Many Paths Traveling to the Same Place

December 17, 2015
Helané Wahbeh, IONS Director of Research

Meditation has been used as a transformational tool for thousands of years. In the West, meditation is a new practice that has increased in popularity over the last couple decades. Meditation research allows us to see exactly how it works and how it may improve our health and lives using rigorous scientific methods. I’ve been excited to study meditation research ever since I first tried it. I’ve always had a curious and inquisitive mind and wanted to know how things worked. This curiosity led me to become a naturopathic physician and then a clinical researcher. My research has always revolved around the mind and its relationship with the body, how the state of our mind can influence all levels of our existence (e.g. physical, emotional, spiritual, social, environmental). Many of us “know” this on a cellular level without being able to prove it. So, I wanted to demonstrate these relationships with solid scientific methods. My whole research career has been dedicated to this research question. And isn’t that what IONS is all about?! Being at IONS allows me the incredible supportive environment to continue this inquiry with a synergistic team of incredible minds. As a meditation researcher, I am always amazed at the variety of meditation traditions. Almost every spiritual tradition on the planet has some sort of meditation or prayer associated with it. I’ve come to believe, like other researchers, that the essential goal of all of these different meditation is the same: to reach a state where we are able to understand our underlying state or true nature (Baerentsen, 2010). People have given many different names to this state: Samadhi, nondual awareness, pure awareness or pure consciousness, no mind, unity consciousness, Transcendental Consciousness, pure Being, oneness, mental stillness, mystical knowledge, wisdom meditation, the list goes on and on.

As a long time meditator myself, I have practiced in a number of traditions, such as Christian, Buddhist, Vedic, Native American, secular mindfulness meditation, and general spiritual meditation. I have experienced first-hand how the different meditations bring me to a similar quality of being. A state of well-being, connection, bliss…a state of “Oneness” between myself, the environment, and others, and so much more. Like others, I find the state to be ineffable, so it is difficult to fully describe it in words. So, maybe it is not about the road we take to the destination, but the destination itself that is important. We know that long-term meditation has numerous benefits like relieved depression and anxiety and improved quality of life (Goyal, 2014; Khoury, 2013). But is the developed meditative state that most meditators hope to be in what is creating these benefits? My curiosity got the best of me and I decided to find out.

I’m combing through the “literature” in a systematic review to find out just what this transcendent state is across traditions. So far, we’ve found that while there are a large and growing number of meditation research papers (3727 hits on today), very few of them describe whether they were recording their measures -like EEG or ECG- during this actual state. They say they recorded expert meditators, but don’t mention whether the meditators were in a transcendent state when they were recording. Unfortunately, we can’t include these papers in our review because we can’t be sure that the state the meditator was in during the recording is the one we are looking for. There are about forty papers we have found so far that explicitly describe the transcendent state the meditator was in during the recordings, so we are working on extracting data from those right now. We’ll have to wait a few months to see the final results.

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