What the beloved Bard William Shakespeare referred to as the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” are traumatic experiences in life which can happen to anyone at any time. Even though the circumstances of such experiences can be over and done with, such as someone returning to the safety of their home after being in a war zone, a dysfunctional impression can be left on our most precious asset, the brain. Someone suffering too much from bad experience is said to be in the grip of PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, in which a part of the brain called the amygdala becomes more active.
The amygdala is the brain’s fear centre so it creates a veil of fear through which an individual experiences the world. The brain is the interface between our inner and outer experience and the quality of brain function determines what we see and hear and how we respond to that. Therefore someone affected by PTSD becomes hyper-vigilant and vulnerable, thinking that people don’t understand them, all because of what their brain is now telling them. Additionally the amygdala is turning on the ‘fight or flight’ response which itself turns off the front part of the brain, the normally dominant sector which makes rational decisions.
According to Dr Fred Travis, director of the Centre For Brain, Consciousness And Cognition at Maharishi University Of Management, a person with PTSD needs to turn off the amygdala by having an experience which is the exact opposite to trauma. He says such an experience should be holistic and not fragmented … silent and not chaotic. Meditation brings this experience, he says, but it should be noted that the blanket term ‘meditation’ covers a variety of techniques which are quite different from each other in form and application, and bring differing results.
There are three basic categories:
1. Focussed Attention – essentially concentrating the mind on one thing and not letting it move away. EEG recordings during these techniques show predominance of Gamma brainwave activity, moving fast at between 20-50 cycles per second.
2. Open Monitoring – this involves a medium level of mental control allowing thoughts to pass through the mind without trying to restrict them. This brings slower frequency Theta brainwaves at 5-8 cycles per second.
(Dr Travis says these two types of meditation keep the mind in the process of ‘thinking and doing’ and so maintain the same ‘veil of fear’ that PTSD has turned on. This is why reports indicate that these types of meditation practices have very little effect in reducing PTSD symptoms).
3. Automatic Self-Transcending – these are meditation systems which transcend (settle beyond) their own initial activity and bring the experience of inner pure consciousness and inner self awareness. They have to be automatic and effortless because any conscious ‘doing’ would not allow that process to happen.
Transcendental Meditation is in this category. During TM one is resetting the mind and body and the signals of fear are being turned off. The integrative centre, or the frontal regions of the brain, are able to see the bigger picture and respond to it calmly as the hyper-vigilance settles down. TM takes a person beyond thinking into silence and so allows them to ‘transcend’ PTSD. Apart from the predominance of Alpha brainwaves during TM, which are associated with an alert but rested mental state, the body experiences a level of rest much deeper than sleep in which the central nervous system is able to neutralise the harmful effects of stressful situations from the past which we all carry with us.
Dr Travis maintains that every experience we have in life changes the brain. On the one hand trauma turns off the thinking centres of the brain, but Transcendental Meditation leads to a natural state of restful alertness which restores balanced functioning to mind and body, relieves PTSD, and supports happiness and success in life. This assertion is confirmed by a large of amount of independent scientific research.
Please click here to enjoy a 12 minute video of a TED presentation by Dr John Hagelin expanding on the issues raised in this article.