While I was away on a break recently I read’ Silence your Mind’ by Dr Ramesh Manocha, a world renowned researcher into the positive effects of regular meditation. He defines meditation as the attainment of ‘mental silence’. For him the holy grail of meditation is a totally silent mind.
He likened thoughts to waves and this confused me somewhat as we know that brain waves are a sign of life; only when we are dead is there an absence of brain wave activity. His silent mind was represented by a flat line diagram!
Neuro-imaging studies suggest that the normal activity of the resting state of the brain is a ‘silent current of thoughts, images and memories that is not triggered by any external stimuli”. * This stream is spontaneous and natural.
This line of thought prompted me to look further into the research outcomes of the effect of meditation as measured in brain wave activity.
While googling I was particularly drawn to a study that looked specifically at the difference between brain wave patterns during relaxation, sleep and meditation.
This study was conducted in 2010 at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and called “Brain waves and meditation."
This study hooked individuals, who were experienced meditators, up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine and measured brain wave activity during successive periods of relaxation and meditation. The type of meditative practice shared by these individuals was also significant as it was the type associated with Mindfulness, otherwise known as ‘non-directive’ meditation.
During the periods of mindful meditation two different types of brain wave activity predominated; in the frontal and middle parts of the brain there was theta wave activity and in the posterior parts of the brain, alpha wave activity.
Alpha waves are associated with calm, relaxation , creativity and meditation. It is the presence of Theta waves that make non-directive meditation different from simple resting and relaxation. For example, the mental technique of focusing on the breath, noticing when thoughts drift in and redirecting attention back to the breath brings into play the self-regulatory and self-monitoring Theta wave activity.
The study found that Theta wave activity is not active in states of simple relaxation and there was also no measurable presence of the delta wave activity, characteristic of sleep.
Non-directive meditation trains the individual to become aware of the constant stream of activity from the stand point of an observer; to notice when the focus on the breath is interrupted by this flow. The stream of constant thought has its function in sorting, connecting and resolving our experiences and their emotional residues, however our consciousness about our thinking can cause us to develop unhelpful relationships with our own mental activity. Mindful meditation trains us to keep them in perspective by encouraging us not to be drawn into them.
The great take home message of this study is according to its author is: “Non-directive meditation yields more marked changes in electrical brain wave activity associated with wakeful, relaxed attention, than resting without any specific mental technique.” However there is also my own take home message.
Thinking and consciousness of thinking
So coming back to where I started, my conclusion is that Dr Manocha was talking, not about silencing our thoughts, but about silencing our thoughts about our thoughts; putting our thoughts beyond conscious awareness. It is impossible to eliminate brain wave activity without killing the brain and by that token, to stop ourselves from thinking.
Meditation does not ‘stop’ the brain’s mental activity but it gives us a rest from our conscious awareness of it; a rest from thinking about our thinking, or over thinking, and the attached emotions and bodily sensations related to particular, events, thoughts or memories.
This is the mental silence, I believe that Manocha, refers to. However what this study shows is that we do not need to be striving for some holy grail of ‘total mental silence’ during meditation in order to reap huge and lasting benefits from it.
Taking time out to train our minds to take a rest from thinking about our thinking or from becoming over attached or immersed in set patterns of stimulus, thought emotional response and behaviour we become able to live more balanced and healthier lives.
*The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). "Brain waves and meditation." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 31 March 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100319210631.htm>.