What is the Connection Between Meditation and Our Health?

In this article, Akesis Life's Josh Tenzin, a Holistic Counselor, explores the connection between meditation and health.

Meditation and mindfulness are oft used words and their ability to affect our health, not just mentally but on the physical level, are more and more widely spoken about. What, then, is the reason for this?

What is ‘reality’?

Firstly, this is based on the axiom that ‘what we think we become’ - that our minds create our reality to whatever extent we understand this.

Science has done us a disservice in the sense that we are, due to its influence, led to believe in the absolute objective existence of an external world which is there independently of the consciousness of living beings. That the external world is what it is regardless of how you view it or whom is doing the viewing. That whomever analyses a rock, or a chair will find the same attributes since these are inherent within the object itself not dependent on the way the object is viewed.

There are greater or lesser degrees to which this viewpoint is mistaken.

Pretty much undeniable by even the most ardent materialist is the fact that we all see things differently. Some of us like the colour blue, some like red, thus the feelings which these respective colours create in our mind will be different according to which one we like. We all have our favourite food, place, car, etc. therefore the way we see those things differs for all of us. One person can be a friend to some people and an enemy to others. An object can be huge for an ant but tiny to a human. It is clear then that certain attributes within phenomena are not intrinsic to that phenomena and that they are dependent on whomever is looking at it. It may be countered that an object’s attributes can indeed vary depending on perspective, but its fundamental nature remains intrinsic to it. However, remove all the attributes of a phenomena and what intrinsic nature remains? Take the legs, the arms, the seat, the colour and shape of a chair away and what ‘chair’ are you left with?

Going further we can see that externals vary according to our state of mind. On the sensory level, even, optical illusions show us that we can see things differently depending on how we are looking at them. Trees appear to be moving when we speed past them on the train, a spinning firebrand appears to be a circle etc. Much more than this though, on a conceptual level the interpretations become even more pronounced. When we are in a good mood, objects appear differently to when we are in a bad mood. The way the world appears when we are feeling positive is different to when we are feeling negative. It has been conclusively shown that when we have certain emotions in our mind then we create, to a greater or lesser extent with our projections, the nature of an object. Research done extensively on people who are angry has shown, for example, that when we are angry with a person up to 90% of how we see that person is a projection of our own minds and only 10% is how that person exists. In other words, especially with negative emotions a lot of what we take to be reality is in fact a projection of our own minds. When we have desirous attachment, it is our internal needs which are projected onto an object or person rather than the reality of the object itself. This ‘reality’ is dependent on our internal emotional state as well as predispositions learnt through our upbringing, our education, our environment and a huge range of other influences including our friends, what we are reading, what we are watching, etc. To a large extent, then, the object we believe to be ‘out there’ is simply our emotional unbalanced minds projecting themselves outside and creating this ‘reality’!

This is probably not, however, the full extent of our fantasies! Many of the conclusions from quantum physics show that without consciousness there is no reality as we know it. Not only is it the case that we can only talk about consciousness in relation to it being conscious of something, but the reverse may also be true: we cannot sensibly talk about an object unless and until there is a conscious awareness of it. When we leave the car and go into our house, we believe that the car is still there on our drive. Many quantum physicists would argue that as soon as you are no longer conscious of your car it is not a car, at most it exists as a mere probability.  The conundrum over whether a tree falling in a place where no one hears it make a noise or not is irrelevant from this viewpoint. Never mind a sound; there is no tree there in the first place if no one is conscious of it!

This last scientific position would be held by spiritual traditions to also be slightly underestimating the situation. They would concede that quantum theory is approaching the view of reality that has been there in spirituality for thousands of years but that it still has much to learn. Amongst various spiritual viewpoints some would say consciousness is the only truly existent phenomena and others that all existents are merely imputed through consciousness and have no objective reality whatsoever. Suffice to say the supremacy of consciousness over all other phenomena is a common theme running through most if not all spiritual traditions (whether it is given the name soul, god essence, or mind).

How, then, does this relate to our health mentally and physically?

The most direct link we can see is that emotional difficulties show themselves immediately within the body. When upset through anger, depression, anxiety, stress etc. our bodies react in mostly unhealthy ways. We tighten up, get back and neck pains, stomach cramps or heart palpitations. Stress has been conclusively linked to misuse of our innate fight or flight response whereby our bodies change, and essential systems shut down. The body's sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous systems stimulate the adrenal glands triggering the release of catecholamines, which include adrenaline and noradrenaline. This results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. After the threat is gone, it takes between 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to its pre-arousal levels. Clearly then we are subjecting our bodies to unnecessary strain which can only be detrimental to our health.

This extends beyond the immediate circumstances as many cases of emotional discomfort cause long-term problems. Due to becoming angry we don’t sleep properly, we don’t taste food properly or deal effectively with life situations. Stress anxiety and worry all spread over to our sleep patterns, our daily routines, and our ability to function effectively. 

The connection runs deeper than this though. Considering our position stated above that our ‘external reality’ is to a much greater extent a product of our minds than we can imagine, then we can see how our body and physical health depend hugely on our mental state. From the range of ‘externals’ that we see the closest connection with our mind is the one with our body itself. Our body is so much within our daily awareness.

If our mind is living within negativity the type of reality it creates clearly reflects that state and therefore the body is likely to be the first and closest recipient of this negativity. The expression of this mind state clearly cannot manifest emotionally in the body, so the manifestation becomes one of disease and health problems. Again, this shows through our immediate mind state creating ill-health in the body through aches, pains, headaches etc. More importantly, though, long term the body we ‘create’ through unhealthy mind states can only manifest as an unhealthy one. In some spiritual traditions this is known as ‘karma’ which in this context works as negative intentions and mental states later appearing as unhealthy bodies through a simple cause and effect relation. Think how an injury sustained when young can ‘disappear’ for many years only to return as arthritis later in life. Of course, the injury never disappeared it was just unmanifested for many years. Likewise, mental events may seem to come and go leaving no trace but, in reality, they can manifest as physical ill health later in life.

Where does meditation fit within all this?

Meditation can be divided into two main types: 1. Calm abiding; and 2. Analytical meditation.

1.    How does the first work? Calm abiding brings the most important foundation to health into our minds: awareness.

This works on three levels:
a.    Concentration: Through calm abiding meditation, we become more focused and able to remain with whatever object we choose. This reduces mental scattering and brings calm and direction into our minds. It allows us to work, rest, and engage in all our daily activities in a much more efficient manner. We thus preserve energy allowing our mind and body to rest and be under less strain.
b.    Mindful, not mindless: Many of our emotionally negative issues stem from not living in the present moment. The more we can live in the present, the more we are actually alive, not just exist. We actually only have this moment to live; the past has gone; the future never arrives. Just as children live in the ‘now’ we should try to do the same as much as we can. In the present moment there cannot be anxiety as this is focused on an imaginary future, there cannot be worry as this is mostly focused on the past. Likewise, stress cannot be there. We are, therefore, contributing directly to our health by staying in this moment as much as we can.
c.    ‘You are the boss’:  Probably the most important benefit of calm abiding is learning the ability to control and be the master of our thoughts. The reality is that we are not our thoughts; we are more than that and we can control them rather than the other way around. If we have no control within our minds, then thoughts, emotions, feelings etc. have control of us, meaning we react to situations and events in habitual, usually unskillful ways again and again. This lack of control or habitual nature is a very unhealthy way to be. It causes us to live on auto-pilot mode and react rather than act skillfully to whatever happens to us.

Think about when we receive an unpleasant critical email. Our reaction is to immediately respond with anger, defending ourselves or attacking back. If we follow this urge, then undoubtedly the reply will be unskillful in the least and probably very destructive to oneself the other person and the whole situation. If instead we don’t respond right away but leave the reply until the following day, it will be a much more level-headed, constructive, and useful reply that we send. Now, think about this on a smaller scale of day to day events. Without the space that meditation gives us in the mind we can only react when things happen to us. Calm abiding meditation gives us the gap or space between the event and our reaction to decide a better and healthier way to respond. We thereby avoid the cause of so much of our mental disturbance and the stress which this leads to.

2.    How does analytical meditation help us?

Based on our calm abiding, more contemplative meditations lead to even deeper mental health, physical well-being, and healing.

This lies in two main areas: a. Understanding; and b. Compassion

a.    There are many levels of understanding and ways to work with our lives and reality but two main areas: i. Change or impermanence; and ii. Identity lessness

     i.     We tend to, ironically, try to find security within our lives in believing that things will stay the same. Be it our relationships, job, home, family, body etc. By doing this, though, we in fact make ourselves less secure, not more. These beliefs directly contradict the reality that absolutely everything changes all the time. Nothing stays the same even for one moment. True security lies in going with this change and understanding and integrating it with ourselves. At the same time such contemplation allows us to let go of both positive and negative in our lives. Being true to this reality is a healthy state of mind literally because it is ‘real’ - it frees us from many issues that keep us stuck in mental suffering and the physical unhealth that this causes.

     ii.     We feel that we exist separately from others, that we are an island, and everything else is unconnected to us. That the world happens to us and we are almost a hapless spectator not actually being a part of this. Again, this is a misperception and a very harmful one. It is one that is enlarged by the isolation that our modern societies create. We don’t know who our neighbours are - we don’t even know their names. Our default mode on seeing a stranger is that they are a threat not to be trusted - probably a murderer, thief, or worse. We set up this barrier between ourselves and others or between our family, or peer group, or town, or country, and others. Again, we do this to try to be secure and safe but of course how can being separate from others make us safe. It only causes more anxiety and insecurity. Now we need to build a barbed wire fence around ourselves to protect ourselves from these ‘others.’

This is a complete misperception of reality. There is no separate identity which exists isolated from everything around us. Just as our bodies are a result of what we eat, drink, and exercise etc. our minds are a product of many other factors. Our upbringing, education, society, what we read, who we mix with and so forth. To talk about an identity, separate from these things is meaningless and unfindable.

To then further isolate that ‘identity’ in order to protect it and be more secure is pouring insanity onto madness! Clearly the more we are isolated the more insecure we become, the more it us against the rest of the world rather than us as a part of the world.

The above two can be practised in meditation so that we start to let go of these wrong conceptions and free ourselves from the suffering they inflict. Such as mind is truly healthy and of immense benefit to our physical health in turn.

b.    Compassion
There is no healthier mental attitude than compassion. All spiritual traditions in the world are of one voice when they talk about this attitude and for excellent reasons. When we look at what amongst all meditations in the world we use for healing then it is always compassion that is used.

What is the reason for this? There is a firm logical foundation for the reason that within virtually all religious/spiritual traditions compassion is such an integral part of their philosophies and life practises.

What happens when we feel compassion or genuine empathy for others? Our minds move away from ourselves, from our needs, our problems, from self-concern, and self-obsession. Compassion moves the thoughts and mind to others and to their problems as to how we can relieve and help them. As such we move away from the prison of ego, separation and hence isolation from others. This is mental health in the deepest strongest sense and is so powerful that not only can it bring health to our minds and bodies but is capable of being a strong force in the healing of even the most serious life-threatening illnesses. When we really look at what is meant by being healthy mentally then we can almost condense it down to the extent that we can or cannot relate and empathise with others. From the people we classify as mentally ill who clearly can be unable to relate in any way to the feelings of others to the depressed individual who has not even been able, maybe for years, to ask their partner the simple question as ‘how are you’. We can see that these mental issues arise from a sense of isolation unable to come out of this prison like self or ego.

Ironically the positive quality of self-confidence arises the more we come out of our self-concern, being overly involved in ourselves causes us to be insecure (lacking in self-confidence) whereas look at the truly compassionate people in the world and you will find them bursting with self-confidence!

Compassion therefore is the very opposite to these emotions and it is this reason for its capacity to bring health into our minds and heal our bodies.

This emotion is not fixed in our minds it changes according to what we do, how we think, who we mix with, what we read, and most importantly what we meditate on. There are very powerful meditation techniques available which cultivate and enhance this emotion and hence allow this deep health, joy and self-confidence into our lives.

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