Back in undergraduate school, I had the opportunity to take a class in Transcendental Meditation [TM], over a weekend during my freshman year. The concept that a simple practice could have potentially profound effects on both the physiology and psychology of a person was a stunning idea back then. The weekend progressed with lessons, audio tapes of the founder, and eventually the private revealing of the secret mantra alleged to be somehow specially chosen for me. A fellow classmate and I faithfully met each morning for the rest of the academic year and spent the twenty minutes in silent meditation. We figured that if we practiced together it would increase our likelihood of making the practice regular. I noticed throughout the year that I generally felt more relaxed and found the practice useful.
An equally profound realization crystalized later in the year, however, when attending a class led by the priest of our local Episcopal Church. He had described this as a course which would demonstrate a different form of prayer, called contemplative prayer, distinctly different from the more recognized prayer of petition common in church services. The Reverend at least provided some information that this earlier form of prayer had been quite central to the practice of early Christianity. As that weekend class continued, it became rapidly clear that the actual practice of contemplative prayer was in virtually every way identical to that of TM. The focus of contemplative prayer was a short phrase silently repeated, a mantra, but one in English.
What was special about this practice of quiet mental repetition? How or why did traditions so disparate as Hinduism and Christianity feature a practice identical except in the phrase of repetition itself. What kinds of benefits might accrue from such a practice? Does science have any information to bear on such an esoteric topic? What exactly is meditation, and what is the range of meditative practice? Good questions, and few enough answers.
One of the most dramatic examples of this union of opposites in recent cinema occurred in the second film of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Two Towers.”
The movie opens with Gandalf the Grey engaged in a battle with a fire demon called the Balrog. Gandalf the Grey and the Balrog are polar opposites in every respect. Their battle results in mutual destruction as is shown later in the film when several characters meet the new Gandalf the White in Fangorn Forest.
Gandalf the White represents the union of the opposites into a stronger, more balanced character. The benevolence and wisdom of Gandolf the Grey combined with the fiery power of the Balrog, which represented Gandalf’s shadow.
But, as per this model from Jung, Gandalf the White is a new whole person who is greater than the sum of the two parts [opposites].
Consider the snakes as they wind around the staff of Mercury. They are in eternal conflict. They represent the opposites that can be perceived. Life & Death. Science & Art. Any pair of opposites you can imagine. They cannot unite at their own level, as Jung described because they are in eternal conflict. But provided enough energy and focus, a transcendent third may appear, represented by the winged globe above. This is wholeness, or the synthesis which arises from thesis and antithesis.
“As opposites never unite at their own level, a supraordinate ‘third’ is always required, in which the two parts can come together. And since the symbol derives as much from the conscious as from the unconscious, it is able to unite them both, reconciling their conceptual polarity through its form and their emotional polarity through its numinosity.” Jung – Aion
Jung’s work was central in applying the ideas relating to uniting the opposites contained within the conscious and the unconscious for psychospiritual growth. However, the seeds of this concept were planted deep in history. Plato is often attributed to first raising the concept of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, although these were not his exact words.
Meister Eckhart brought Christian concepts to the German speaking people by considering God as the thesis, Christ as the antithesis in physical form, and the unifying concept as the Holy Spirit. His work was censured by the Catholic Church soon after his death.
Hegel described this in terms of his dialectic: two opposites which created a new whole. His usage was more along the line of the abstract as the first principle which would generate a form of its automatic opposite as it became concrete in the world. The opposing energy between the two would then generate a new level of understanding. Writers who later described Hegel’s work used the Thesis – Antithesis – Synthesis model to describe his thought.
There is a rather delightful aphorism from the yogic traditions, which will paraphrase, and perhaps mangle a bit:
I have feelings, but I am not my feelings. I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts.
This pearl of exceptional wisdom should probably be on a plaque on the wall of every therapist and psychiatrist in the world. For this is, in essence, the purpose of many forms of psychotherapy. In cognitive models one learns to identify negative thoughts as not intrinsic to the person. In psychodynamic models, one learns that we are distinct from the patterns we unconsciously repeat in life. In family therapy on learns that one is affected by and affects the family system but is not identical to it. This is the essence of developing an observing ego.
Although epiphenomenalism may be assumed true by both doctors and patients alike, since it seems to match data related to impaired neurological function, some of the research in neuroplasticity refutes the entire concept of epiphenomenalism. Early research demonstrated that when people learn new skills, such as typing or piano, that areas of the motor cortex of the brain actually increase in size to match. Later research demonstrated new brain connections, after some forms of brain injury, sometimes form to areas of the brain which would otherwise have processed information from different areas of function. This process actually restores the lost functioning, even with different areas of the brain processing the information.
Although these studies were fascinating as they showed the neuronal connections and biological functioning of the brain changed as a result of essentially newly learned tasks, some researchers minimized the results with arguments that this was largely a unique ability for repair following injury. One of the more recent studies was a true paradigm changer. In this research, Tibetan Buddhist monks participated in functional brain imaging studies while practicing a compassion based meditation technique. The finding was astounding: monks showed a novel Gamma brainwave pattern in the frontal lobe, which correlated with the subjective sense of blissfulness. This brainwave pattern had never been seen in any non-pathological state before, and its presence and strength was only related to the number of hours of meditative practice. No other demographic factors correlated with the finding, which suggested a clear circumstance in which willed meditative practice altered brain function over extended practice.
Since epiphenomenalism requires that mental process is only an accidental byproduct of neuronal firing, there is no conceivable way that mental process could actually effect the biological structure. This latest research proves just the opposite: that mental process changes the biology of the brain. Clearly then, any form of biological monism cannot account for this research finding. A different model is needed which accounts for the research data.
One of the newest fads in the field of psychiatry and neuroscience in general is the notion that addictions to various substances or behaviors are in some manner biologically “caused.” This is usually an argument based upon the connection of activation of the reward circuitry of the brain with the substance or behavior. Aside from the basic logical truth that this confuses a simple correlation with potential cause and effect, it also assumes that individuals with no addictions have minimal activity within the reward circuitry.
I would have to imagine that if I sit down and enjoy a favorite food and truly savor it, that the reward circuitry of my brain in in some manner mediating this experience. However, my enjoyment of the food does not necessarily lead to out of control eating or addiction.
The errors of the deeply biological explanation ignore the basic realities of experience that patients and friends clearly describe when they change their behavior in pretty profound ways. As an example, a patient I evaluated described ceasing the use of tobacco, one of the more biologically addictive substances on the planet. She said that at the moment her grandchild was born, she had in instant revelation that if she didn’t stop smoking she would never see her grandchild graduate high school. She ceased a several decade history of smoking in an instant. She reported that there had been a few carvings which she ignored and then she knew herself to be a non-smoker.
What changed? How could this addiction disappear in a moment?
The biological answer can only be that a rapid change occurred in her association cortex, which altered the meaning and neural networks related to the behavior of smoking. Even if the desire for the substance is mediated by the reward system, it seems that the connection with the reward system can be instantly disconnected by a transformation of the meaning of the behavior.
Brings to mind the people, places, and things comments of the 12-step groups. All things related to the association network of neurons.
This simple question of how an addiction can be broken really opens a phenomenal series of questions about who we are, how we change, and what layers of the self regulate thoughts and behavior.