branch is given exclusive authority over certain matters. In other political systems, such as the British parliamentary model, there is a fusion of powers, in which the separation between the branches breaks down. The British Cabinet, dominated by the Prime Minister, is drawn from the majority party in the House of Commons; while it is an executive body, it essentially controls activity in the legislature and can therefore make laws as well as implement them. Similarly, the highest court in the British system is drawn from the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the legislature (Parliament), further eroding the separation of powers. It is worth noting this distinction, for in the human constitution, we have the ultimate fusion of powers.
Getting to Know Your Inner Government
In French politics, it is not unusual for the Prime Minister to also be the Mayor of Paris, or hold some other significant post. The French refer to this multi-tasking as le cumul des mandats – the accumulation of offices. In our personal politics, we have to do it all. We have an internal legislature, an executive “administration,” and a Supreme Court to make sure the other two branches behave themselves. How, exactly, can we identify these inner roles – these personal branches of government?
In the human constitution, the legislative function refers to the thinking of thoughts and the feeling of emotions; it is the mental enactment of our beliefs. Sometimes, as with real legislatures swayed by fleeting popular passions or the malign influence of lobbyists, the legislature passes poor bills. When you think negative, destructive thoughts that arouse within you damaging emotions, your inner legislature is doing a bad job for you. At other times, the inner legislature thinks beneficial thoughts that tend to create positive outcomes. As long as you are awake, your legislature is always in session, and it is a very busy institution. It is most effective – for better or worse – when it consistently churns out bills with similar objectives; if it’s output is mixed, the conflicting bills will tend to neutralize one another and result in muddled stasis.
The executive function involves both the mental and physical mechanisms by which we carry out the will of the legislature. If, for example, the legislature passes a bill (i.e., adopts a belief) acting on questionable information, holding that your friend is a back-stabber who is out to get you, your executive will ensure that you start to behave differently toward your friend. You will look at her differently, talk to her in a different tone of voice, say things that you would otherwise not say, and perform actions towards her that reflect your belief that she is against you. All of this is largely automatic. Unlike the administration of President G.W. Bush, which used “signing statements” to essentially tell Congress that it had no intention of implementing parts of statutes with which it disagreed (a clearly unconstitutional practice that effectively created an extra-constitutional line-item veto), your executive is a dutiful servant of the legislature, as it should be. We don’t need to worry too much about the executive; there is no “imperial presidency” in our human constitutional affairs.
In James Madison’s original understanding of the U.S. Constitution, the Congress was by far the most powerful branch, and potentially the most dangerous. While that has changed in American politics, in our personal politics the inner legislature is unquestionably the dominant force. The executive cannot veto its bills: though it may resist implementation of certain acts that deviate from past practice (habits), it is ultimately powerless against a determined legislature. Strongly held beliefs and deeply felt emotions are unstoppable; they will change your life. It is vital, therefore, to choose those beliefs and emotions wisely, and that brings us to consideration of the judicial function.
Mindfulness Wears Judicial Robes
In an ideal world, the inner legislature would only pass good bills that advance our personal interests. Positive, joyful beliefs and emotions would flow freely and consistently, causing the executive to bring about the conditions we desire. Unfortunately, in a sad parallel to real politics, the inner legislature goes off on bizarre tangents, can’t make its mind up what it really means, or gets seduced by evil factions. It needs guidance, and it doesn’t get enough from within its own ranks. Some part of us needs to rise above the partisan fray and impose a sense of purpose consistent with the supreme law of the mind. That task falls to our inner judiciary – our personal Supreme Court. Thus, the judicial function is one of reminding the legislature – the busy, thinking, feeling self – that its actions are much more than mere objects of consciousness, and that because of this, the legislature had better use its considerable power responsibly. In the human constitution, the judicial function is the pinnacle of awareness.
In an interesting departure from the political practices with which we are most familiar in the U.S., our inner legislature is free to ask our Supreme Court for guidance at any time – to use it as an advisory council. In other words, when you catch yourself starting to think or feel in a particular way, you can ask yourself whether such mental actions are likely to produce good results, bearing in mind that thoughts and emotions have real power over your life. Upon further reflection, the answer may well be that such thoughts had better be avoided at all costs, or that you have seen poor results from similar thoughts in the past. You can think of this as reading prior case law, or looking for precedents. The inner judiciary has volumes upon volumes of cases in its history – a huge treasure trove of potential guidance, if only we have the wisdom and patience to avail ourselves of it. Note, however, that the cases only date back to that point in time when you were aware of the connection between your inner and outer realities. If your memory only includes what happened “out there” but contains nothing about what you had been doing “in here,” then you have no useful precedents upon which to draw.
Most people live their entire lives in ignorance of the supreme law of the mind. They do not understand the true power of their own thoughts and emotions. Consequently, they rarely harness that power effectively (if they do, it is entirely by accident), and frequently find themselves stroking against the tide, never able to bring about the conditions they desire despite their best efforts. Destructive beliefs and emotions enacted by their inner legislature sabotage their progress. But when we live mindfully – when we become aware of both the existence and the workings of the supreme law of the mind – we are finally able to perceive the source of the problem. To our wise inner Court, the actions of the inner legislature that are bringing us down become obvious.
It is often said in mindfulness circles that freedom comes from recognizing that we have a choice over the contents of our minds. Ironically, many of these “authorities” have no idea just how true that really is.
Mindfulness is generally understood to mean the cultivation of present-moment awareness, including the attainment of a state of mind in which thoughts, feelings, and emotions are mere “objects of consciousness” from which the self may be “liberated.” Readers of the painstakingly thorough, Buddhist-inspired website, wildmind.org, may be familiar with numerous exercises that are said to enhance your perception of reality and liberate you from unnecessary suffering by teaching you that you are free to choose the contents of your mind. Although there are some genuine benefits to be derived from these mindfulness techniques, the veritable cottage-industry that has grown up around them is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of personal reality. If you want to follow the path of the Buddha, knock yourself out – and stop reading now, because you won’t like where we’re going.
From the Ancient Orient to the Modern Self-Help Industry
As we discussed in our previous post on guided meditation, there are two main conceptions of meditation: mindfulness (moment-to-moment awareness) and concentration (focused attention). In practice, this dichotomy tends to break down or become rather “fuzzy,” as open-monitoring of one’s experiences – the putative essence of mindfulness – mutates into focusing on particular aspects of that experience. Indeed, this confusion permeates much of the scientific literature on the subject of meditation, detracting somewhat from the clarity of its findings on the benefits of any particular technique. Practitioners of mindfulness, however, need no such validation, for they are imbued with the certitude that they are on the one, true path. But, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once put it, certitude is not the test of certainty….
Purists have argued that modern mindfulness techniques do not comport with the teachings of the Buddha or certain strands of Hinduism. The modern, Western emphasis on non-judgmental acceptance of whatever thoughts and feelings arise in one’s mindstream is said to depart from the original concern to cultivate virtue and wholesomeness, which obviously implies the exercise of judgment on some level. (The very concept of “right mindfulness,” central to traditional Buddhism, contains a judgment about what is wholesome and what is not.) But one of the leading proponents of non-judgmental mindfulness in the West, Jon Kabat-Zinn, sees no inconsistency, adducing instead Buddhism’s central concern with “the relief of suffering and the dispelling of illusions.” Kabat-Zinn, of course, founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which has spread widely across the medical, psychological, and even business fields, becoming quite a little empire in its own right.
The sheer number of traditions within Buddhism accounts for much of this dispute, and it could easily be dismissed as irrelevant. However, we shall see later that the issue of judging the contents of one’s mind is very, very important. For now, we must acknowledge that mindfulness as taught in the West has been shown repeatedly to effectively combat stress and negative dispositions. Part of its effectiveness against stress is surely due to reining in the mind’s tendency to wander off and entertain worst-case scenarios in a hypothetical future. The reduction of corrosive stress hormones circulating through one’s system in response to imagined threats has much to do with the boost to immune function attributed to mindfulness. And a shift in the activity of the prefrontal cortex – from the right to the left side – seems to be involved in helping practitioners recover more quickly from negative experiences and escape depression. Clearly, the practice is not utterly devoid of merit.
Add A Dash of Neuroscience and Stir…
Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (2009), has done much to popularize mindfulness and bring science and the contemplative disciplines together, exemplifying the kind of harmony we wished for in our post on the origin of consciousness. I am particularly thankful for his explanation of why it is that our minds tend to behave like “Velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for positive ones,” which lays the blame on our reptilian ancestors, whose threat-avoidance mechanisms linger on in the brains of modern man. His suggested exercises include numerous ways to emphasize the positive in our lives and, over time, rewire our brains to counteract this inbuilt negativity bias. Hanson’s mindfulness takes us beyond open-monitoring toward active selection of beneficial inner states. One cannot help but wonder if the purists, too, would be impressed by his attempt to train the mind to learn more wholesome habits, instead of simply watching the mental world go by.
Dr. Hanson, with both scientific and contemplative training, sticks his neck above the parapet of the scientific establishment and acknowledges the inherent transcendence of the mind, then promptly ducks back down again by presenting the mind-brain connection as one of the fundamental challenges remaining to be unlocked by science. (Such a balancing act would obviously be laughable to thoroughgoing materialists.) He is well aware that the most experienced Buddhists, when performing a loving-kindness meditation, are able to place themselves into the exceptionally powerful Gamma state, harmonizing multiple regions of the brain. But his approach to continuing mental evolution ultimately returns to an application of the Buddhist triad of virtue, mindfulness, and wisdom. Fascinating though this might be, it misses an opportunity to exploit modern brainwave entrainment technology – a resource the Buddha could never have dreamed of. More importantly, this adherence to Buddhism makes him subject to the limits of its worldview, to which we now turn.
The Ultimate Failure of Buddhist Mindfulness
Although mindfulness is undoubtedly an effective stress-reduction tool, I remain personally underwhelmed by the practice, for reasons that are far more fundamental than its apparent disdain for brainwave entrainment technology. The fatal weakness of mindfulness is its failure to grasp both the creative and predictive power of our thoughts and emotions. While I share their concern to advance personal freedom, I find that mindfulness practitioners have an unduly stunted conception of the nature and scope of that freedom. This limitation may stem from an excessively rigid adherence to the teachings of the Buddha (and their ridiculously variegated iterations); but, ultimately, it stems from a failure to notice what is really going on. And that’s a pretty damning indictment for a movement that purports to be all about cultivating awareness.
Simply put, the mindfulness industry hasn’t noticed that we create our reality with our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. Thoughts and emotions are not just “objects of consciousness”; they impinge materially and directly upon the very fabric of our lives. In the Buddhist conception of reality, suffering is inevitable and all we can do is choose how we’re going to react to it. By distancing ourselves from our thoughts and emotions – rising above them and becoming a mental gatekeeper – we learn over time that we do not have to entertain thoughts and emotions that magnify or perpetuate suffering. That is all well and good, but it remains a passive and reactive conception of personal reality. There is simply no discussion of the much more profound role we can take on when we act as a mental gatekeeper – that of choosing the thoughts and emotions that will actively change our reality. And, by extension, there is inevitably no recognition of the corollary that suffering can be, if not eliminated, certainly reduced by a wise application of this creative principle. Rick Hanson gets half way there by acknowledging the impact of thought patterns on neuroplasticity, and seeing the need to “burn” better circuits. But he does not go further than that, perhaps because of his desire to retain credibility in the mainstream scientific community and within the mindfulness industry. With one foot stuck in ancient oriental mud, he can’t stride boldly forward into the New Age.
Thus, the kind of mindfulness we should be aiming for is one which does not merely observe the contents of the mind, but also compares them to the components of external reality, constantly seeking possible patterns of causation. Thoughts are not just transient mental guests with only fleeting, internal consequences; on the contrary, they are potent agents of creativity, with potentially life-altering consequences. To simply observe our thoughts in a non-judgmental way is to abdicate our responsibility to actively select those thoughts and feelings which will create the realities we seek. To be clear, then, this kind of mindfulness differs from the usual prescriptions not just in its focus on the vital interplay between inner and outer reality, but also in its explicit call for personal judgment. A fully mindful person is, therefore, aware of his true power and wisely evaluating whether that power is being applied intelligently and beneficially. This is not what the Buddha meant by wholesomeness, but in case it is not already painfully obvious, I see no reason to be constrained by his conceptions.
Of almost equal importance, the cultivation of a rather condescending attitude toward the thoughts that come to us spontaneously – treating them as unruly gatecrashers upon our blessed mental tranquility – leads us to discount the incredibly valuable information that those thoughts are giving us. Just as we send thought and emotional energy “out” into the universe, so energy returns to us and is “detected” as thought or emotion, in a kind of psycho-spiritual sonar system, if you will. This is not mere chatter above which we should rise; it is a bona fide sense that should be embraced. If you’ve ever received a telephone call from someone and said, “Funny, I was just thinking about you…” then you know exactly what I mean. Conventional mindfulness doesn’t just disconnect us from the controls of our personal “vehicle”; it also turns off the lights so we can’t see where we’re going.
Buddhist mindfulness, which beguiles the faithful with promises of “insight” and the “dispelling of illusions,” ultimately cheats us (like all major religions) by denying us the truth. While not guilty of foisting upon us the utter nonsense of omnipotent and omniscient imaginary friends, and helpful to some extent in turning our focus within, a fatal sin of omission renders it inadequate to our need for complete understanding and unworthy of further attention.
Guided meditation seems to be all the rage at the moment, and every website dealing with meditation feels it necessary to tout its merits. At the time of writing, Google reports over 60,000 web searches a month on this subject, and a whole lot more if we include variants on the term. I do not share this enthusiasm, and not just because of an instinctive anti-herd instinct. For if your main goal in meditating is the attainment of altered states of consciousness – either to experience them for their own sake, or to use them for certain purposes – guided meditation can actually impede your progress.
What Is Meditation, Anyway?
Before we discuss guided meditation specifically, it’s worth reminding ourselves what we’re trying to do. There is no one answer to the question of what meditation is; in fact, there are multiple answers depending on whether you include all the world’s religious traditions – obviously with Buddhism and Hinduism being most influential – or limit yourself to more secular concepts. Further complicating the picture, as we discussed in our post on the bizarre world of Transcendental Meditation, there is an unfortunate tendency for practitioners of one strand of meditation to view all others as illegitimate or inferior. And this tendency even extends to otherwise strong writers who wade into the New Age pool with lead-footed preconceptions. A good example occurs in Salon.com, where the self-assured author asserts that meditation is about inculcating mindfulness, not about quieting the mind. That’s about as accurate as saying that the only proper evening meal is fish and chips. Very nice, but what happened to the rest of the menu?
At the risk of making the same mistakes myself, let me try to define meditation for our purposes on this site, meaning no disrespect to any other traditions that do not fall within this definition:
Meditation is a self-directed, personal, mental activity in which the practitioner trains his mind to attain a desired state of consciousness. The practitioner may concentrate his attention on a specific focal point – be that an external object or some internal process – or may simply monitor his experience in an open, non-judgmental way.
The latter part of that definition embraces the two main, western, secular conceptions of meditation – concentrative and mindful. But in the current context, it is the first part of the definition that matters most. Clearly, this site places a heavy emphasis on attaining altered states of consciousness for particular purposes. The use of brainwave entrainment audio recordings, while not featured in the Bhagavad Gita, is perfectly compatible with self-direction and personal control, unless you want to argue that the sound engineer is calling the shots. But this compatibility breaks down altogether when we start working with guided meditation.
Why Do You Need A Guide?
In guided meditation, your activities are explicitly led by someone else’s speech. You are supposed to go where they tell you – explore the issues they raise, answer the questions they ask. Clearly, you are only in control in so far as you choose which guided meditation product (or counselor) to work with; once the session is underway, self-direction flies out of the window. Why would you want to give someone else that kind of control?
Guided meditation CDs are often marketed on the basis that meditation is too difficult for most people to master by themselves. I could hastily point out that brainwave entrainment audio has completely changed the game, obviating the need for years of diligent training. And, in fact, some producers of guided meditation MP3 and CD audios have combined brainwave entrainment techniques with vocal guidance for allegedly greater effect. However, because of the loss of self-direction, and the conversion of a quintessentially personal activity into a kind of social interaction (clearly so when working with a counselor), it seems to me that this exercise is simply not meditation at all, even of the mindfulness variety. It is more like psychotherapy, perhaps even hypnotherapy, or simply introspection. Of course, there is a legitimate place for this in personal development: exploration of one’s beliefs and emotions, with a view to understanding undesirable behavior patterns or just know oneself better, is absolutely vital. We just shouldn’t think we’re meditating when we’re really not.
Moreover, there is little chance of attaining any kind of altered state of consciousness when you must pay close attention to – or constantly be interrupted by – someone else’s voice (especially if you don’t like that voice or what it actually says). The nature of this discourse is likely to keep you in a Beta state, maybe high Alpha at best if you listen with eyes closed. (Falling asleep doesn’t really count as a successful entry to Theta or Delta!) Listening to instrumental music, on the other hand, eliminates this distraction and is a wonderful way to ease the descent into deeper levels of the self, especially when enhanced by brainwave entrainment techniques. And it leaves you firmly in control of the experience – setting the goals and working towards them as you see fit.
Your Voice Is The One That Matters
There is a final, crucial point that needs to be made here. Listening to someone else’s voice is a passive activity, even if you really become fully absorbed in a guided meditation session. Again, this is fine if you feel you need help getting to the bottom of some intractable inner problems. But if you want more than that from a meditation session – if you’re looking, for example, to reprogram yourself by using tailor-made affirmations – then not only should you be the one choosing those affirmations, you must be the one to say them. The process of internally giving form to those words gives them life and power. And as experienced meditators know all too well, repeating a mantra is a classic method of focusing attention and, with practice, can be done in deeper levels of consciousness with direct access to the subconscious mind.
If meditation, whether concentrated or mindful, is proving too hard for you, I would recommend high-quality brainwave entrainment audio before any kind of guided meditation. However, if your disposition is fundamentally hostile to introspective activities, you may need guided meditation to help you begin your journey. We all have to start somewhere. But this website is dedicated to the attainment of ultimate individual autonomy, experienced through exploration of the deepest levels of the self. That place – a place of incredible freedom, power, and wisdom – is a private place. It is yours, and yours alone.
Ultimately, all meditation techniques have the same basic objective – to quiet the chatter of the everyday, waking mind and allow us to enter calmer, deeper states of consciousness. While it is normal for us to become emotionally attached to a particular method we have learned, we should not dismiss other methods that may work just as well, or better, for other people. Indeed, we should actually be wary of techniques that proclaim themselves to be superior, for this is one of the hallmarks of a cult.
Why I am Suspicious of ‘Organized Meditation’
Meditation is arguably the most personal, individualized activity in which one can engage. It is, above all else, a process of personal discovery. Your journey should be uniquely yours. With this in mind, I certainly do not mind receiving tips or advice from an experienced meditator who can help me reach my goals. But I become profoundly uncomfortable when an individual or organization purports to offer the one, single way to “know the truth” or the only “path to enlightenment.” I become even more suspicious when attaining this special knowledge will cost me a lot of money!
I am particularly disturbed by a famous group that claims the allegiance of several celebrities, but I’m not talking about Scientology. Transcendental Meditation became a global operation valued at over $3 billion under the leadership of the Indian-born Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who died in 2008. ‘TM’, as it is commonly known, used to count among its devotees such truth-seekers as The Beatles, and now enjoys the public support of, inter alia, Jerry Seinfeld and David Lynch. This is a group that presents itself as a tax-exempt educational organization, but which is in fact a front for the promulgation of a particular strand of Hinduism, and has been held to be a religion by U.S. courts and foreign governments. In recent years, it has attempted to gain greater respect in the Western world by clothing its doctrines in more scientific garb, touting a uniquely beneficial brainwave pattern as the result of its techniques. Learning those techniques, by the way, will cost you $1,500 (which is actually $1,000 less than it used to be). TM runs a university in Iowa, the Maharishi University of Management, and requires all students to disavow other meditation practices in favor of its own method. Its wealthy advocates are using their influence to spread the word in some prominent media channels, including a recent feature in The Huffington Post, which read like naked propaganda, complete with sycophantic comments in tow.
What bothers me the most about this organization, apart from the horror stories of mental, emotional, and physical abuse that have been revealed by former members, is the organization’s crowing about superior brain wave patterns. This is a topic of great interest to me, so I am naturally curious about developments in this field. Specifically, the claim is that their technique results in demonstrably greater Alpha-wave coherence across the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the brain. And this state of consciousness is presented as the solution to all personal problems, ranging from poor health through enhanced performance to the attainment of world peace. With so much on the line, the price of admission is actually a bargain, right?
The Small Matter of Credibility
At one time, TM claimed that if one percent of the population practiced its technique, the city in which they lived would experience less violent crime and greater economic prosperity. (This “Maharishi Effect” was easily debunked by looking at the reality on the ground around their Midwestern campus.) They believe the weather tends to be nice at their college graduations because of their collective influence. And, not all that long ago, they thought they could fly (levitate), producing bogus photographs to “document” this achievement by adherents who had reached the “highest levels.”
Now they say their state of consciousness is superior to everyone else’s – surely the ultimate form of snobbery, an ego-driven emotion from which most meditators actually seek to distance themselves. This claim is just as preposterous as the others that came before. The truth is that there are many ways to achieve the relaxed wakefulness of the Alpha state, and most of them cost less than $50 or are completely free. (I learned how to attain an Alpha state by reading a paperback book I bought as a tourist in New York City at the tender age of 18.) These methods do not involve chanting the names of Hindu gods as a mantra, and do not lead you to believe that your mantra – for which you paid dearly – is unique to you when it has in fact been given to countless others who happen to be your age and gender.
Don’t Allow Yourself to be Duped!
Meditation, when undertaken in the right spirit, can open the door to beautiful and powerful inner realms and potentials. It upsets me tremendously to see a force for good being misused on a quasi-industrial scale, damaging people’s lives and pocketbooks. This is not necessary, and you should have no part of it.
To learn more about the human brain and states of consciousness, and how you can control them safely and cheaply in the privacy of your own home, visit my Brainwaves Guide. No hidden agenda, no claims to superiority, no “initiation” ceremonies, and no rip-off prices. Just information that you can choose to use or ignore without judgment.
Theta waves have been associated with access to the subconscious mind, emotional and physical healing, enhanced creativity, and intuition. The use of meditation techniques to entrain Theta brain waves has become a cottage industry in the form of the “Theta Healing” program. But in this article we shall focus on an aspect of Theta waves that is clearly supported by decades of scientific research – the connection between Theta brain waves, learning, and memory. We will end by recommending further resources for those who wish to apply the power of Theta waves to their own lives.
What Science Tells Us About Theta Waves
In the scientific literature, a distinction is made between the Theta waves recorded in the hippocampus of animal brains and those emanating from the cerebral cortex of human brains. For reasons of bioethics, studies of human brain waves are generally confined to the relatively superficial observations made possible by EEG electrodes attached to the scalp. But experimentation on animals – whether we like it or not – has penetrated much deeper within the brain, including such harsh measures as removing portions of the brain “just to see what happens.”
It is fairly clear that both regions of the brain demonstrate Theta activity in the region of 4 – 7 Hertz, but researchers have been a little reluctant to connect them and have hedged their bets by speculating that the two processes may be independent of one another. Though our knowledge remains incomplete, hippocampal Theta waves are associated with REM sleep while cortical Theta rhythms are similarly associated with the borderline between sleep and waking. Hence the interest in Theta taken by those who wish to have lucid dreams.
Theta Brain Waves, Learning, and Memory
Theta frequencies are displayed during the performance of short-term memory tasks and seem to be involved in the processing of sensory information and preparation for appropriate body movements in response to that information. Theta brain waves apparently help separate the creation of new memories on a cellular level (long-term potentiation) from the recollection of existing memories cued by sensory stimuli – a precondition for effective learning. This is most clearly demonstrated in spatial learning and navigation.
The Exciting Promise of Theta Waves
The biofeedback research of Thomas Budzynski led him to conclude that Theta waves allow us to absorb new information in an uncritical manner by disarming the ever-vigilant filter of the analytical left hemisphere. This greatly facilitates “re-programming” of belief systems such as concepts of self-worth, and “unlearning” of destructive mental habits. A tremendous amount of new information can be absorbed quickly in the Theta state – and also recalled with great clarity.
When the brain is in this uncritical twilight zone, we have an ideal opportunity to rid ourselves of the negative attitudes that have been holding us back in all phases of our lives. Positive affirmations and creative visualizations will be vastly more effective when our brain’s dominant frequency is the Theta wave.
How To Exploit The Power of Theta Waves in Your Life
Now that we have seen the great promise of the theta brainwave (and this is only one of its many benefits!), the logical question is whether we can take advantage of this phenomenon. Fortunately, recent advances in the audio field of brainwave entrainment known as isochronic tones make it easier than ever before to control the dominant frequency at which our brains resonate.
Until quite recently, neurologists believed there were only four main categories of electrical activity in the human brain: Beta, Alpha, Theta, and Delta. But in the last few decades, specialists in the field of neuroacoustics, pushing their EEGs to the limits, have found new brain waves at frequencies that were previously thought impossible. The abilities conferred by those brainwaves are even more extraordinary. In this article we shall focus on the best known of these discoveries – the Gamma wave.
What Are Gamma Brain Waves and Why Are They So Special?
Gamma brain waves resonate at a frequency above the Beta wave that characterizes so much of our waking lives. Whereas Beta occupies a range from 13 – 30 Hertz (Hz), Gamma – if observed at all – is generally around 40 Hz. There does not appear to be a clear consensus on exactly where the upper limit of Gamma lies, but most resources place that point at around 70 Hz. Beyond that, we have the truly extraordinary states of HyperGamma (100 Hz) and Lambda (200 Hz), named by Dr. Jeffrey Thompson of the Center for Neuroacoustic Research.
We are used to describing the familiar Beta wave as shallow and weak, and often treat it with a certain degree of condescension, urging people to spend more time meditating in the more powerful states of Alpha and Theta. But Beta is essential for focus and concentration when interacting with the physical world and performing the myriad of complex tasks that confront us each day. Gamma waves, as one would expect, are even shallower than Beta waves, but they take our level of concentration and focus to an even higher level than Beta.
Neurologists have noted that Gamma waves are closely associated with a synthesis of senses, perceptions, and memories into a greater, holistic level of awareness and competence. In the Gamma state, we are able to perceive many senses at once, connect the present with the past, and combine separate ideas into larger constructs. This equates to a tremendously vivid, almost ecstatic state, bringing natural feelings of happiness and compassion in addition to the highest level of intelligence. In short, this could very well be the ultimate state of mind.
Are Gamma Brain Waves Too Good to be True?
Who wouldn’t want to enjoy supreme levels of competence, enhanced sensory perception, powerful learning ability and memory? Clearly, those who never come close to attaining these objectives could benefit from more Gamma waves, and it is likely that they will come to be used clinically in much the same way as Beta wave induction has been used to treat individuals with Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD). And there can be no denying that the whole world could benefit from a lot more compassion, akin to that achieved by the “loving kindness” meditations of Tibetan monks.
But, just as too much time in Beta leads to mental and physical stress and imbalance, one would not want to overdo the even more frenetic Gamma wave. To be on the safe side, if you are going to target the Gamma frequency you should make absolutely sure that your mind and body are being thoroughly rejuvenated by the healing periods of dreamless sleep associated with the Delta wave.
Fortunately, we do not have to be Tibetan monks in order to experience the tremendous benefits of the Gamma wave. The new audio technology of brainwave entrainment now enables anyone with the ability to play digital recordings to explore these exciting new frontiers of the self. But, as implied above, we need to be careful with such powerful phenomena. It is important to use recordings that are produced by people who really know what they’re doing. The best guide to these recordings can be found here: Meditation MP3.
Stress is killing you. That’s a known fact. Removing the causes of stress in your life – your job, your relationships, your circumstances – is not something that can be done overnight. So in that case, what is the best way to relax? For many busy people, meditation is the answer to that question, and the easiest form of meditation to learn and practice is alpha meditation.
How Stress is Killing You
The body’s evolved response to stress – the ‘fight-or-flight’ response – entails several hormonal changes. If the source of stress is relatively short-lived, the body’s “stress thermostat” can reset itself to neutral levels within an hour or so. But if stress continues – whether actual or just perceived – then those hormonal imbalances will eventually do permanent damage.
Specifically, when stress is perceived the adrenal glands release epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline), norepinephrine, and cortisol. Collectively, these hormones increase heart rate, blood pressure and respiration, and boost blood-sugar levels, preparing the body for action. The role of cortisol is to switch off various bodily functions that demand a great deal of energy or resources, enabling a full diversion of energy to reacting to danger. Such functions include digestion, reproduction, growth, and certain aspects of the immune system. Thus, the body’s ability to repair itself is weakened just when extra demands are being placed on it. It is no wonder that stress is so clearly connected to heart disease.
Interestingly, cortisol also changes the structure of the brain itself, causing enlargement of the amygdala, which controls fear and other emotional responses, while inhibiting neuronal connections in the hippocampus, which is involved in memory formation. Taken together, these changes impair the brain’s ability to remember emotional experiences properly. One’s whole system becomes geared toward an expectation of more stress, perpetuating a vicious cycle of physical and psychological damage. We urgently need to break that cycle by learning how to relax.
Alpha Meditation to Relieve Stress
While we could attempt to fight stress with expensive drugs that have their own side-effects and long-term health risks, there is a cheaper, safer way to restore the balance of mind and body. Meditation can be used repeatedly and reliably to take the brain to a state of tranquility, where perceived dangers melt away and all the associated hormonal havoc is restored to order.
Alpha meditation refers to the brainwave pattern exhibited when the mind turns inwards, losing its obsessive focus on the details and duties of daily life. At this frequency (7 – 13 Hertz), the brain slows down from its everyday waking state, but actually becomes more powerful. Alpha is the first step towards the ultimate relaxation of sleep, and a definite move away from stress.
Alpha meditation is also the easiest type of meditation to practice, especially in the modern age. For while modern life brings with it a great deal of stress, it also offers technologies that have greatly simplified our lives. And meditation is no exception to that. Now, instead of studying arcane techniques for years, it is possible to reach an alpha state within 10-15 minutes while listening to special music that has been designed to encourage the brain to operate in certain frequencies. This new field is known as brainwave entrainment technology.
Excellent free samples of this technology are available here. In the fight against stress, you can’t afford not to include this weapon in your arsenal.
Alpha-Theta meditation is a highly desirable skill to master, unleashing the hidden potentials that lie within us all. While almost all meditators are familiar with the relaxed state associated with the Alpha brainwave, and many have heard about the deeper Theta brainwave associated with unconscious levels of the mind, not everyone realizes that a particular combination of these two frequencies can confer special benefits.
Alpha-Theta Meditation Defined
Alpha-Theta meditation targets the brainwave frequencies at the border of Alpha (7 – 13Hz) and Theta (3.5 – 7Hz) brainwaves. This is particularly interesting territory, for not only does it yield a combination of benefits from both ranges, it also corresponds to the resonant frequency of the Earth and the ionosphere, which is approximately 7.5Hz. To experience Alpha-Theta is to “come home” to the dynamic field in which life evolved.
The Most Inventive Combination of Brainwaves?
Alpha brainwaves occur when we turn our attention inward, away from the details and problems of everyday physical reality. While Alpha waves can appear with our eyes open and fixed on a single spot, for most of us they occur more readily with eyes closed – a literal tuning out of the external world. In Alpha, we are either starting to fall asleep or, if meditating, beginning a journey towards the creativity and greater intelligence that can seldom be heard above the cacophony of waking thoughts.
Theta brainwaves occur during dreaming sleep. This is a time when the central nervous system deliberately switches itself off from the rest of the body to prevent us from acting out our dreams and unintentionally harming ourselves. (Sleepwalking and narcolepsy occur when this natural, protective function misfires; specifically, they are disorders of the Reticular Activating System in the brainstem.) We all know how incredibly creative the dream state is – and how it is also fraught with emotional complexity. Freed from the burden of managing a complex organism in a dangerous physical environment, the brain in Theta is the wellspring of human creative powers.
Alpha-Theta meditation seeks to access the creative and emotional power of Theta while retaining the conscious awareness of an introspective Alpha session. Thomas Edison had a particular way of doing this. He would take a nap clasping ball bearings in his hands. When he fell asleep, the relaxation of his hands caused the bearings to fall noisily onto carefully positioned metal plates, waking him up again. He would immediately write down the ideas that came to him in the brief “twilight zone” between the dreaming and waking states.
Dr. Jeffrey Thompson, of the Center for Neuroacoustic Research, explains this more poetically:
This is the balance point between the Mental and Emotional bodies. It is the place where our mental belief systems and our emotional states feed one another. It is where we have the possibility of having non-attached emotional awareness at a physical level. When the King and Queen reign hand in hand in true partnership, the whole realm flowers and blossoms in harmony.
Edison’s method of exploring the Alpha-Theta boundary, while effective for him, might be a little erratic for the rest of us. What we need is a way to access this magnificent mental state reliably and, preferably, whenever it suits us. Fortunately, recent advances in audio technology make it possible for us to simply don a set of headphones, sit back, and gain access to all this inner world has to offer – no ball bearings required!
In Delta Brainwaves – The Ultimate Meditation, Part I, we looked at the great health benefits of achieving the delta state of consciousness. In this article, we will focus on the psycho-spiritual benefits. While some of the following goals can be attained in the theta state – which is itself a deep level of awareness seldom experienced by most people – delta really is the ultimate meditation in many ways.
Connection with the Unconscious Mind While the theta state is associated with subconscious activity, delta goes even deeper, to the unconscious mind. Experienced meditators believe that the unconscious takes us beyond merely personal awareness and into a realm of universal knowledge – a connection with all that is. This paramount benefit of the delta state literally opens up new worlds for us to know, and explains the other benefits that follow from its attainment.
Empathy Delta brainwaves enable us to connect with others in a way that is not otherwise possible, exposing their deepest thoughts and feelings. Delta instills in us a deep sense of compassion for others and enhances our consideration for their well-being.
Intuition In the delta state, we are connected through the unconscious mind to sources of information that far outstrip anything available to the physical senses upon which we rely in our waking state of beta. Gut instincts of penetrating wisdom become available when we are “hooked up” to the larger universe.
Spiritual Satisfaction There can be no greater sense of spiritual enlightenment than that which we achieve in delta. In this state, we are one with the universe, one with all other things, one with all knowledge. We have come home.
Paranormal Experiences Astral projection, contact with spirit guides, out-of-body experiences, ESP and other psychic phenomena are closely associated with the delta brainwave. As if it didn’t already offer us enough…!
While the health benefits of delta can be experienced to some extent by anyone who gets a good night’s sleep, the psycho-spiritual benefits outlined here really call for conscious awareness. We want to be able to actually experience these realms, this knowledge, this inner peace. How can we do that without training for years in a Tibetan monastery?
Fortunately, an audio technology known as brainwave entrainment can help us get to the delta state and reap its many benefits.
Delta brainwaves display the lowest frequency of the four brainwave patterns most commonly observed in the human brain. Occupying a range between 0.5 and 4.0 hertz, the only brainwave that is any deeper (below 0.5 Hz) is the mysterious Epsilon wave. For all practical purposes, delta is as deep as we meditators can go. And there are many wonderful reasons to go there! This article is the first in a short series exploring those benefits.
Generally, the only time that most adults exhibit delta waves is during deep sleep; specifically, the dreamless sleep that occurs long before waking up. This is a time of profound connection with the unconscious mind and an essential period of physical replenishment. Let’s start our series by looking more closely at the physical benefits of delta.
- Anti-Aging Hormone Release Delta brainwaves are associated with releases of two anti-aging hormones, DHEA and melatonin. At the same time, delta waves suppress the production of cortisol, a hormone linked to stress and accelerated aging.
- Deep Relaxation When in the delta state, the mind and body are extremely relaxed. This facilitates cellular recovery from physical and chemical stressors. Infants enjoy this state for much of their lives up to the age of two – and then it’s downhill all the way!
- DNA Repair DNA damage leading to illness must be repaired by the body. Studies have demonstrated that cellular DNA repair proceeds best in the delta state – if you can get there.
- Human Growth Hormone Release Although less-well established than the other benefits, there is some evidence that the delta state stimulates the pituitary gland to release small amounts of human growth hormone (HGH). HGH is thought to be valuable in combating aging and obesity.
- Healthier Immune System Through the combination of relaxation and (good) hormone release, delta boosts the effectiveness of the immune system. The beneficial chemicals and neurotransmitters released in the delta state work against the damaging effects of adrenaline released during times of stress.
While the benefits of delta brainwaves are clear and compelling, it is much less clear how we get there. Most meditators struggle just to sustain an alpha state; some can manage theta; only the most experienced and dedicated can achieve delta. If we want to spend more time in delta than we naturally get from sleep – assuming we are sleeping well to begin with – then we need some help.
A new audio technology known as brainwave entrainment can help us get to the delta state and reap its many benefits. For a free sample of an entrainment soundtrack, visit this website.