The Science of Meditation

Yes, I’m cheating. I am looking back over 10 years to my practical description of meditation. But I have found it valuable to remind myself of what I said at that time. And certainly we had some excellent and practical responses.


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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.

About Quentin

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28 Responses to The Science of Meditation

  1. John Candido says:

    In all truth, I cannot say that I am a regular meditator today.

    Have I lost any belief in meditation’s efficacy to deeply relax my mind?

    No, I have not.

    I practised it daily for years, and I am conscious of it being a resource when I find myself in any personal difficulty, and it has rescued me from poor choices at times.

    I am confident that my unusual prescription for sleep apnea from my respiratory specialist, dexamphetamine, is the culprit.

    Dexamphetamine has changed my personality considerably.

    For better or worse, I am more object-oriented, more assertive and extroverted, less empathetic, and less tolerant of people I disagree with over politics, for example.

    Writing posts has also shifted towards these personal changes.

    I need to get back to its regular practice.

    Despite allowing the impact of my prescription medication on my practice of meditation to continue, I am glad that Quentin has raised the issue again as a reminder.

    Meditation is a profound experience that any person can access to their advantage.

    Every point that Quentin makes in his Opening Post about meditation is valid.

    The older I get, the less prayer I do, so I can’t comment on prayer & meditation.

    Sorry, Quentin.

  2. John Thomas says:

    I do warm to much that Quentin suggests, and I fully accept (not having specialist knowledge) the ‘scientific basis’. I wish I could be more calm, worry less, etc. – but I’m useless at meditation because I cannot stop thinking of other (trivial) things when trying – the “wandering madman” of our trivial distractions (as St. Teresa says).

    But … I’m also conscious that meditation and its fruits can result in acquiring, or wanting to acquire, ‘something nice for me’, which is NOT what Jesus came to give us. The constant risk/temptation/fear of ‘self, self, self’ is always present, to me.

    And so many (Eastern?) traditions talk about “emptying your mind” – which Christian Deliverance Ministers say is very dangerous, because something … not of God can, thereby, easily enter, and set up shop (Gadarene Demoniac?). I can’t empty my mind anyway … (I’m thinking of 3 things right now) …

    • John Candido says:

      The idea that meditation is ‘dangerous’ because of concerns that ‘emptying the mind’ is a foreign and unchristian idea is ludicrous.

      Equally questionable are notions that the entire enterprise is based on selfishness and external to what Jesus came to give us.

      Dear, dear me!

      How wrong can you be?

      If you cannot keep your mind still it’s because the ‘monkey-mind’ as it is called, where much like a monkey jumping from one tree branch to another: it’s the natural conscious state of everybody’s mind.

      Focusing on an image or using a mantra are devices that help every person to still the mind.

      It’s not a perfect solution to a wandering mind and it doesn’t need to be a perfect solution.

      Whenever you realise that you are thinking about anything but your mantra, calmly return to it until you inevitably realise that your mind has wandered off again and again.

      It really doesn’t matter that focusing on your mantra fails repeatedly, calmly go back to it repeatedly.

      I don’t like the idea of ‘emptying your mind’ because it’s misleading.

      The essential attitude throughout one’s meditation is a passive mind that isn’t concerned about your mind wandering away from whatever is the focus of your attention.

      Passivity is the key mental attitude to meditation and practising it regularly without any concern about doing it with skill or ability are essential.

  3. David Smith says:

    Thanks, Quentin.

    For me, a very good night’s sleep is a marvelous gift. So much accumulated dross simply dissolves away. Prior to my retiring some twenty years ago, deeply restorative sleep was not common, if it ever happened. Since retiring, it’s been rare but a great blessing.

    Meditating sounds to me simply another name for relaxing. Relaxing is a great good. I suspect nearly all of us require it from time to time to have a hope of finding a healthy balance in our lives. As Confucius probably said at one time or another, “Whatever works.”

    My best wishes to everyone for a life filled with plenty of good, dross-dissolving relaxation.

    P. S. Totally off the topic, I’ve lately taken an interest in reading Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”. The first bit:

    //
    Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
    Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
    By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
    Believing where we cannot prove;
    //

    • John Candido says:

      There is nothing wrong with a good nights sleep, and it’s essential to your physical and mental health.

      Meditation is much more than a way to relax, although you are on the right track.

      Meditation is much more profound than an easy way to relax.

      I believe in the adage of ‘whatever works’ for individuals, even if it’s quite different to whatever works for oneself.

      Thank you for your best wishes, and the very same to you & yours for 2022.

  4. David Smith says:

    John Candido writes ( https://secondsightblog.net/2021/12/27/the-science-of-meditation-2/#comment-65370 ) :

    // I practised [meditation] daily for years, and I am conscious of it being a resource when I find myself in any personal difficulty, and it has rescued me from poor choices at times.

    I am confident that my unusual prescription for sleep apnea from my respiratory specialist, dexamphetamine, is the culprit. //

    Chemical interventions can change *so* much in our lives. One pill I was prescribed maybe ten years ago has been a great boon. Others, over many years, have been less good, even, I suspect, harmful. Modern man in his overweening pride has decided that human beings are disgracefully imperfect and need constantly to be tinkered with. God save us.

    • John Candido says:

      ‘Modern man in his overweening pride has decided that human beings are disgracefully imperfect and need constantly to be tinkered with.’

      It’s not the overt design or an implicit intention of my respiratory specialist to ‘perfect’ or meddle with my personality by prescribing dexamphetamine.

      The aim is to treat my sleep apnea.

      Any alterations to my personality are entirely incidental or unintended side-effects of taking the medication as prescribed.

      I also purchased at great personal expense a newly made mandibular device as the old that had lasted for eight or nine years had seen better days.

      A mandibular device is worn at night and keeps my throat open for normal breathing during sleep by forcing my lower jaw forwards.

  5. David Smith says:

    John Thomas wtites ( https://secondsightblog.net/2021/12/27/the-science-of-meditation-2/#comment-65371 ) :

    // the “wandering madman” of our trivial distractions //

    Yes, and so many of them in this incessantly chattering modern world. Perhaps the minds of five of the eight billion people on Earth are infested – many of them nearly without let-up – by all the electronic images and noise. What we used to call “common sense” stands no chance of surviving in our hearts if we cannot somehow unplug at least occasionally from the intentional cacophony. Like you, John, I’m probably a poor candidate for the disciplined and prolonged periods of restorative silence that is “meditation”, but I have found a few very useful aids, both chemical (benign!) and aural. As Confucius is reputed to have likely remarked, “Whatever works.”

    • John Candido says:

      All of us are probably poor candidates for meditation, given the hectic pace of modern life.

      When I started practising, it was almost impossible for me to sit still for five or ten minutes, and I could not stop fidgeting or wanting to move my legs.

      I got used to sitting still eventually.

  6. John Candido says:

    For any person with an intelligently curious mind, a fraction of broad-mindedness, or a minimalist courageous nature, point your browser at , which is the homepage of the ‘World Community of Christian Meditation (WCCM).

    Brother Laurence Freeman OSB is an English Benedictine monk and Catholic priest who leads this loosely-held but global community from London.

    Brother Freeman travels the world conducting public lectures and discussing these matters in small groups to anyone interested in the contemplative tradition of Christian meditation.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laurence_Freeman?wprov=sfti1

  7. John Candido says:

    The following biographical information about Fr John Main OSB, who was an English lawyer and diplomat before becoming a Benedictine monk, may be of interest.

    Fr Main recovered the historical roots of Christian contemplation and is the contemplative community currently led by Br Laurence Freeman OSB.

    I also want to share some biographical information about another English Benedictine priest called Fr Bede Griffiths OSB.

    Despite the quick humiliation of England by Australia in the third Cricket Test in Melbourne where Australia won ‘The Ashes’, and the Test debut of 31-year-old Aboriginal Scott Boland at the MCG, bowling an incredible 6/7, the United Kingdom has produced several intellectual priests and religious of the highest calibre, who have ably overseen and engendered the forgotten Christian contemplative tradition to the Western Hemisphere.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Main?wprov=sfti1

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bede_Griffiths?wprov=sfti1

  8. John Candido says:

    Of general interest to some readers on SecondSight, ‘New Monasticism.’

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Monasticism?wprov=sfti1

  9. galerimo says:

    Well, if there’s a point to this blog offering, with all its skill and literary delights, I certainly don’t get it.

    Why not just take a leisurely stroll in the woods.

    Or, a good cigar – even better when accompanied with a glass of fine brandy.

    Or, listen to the adagio of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major.

    Or suck a Dutch double salted liquorice lozenge – you can only do that slowly.

    Or, what we did last night.

    Watch the sun go down over the Indian Ocean in the first cool breeze since the Christmas temperatures dropped below bloody 40C.

    If the evolution of our brains has brought us anywhere it is neither to a state of enduring happiness nor a state of relaxation.

    Obviously even sleeping is a struggle.

    O.K. That much is clear from what you say- relaxing is a hell of a lot of work.

    And like masturbation which produces the same effects of ease and disconnect, it requires more effort as you get older.

    I do think a lot of this meditation malarkey, as well as being a breeding ground for many a long-winded guru, is really a bit of a wank. A psychological and scientific one, but a wank all the same.

    All about me, getting my supra emotional rocks off just to get a bit of peace, relief from my highly evolved and complex life.

    Find your real partner – talk to God – you don’t have to acquire techniques for that.
    No one can do it with Him, the way you can. No one.

    Prayer is better by a country mile any day – and you can still listen to the clarinet and suck a lozenge at the same time – or stroll in the garden in the cool of the evening.

  10. David Smith says:

    Quentin writes ( https://secondsightblog.net/2021/12/27/the-science-of-meditation-2/ ) :

    // 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. //

    Thanks for the offering, sir. I could use it, in theory, I suppose, but my mind for as long as I can remember has been an irregularly jumpy creature, indisposed to trusting systems to save me. Sleep – surely some kin to meditation – can be salvific, when it comes pure and abundantly. But there’s no planning that, alas.

    Happy New Year, all.

  11. ignatius says:

    My psychometric profile is high on the neurotic scale and I have a brain like a drunken parrot. If worrying was an Olympic sport I would win Gold. When I was around 28, after a breakdown of health at University I discovered Tai chi, rock climbing, long distance cycling and mountain walking …(not all on the same day of course!) These interests slowly led me to understand that the mental and physical life were, to say the least, interactive. Over the years I have learned the value of ‘mindfulness’ in terms of remaining in the moment.. sports do that for you by default..so does making art and writing. Over the pat 15 years I have been drawn into contemplative prayer which I find to be pretty much the best of all worlds…I don’t ‘meditate’ anymore I contemplate and find that more restful. I still think that getting drunk occasionally is quite useful and would recommend it to everyone, just once a year…!

  12. ignatius says:

    ” ..Find your real partner – talk to God – you don’t have to acquire techniques for that.
    No one can do it with Him, the way you can. No one…..”
    Perhaps not. But there is a 2,000 year old tradition of earnest pilgrims trying to make headway in their relationship with God…I’m sure you are right though, Galerimo, its all a bit wank, innit mate…

  13. Iona says:

    In my case, half an hour’s meditative/contemplative prayer consists of maybe 5 or 6 minutes contemplation and all the rest distractions. I often feel as though I’m ploughing through brambles. However, I persist. I think it was St. Teresa who said one needn’t worry about being distracted in prayer; if one’s mind departs from prayer and goes haring off after other thoughts seventeen times, returning to prayer each time, then one has turned to God seventeen times, which has to be good.
    Happy New Year all, and thanks for all the links.

  14. galerimo says:

    One beautiful interpretation of the death of Jesus, recorded by the author of St John’s gospel, points to how, in dying, Jesus bowed to his head to His disciples, Mary and John.

    And it was with such plain folk that he walked after Resurrection to new life.

    For a while too it was within the Marian and Johannine assemblies that Jesus, through the Holy Spirit began to build the church founded on the faith once manifested by Peter.

    And from among these, what was once a minor sect of Judaism morphed into a religious phenomenon of exponential growth.

    More that 40 “churches” established in homes within the first 100 years. One million followers by 250 CE – not counting Gentile converts!

    But a monastic brand was becoming stamped on the whole thing

    – and we still find signs of it as we move from the early centuries through the middle ages and even into modern times.

    Things like the celebration of the sacrament of penance, the establishment of our liturgical calendar and, I would suggest, practices of meditation.

    So, it is not surprising to see it referred to here as “The Science of Meditation”.

    After all it was through the same monastic instrumentality we have also received much of our practices of religion – East and West.

    Perhaps it is better to stay on this side of the rood screen!

    It was here that the vast majority of us Christians lived and died in the way we did our faith – listening without understanding too much.

    But Engaging in the simple ways of reacting to the truth like – “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”

    The schoolmen and more literary accomplished can make a very cerebral activity out of the simple impulses of the heart.

  15. ignatius says:

    “The schoolmen and more literary accomplished can make a very cerebral activity out of the simple impulses of the heart…”
    Yes, this is undoubtedly true… and a big problem for religious life. When we look through the lives of saints many of them came from simple and non literate backgrounds. People who had their own epiphanies and were changed by them. There was not long ago a book written about the Anglican church entitled ‘Believing but not belonging’; In it the author described church preaching and teaching as “Non achievers’ teaching other ‘non achievers’ about the escapades of ‘achievers’. This
    approach might shine a light on possibility but there is something deadly dull and negative in its nature about what we might call ‘amateur scholasticism’ which, as you say, forces the believer into seeing their faith as a school learning’ exercise’ rather than the experience of a burning heart. It is also the case that an aptitude for meditation/contemplation is partly just a personal instinct, not for everyone and not even particularly laudable when measured next to the simple humility and a deep ‘unconscious’ yet strong desire for the good that is the hallmark of the presence of the Holy spirit.

  16. John Candido says:

    Another description of meditation is ‘atavistic regression’ by the late psychiatrist, Dr Ainslie Meare.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atavistic_regression

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