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The Effects of Meditation on Anxiety

Rodrigo Esponda

Rodrigo Esponda is a clinical/experimental Transpersonal Psychologist, a member of the Rein Center of Parapsychology Investigation of the University of Diego Portales in Chile. He has practiced martial arts for over 15 years, is a meditation student and a sporadic television actor.

     Contemplative philosophies have been developed in the Orient over a period of more than three thousand years. In the occidental world we have just become acquainted with these philosophies in the middle decades of the past century. Since then, the understanding and the acceptance of these practices by the scientific community has not been easy. Nonetheless, apart from judgments and diagnostics, the essence of the practice of meditation – something that we can describe as the "experience of being" – has created an increasing interest, not only in the scientific community but also among ordinary people.
     It is no secret that people who live in advanced societies are passing through a real time of crisis – a crisis based in having everything and nothing at the same time, the crisis of living with symbols that no longer represent essential values, external values that tend towards alienation.
     Paradoxically, on the other hand, this crisis offers the opportunity to create a new perspective of life, one that is more expansive and integrated.
     So, a remarkable interest has arisen among people in returning to pure experiences as a way to defeat alienation. This growing interest, associated with some recent discoveries in certain scientific areas (physics, neurobiology and psychology), has threatened the stronghold of the classic scientific view, and so made the realization of new realities possible. It is in this regard that, in my opinion, integrating meditation has a leading role. Meditation could be used as a tool to overcome this crisis and suppport efforts to discover a new and healthier paradigm of reality.

     When we talk about meditation in the occidental world, is very usual for most people to include its practice among the practices of physical or mental activities which are goal oriented. By "goal-orientation" we understand the mental stance of having a clear and defined objective, this attitude being applied to most of the activities in our daily life. This common perspective in the West perceives meditation only as an instrument to decrease anxiety, fight stress, control physiological estates, or maybe just to get better sleep. But meditation moves much deeper, transcending goals and aims and, more specifically, transcending duality.
     When we review the different traditional meditation techniques, we may become aware that all of them finally lead to the experience of transcendence through one way or another. This transcendence – which comes with the disidentification of the mind and its dual perspective of reality, like past and future, good and bad, here and there, etc.– doesn't mean the suppression or elimination of the dual perspective, but its integration into a bigger and deeper expression of ourselves. It is an integration that instantaneously takes us back to the present moment; to the actual experience of being.
     If we try to explain the process of meditation from the intellectual point of view, it will lead us inevitably to a paradox: i.e. the more we try to accomplish an objective through meditation, the more removed we will be from its core. "Trying" is a dualization of the present moment (I don't have something now, but I will have it in the future). It is through the opposite movement – the surrendering to or the embracing of the present moment – that we penetrate directly into the heart of meditation. This demonstrates once again that meditation moves us one step higher, wider, deeper, etc. from the classical dual point of view.
     Following this idea, it is important to notice that if dual perspective is applied to all of our experience; it ends up in creating a dissociated reality. This reality, or fragmented point of view, is the structural pillar of most of the common problems of our industrialized societies. In essence this would be the root of most of the states of physical and mental imbalance.
     Nonetheless, the integration of the practice of meditation in our society initially depends on it being accepted on the mental level.
     As a way to contribute to this goal, I worked on the evaluation of possible changes to levels of anxiety in a group of students participating in a meditation workshop. The results, once the study is finished, could be interesting for the scientific community. It may also create a platform of action in order to integrate the practice of meditation in different institutions.

     The research was done with students in the first year course of Psychology, at the Diego Portales University, located in Santiago de Chile. The members of the group were selected for various reasons. First, the career of psychologist demands a lot of self-knowledge because one needs to be able to interact healthily. Contrary to this, the student of psychology is educated mainly through a theoretical learning mode and an intellectual approach; meanwhile the experiential area (which primarily uses the body as the instrument to learn about oneself) has been set aside. Besides this, students are exposed to the accelerated and competitive rhythm that exists in the field of Chilean universities.
     Apart from these general reasons – or maybe I should say along with it, two students from the Psychology Department, where the workshop was held, committed suicide in the three years prior to this study. They left notes stating that their act was motivated in part by academic difficulties. This fact corroborates the premise about the urgent need for new experiential spaces as a way to face such tragic incidents and to avoid them in the future.
     To evaluate the effect of the workshops on the participants' anxiety, the anxiety scale of Miguel Tobal (ISRA) was applied before and after the workshop, and the results compared with a control group, which didn't participate in the workshop. The main reason for using the ISRA test was because it evaluates anxiety in the three different areas of manifestation: cognitive, physiological and motor. This makes possible a more detailed analysis of the results.
     Considering the characteristics of the group (age, degree of activity, etc.), the duration of each session and the length of the course, the type of meditations selected were those belonging to the Active Meditations of Osho. These are: Dynamic meditation, Kundalini, Let Go, Gibberish, Nataraj, The Mystic Rose and the Golden Light meditation.
     The main reason for selecting the active meditations was the strong presence of expressive activity and physical movement (hence name "active"), compared to the passive or contemplative polarity, common in almost all of the traditional techniques. The lucid way through which this technique develops would give more flexibility to the group and its practice. It would also provide greater motivation, allowing the students to reach deeper experiences in a shorter time.
     Beside this, Osho`s Active Meditations have been specially formulated for people with an occidental view of the world – allowing a faster adaptation to the process of meditation without harming its core essence.

     The workshop was divided into ten sessions of approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes each, once a week. Twenty-seven first-year psychology students, mainly women, participated. The instructor who guided the group through the workshop was Alejandro Boric. He is a professor in the clinical area of the humanistic and transpersonal orientation and has a wide experience of and instruction in meditation techniques in places like India, Holland and Italy. He has been a disciple of Osho in the Osho Meditation Resort.
     Once the workshop finished and after the second application of the ISRA test, the information was gathered for analysis. I studied both the quantitative data from the tests analyzed, and the records of the sessions, as they could have important qualitative information.
     The quantitative data allowed me to conclude that those participants who attended the sessions regularly (more than the 50%), experienced a significant drop in anxiety at the cognitive level. This was followed by a minor but noticeable decrease in the physiological anxiety, although this last could be attributed to other factors.
     These results, aside from corroborating the findings of other studies, proves empirically that a short workshop of meditation, and more specifically of Active Meditations of Osho, will affect and considerably diminish the anxiety of the participant mainly on a cognitive level. Unfortunately, the low number of men that participated in the research in comparison to the number of woman did not permit any conclusion regarding sex differences. This issue would make a very interesting focus for future research on meditation in order to elicit possible gender differences.
     The qualitative information gathered showed that in the initial sessions the participants were very shy, not only during the meditation exercises, but also in the final part of each session, where they had time for sharing experiences, doubts or comments.
     However, in the later sessions, body movements and dancing were much more expressive, the variable evaluated through the use of physical space of the room and the fluidity of the movements according to a personal parameter.
     Verbal interaction at the end of the sessions increased in most of the cases, but not in all of them, and some participants remained with an unchanged attitude of listening and not verbally sharing their experiences.
     Besides these general qualitative changes, individual processes of questioning vital matters and profound insights appeared in many participants. In some cases even unconsciousness material that had been repressed for a long time came out through the sessions.
     Experiences of a transpersonal nature, such as transcending the limits of the body or receiving profoundly wise messages or answers, were identified too. In one particular case, of which we know because the student told us privately, through a certain, intense state of meditation she was able to communicate with and feel close to a dead relative. This event was deeply healing for her.
     It is important to note that, independent of how subjective and questionable these transpersonal experiences may be, the profound effect that they have on the individual is irrefutable.
     In general, it was very common to hear comments which pointed to an unattached perception of daily problems, including those related with student stress factors – such as examinations, lack of personal time, etc. Furthermore, participants shared the common experience of walking out of each workshop with a greater sensation of relaxation, which positively influenced their perceptions for a short period of time. These seem to be the clear effects of a slight expansion of consciousness and a transcendence of the ordinary comprehension of the world.

     In my opinion it can be concluded that the workshop's results were very positive. Not only had anxiety at a cognitive level had diminished, but also most of the students showed a great interest in their experiences. In most of the cases they were surprised by how such simple techniques could elicit such deep experiences. As a matter of fact, once the workshop was finished, a common question asked by the participants was if the workshop would continue.
     Unfortunately, the constant practice of meditation is needed to ground the positive effects experienced. If this does not occur, the accelerated rhythm of life will gradually dissolve them. If the opposite is done and the practice continues, it will not only guide us to deeper experiences but it will also make its positive side effects last longer. In this regard, varieties of questions surfaced and remained, for example: If consistently practiced, would meditation indirectly affect the academic qualifications of a student? Would gender have any relation in the effects of a meditation workshop?
     These questions and others provide a starting point for future investigations concerning this matter. This will help not only the understanding of the meditation method itself but also help in its integration into our society. In this sense meditation, independent of our intellectual comprehension, has proven always (except in some specific cases such as psychotic pathologies) to be of great help in our healthier psychological evolution.

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