by Edward Bruce Bynum, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.
Director of Behavioral Medicine
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 pre-Christian era.
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 healthcare.
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 established.
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, 1980
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 Publications, London
The information provided in this column is for educational/information purposes only. The intention is not to provide medical advice or replace the services of a trained healthcare professional. Please take specific issues or medical concern to your healthcare provider. For further information please visit the UHS Mental Health web page at www.umass.edu/uhs/mentalheath.