Meditation is essentially a hypometabolic state with parasympathetic dominance – different from sleep – that elicits physical and mental calm, and has been reported to enhance psychological balance and emotional stability.
In Western psychology three states of consciousness have been defined: sleep, dream and wakefulness. In Eastern philosophy and in several Western religious and mystical traditions, an additional and higher state of consciousness has been described, the so-called fourth state of consciousness, the state of “thoughtless awareness” (Ramamurthi 1995). In thoughtless awareness the duality of the mind is transcended and the practitioner experiences a state of deep mental silence. This state can be achieved by the practice of ‘meditation’. According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Patanjali and Shearer, 1993), one of the oldest recorded scriptures on Meditation, ‘Yoga is a voluntary inhibition of irrelevant mental activity’.
Today a large variety of meditation practices have emerged, some of them not going beyond relaxation techniques; however, the original goal of meditation is the elimination or reduction of thought processes, the cessation or slowing of the internal dialogue of the mind. This elimination of the thinking process has been reported to lead to a deep sense of physical and mental calm while at the same time enhancing pure awareness, untainted by thoughts, and perceptual clarity. Meditative experiences of thoughtless awareness furthermore seem to trigger feelings of positive emotions which can range from detached joy to absolute bliss. A common experience of meditation is a meta-cognitive shift where thoughts and feelings rather than occupying full attention can be observed from a detached witnessing awareness from which they can be dealt with in a more efficient manner.
Achieving this mystical peak experience of complete thoughtless awareness is the ultimate goal of most traditional meditation techniques. Although meditation techniques differ widely, a common characteristic of most techniques is the training of concentrative attention skills in order to achieve the reduction or elimination of thoughts. This involves either focussing the attention on internal events such as the breath, an object, a mantra or attending non-judgmentally on the present moment (different Buddhist practices), observing thoughts from a metacognitive awareness (mindful meditation) or eliminating thoughts altogether (Sahaja Yoga). To our knowledge Sahaja Yoga meditation is the only Meditation technique that teaches the practitioner to achieve the state of mental silence on a regular, daily basis.
Although achieving the peak experience of thoughtless awareness is the goal of the meditator, it is the long-term trait effects of meditation, achieved after years of training that are thought to be therapeutic and have attracted the interest of Western science.