Ayurvedic Guide to Mindfulness and Meditation

The mind is the most complex and a controversial organ for scientists from beginning of time. The features and definitions of this organ have been debated for centuries. Despite this, the importance of the mind is undeniable. Mind is defined in the English dictionary as “the part of a person that thinks, reasons, feels and remembers.” But, is the mind physical organ or energetic? Does consciousness come from mind or does it empower the mind?

In this article, we will discuss the Ayurvedic Model of the mind and its application in modern clinical terms. 

Origin of Mind:

Vedic philosophy has described the origin of the mind as part of the origin of the Universe. Therefore, the mind is intricately interactive with the Universe. It is capable of accessing the subtle energies and intelligence that permeates throughout of Universe. So, to understand the origin of the mind let us review the Vedic origin story.

The adjacent figure outlines the Samkhya philosophy of Universal manifestation that was first realized by Sage-scientists, Rishi Kapila. It describes the origin of the Universe as the union of the Masculine (Purusha) and Feminine (Prakriti) to give birth to Universal Consiousness, called Mahad.

As we observe the Universe through the eyes of modern sciences like physics, chemistry, etc., we realize that all of the material Universe is governed by Natural energetic laws. These laws are considered evidence of an underlying scientific consciousness that can be observed and interpreted by the human mind. So, Mahad is described as the pure consciousness that expresses itself through the Universe.

Mahad evolves through the filter of individuality or ego, called Ahamkar. Mahad is differentiated into three qualities (Guna) of consciousness:1 

  1. Sattva – Purity, clarity, wisdom, faith,  insight, love, compassion, serenity, etc.
  2. Rajas – actions, emotions, motivation, passion, egoism, restlessness, etc.
  3. Tamas – rigidity, inertia, obstruction, laziness, ignorance, confusion, etc.

The Mahad, Universal Conciousness, is the basis of all sciences and functions of the Universe. Human lives and all activity on Earth is also subject to expression of Mahad. The mind is the means for this expression.

According the Samkhya, Sattva (purity, clarity, wisdom, faith, etc.) gives birth to the sensory organs and the motor organs, as well as the mind. Relative to physical organs and their functions, the mind is described as the “Sarv-endriya-para” or the master of all indriyas (sensory and motor organs).2 The Sattvic origin of the mind indicates that a healthy and optimally functioning mind expresses the qualities of Sattva – clarity, wisdom, insight, faith, etc. On the other hand, the mind is adversely affected by aggravation of Rajas – attachment, passion, etc. or aggravation of Tamas – ignorance, inertia, etc. 

Ayurveda prescribes many practices and therapies to shift the activity of mind towards Sattva. One of the most fundamental of these practices can be described through the lens of the science of Mindfulness…

One Mind:

Nature of the mind, as it is described in Ayurveda, gives us the basis of the science of meditative mindfulness. 

We understand that the mind is affected by three qualities (gunas) of consciousness: Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas. Ayurveda goes on to describe the qualities of the Mind, itself. 

Two qualities of the Mind:

  1. Ekatva: meaning “Mind is One” 
  2. Anutva: meaning “Mind is Subtle”

Ekatva indicates the singularity of the mind. Sage Charaka describes that because of this singularity, the mind is limited to attaching to one object (Sensory or Motor) at a time. Though it may seem like we are multi-tasking, it is the ultra-fast activity of the brain allows the mind to move from one object-to-next. Ekatva guna (quality) implies that the mind works best when it is present. Therefore, presence of mind must be cultivated.

Anutva compares the mind to subtlety and minuteness of an atom… The atom-like minuteness denotes the ability of the mind to observe the minutest details. Simply put, when we are focused on one object, mind naturally begins observing and unpacking the information about that object in a very subtle manner. With prolonged focus, mind can become completely absorbed into this object. For example, one may become absorbed in a hobby or work, while losing track of their surrounding. 

Anutva also implies the mind’s capacity to visualize and take mental journeys. One of the definitions of Mind in Ayurveda is “that which can visit a far-away land through imagination”.3 Imagination and visualization have been demonstrated as having positive effects on life-planning and attaining life-goals,5 as well as manifesting health benefits.6 Anutva, the observant and penetrative capacity of mind can be enhanced in combination with Ekatva, unbroken focus or concentration. 

Thus, Meditation is an essential part of restoring the mind and optimizing its activity.

Meditation and Mindfulness:

The concepts of Ekatva (singularity) and Anutva (minuteness) are observed and studied through the clinical research and practice of Mindfulness. The concept of Ekatva can be translated as being present, focused on one object, thought, or action. The concept of Anutva can be translated as inference that leads to awareness and insight. Therefore, acting in “present moment awareness” is considered the optimal functional state of the mind. 

The practice of mindfulness in life and in meditation helps to strengthen the mind’s activity within the confines of present moment awareness. Starting with the most basic levels, mindfulness practice shows benefit of strengthening all neurological subsystems that promote attention.7 Subjects experienced in meditation and those who are new to mindfulness practice were observed in this study. All those practicing mindfulness showed improvement in attentional tasks, indicating that practice of such mindful awareness “alters functioning of the dorsal attention system to improve voluntary response and input-level selection processes.” In other words, it improves impulse control, processing and decision-making. Additionally, people who were experienced had greater focus and more pronounced change in brain activity. 

This experiment highlights two important factors: 

  1. Conscious and intentional practice of mindfulness provides attentional benefits to both new and old practitioners… More importantly, directing consciousness towards practice of mindfulness has profound impact on how the brain functions. 
    • This demonstrates capacity of consciousness to change material/neurological activity.
  2. With practice, mindful awareness continues to grow and become more natural to the individual.

Mindfulness has also been applied to demonstrate many psychological and physical benefits. Here is a short list of those effects:

Anxiety and Depression

  • Mindfulness practice supports better awareness of mental and emotional triggers to help prevent recurrence of Anxiety and Depression.8
  • Mindfulness-based attention promotes better monitoring of negative-affect and helps to prevent onset of depression in adults.9

Health benefits of Stress reduction10:

  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction appears to relieve or prevent the adverse effects of emotional disturbance and promote better coping strategies, as well as improve resilience.
  • With regards to physical health such awareness supports “physical well-being, such as medical symptoms, sensory pain, physical impairment, and functional quality-of-life.”

Benefits for children:

  • Among children with ADHD, mindfulness promotes impulse-control, increases self-directed action, as well as improves capacity to “self-transcend” – the awareness of being part of something greater than one-self.11
  • Among low-income, inner city children (age 9-13) mindfulness-based attention promoted improved social-and-economic resilience. Children also had improved management of attention and were less susceptible to negative affect caused by mental and emotional distress.12
  • Mindfulness training improved executive function in 7-9yo children. Overall improvement in attention and capacity to shift focus from one task to next.13

Executive function:

  • Definition: This refers to certain functions of the mind that are essential for working, learning, and growing. These include working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving as well as planning and execution.
  • Self-monitoring, which is inherent to mindfulness, promotes fewer errors while performing tasks, better problem solving, less error-related negativity, and more emotional acceptance. Meaning mindfulness fostered better resilience to such challenges and more compassion toward self.14
  • People practicing mindful presence have better autobiographical memory, which contributes to learning and recall. They are more capable of mental flexibility and emotional control, which contributes to adaptive behavior and conflict prevention.15

Conflict resolution:

  • Practice of Mindfulness and Mindfulness meditation has been offered as a foundational practice for conflict resolution for law students, lawyers and mediator.16 It serves as an important tool to stimulated self-analysis, reflection, and compassion.
  • Self-compassion is an important link for mindfulness-happiness relationship. Among non-meditating population, mindfulness co-related to improved happiness through the cultivation of self-compassion.17 Result was better capacity “to recognize, manage, and resolve day-to-day problems, which promote a healthy mind.”
  • Neuroimaging literature indicates that mindfulness practice activates similar neurophysiological processes as a “felt sense of compassion”.18 Thus, indicating a physiological and functional relationship between the practice of mindfulness and compassion.

All of these, and scores of other studies make a compelling case for applicability of mindfulness in daily living. In Ayurvedic terms, these studies also indicate that when mind functions within the confines of Ekatva (presence) and Anutva (awareness), it naturally moves towards the Sattva quality of conciousness —  expressing purity, clarity, wisdom, faith, insight, love, compassion, serenity, etc.

Ayurvedic Support of Mindfulness:

Meditation:

Practice 20 mins every day 

  • Start by focusing on your breath; Inhalation and exhalation. 
  • with a soft focus on your breath, find a quiet space within you.
  • Become fully present and aware of your breath within the silence.
  • When your mind goes after a thought; notice that you have strayed from silence; then come back to silence.

Herbal Support:

Bacopa monnieri, also called Brahmi, is a name synonymous with cognitive support in Ayurvedic medicine. It is traditionally regarded as one of the most useful medhya rasayana, rejuvenators of the mind. It is given to young and old equally because it is non-toxic and wonderfully effective in promoting development and regeneration. In a clinical study on healthy elderly individuals; with average age of 62, Brahmi was given for 12 weeks and compared to effect of placebo.19 Group receiving Brahmi had significant improvement in attention, cognitive processing, and working memory. In a broader study of all randomized control trials on Bacopa, it was found that the herb can improve all parameters of the analytical frontal lobe of the brain20 – improvement was seen in 1) remembering number and picture, 2) 3D spatial orientation, 3) learning, 4) attention and concentration, 5) recall and memory, 6) decision making and more. 

Bacopa has very unique and powerful healing effects on the brain. Review of laboratory experiments on nootropic activity of Brahmi confirm that administration can help in development, growth, and regeneration of neurons.21 In these studies, the number dendritic extentions for a neuron treated with Bacopa increased in dose dependent manner; they were observed to be more than double in some cases. Thus, Bacopa may also improve interconnectivity of the brain – making it more resilient to degeneration.

References:

Narayanan J and Krishnan VR. Impact of Sattva and Rajas Gunas on Transformational Leadership and Karma Yoga. Journal of Indian Psychology 07/2003; Vol. 21(2), Pg. 1-11.

Yadaw BP and Awasthi HH. Concept of Manas and Manas-vikar with Special Reference to Hridaya. International Journal of Ayurveda, March 2015; Vol. 3 (3). 

Ranade S and Ranade S. Kayachikitsa, Vol. 3. 1st ed., Chaukhamba Sanskrit Pratishthan, Delhi, 2003.

 Charak Samhita, Sarirasthana, Chapter 1, verse 19.

King LA. The Health Benefits of Writing About Life Goals. PSPB, July 2001; Vol. 27(7), Pg. 798-807.

Chiesa A. Vipassana meditation: systematic review of current evidence. J Altern Complement Med. 2010 Jan;16(1): Pg. 37-46.

Jha AP, et al. Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience. 2007; Vol. 7 (2),Pg. 109-119.

Zvolensky MJ, et al. Incremental Validity of Mindfulness-Based Attention in Relation to the Concurrent Prediction of Anxiety and Depressive Symptomatology and Perceptions of Health. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Vol 35, No 3, pp. 148–158, 2006.

Gilbert BD and Christopher MS. Mindfulness-Based Attention as a Moderator of the Relationship Between Depressive Affect and Negative Cognitions. Cogn Ther Res; DOI 10.1007/s10608-009-9282-6.

Grossman P, et al. Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research (2004), Vol. 57, Pg. 35 – 43.

Smalley SL, et al. Mindfulness and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. J Clin Psychol. 2009 October ; 65(10): 1087–1098.

Semple RJ, et al. A Randomized Trial of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Children: Promoting Mindful Attention to Enhance Social-Emotional Resiliency in Children. J Child Fam Stud (2010); Vol. 19, Pg. 218–229.  

Diamond A and Kathleen L. Interventions shown to Aid Executive Function Development in Children 4–12 Years Old. Science. 2011 August 19; 333(6045): 959–964.

Teper R and Inzlicht M. Meditation, mindfulness and executive control: the importance of emotional acceptance and brain-based performance monitoring. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci (2013); Vol. 8(1): Pg. 85-92.

Heeren A, et al. The effects of mindfulness on executive processes and autobiographical memory specificity. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 2009; Vol. 47, Pg. 403–409.

Riskin LL. Mindfulness: Foundational Training For Dispute Resolution. Journal of Legal Education, March 2004; Vol. 54(1).

Hollis-Walker L and Colosimo K. Mindfulness, self-compassion, and happiness in non-meditators: A theoretical and empirical examination. Personality and Individual Differences, 2007; Vol. 50, Pg. 222–227.

Dennis D. Tirch (2010). Mindfulness as a Context for the Cultivation of Compassion. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy: Vol. 3, Special Section: Compassion Focused Therapy, pp. 113-123.

Peth-Nui T, et al. “Effectsof12-Week Bacopa monnieri Consumption on Attention, Cognitive Processing, Working Memory, and  Functions of Both Cholinergic and Monoaminergic Systems in Healthy Elderly Volunteers.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine; Volume 2012, Article ID 606424, 10 pages.

Kongkeaw, C., et al., Meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials on cognitive effects of Bacopa monnieri extract. Journal of Ethnopharmacology (2013).

Aguiar S and Borowski T. “Neuropharmacological review of the nootropic herb Bacopa monnieri.” Rejuvenation Res. 2013 Aug;16(4):313-26.