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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
David Christopher Lane
Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical
(New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession
(New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
is a tenured Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she has been teaching since 1991. Professor Diem has published several scholarly books and articles, including The Gnostic Mystery
and When Gods Decay
. She is married to Dr. David Lane, with whom she has two children, Shaun-Michael and Kelly-Joseph.
of Going Within
Part I: Exploring the Neurobiological Basis
of Shabd Yoga Meditation
Andrea Diem Lane, Ph.D. and
David Christopher Lane, Ph.D.
"The acid test of withdrawal [in meditation] is numbness"
According to adepts and serious students of shabd yoga, one of the first signs that the meditation technique is working is the distinct feeling of numbness in the lower extremities. This is coupled with a sense of conscious withdrawal where one oftentimes intuits that something profound is about to occur, such as entry into a new and luminous state of awareness.
The intriguing question—at least from a neurobiological perspective—is to pinpoint biochemically what is happening during this first stage of meditation.
It appears that the same chemicals that keep your body relatively still while asleep and dreaming (where one might be surfing, jumping, or flying…. with arms and legs moving about in all sorts of rotations) may also be activated in deeper stages of meditation. The fundamental difference being that in dreaming one is usually unconscious of such chemical interferences whereas in shabd yoga one consciously feels the onslaught of these chemicals becoming operative.
In a breakthrough study, two Canadian neuroscientists, Patricia Brooks and and John Peever, located two neurotransmitters which inhibit bodily movement when dreaming. As reported in the Journal of Neuroscience's press release,
“During REM sleep — the deep sleep where most recalled dreams occur — muscles that move the eyes and those involved in breathing continue to move, but the most of the body's other muscles are stopped, potentially to prevent injury. In a series of experiments, University of Toronto neuroscientists Patricia L. Brooks and John H. Peever, PhD, found that the neurotransmitters gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glycine caused REM sleep paralysis in rats by “switching off” the specialized cells in the brain that allow muscles to be active. This finding reversed earlier beliefs that glycine was a lone inhibitor of these motor neurons.”
Interestingly, sleep paralysis, where one feels incapable of moving their body during sleep, which is on occasion accompanied by nightmares or visions, may offer a tantalizing clue to what may be transpiring during the first significant stages of shabd yoga meditation.
Sleep paralysis is a transcultural phenomenon and can be either a chronic condition where one's sleep patterns can be dramatically impacted or occur in only isolated and rare episodes. Sleep paralysis can range from one minute to an hour.
A number of theories have been proposed to explain why it occurs, but it appears that such disruptive sleep patterns are directly correlated to a disjunction between R.E.M. and wakefulness where an erstwhile smooth transition between such states is somehow damaged or altered.
Shabd yoga is a relatively simple technique, arguably dating back to the pre-Vedic period in India, which is designed to induce a conscious out-of-body experience that is facilitated by a three-fold method of constant repetition of certain words, listening to internal, subtle sounds, and focusing on inner light/lights.
As Charan Singh, the late spiritual master at Radhasoami Satsang Beas, explains,
“The electric current or battery charge you feel is the withdrawal of the spirit currents from the body. This will gradually change to numbness of the body and travel upward. Please do not become frightened over this withdrawal of he soul current from the body.”
Shabd yogis in general, however, have not tried to correlate their inner journeys with a deeper neurobiological understanding since their practice has been intertwined for centuries with a gnostic-like theology where the body and the spirit are viewed as distinct entities.
However, if shabd yoga meditation is indeed a neurobiological process then there should be telltale signs of such that can be quantified by accurately measuring the levels of neurotransmitters such as gamma-aminobutyric acid and glycine in the brain while one is feeling the sensation of conscious paralysis while meditating.
Indeed, one wonders if there are not chemical ways of inducing the same effect in non-meditators and seeing whether or not they report similar experiences as their shabd yoga counterparts.
Our hypothesis is that shabd yoga practitioners who experience the onslaught of numbness in their extremities (which shouldn't be confused with parasthesia—the sensation that one feels when one's foot goes to “sleep”) during deep meditation are experiencing a biochemical process that is similar to what happens when we are asleep and certain neurochemicals manifest to inhibit bodily movements. In other words, shabd yoga induces a conscious sleep paralysis of sorts. If this is correct, we should be able to ascertain whether or not gamma-aminobutyric acid and glycine levels are operative.