Connecting the Dots: Meditation, Pranayama, Yoga and Morality
It’s been a week since I started daily meditation for the RFAOH hiatus. I’ve meditated off and on for many years. Not every day, and certainly never taking notes or recording any thoughts or observations. So this experience—meditating every single day for six months, along with my two MomenTech collaborators as part of a “non-art” residency—is a very new one. As I am a less experienced meditator than my two colleagues—and have a deep curiosity about the practice (in particular, its effect on the brain), I am approaching it with the wide-eyed curiosity of a student. As a student, I will be experimenting with various types of meditation, exploring different techniques, researching the history and practice of meditation and also keying into recent and current scientific studies into the neuroscience behind this practice.
The mental benefits of meditation are well known: increased mental clarity, increased awareness, increased sense of calm. I am interested in seeing how a six-month daily meditation routine engenders such results and more specifically: Will my daily meditation practice have any practical (and measurable) physiological/neurological benefit? There is also another, more expansive, component to my study: I am very interested in investigating the connection between meditation and a “moral self.”
Morality has not played a planned role in my meditation practice, which, for over the past couple of years has centered primarily around the concept of “pranayama.” A portmanteau created from the two Sanskrit words “prana” (meaning “life force” and in particular, “breath”) and “ayama” (meaning “to extend or draw out”), pranayama means “extension of breath.” As a meditation technique, it involves focusing one’s total attention on controlled breathing, i.e., breathing in a set pattern, in order to achieve a meditative state. There are many patterns—some intended to achieve a specific effect, others that are geared for the specific physical conditions of the practitioner (i.e., one pattern may work well for someone, but not for another).
One type of pranayama, knows as Alternate Nostril Breathing (ANB), was shown to have a beneficial effect cardiopulmonary functions, according to a 2008 study conducted by the Department of Physiology at Nepal Medical College in Kathmandu Specifically, the researchers found that healthy young adults who engaged in a 15-minute ANB exercise every morning for four weeks increased parasympathetic activity and lowered respiratory rate and systolic blood pressure. Essentially, this simple practice helps make the human body more efficient and more relaxed, even after just a short time of practicing it.
Pranayama is an ancient practice, mentioned repeatedly in the Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse scripture that is part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Written by the Sage Ved Vyasa (a revered figure in most Hindu traditions) sometime between the 5th to 2nd century BCE, the Gita features a conversation about a number of theological and philosophical issues between the Pandava prince Arjuna and his guide Lord Krishna. The battlefield setting of the Gita is generally viewed as an allegory for man’s ethical and moral struggles.
So does it follow then that, while pranayama has been shown to have a strong connection to the physical body, there is also a connection between breathing and morality? For that, one should look at pranayama as existing within a larger context. After all, it is only one aspect an expansive ancient practice that joins physical, mental and spiritual disciplines developed with one primary goal in mind: To attain a state of permanent peace. The practice? Yoga. The term is derived from one of either two roots: “yujir yoga” (to yoke, join or bind) or yuj samÄdhau (to concentrate). The term “yoga” (or simply, “yog”) is often interpreted as “union.” In the West, yoga has been considered to be generally a physical exercise, but its origins in ancient India describe a complete life philosophy.
So while my own meditation has been focused primarily on the practice of pranayama, I will be using my six-month hiatus not only to focus on meditation as a subject of academic and quasi-clinical study, including both research and daily practice, but also to use the concept of meditation as a leaping point to investigate the practice within the larger context of yoga. Consequently, my investigation will include a daily yoga practice and an attempt to connect the dots between physical, mental and spiritual realms; specifically understanding the connection between meditation and morality.
One of the thinkers I will be tapping into is Jack Kornfield, an American author and teacher in the Vipassana (i.e., “analytic meditation”) movement in American Theravada Buddhism. Trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, Burma and India—including as a student of the Thai monk Ajahn Chah—Kornfield has been teaching meditation since 1974 and is a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Having also served in the Peace Corps, working at the Public Health Service in northeast Thailand, Kornfield is keenly aware of the connection between meditation and morality.
“Morality as taught by way of rules is extremely powerful and valuable in the development of practice,” he said. “It must be remembered that it, like all the techniques in meditation, is merely a tool to enable one to eventually get to that place of unselfishness where morality and wisdom flow naturally.”
From pranayama to morality, neuroscience to spirituality, it’s clear that meditation is just a piece of a much bigger and quite complex puzzle. It’s a puzzle that I hope to assemble over the next six months.