Meditation refers to techniques in which the individual focuses on something specific, such as an object, a word, or one’s breathing, with the goal of ignoring external distractions, focusing on one’s internal state, and achieving a state of relaxation and well-being. Followers of various Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism) use meditation to achieve a higher spiritual state, and popular forms of meditation in the West, such as yoga, Zen, and Transcendental Meditation, have originated from these practices. Many meditative techniques are very simple. You simply need to sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed and practice deep breathing. You might want to try it out for yourself (Video Clip: Try Meditation).
Video Clip: Try Meditation
Here (video missing in original book) is a simple meditation exercise you can do in your own home.
Brain imaging studies have indicated that meditation is not only relaxing but can also induce an altered state of consciousness. Cahn and Polich (2006) 1 found that experienced meditators in a meditative state had more prominent alpha and theta waves, and other studies have shown declines in heart rate, skin conductance, oxygen consumption, and carbon dioxide elimination during meditation (Dillbeck, Glenn, & Orme-Johnson, 1987; Fenwick, 1987). 2 These studies suggest that the action of the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is suppressed during meditation, creating a more relaxed physiological state as the meditator moves into deeper states of relaxation and consciousness.
Research has found that regular meditation can mediate the effects of stress and depression, and promote well-being (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004; Reibel, Greeson, Brainard, & Rosenzweig, 2001; Salmon et al., 2004). 3 Meditation has also been shown to assist in controlling blood pressure (Barnes, Treiber, & Davis, 2001; Walton et al., 2004). 4 A study by Lyubimov (1992) 5 showed that during meditation, a larger area of the brain was responsive to sensory stimuli, suggesting that there is greater coordination between the two brain hemispheres as a result of meditation. Lutz and others (2004) 6 demonstrated that those who meditate regularly (as opposed to those who do not) tend to utilize a greater part of their brain and that their gamma waves are faster and more powerful. And a study of Tibetan Buddhist monks who meditate daily found that several areas of the brain can be permanently altered by the long-term practice of meditation (Lutz, Greischar, Rawlings, Ricard, & Davidson, 2004). 7
It is possible that the positive effects of meditation could also be found by using other methods of relaxation. Although advocates of meditation claim that meditation enables people to attain a higher and purer consciousness, perhaps any kind of activity that calms and relaxes the mind, such as working on crossword puzzles, watching television or movies, or engaging in other enjoyed behaviors, might be equally effective in creating positive outcomes. Regardless of the debate, the fact remains that meditation is, at the very least, a worthwhile relaxation strategy.
Psychology in Everyday Life: The Need to Escape Everyday Consciousness
We may use recreational drugs, drink alcohol, overeat, have sex, and gamble for fun, but in some cases these normally pleasurable behaviors are abused, leading to exceedingly negative consequences for us. We frequently refer to the abuse of any type of pleasurable behavior as an “addiction,” just as we refer to drug or alcohol addiction.
Roy Baumeister and his colleagues (Baumeister, 1991) 8 have argued that the desire to avoid thinking about the self (what they call the “escape from consciousness”) is an essential component of a variety of self-defeating behaviors.
Their approach is based on the idea that consciousness involvesself-awareness, the process of thinking about and examining the self. Normally we enjoy being self-aware, as we reflect on our relationships with others, our goals, and our achievements. But if we have a setback or a problem, or if we behave in a way that we determine is inappropriate or immoral, we may feel stupid, embarrassed, or unlovable. In these cases self-awareness may become burdensome.
And even if nothing particularly bad is happening at the moment, self-awareness may still feel unpleasant because we have fears about what might happen to us or about mistakes that we might make in the future.
Baumeister argues that when self-awareness becomes unpleasant, the need to forget about the negative aspects of the self may become so strong that we turn to altered states of consciousness. Baumeister believes that in these cases we escape the self by narrowing our focus of attention to a particular action or activity, which prevents us from having to think about ourselves and the implications of various events for our self-concept.
Baumeister has analyzed a variety of self-defeating behaviors in terms of the desire to escape consciousness. Perhaps most obvious is suicide—the ultimate self-defeating behavior and the ultimate solution for escaping the negative aspects of self-consciousness. People who commit suicide are normally depressed and isolated. They feel bad about themselves, and suicide is a relief from the negative aspects of self-reflection. Suicidal behavior is often preceded by a period of narrow and rigid cognitive functioning that serves as an escape from the very negative view of the self brought on by recent setbacks or traumas (Baumeister, 1990). 9
Alcohol abuse may also accomplish an escape from self-awareness by physically interfering with cognitive functioning, making it more difficult to recall the aspects of our self-consciousness (Steele & Josephs, 1990). 10 And cigarette smoking may appeal to people as a low-level distractor that helps them to escape self-awareness. Heatherton and Baumeister (1991) 11 argued that binge eating is another way of escaping from consciousness. Binge eaters, including those who suffer from bulimia nervosa, have unusually high standards for the self, including success, achievement, popularity, and body thinness. As a result they find it difficult to live up to these standards. Because these individuals evaluate themselves according to demanding criteria, they will tend to fall short periodically.
Becoming focused on eating, according to Heatherton and Baumeister, is a way to focus only on one particular activity and to forget the broader, negative aspects of the self. The removal of self-awareness has also been depicted as the essential part of the appeal of masochism, in which people engage in bondage and other aspects of submission. Masochists are frequently tied up using ropes, scarves, neckties, stockings, handcuffs, and gags, and the outcome is that they no longer feel that they are in control of themselves, which relieves them from the burdens of the self (Baumeister, 1991). 12
Newman and Baumeister (1996) 13 have argued that even the belief that one has been abducted by aliens may be driven by the need to escape everyday consciousness. Every day at least several hundred (and more likely several thousand) Americans claim that they are abducted by these aliens, although most of these stories occur after the individuals have consulted with a psychotherapist or someone else who believes in alien abduction. Again, Baumeister and his colleagues have found a number of indications that people who believe that they have been abducted may be using the belief as a way of escaping self-consciousness.
- Hypnosis is a trance-like state of conscious consisting of heightened susceptibility, deep relaxation, and intense focus.
- Hypnosis is not useful for helping people remember past events, but it can be used to alleviate anxiety and pain.
- Sensory deprivation is the intentional reduction of stimulation to one or more of the senses. It can be used therapeutically to treat insomnia, muscle tension, and pain.
- Meditation refers to a range of techniques that can create relaxation and well-being.
EXERCISES AND CRITICAL THINKING
- Do you think that you would be a good candidate for hypnosis? Why or why not?
- Try the meditation exercise in this section for three consecutive days. Do you feel any different when or after you meditate?