Long before the advent of psychotherapy and psychiatric
medication, there were many well tested ways and methods to realize mental
clarity and emotional stability. In fact, every human culture over the centuries
has evolved a wide variety of these methods within its own context. Some of
these methods involved relaxation. Many involved a form of guided imagery with
powerful images, techniques and symbols that affected the body and mind. Still
others evolved disciplines of mental clarity and insight that enabled the
practitioner to move beyond the mental and emotional clutter of their lives and
open into a sense of serenity, luminosity and consciousness difficult to
describe in words or common emotional expression. These three are, while
overlapping at times, actually distinct practices with very different goals.
Relaxation methods are not identical to guided imagery
and guided imagery is not identical to meditation. Relaxation of various kinds,
particularly the clinical relaxation strategies, generally focus on decreasing
somatic and physiological stress and their associated medical symptoms. Various
strategies of relaxation and stress management are very effective in this
approach. Relaxation is not identical to trance. Relaxation however can be a
useful mental diversion. Relaxation can also be very helpful in increasing
"ease" and decreasing "dis-ease".
There are several very well known clinical relaxation
strategies widely used in clinical practice. The most common is the Jacobson
Progressive Muscle Relaxation. This involves systematically briefly tensing and
then relaxing in sequence sixteen basic muscle groups in the body. It develops a
healthy sense of relaxation and peace. Another is autogenics, which involves a
gentle repetition of images and phrases to create a physical and subjective
state of ease and relaxation.
Guided imagery is somewhat different than relaxation.
Guided imagery may also use muscle relaxation, but it also involves effective
use of images and the decreasing of physical and psychological stress. Guided
imagery, unlike the clinical relaxation approaches, may involve light trance
states, but not always. Guided imagery definitely requires a certain "safe
context". The method involves some mild focus on internal moving imagery which
tends to absorb attention and concentration. However, guided imagery is not
identical to clinical hypnosis. Guided imagery has many techniques which vary.
Some of these are idiosyncratic to the person or the therapist using it.
However, some guided imagery can be effectively done with tapes that are bought.
Guided imagery in the past has been used for healing and many of the same
techniques are used today.
Meditation is a mental discipline that is thousands of
years old. Meditation is actually a body of knowledge and techniques that is
open to observation and replication and therefore "scientific" in its methods.
They can lead to significantly altered states of consciousness and in some cases
help the individual move into a "unitive conscious experience" that transcends
the normative boundaries of conception, perception and experience. The goals of
meditation are alternately liberation and freedom, goals that are radically
different from the goals of guided imagery and those of clinical relaxation.
Meditation may or may not involve religious or
spiritual beliefs. Meditation in diverse traditions as a discipline is quite
wide and diverse. The traditions of Buddhism are replete with different
meditative disciplines. This includes the Mahayana, to the Mahamudra lineages to
the full spectrum of Tantric meditative schools and all their techniques. In
Hinduism there are different meditative techniques associated with the different
yoga paths. The eight major schools of yoga all have highly evolved meditative
disciplines. In each one, the use of breath and physical posture is associated
with various specific and replicable states of mind. It is particularly in the
paths of Hinduism that the techniques and pathways of Hatha, Raja, and Kundalini
yoga are most noticeable.
Even within meditation there are different styles of
absorption and insight. However, these are by no means limited to so called
"Eastern" methods of meditation. In the "Western" and other traditions
meditation is also a well known and deeply respected tradition. In the Christian
Esoteric Tradition, monks of various contemplative orders have used meditation
for hundreds of years. These lead at times to ecstatic states of consciousness.
These are popular today in our postmodern era. They also have roots in the
Prayer may be experienced as a variation on meditation.
However, prayer is a path that uses imagery and verbal statements fused with the
primordial intuition of faith and spiritual consciousness to create its
particular condition. Jewish mysticism, particularly in the Cabalistic and
Hasidic traditions, has spawned many meditative disciplines. In the technique of
"evenly suspended attention" which one finds in the Caballa and in a peculiar
way in early psychoanalysis, one can see the affinity to other forms of
meditation, in particular the Vipassana meditation of Buddhism . In Islam there
are various traditions, the most notable being the Sufi tradition.
In the various African traditions there is a
coordinated use of breath, rhythm and incantation in the creation of meditative
states which radically alter ones mental and psychological condition.
Particularly in the African traditions which spread to the Caribbean, South
American and throughout Africa itself, the use of the group is a powerful
modality. It is in groups that so called "possession phenomenon" is more likely
to occur. The group form becomes a "wave" form that changes the behavior of the
individual form. This is part of the power and the secret and why it remains
largely unfathomable in our individualistically oriented society. The possession
phenomenon is grossly misunderstood and pejoratively imagined in the "western"
imagination. It is also different from the phenomenon of ecstatic absorption,
which is referred to as "lae-lae". These are also associated with, but quite
distinct from, different kinds of states of mind created by various forms of so
called "divination". Ifa is the most prominent in this tradition as far as the
West African diaspora is concerned.
There are also the Native American traditions that
involves a vision quest. In these, there is meditation associated with other
kinds of phenomenon. More common in the Native American traditions associated
with meditative states are the traditions and disciplines associated with
various forms of Shamanism.
In all of the above disciplines, with their great
variety and degrees of intensity and methods, one thing should be noticed. All
of these disciplines create a body of data that is open to empirical
observation, a shared methodology, and replication. These are all the hallmarks
of what constitutes a science in the modern form. In the Age of Doubt and
logical positivism there is a tendency in contemporary science to feel that the
only "real sciences" are those in which one can measure things in a certain
manner. We confuse the real with the physical thereby reducing the world to
sensation and object. This is a prison. The canons of science are a body of
knowledge empirically derived by observation, replication, and methodology. Each
one of the above is open to critical inspection based upon this paradigm.
Obviously different methods are applicable for
different people, which is why there are so many "different paths". The correct
"fit" has a lot to do with the training, cultural differences and individual
intuition. This is why there are so many conflicts, because many people believe
that something that fits well for them should somehow fit well for someone else.
There is a contracting tendency in the faith of
rationalism, a constricting process in the heart of conventional faiths. These
both mirror each other seducing the eye of the practitioner into believing its
own vision is the only way to really see. This helps reduce the other to mere
ignorance and ashes and elevates its own perception of the world into that of
the pure and the elite. Religion is not identical to meditation. Meditation is
similar to but not identical to prayer. It is clear today that meditation and
prayer have enormous health benefits to the psyche and also the physical self.
Meditative disciplines go quite well with lifestyle changes of a positive
nature. This is one reason why meditation is more and more being brought into
Many forms of psychotherapy at times confuse certain
techniques of psychotherapy with meditation. Meditation and psychotherapy
however have different aims. They are not substitutes. However, the use of
meditation in psychosomatic medicine has demonstrated positive effects. The use
of meditation in developing emotional lucidity and mental clarity has also been
There are times in one's life in which it is more
advantageous to explore meditation than at others. When there is a life stage
change and increasing psychological maturity, this is an ideal time to explore
different meditative paths. It is also the case when there are increasing health
issues. Finally, when one is developmentally emerging into a state in which
spiritual issues are more important in one's life, e.g. mid-life crisis era,
that is a time to explore the varying kinds of meditative experience. Some
meditative experiences will cross fertilize and integrate well with different
religious strategies and some will not. This must be established by each
individual. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM IV), the "bible" of
psychology and psychiatry, has recently recognized the "authenticity" of a
spiritual experience and differentiated it from regressive fantasy and mental
disorder. In other words, there is little less hubris today in science and
medicine, and spiritual experiences are no longer relegated to
psychopathological states as they have been in the past. This bodes well for the
union of psychiatry, psychology and spiritual practice for the next millennium.
Edward Bruce Bynum, Ph.D., The African Unconscious, New York, NY, Columbia
Teachers College Press, 1999
Edward Bruce Bynum, Ph.D., Transcending Psychoneurotic Disturbances, Ithaca,
NY, Haworth Press, 1994
Roger Walsh, MD, Ph.D. and Frances Vaughn, Ph.D. (eds), Beyond Ego:
Transpersonal Dimensions in Psychology, Los Angeles, CA, J.P. Taucher, 1980
Ken Wilber, The Atman Project, Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, IL,
H.H. Rama, Choosing a Path, The Himalayan National Institute of Yoga Science
and Philosophy, Honsdale, PA, 1985
Namgyal, T., Mahamudra: The Quintessence of Mind and Meditation, Shambhala,
Boston and London, 1986
Gyatso, G. K, Clear Light of Bliss: Mahamudra in Vajrayana Buddhism, Wisdom
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