My column this week could, for some of you, be one of the most useful things you have read for a long time. Not for all of you, inevitably, because some will know about it already, and others will – for a variety of reasons do nothing about it. I am going to write about the scientific basis of meditation and what it can do for those who choose to take it to heart.
For most of us, meditation suggests mystical Christian prayer, or Buddhist contemplation, or – for the right generation – the Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. But, for the moment, put all that aside. Think instead of spending some 20 minutes in deep relaxation. And by deep, I mean very deep indeed. The effect will be a great calming of the spirit and tranquillity, a lowering of blood pressure, and, should you suffer from it, a marked relief of depression.
Deep relaxation is a skill. It is in theory accessible to everybody but it takes about a week of regular practice to acquire the rudiments. The skill then continues to deepen until you can call it to your aid instantaneously. As a trivial example, were you to feel my muscles in the dentist’s chair, you would find them completely relaxed, and my capacity for pain reduced to a minimum.
First, an exercise. Clench your fist as tight as you can – so tightly that it shakes with the pressure, Then relax it slowly, attending the growing feeling of relaxation. At the end you will find your fingers to be floppy but – more importantly – you have learned what relaxation feels like. Got the basic idea?
Now lie, or sit down comfortably, and relax every muscle in your body. Follow a sequence: hands, arms, shoulders, neck, face, chest, stomach, buttocks, legs and feet. Clench each muscle and then feel it slowly relax. Occasionally check back to see if earlier muscles have tightened. You will not find it easy and only practice will help you into a state you may never have experienced before A fully relaxed state uses so little energy that breathing becomes lighter and almost seems to cease.
Lie there, relaxed – perhaps listening to some tranquil music – for about 20 minutes. And then bring yourself to – but slowly; and get back to the trials of real life.
What is happening inside your brain? Theta waves associated with deep relaxation increase, and so do alpha waves, which tend to increase when the brain withdraws from intentional or challenging tasks. Beta waves which are needed for such tasks are few, and so are delta waves. Delta waves are associated with sleep – which is a quite different state from deep relaxation. But you don’t need to remember any of that. I put it in just to show that deep relaxation is a measurable state of the brain, induced from the relaxation of the body. You need to be neither holy nor clever to learn how to use it.
My original exploration of the subject started many years ago because the evidence showed that two separated periods of 20 minutes deep relaxation had a measurable and continuing effect on blood pressure. That investment of daily time has yielded high returns in so many ways.
Further practice develops further uses. I can now use “triggers”. I am able to deepen my relaxation throughout my body in the midst of ordinary life, simply by relaxing a hand. The number of occasions when this has checked an irritable remark or an imprudent decision is countless – although my wife would tell you that I still have some way to go. This brief, instant relaxation is also useful for, say, a mother of young children for whom five quiet minutes is a luxury.
Deep relaxation puts the brain into a highly suggestible state. And it becomes possible to use it for self-hypnotism – by definition this is conscious and controlled. It can be a valuable way of changing an unsatisfactory attitude of mind simply through autosuggestion. Don’t expect sudden conversion: this is not magic but just an effective way of moving the mind into constructive directions.
Now that I have demystified this neurological phenomenon, let me replace some of the mystery. I suggested that one might use music as a background. This helps to clear the mind and checks thought processes so that intellectual focus is curbed. But many people prefer to use a mantra – recited throughout the process. Many will know the Tibetan Buddhist mantra, om mani padme hum. No exact translation exists, but it relates to the virtues of withdrawing from self-centeredness.
I prefer one which is more overtly Christian. Maranatha (“Our Lord has come”) is popular; but I favour Julian of Norwich’s “All manner of thyng shall be wele”. It encompasses the idea of Christian peace and confidence. But it’s a personal choice.
More recently I have started to train myself to a further stage where I eschew mantras and simply place myself in the presence of God. I regard thought of divine attributes as a distraction since any human understanding diminishes rather than embellishes. Nor, of course, does any prayer of petition apply, since the only relevant reaction is open-ended wonder. I am not very good at this yet, but, as I have suggested, much practice is required at every stage.
My description of deep relaxation (and its use in prayer) has been short and personal. The professional audiotape I published several years ago was widely used, but is no longer available. However, secular accounts of deep relaxation are available in good bookshops for further study. I look forward to comments on http://www.secondsightblog.com from your experience – especially with regard to its use in prayer.