Year : 2021 | Volume
: 9 | Issue : 1 | Page : 16--22
The principles and practice of contemplation for holistic well-being
Richa Chopra1, Vijay A Nebhrajani2, Shashank Shekhar Tripathi3, Ganesh N Rao4,
1 Department of Contemplative and Behavioural Sciences, Cuttack, Odisha, India
2 ASIC Digital Design Engineer, Sr. Staff, Synopsys Inc., Pune, Maharashtra, India
3 Wandering Yogi, Sanyasi, Unaffiliated Vedic Scholar
4 Founder - ACT Yoga, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
Dr. Richa Chopra
Department of Contemplative and Behavioural Sciences, Sri Sri University, Ward No – 3, Sandhapur, Godi Sahi, Bidyadharpur, Cuttack-754 006 Odisha
Holistic well-being is when the body and mind are in harmony and free of malaise. Western medical science constructs a model of health that is demonstrably incomplete. Moreover, achieving a state of such well-being is not even a stated goal. Western medicine is thus reactive, only attempting symptomatic relief. This article draws from ancient Indian models of good health, showing that these are complete and their systematic practice leads to holistic well-being as a natural consequence. Central to the Indian model is the concept of contemplation – used extensively in Yoga, Vedānta, Buddhist practices, and many such disciplines. In this article, we demonstrate the insufficiency of the western model, and gradually build up the ideas that form the core of the Indian model, leading to the final point–which is that the philosophy and practices of contemplation are the key to truly achieve good health, not just temporary suppression of symptoms.
|How to cite this article:|
Chopra R, Nebhrajani VA, Tripathi SS, Rao GN. The principles and practice of contemplation for holistic well-being.Int J Yoga - Philosop Psychol Parapsychol 2021;9:16-22
|How to cite this URL:|
Chopra R, Nebhrajani VA, Tripathi SS, Rao GN. The principles and practice of contemplation for holistic well-being. Int J Yoga - Philosop Psychol Parapsychol [serial online] 2021 [cited 2023 Jun 10 ];9:16-22
Available from: https://www.ijoyppp.org/text.asp?2021/9/1/16/311404
Chronic health disorders–diabetes mellitus, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, etc., have become epidemics today. Often not caused by external agents such as trauma or infection these are termed “lifestyle diseases.” There is also a broad class of noncommunicable diseases that are caused by factors other than lifestyle, such as posttraumatic stress; and even diabetes and cancer often have stress at their root. Western medical science has not produced significant cures, while reports of spontaneous reversal of cancer or diabetes proliferate. Patients apparently cure themselves by following alternative medicine, changing their lifestyles, or changing their thoughts.,
To find solutions to current health crises, one must expand on existing medical science using tools from various other disciplines. Medical science has been viewed as distinct from physics or engineering, but as knowledge in these fields has grown, it is increasingly common to apply concepts from engineering to health.
Systems theory is a field of knowledge that seeks to understand complex, interdependent systems wherein a small change in one variable can have enormous consequences. Systems theory is an understanding of the “whole,” which is treated as “greater than the sum of its parts.” Indic thought is often considered “holistic”– which is just another way of saying that it seeks to understand the system in its entirety.
Indic systems of Yoga, meditation, contemplation, etc., are time tested to work, but knowledge into why exactly they work is not readily available. The unique idea of this paper is to explore Indic systems through the lens of systems theory with the goal of gaining deeper insight into why and how they work.
In order to examine the idea, philosophy, and application of contemplation in well-being, the authors undertook an in-depth review of some of the principal texts pertaining to Yoga, Vedānta, Tantra, and eventually traced the repeated idea of contemplation (dhāraṇā, dhyāna, samādhi, śravaṇa, manana nididhyāsana, etc.) contained in Patañjali's Yogasūtras, Bhagavadgītā, Hatha Yoga texts, the ten principal Upaniṣads and Vijñānabhairava Tantra. The authors reviewed both the direct translations of the Sanskrit texts as well as a few commentaries. In addition, deep conversations with renowned practitioners of contemplation were also undertaken.
The authors then examined the above texts using concepts from systems and complexity theory which led to several insights. Importantly, it emerged that when only variables that western sciences recognize are considered, intractable problems are the inevitable result. When additional variables per Indic traditions are introduced, these problems can be solved and causal, systemic understanding results.
Knowledge models reality
Distinctions between fields of study are factitious–to build a human being or an animal, a planet or a star, nature uses all possible resources and natural laws. Human knowledge is merely a model of natural reality– using linguistic constructs to approximate it.
Reality is not the same as its model
Importantly, a model is not the same as reality. For instance, the word “happy” names an emotion, but clearly the word is not the same as the emotion.
Models are insufficient
Humans create a mental model of the universe using sensory data. With eyes as sensors, the matter is perceived as having form and color, but with an electron microscope, arrangements of molecules are seen. Both are “views” of reality and both are clearly incomplete while affording viewpoints to observe and experience reality. Thus models, while necessary are inherently insufficient.
Languages are also insufficient
Languages are necessary for building models, but languages model communication systems. A perfect communication system would instantaneously transfer information and awareness without incompleteness or error; languages obviously can only approximate this.
Reality is singular
A key observation is that even when there is only one underlying reality, there may be multiple models of it. A plurality of models also clearly demonstrates the insufficiency of anyone.
Often, models start as crude approximations and are successively refined as knowledge and experience grows. This is acceptable in the absence of alternative methods of knowledge acquisition. If a newer model better explains and predicts observed phenomena, it is imperative to discard older models.
Multiple models may be required to examine different features of the same reality. These models may come from diverse fields of study, but if they generate insights, they ought to be used without regard to the originating field.
Root versus proximate causes
For any phenomenon, there is always a root cause–the first, primal event that triggers consequences leading up to the observable phenomenon. However, on observation of the phenomenon, this root cause is not always visible because there is usually a long chain of events starting from the root. What are visible are other, more direct causes–termed proximate causes. Understanding a system requires a search for the root cause–a process called “root cause analysis.”
Systems Theory is the science of understanding the behavior of mathematically complex systems., A complex system is defined to be one in which there are many interdependent and interacting variables, and small changes in one affect many others resulting in significant consequences to the entire system. This is called “sensitivity to initial conditions,” a concept recognizable as the “Butterfly Effect,” which states that a butterfly may flap its wings in Beijing eventually causing a hurricane in Miami.
Complex systems are characterized by certain specific behaviors and properties:
Nonlinear, self-reinforcing behavior. Complex systems have positive feedback loops wherein a change in one variable causes an amplified effect to be fed back to the system, causing it to reinforce its behavior,This positive feedback property causes a phenomenon called “runaway”– wherein the system self-reinforces itself continuously, causing far-reaching and catastrophic consequences. This behavior is known by the commonly recognizable terms “vicious cycle” and “virtuous cycle”,,This self-reinforcing behavior results in stable or quasi-stable states of equilibrium, when some properties balance out (sometimes only temporarily) and the system stays stable,Sudden transitions from one stable state to another stable state are possible.,
The human mind and body form a complex system and must be examined as such.,
The mind-body complex
In western medicine, the mind and the body are both recognized, and their interdependence is well known. To prove that the mind and body form a complex system, we simply need to show that changes in one affect the other.
The mind affects the body
Drug trials have revealed a phenomenon called the “placebo effect,” and its opposite, the “nocebo effect.” In such trials, one group is given the drug, and another is given a sugar pill that looks identical. A control group is given neither. Many people given the sugar pill also get better–this is the placebo effect. In fact, people given sugar pills get better in such prolific numbers that drugs need to significantly outperform placebos to gain approval.
The same is true for the nocebo effect–and there is ample evidence that shows that when patients believe that they will fall ill or even die, they do.,
Further, there is significant evidence that meditation promotes good physical health by slowing aging and reversing disease, and also promotes good mental health.
The body affects the mind
The role of the body in mental health is also well documented, and most people have had that experience., After an accident or a debilitating illness, many people suffer depression, anxiety, and other mental disturbances. When people become physically healthy, their symptoms of depression, stress, or anxiety also abate. These observations are common and most people have direct experience of them.
Thus, the mind and body form a complex, interdependent system of at least two variables. We can easily see the phenomenon of runaway or vicious or virtuous cycles in the mind-body complex.
Vicious and virtuous cycles in the mind-body complex
If a person gains weight, it could cause lowered self-esteem which may cause stress which may lead to depression. To counter the depression, the person may use food for comfort; which would cause more weight gain, and the cycle repeats till a stable equilibrium is achieved, perhaps with obesity and depression.
If an obese person starts walking a few miles every day, the weight would be lost and the walk would become easier, enabling longer and more vigorous walks. In some time, the person becomes physically fit, and mentally cheerful and upbeat.
These examples may seem simplistic–but they are seen so frequently that exercise is routinely prescribed to counter depression and meditation to counter physical pain.
More complex than mind-body: Three variables
Western medicine does not recognize anything beyond the mind and the body, but evidence points to the existence of a “spiritual” component to humans as well.
There are well-documented cases of sannyāsīs and sādhus who live in the Himalayas in extremely cold weather with no protection, going for days without food and bathing with ice water; with no apparent physical harm. There are also well-documented cases of Tibetan monks who can control their heart rates or raise their body temperature with their minds, and of people who do not feel pain while in deeply meditative states. These people all attest to a state of “spiritual” elevation, wherein something other than mind and body creates well-being for both their minds and bodies.
This indicates the possibility of a third variable–which leads to a system too convoluted to fully understand, much less control. In the western system, such complexity is handled with data and statistical analyses such as in “evidence based medicine.” However, this implies a lack of fundamental understanding of the system, otherwise causality would be known a priori, and correlation would not need to substitute for it. Hence, the need for causal understanding of the system is apparent.
A “new” model
Indic thought defines for us a view of the human “mind-body” complex. This “new,” Yogic model starts with the body, the mind, and a third entity called the Self (ātman). Yoga further defines a hierarchy over these entities, which is essential to understand and eventually control the system.
The body is physical and the senses perceive it immediately. The mind is also perceived immediately as the entity that does the function of thinking. Just as the body is perceived structurally, the mind is perceived functionally.
While one is generally not aware of the Self, an entity that creates a constant sense of “I” unaffected by the state of mind or body is readily perceived. One even refers to “my” mind or “my” body as possessions, implying a possessing entity, identified as the Self.
In the Yogic hierarchy, the Self is highest; the mind is below, and the body is lowest. This hierarchy is of subtlety and control, not of spatial or temporal arrangement.
A control system
Control systems work with bidirectional information flow–a controller sends actuation signals to the controlled entity which feeds back sensory data. For instance, the brain issues electrical signals through nerves to raise a hand and receives feedback about the current position of the hand. It computes the error as the difference between the desired and current position and seeks to reduce the error to zero. This is the generic information flow mechanism of all control systems.
A control system requires intelligence in the controller so that the control algorithm may be executed. The mind clearly has the intelligence to “actuate” the body, and the body provides sensory data to the mind. Similarly, the mind provides perceptual data to the Self, and the Self directs the processes of the mind.
In the Yogic model, the control structures between the Self, mind, and body are clear–and if the bidirectional flow of information between any of the three entities is disrupted, morbidity and mortality follow.
Wishing disease away
A natural question arises: the mind is higher in the control hierarchy than the body, so why can it not simply wish disease away? The reason is because of multiple processing sublayers in the mind. Yoga defines four such sublayers, and the western system acknowledges at least two–the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. The conscious mind is the set of processes that are voluntarily under our control, and the unconscious mind is the set of processes that run in the background without conscious intervention.
The unconscious mind is demonstrably powerful–one can drive great distances, even process road hazards correctly, without consciously putting any thought into it. New research indicates that despite its power, the unconscious mind only has automaton-like intelligence. Thus, it can only execute algorithmic, repetitive, or low-complexity tasks, but with remarkable speed and precision. Healing, fighting disease, running the immune system, and fight or flight are the domain of the unconscious.
Lipton states that unconscious processing is very fast. In the presence of danger, the unconscious rapidly evaluates confrontation or escape; whether there is a hiding place or object that can be used as a weapon, and so on. Consciously searching for objects to use as weapons is a slow process, with high likelihood of failure. Conscious thought is thus insufficient to modify the functioning of the faster and more powerful unconscious.
It is therefore the unconscious that must be reprogrammed if true health is a goal.
Reprogramming the unconscious
The only entity capable of reprogramming the unconscious mind is an even higher order controller–the Self. Per Yoga, the mind and its processes are simply a tool for the Self to express physical structure. Thus, the Self generates a body (comprised of trillions of cells) and a complex, multilayered mind, starting from just a zygote. It finds ways to gather matter from the environment and re-arrange it into cells that have its unique signature. The Self does this continuously, constantly building, and re-arranging physical matter. Therefore, the Self can always keep the mind and body in a state of good health if its processes are not subverted.
The signal of the self
The body constantly generates data–our sensory faculties never fully shut down, even in sleep. This means that the unconscious (or at least some part of it) is always awake, processing sensory input. This process generates far too much information; even if this information is unneeded. Necessary information can be thought of as the “signal” which carries useful data, and unnecessary information as “noise”– something to be discarded.
Having too much unnecessary information implies a low signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), making processing error-prone. Because of low SNR, sensory and control data must be noise-filtered to be usable.
The situation is similar to trying to solve a complicated mathematical problem while being pricked by pins all over one's body. The physical sensory overload inevitably makes the mental process difficult, if not impossible.
Indic thought postulates that the mere act of living creates tremendous perceptual and sensory load, and that the signals of the Self which would otherwise handle disease and other problems are lost or severely attenuated.
Yoga may be thought of as a filter which when applied to the mind and body suppresses noise and allows the Self to shine through. Yoga lets the clearest signals from the Self directly modify and change the mind and body.
ekatvaṁ prāṇamanasorindriyāṇāṁ tathaiva ca|
sarvabhāvaparityāgo yoga ityabhidhīyate||
A unity of breath, mind, and body in the absence of thought is the state of yoga.
Yoga is not merely bodily movements or poses, and Yoga is not just meditation. Yoga is a systematic approach to “seeing” the Self, and to letting the Self create a new reality for us–primarily by getting the mind-body complex out if its way.
tāṁ yogamiti manyante sthirāmindriyadhāraṇām|
apramattastadā bhavati yogo hi prabhavāpyayau||
A quiet state of the five senses, mind, and intellect is called yoga. Upon achieving this (the yogin) becomes attentive and sees yoga as both beginning and end.
Yoga may be understood as a set of practices: physical practices which generate the right kind of sensory data to the mind and mental practices which generate the right kind of perceptual data to the Self such that one becomes stably situated in this Self-awareness.
It is worth noting here that the techniques of Yoga rely on positive feedback loops to achieve certain stable states. Thus, it is important to appreciate the importance of small nuances in Yogic practice.
Physical noise–body poses
The role of Yoga poses (āsanas) is to filter the noise generated by the body from affecting the mind. For instance, when standing on one's head, the body generates sensory alarms because usually, it is always upright. This causes the mind to almost exclusively process these alarms–pain, blood rushing to the brain, loss of balance, and so on.
These sensory alarms put the body in a fight or flight response, with concomitant increase in the biomarkers of stress. Sensory alarms such as these are rare, and therefore, the body is highly sensitive to them, i.e., the threshold at which stress is triggered is quite low.
However, with the practice of āsanas, the mind recalibrates its stress thresholds, treats this as a normal occurrence, and filters it out. Slowly, with the practice of different āsanas, the mind is trained to see a new, much higher threshold of “normal,” i.e., the unconscious discards a great deal of noise before getting alarmed by something truly abnormal.
This alone reduces stress to a degree that practitioners of Yoga see immediate and marked improvements to their physical health.
Mental processes generate more noise than bodily processes, and this noise is much harder to squelch. Just like āsana creates a noise filter for the body, contemplation does so for the mind. However, this process is more involved so it is instructive to look at how Yoga seeks to systematize it. To fully understand contemplation, certain technical terms need definition.
Mahariṣhi Patañjali defines Yoga thus:
Yoga is the cessation of the modifications of the mind.
-Patañjali's Yogasūtras 1.2
A simple translation would be “Yoga is the cessation of the modifications of the mind;” wherein “nirodha” means “cessation;' “citta” means something akin to “mind,” and “vṛti” approximates “modification.” This ubiquitous translation is too imprecise to be insightful. “Citta,” “vṛti,” and “nirodha” require explicit definitions, since Mahariṣhi Patañjali uses these as technical terms.
Yoga defines a functional classification of the mind as four sublayers– “manas,” “buddhi,” “ahaṁ…kāra,” and “citta:”
Manas– the rational mind–is defined as the function that performs analysis. For example, when one tastes something for the first time, it is analyzed using familiar linguistic constructs–”this tastes nutty and slightly sweet and smells a bit bitter.” This is manas at work.
When this is further related to past experience, determined judgment is arrived at. This determinative function is called buddhi. Continuing the example, one may relate this new substance to previous experience tasting almonds.
This decisive state about the experience evaluated in relation to oneself is called ahaṁ…kāra–ego. One may make the association with cyanide–which smells like almonds but is a potent toxin, and think, “Is this going to kill me?” This association with oneself is ahaṁ…kāra.
The function of remembering things and creating compressed states in memory is citta. It processes and compresses experiential data by eliminating details but by remembering the subsequent state of mind and body. This creates a modification of our mind which will be used for future determinative judgment.
Mental processes, being self-reinforcing, have the property of runaway–Yoga defines five stable equilibrium states of runaway processes called vṛtis: pramāṇa, viparyaya, vikalpa, nidrā, and smṛi:
The state of valid cognition– seeing, analyzing, and processing information. This equilibrium state is the vṛti of pramāṇa (right knowledge)Being lost in misconception– the mind may start with a false assumption and arrive at a false conclusion or be navigating through illogic. This is the vṛti of viparyaya (false knowledge)The mind could also be in a state of fantasy or imagination– this is the vṛti of vikalpaDeep sleep–or nidrā is a vṛti wherein neither the senses nor the mind is activeThe fifth vṛti is the state of reminiscing and reliving the past. This is the vṛti of smṛi.
And finally, the word nirodha does mean cessation, but there is a subtlety to it. Nirodha comes from the Sanskrit root rudh which means to obstruct or halt. Nirodha means a firm restraint or prevention in a voluntary sense. It is instructive to examine the word virodha–which means prevention, halting, or restraint in the sense of opposition. Nirodha is not in the sense of opposition, so there is not the need for struggle or application of force against one's mental processes.
The definition of Yoga is thus a firm restraint on mental processes that unconsciously create runaway states of the mind. This is easier said than done, so Yoga defines contemplative practices to achieve it. Contemplation is thus the method to achieve the nirodha of the vṛtis of the citta.
Contemplation in Yoga practice
This is the singular point of Yoga: one must use the body and mind as tools to filter out they themselves generate. The Yogic approach to contemplation starts with bounding thought to only one subject. This is called dhāraṇā by Mahariṣhi Patañjali. The next step is to only think only about this subject. This is called dhyāna. When the mind wanders to other thoughts, it is redirected to the subject. Eventually, the wanderings dissipate and focus is held steady. At this point, called samādhi, both the observer and the observed disappear and only the Self remains as pure awareness.
pratyāhārān mānasaṁ nirvikāraṁ|
citte dhairyaṁ yogino dhāraṇābhiḥ||
Withdrawal from the senses renders the mind free from disturbances. A yogin gains stability of mind through practice of dhāraṇā (contemplation).
Mahariṣhi Patañjali actually describes three definite stages of samādhi–sabījasamādhi, nirbījasamādhi, and dharmameghasamādhi. The self shines in its own nature of pure awareness in the state of dharmameghasamādhi.
It is in this quieted state of samādhi that signals from the Self powerfully modify the mind and body of the practitioner, and good health becomes just one of many natural benefits.
Contemplation is the heart of all Indic traditions
Contemplation is actually a core principle and core practice of all Indic traditions; all these ask one to focus inward and use one's own subjective experience as a tool toward knowledge. Indic traditions developed many ways to quiet the mind and focus attention: their greatest achievement is the systematization of this knowledge and techniques making predictable and repeatable results possible.
Contemplation in Vedānta
Vedānta defines a different approach: listening, contemplating, and finally living the truth. Vedānta refers to this as śravaṇa, manana, and nididhyāsana:
śravaṇa: Hearing– focusing intentlymanana: Contemplation– thinking carefullynididhyāsana: Living the truth– in both word and deed.
ātmā vā are draṣṭavyaḥ śrotavyo mantavyo nididhyāsitavyaḥ
The Self is to be heard, it is to be contemplated upon and it is to be lived.
-Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad 2.4.5, 4.5.6
Contemplation through mantra
Mantra recitation is the rhythmic chanting of verses or of sounds. Because there is a meter to such mantras, breathing is rhythmically regulated– this quiets the mind and focuses it with lesser effort.
Contemplation through tantra
Tantra means systematic theory, practice, and application of a subject. It encompasses practical aspects such as instrumentation, application, and so on–much like engineering disciplines. The Vijñānabhairavatantra lists one hundred and twelve ways of contemplation–too many to list in the space available here. Tantra asserts that the link between the body, mind, and awareness is breath–prāṇa, which directly evolves from consciousness and is described as the medium for the awakening and ascent of consciousness.
Contemplation through music and dance
Music (rāga) and dance (nṛya) both enable the mind to focus single mindedly and are considered forms of contemplation in Indic traditions.
Indic traditions achieve good health by quieting sensory noise and letting the Self take control and contemplation is the universal method for this.
Contemplation refers to mental techniques by which one can filter out sensory and perceptual noise, allowing the primary controller–the Self–to emanate. This changes the state of mind and body making good health an inevitable consequence. Yoga goes far beyond this, however, with greater potential benefits.
Further, Indic traditions provide multiple methods of contemplation, each of which is systematically defined and documented, enabling definite and measured progress. Indic traditions assert that all methods lead to the same ultimate reality, so which one to pursue is a matter of personal choice.
ekaṁ sat viprā bahudhā vadanti
There is one reality; the wise speak of it in different ways.
- Ṛgveda 1.164.46
Svāsthya, the Sanskrit term for health, is made up of sva (self) and āstha (abiding). Thus, etymologically svāsthya means “Self-Abiding.” When the noise of the body and mind is quieted, one abides in the Self and remains in a state of good health.
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Conflicts of interest
There are no conflicts of interest.
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