Harvard Meditation Study: Resilience, Tummo, and Inner Peace
Long before Harvard’s recent studies on meditation and mindfulness, the science around the subject has been disputed. Regardless, meditation lovers, mindfulness experts, monks and prayerful people of all types regularly report a variety of benefits resulting from these practices.
Whether avid meditators or not, most of us have reported positive experiences when meditating. Benefits include stress reduction, feeling more peaceful, feeling better about ourselves, feeling less judgmental, and improved relationships and creativity.
Many couples who meditate together report feelings of deepening and connectedness that were not present before meditation. Teachers who introduce meditation to their students find that everyone has better attention spans and the majority tend to get along better.
Many doctors report that mindfulness techniques and positive visualizations help to calm their patients. Some doctors have said that regimens of meditation have improved conditions associated with irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, psoriasis, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Meditation and mindfulness are taught and practiced by prisons, sports teams and even the U.S. military to improve resilience, clarity, presence of mind, and feelings of connectedness.
Also, the vast majority of meditation studies have shown that meditators tend to experience regular states of selflessness and emotional clarity.
“The real meditation is how you live your life.”
— Jon Kabat-Zinn
“Surrender to what is. Let go of what was. Have faith in what will be.”
— Sonia Ricotti
The Science of Meditation
Traditionally, meditation and mindfulness studies have been poorly designed and executed. Of the over 400 clinical trials aimed at determining the benefits of meditation between 1956 and 2005, only 10% were constructed from quality theoretical perspectives and methodologies. This included studies by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) and the American Heart Association.
When it comes to happiness and emotional well-being, some studies show that people who meditate have higher levels of happiness than control groups. Similar studies have shown that people who meditate for 20 minutes per day have higher levels of happiness than those who rested for 20 minutes per day. The challenge with these types of results is that they haven’t included data related to meditators being better at self-care than non-meditators.
“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh
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The Harvard Study on Meditation and Mindfulness
A neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Sara Lazar, sought to explore the benefits of meditation and mindfulness via brain scans.
What did she learn? Meditation and similar practices can improve, expand and change your brain. Lazar’s findings of meditators were profound:
- Over time, their senses become enhanced.
- With regular meditation, they experience improved executive decision making. Whether younger or older, participants have shown increased gray matter in the prefrontal cortex.
- The brains of new meditators thickened after eight weeks in the areas of the brain that cater to self-relevance, learning, cognition, memory, emotional regulation, adopting perspectives, empathy, compassion and the production of regulatory neurotransmitters.
- The areas of the brains of new mediators related to anxiety, fear, and stress became smaller over time.
While there isn’t robust data about how much and how long someone must meditate to achieve benefits like these, Lazar said that meditators would probably need to practice at least a couple of days per week, at an average of 30 minutes per day. That said, there is no definitive scientific data in this area.
While meditation science has been unable to prove every benefit for every niche and category, Tibetan Monks and Himalayan yogis have been meditating for centuries, and with consistent, miraculous results.
Tummo Meditation, (gTum-mo in Tibetan, or g-Tummo), which translates to “inner fire,” is regularly taught and practiced by Tibetan Buddhists throughout the world.
Wrapped in cold, wet sheets, Himalayan monks can heat their bodies through Tummo meditation, and in the process, dry the wet sheets. This astounding ability has kept academics, doctors and regular folks stupefied for over a century. Truly, Tummo meditation is the holy grail of meditation neuroscience.
This ancient technique combines meditative breathing with visualization and results in a deep state of inward connection. Monks report being able to increase and control the heat in their bodies.
While their body temperatures rise during the meditation, they can transfer the resulting heat to any organ or extremity, including their scalps, hearts, kidneys, fingers, and toes.
Tummo meditators report a variety of benefits, including improved concentration, memory, and mental clarity; improved breathing, including the depth of breaths; improved lung and heart health; improved confidence; and of course, improved control over the body’s heat
Given all this, meditation should be a no-brainer, right? RIGHT!
How To Tummo
The purpose of Tummo is to reach a high yoga tantra (or state) and gain control over the body’s processes.
Here are the steps to achieving Tummo Meditation and the psychic control of your body’s heat:
- Sit comfortably, with your back straight; cross-legged is ideal.
- Imagine your spirit’s kundalini (channel) “tube” up and down your spine.
- Imagine that each nostril is a tube connected to your kundalini tube.
- Imagine your body to be hollow, sacred and filled with light.
- Visualize a hot ball of fire inside of your body, around the belly-button.
- Focus on your breath and inhale slowly.
- Imagine each breath to feed your fireball of light, making it hotter and hotter.
- Imagine that your fireball is safe and healing, continuing to feed it with breath.
- Try to hold each breath for 10-30 seconds, then exhale.
- You can repeat this breathing process for up to 30 minutes.
“What day is it?” asked Pooh. “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. “My favourite day,” said Pooh.
— A.A. Milne
Types of Meditation and Mindfulness
Meditation can take many forms. Some meditate on their breath. Others find that mantras and tones are helpful when attempting to detach from the mind and be fully in the present moment.
Here are a few types of meditation that you might find helpful.
Mindfulness Meditation (also Breath Meditation)
- Sit comfortably with your back straight
- Focus on your breath and how it moves in and out of your body. Feel the sensations in your lungs, chest, and belly. Notice the air as it enters your nose and mouth. Pay attention to your breath as it leaves your body.
- Allow thoughts to come and go. Become the watcher of your thoughts, whether they are based in happiness, hope or anxiety. Simply allow them to be and then let them go. Remain calm as you feel the results of your thoughts. Refrain from suppressing or ignoring them. Over time, your thoughts will naturally bubble up and disappear at will.
- Without judging yourself, allow your mind to wander or get carried off into a thought-path. When this happens, effortlessly return your focus to your breath. Throughout the process, be gentle with yourself.
- When you experience a period of peacefulness, try to maintain it.
- When the time feels right, bring your meditation to a close. As you come out of the meditation, sit quietly for some time. Become aware of who you are in the moment, and where you are. Be gentle with yourself as you return to the present moment.
- When it feels right to you, stand up and carry on with your day.
Mantra or Tone Meditation
- Once you’re seated comfortably, either in a chair or in lotus position on the floor, choose a mantra or tone for inhaling and exhaling.
- As you inhale, silently chant the tone “Maaaaa” in your mind.
- As you exhale, silently chant the tone “Ommmmm” in your mind.
- Throughout the meditation, allow your attention to return to these tones continually.
- When we tone within our minds, we dissolve our mental chatter and bring healing vibrations to our brains, hearts, and bodies.
Start with 5 minutes each morning and try to increase the length of time every day.
Meditation in Action
Whether we are exercising, walking or doing the dishes, an activity can quickly become a meditation. Focus on your feet pressing against the Earth or your hands stretching out as they touch a tree. Bring your attention to the activity, without judgment, anticipation or stress. See things as they really are, without trying to reduce them to something else. Bring your mind’s attention to the resulting sensations within each activity.
This type of meditation allows us to detach from our minds and identities, and immerse ourselves in the spirit of the action. Throughout the process, we experience moments of liberation.
There are many types of meditation. You might consider studying the true nature of reality through Vipassana Meditation, a 10-day silent retreat.
Research what feels best to you and try to build meditation into your daily habits and routines.
Ongoing Scientific Efforts
Research perspectives and methodologies aimed at proving the benefits of meditation and mindfulness have drastically improved.
Thankfully, an ongoing effort in this area is occurring at a variety of universities and hospitals, including, but certainly not limited to:
- Massachusetts General Hospital’s Benson-Henry Institute
- Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine
- The Cambridge Health Alliance
- Harvard University
- The Mindfulness Research Collaborative
- University of Vermont
- University of Miami
- Georgetown University
- Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine
- Global Center for Academic and Spiritual Life
- Many other institutions and organizations
Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Tibetan Buddhist monk, taught thousands of people how to meditate. Jon Kabat-Zinn, his worthy student, memorialized those teachings in a variety of profound books on the subject, including “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” “Mindfulness For Beginners,” and “Meditation is Not What You Think.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn is the founder of MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) and the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
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Soham: Wisdom You Can Access
I first learned to meditate over 40 years ago. Friends of mine learned Transcendental Meditation in high school, but I couldn’t afford the fee. I had friends in college who also learned the TM method, but again, I was unable to pay and no one was parting with any information about the process. Stubbornly, I took it upon myself to research meditation techniques in the library and learned as much as I could. This was my introduction to mantras. I chose a mantra and one beautiful day, sitting under a tree, I gave it a whirl. It changed my life.
Your first mediation is never forgotten.
Eventually, I learned the TM method from a certified teacher. Although the basic idea was the same, I was given my mantra and in my first experience, felt a great opening of consciousness that I hadn’t experienced before. It was different. With this in mind, I began experimenting with mantras. One day, I meditated with the Soham mantra, not knowing what to expect. I found it to be peaceful, relaxing and connective in a way that’s hard to explain.
One With the Universe
Soham is Sanskrit and essentially means, “He whom I am.” It could be translated as, “I am He,” implying, “I am one with everything,” The “He” in this case is the Universe and the singularity of the divine. Soham is an ancient mantra and one that has been used in different ways, by numerous groups and societies. Some believe that it can connect us to what are known as, “The Ascended Masters.”
A Human Tendency to Expand and Interpret
The term “Ascended Masters” was coined in the 1930s and used to define spiritual adepts whom, after their time on Earth, ascend to a place where they help guide humanity and commune, or merge, with those who seek their wisdom. This movement gained great popularity and had a vast following, one that still exists today. This wasn’t the first time such an idea had been put forth. Theosophy, through Madame Blavatsky, had “The Great White Brotherhood.”
Many have accused Blavatsky’s work as being discriminatory, or outright racist. Some have pointed to her writings as being instrumental in helping to design theories for the Nazi party. It’s hard to know the actual truth behind all of this, but I genuinely don’t believe that Blavatsky had any such thoughts about singling out one race, or type of people, as being “less” than others. I’m certainly not an expert on Theosophical philosophy, but I’ve read some of her works and can see both sides of the argument. The complexity of her writing style is open to a myriad of different interpretations, as is often the case with any spiritually based text.
This brings me to a point. One of the things that human beings tend to do, is take a basic thought and then expand upon it, often to fulfill our own philosophical ideals and agendas. A quick look at history should convince us of the power of this process.
Through rhetoric and dogma, it’s often possible to reinterpret the underlying purpose of a text, in order to rationalize our unique point of view.
This has been done again and again in religion and is also a powerful tool in politics, where interpretations of founding documents are hotly contested and reviewed. Perhaps this is one of the dangers of proclaiming a text to be sacred. They may, in fact, be sacred, but the interpretation of these texts and ideas are usually man-made. Some seek to overcome this ambiguity through an individual, a human channeling a specific source, one pure and spiritually unquestionable. Enter the Ascended Masters, or so say those who believe in the doctrine.
I’m wary of most spiritual systems. It’s not my desire to demean, nor cast doubt upon, any religion or philosophy. I’m a metaphysician and have been a seeker for most of my life, so I’m used to being left out, considered odd, deemed ignorant, thought simpleminded, or daft. I’ve experienced way too much not to believe, but I’ve also seen enough to realize that there has to be a standard of feasibility that allows us not to be deluded, or worse.
This amorphous, subjective realm exists somewhere between hard fact and faith.
It’s for this reason that I’ll discuss the Ascended Master concept a bit differently than some might. I’ve known individuals who consulted with an Ascended Master, through a channel, and received advice, only to have another channel of the exact same Master contradict the advice earlier given. It always amazes me that the seeker is able to rationalize the discrepancy, through some excuse or the other. It speaks to the unreliability of the process at the very least, and to much bigger problems, at worst.
Ascended Masters: A Conceptual Offering
I believe that anything can be mined for its positive, beneficial value and doesn’t have to be presented in a specific form to be of use. This doesn’t imply that the Ascended Master belief isn’t valid, or is unworthy of study. I’ve known many who have been followers of its doctrine and received value in their lives, some through personal work and others through relying on a Master being channeled. It simply isn’t my way of doing things.
To be direct, it seems overly religious and even though the Masters are purported to be from various cultures and eras, it strikes me as being a form of Saint worship. As I said, there’s nothing wrong with that; it just isn’t my thing, but it still has value. With that in mind, let’s look at what it can offer you.
We Are Never Alone
A common thread throughout spiritual cultures is a belief in a place to where our consciousness can ascend to and there share information and commune with fellow members, past, present and future. These locations have different names, appearances and purposes, but they all share one goal, to help those in need, or who seek truth. By this doctrine, we are never alone.
I do believe that there is an intelligence that seeks to guide us, one that is powerful and ancient.
I consider this intelligence to be the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of all humanity, from the beginning to the present. I don’t see a need to identify specific members of our species in this, as that quickly turns into a form of worship and defeats the purpose. This could be considered a form of ancestral guidance, since it depends upon people who have passed, their only agenda to better their progeny, namely us. Incidentally, I consider our time on this planet to be just as important and to have the same goal.
If we’re not doing something to better the human experience, then we’re missing the point of being human.
How then can we find this place and connect? The ability to receive this information, this wealth of humanity, is not only possible, but within your grasp. It takes concentration, determination, sincerity and the ability to listen to truth without fear, or prejudice. I believe that this has been one of the motives behind much of the ritual that we have been obsessed with over the millennia. Luckily, connecting is much simpler than it sounds and one method of doing so is the use of mantras, one of them being Soham.
I mentioned earlier that I’ve used different mantras over the years and can attest to the fact that each mantra has a definitive and unique energy. Some of these mantras have had influences that I was able to discern, while others are still a mystery to me. Each sound in Sanskrit has a specific energy and combining different sounds can be like putting together commands on a computer, accessing more information than seems possible.
The Soham Mantra: The Oneness of All
The Soham mantra, by the very nature of its meaning, “I am He whom I am,” indicates an association with the divine monad, the oneness of all.
As one meditates upon this word, it becomes a personal appeal, from us to the Universe, to unite with everything. By extension, we are then connected to the wisdom of all and can gain an inner understanding of ourselves, perhaps otherwise inaccessible to the conscious mind. This is something that you can do and benefit from.
Practice: Soham Meditation
As with anything, there are different opinions as to how the Soham mantra should be used. I find it to be aligned with natural breathing. When I inhale, I think, “So.” When I exhale, I think, “Ham.” There are masters who contradict this, insisting that Ham is the inhale and So the exhale. There are just as many masters who disagree with them. Many practitioners vocalize their mantras aloud. I prefer silent mantra repetition and personally feel silence to be more powerful, but in truth, it’s completely up to you.
A simple way of using the Soham meditation is to sit in a relaxed way that connects you to your process. For me, it’s a comfortable chair; for others it may be a yoga position. Do what you feel connects you to your source. Close your eyes, or leave them open if you prefer, and begin reciting the mantra, either out loud or to yourself, and forget about a goal. Breathe in, “So.” Breathe out, “Ham.” Let the words resonate in your mind, but don’t overthink it. Be in the moment and allow yourself to be devoid of motive or purpose of thought, other than to be.
Your mind will race, but never scold it. Instead, smile and return to the mantra.
I never ask for information or wisdom directly, but you may do so if you choose. I open my mind to whatever may come. Sometimes it takes a few minutes, other times information is there quickly. I have meditations where nothing comes through at all, except a deep and profound sense of calm and the conviction that something much more powerful than me is present. That’s good enough for me. Once again, determination, patience and sincerity will eventually deliver results, often spectacularly.
The information is out there and is designed to be accessed by every one of us, not just channels who speak for Ascended Masters. There is nothing supernatural about any of this. In fact, I believe that this is an important part of Humanity. It seeks to guide us in the way that will make us better than we are and can help to pave the way for the future. It reasserts our ethics and redefines our values in an ever-changing world.
I consider it to be a link in the chain of the spiritual evolution of our species and I pray that we will always listen. Tap into the source and listen to the voice. Everyone will benefit. Never forget, it begins with us.
I wish you all peace and love.