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Music and the Meditative Mind: Toward a Science of the Ineffable

Abstract and Keywords

Mystics for millennia have used the power of music in healing the body, mind, and soul. Likewise, music is a tool that has been used by a myriad of cultures throughout history to facilitate altered states of awareness. The coming together of diverse voices in the research and practice of the healing arts has reached a new stage of development. In modern academia, the investigation of indigenous and traditional musical healing practices has primarily been found in the fields of ethnomusicology and anthropology, but recently, researchers and practitioners in the health sciences have begun to turn their attention toward an awareness of these practices and the investigation of their potential health benefits. This article draws upon many of these diverse voices to show the links between disciplines and theories, ancient and contemporary practices, and new directions for research and practice that emerge from the interaction of these voices.

Keywords: research, musical healing, ethnomusicology, anthropology, health sciences

  • The truth must dazzle gradually
  • Or every man be blind.
  • —Emily Dickinson


As this volume demonstrates, the coming together of diverse voices in the research and practice of the healing arts has reached a new stage of development. In modern academia, the investigation of indigenous and traditional musical healing practices has primarily been found in the fields of ethnomusicology and anthropology, but recently, researchers and practitioners in the health sciences have begun to turn their attention toward an awareness of these practices and the investigation of their potential health benefits. This chapter draws upon many of these diverse voices to show the links between disciplines and theories, ancient and contemporary practices, and new directions for research and practice that emerge from the interaction of these voices.

(p. 309) Introduction

Mystics for millennia have used the power of music in healing the body, mind, and soul. Likewise, music is a tool that has been used by a myriad of cultures throughout history to facilitate altered states of awareness. In the mountains of Tibet, the ancient art of playing exquisitely crafted metal alloy bowls, popularly known as “singing bowls,” has been used by healers to invite the mind and body into a tranquil state of being in which remarkable healings can occur, events that are unexplainable from a conventional biomedical perspective. In the Amazonian rain forest, Peruvian shamans steeped in traditions that are centuries old play and sing magic melodies or icaros, melodically and tonally designed to alter the visions experienced by those whom they guide on mystical journeys with sacred plants believed to provide insight into supernatural dimensions. The complex raga system of music across traditions in India, designed in part to evoke the essence of a spectrum of emotions, specific times of the day, and seasons, has been used to align the body and mind with the biorhythms of the earth itself. Widely accepted trust in the healing potential of such musical “interventions” has been born out of centuries of sacred musical practice worldwide. What does conventional biomedical practice have to learn from these ancient wisdoms?

In recent decades, with the beginning of a slow erosion of Cartesian mind-body dualism from the theories and practice of medicine, questions about cross-cultural dimensions of healing have drifted to the surface of the investigations of biomedical science. Newtonian models of mechanistic causation, upon which the conventional biomedical model is based, have proved inadequate to explain such phenomena as spontaneous cures or recalcitrant illness despite the application of well-proven and appropriate medical therapies. Treatment of chronic disease, in particular, remains a thorny dilemma, for most treatment strategies do little more than stave off inevitable progression and offer virtually no hope of reversal or cure. Gradually, a new medical paradigm is being called forth. This new approach is rooted more soundly in quantum physics, in which a complex interaction of variables defines the probabilistic paradigm, a core concept proposed in a groundbreaking treatise on medial decision making, Medical Choices, Medical Chances (Bursztajn et al. 1981). Extrapolating from core concepts of modern physics, the authors examine the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, in which the motion of a subatomic particle cannot be predicted because of the influence of the observer on the particle's behavior. If we apply these principles to the human organism, medicine can come to be understood as an endeavor of principled gambling in which the beliefs of its practitioners, the beliefs upon which the system itself is based, influence the outcomes of health and disease in those it serves. Our collective values and our modes of inquiry in part drive the data we obtain and, furthermore, define the very questions we are willing to ask. This is the basis for all scientific paradigms (Kuhn 1996).

Gradually, the scientific medical community is asking a broader range of questions about how human beings heal. More and more people are turning to complementary (p. 310) and alternative medicine (CAM) healing practices—an estimated 72 million adults annually (Tindle et al. 2005—and education about these modalities is becoming more prominent in American medical schools; for instance, 64 percent offered CAM courses as of 1998 (Wetzel et al. 1998). Most recently, in 2007, a federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) grant has been awarded in Tallahassee, Florida, for a three-year training program for family medicine residents in mind-body medicine and the spiritual aspects of health. Using a team approach, we are implementing a curriculum that involves physicians, psychologists, pastoral care staff, medical ethnomusicologists, and musicians to educate young doctors in a more holistic view of healing and prevention, particularly in the setting of chronic disease. Family doctors are learning to integrate a wide array of self-regulatory practices, such as meditation, guided imagery, music interventions, and cognitive behavioral therapy, into their day-to-day office visits with patients. The drive to understand the efficacy and potency of such practices is dramatically increasing.

One mode of inquiry is the attempt to examine the underlying animating life force that drives health and well-being. The intrinsic nature and attunement of this force form the ground out of which healing in many ancient indigenous traditions is thought to occur. This vital force, exemplified by the natural tendency of a wound to heal, brings order to living systems and fuels the capacity for the human organism to rebuild and repair itself when it is stressed by disease or injury. This animating force is constantly called into play in the dynamism of the human body/mind, modulating the rhythmic release of neurotransmitters and the complex feedback loops that drive the endocrine system and our body's rich network of cellular and humoral immune mediators and blockers. In the practice of homeopathic medicine (see the chapter by Sankaran in this volume), this healing force is postulated to underlie all movement toward homeostasis of the human organism. Investigation of the nature of a human “vital force” has never been central to the purview of a Newtonian-based dualistic orientation. Inclusion of such “subjective” or soft phenomena has not been considered reasonable medical science. In the parlance of Kuhn, the paradigm of medicine has not perceived the question as a valid one. If such an inquiry is valid, is this vital force examinable through the scientific method?

In addition, as we learn from new physics, all life is vibrational. If medicine is to advance in its understanding of how vibration impacts well-being, scientific inquiry regarding biological systems must expand into the realms of special relativity, the subtle and potent qualities of electromagnetism, and the existence of dimensions beyond those that the untrained mind can readily perceive (Wilber 2000). If we begin to view all life as rhythmic and our bodies as an orchestra of vibration, how does this alter the questions that we ask about the crucial driving factors in the maintenance of health and the generation of disease? What forces might fine-tune an underlying vibration of well-being or bring a deleterious vibrational dissonance to the human organism, body, mind, and soul? What role do emotion, consciousness, and external stimuli play in subtly or grossly influencing this dynamic vital force?

(p. 311) The Psychophysiology of Stillness

Insights into these questions can be found in an extensive body of literature that examines the health benefits of meditation. Although early investigations of the psychological antecedents of health focused more on the deleterious effects of negative emotional states, more recent research has investigated many dimensions of the impact of positive emotional states mediated through meditative consciousness (Chesney et al. 2005). Thousands of citations in the medical literature address the link between consciousness, self-regulatory techniques, and health. In other words, quietude of the mind is highly correlated with healing as manifest in the body. Many excellent reviews have been generated that cull this body of evidence (e.g., Anderson 1987; Murphy and Donovan 1997). These benefits of the meditative state include an increase in the following physical parameters: pain tolerance, immune response, muscle relaxation, intestinal function, and reaction time. Relaxing meditative states have been reported to decrease heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, epinephrine, cortisol, and cholesterol; and meditative states are highly correlated with the altering of brain-wave patterns as measured by electroencephalograms (EEGs) (discussed later). The psychological and behavior benefits of the meditative state are legion and include enhanced perceptual abilities, creativity, empathy, concentration, and self-actualization. Reproducible decreases in anxiety, depression, addictive cravings, and substance abuse have been well documented. Disease states in which benefits are reported from meditation include hypertension, asthma, tension and migraine headaches, seizures, ulcers, allergies, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (Anderson 1987; Murphy and Donovan 1997).

Reports of experiences that are less easily categorized and are perhaps best ascribed to the realm of the spiritual are the following: enhanced feelings of equanimity and detachment; increased number, clearness, and coherence of dreams; increased joy and blissful states; bursts of creativity; and development of extrasensory or paranormal perceptions. It should be noted that during meditation, practitioners have reported a curious experience of synesthesia, a cross-sensory modality wherein a sensory stimulus is perceived as if through a different sense. For example, in synesthesia, a smell might be perceived visually, or a sound might be perceived as an odor. Finally, enhanced physical, emotional, and spiritual vitality is reported in long-term meditators (Walsh 2005).

The body of literature referenced here includes studies of many varieties of meditation. Although much of the research has examined the benefits of Transcendental Meditation (TM), popularized in the United States in the 1970s, these studies also incorporate data on Zen Buddhists practicing zazen (sitting meditation) or vipassana (mindfulness meditation), on yogic savassana (supine meditation), tai chi (considered to be a moving meditation), and other forms, including the deeply trained states of consciousness achieved by yogi masters. The beneficial trends that appear throughout a wide body of research support the finding that bringing stillness to one's life enhances health.

(p. 312) The term meditative mind has often been used to describe both general and specific states of one's mind during meditative practice. For the purposes of this chapter, the term will be used to refer to the general state of stillness commonly experienced by those who practice a variety of meditative styles. Meditative mind can be described as a state of calm awareness with beneficial physical, emotional, and spiritual effects, a natural state of blissful stillness and expanded possibility.

An intriguing and often-reported phenomenon that arises from meditative mind is that of ineffability, a quality of experience that cannot be described in words. The character of some dimensions of meditative consciousness, such as the previously described synesthesia, spiritual visions or a sense of visitation by divine forces, loss of a felt sense of being bound by linear time, expanding beyond the physical body, and transcendence of ego, defies apt description (see also Koen 2007). Many of these qualities, which are linked to many of the same benefits, have been correlated with musical practices and rituals the world over and have formed a thread of ethnomusicological inquiry over the past century. In approaching that ineffable state, Koen emphasizes the “spiritual aesthetic” in devotional music that is central across diverse cultures:

The aesthetic quality of devotional music can be viewed as being dependent upon its ability to create a rarified, altered state of consciousness in performers and listeners—whether it is a prayerful, meditative, trance, trance-like, or ecstatic state. Within a newly created consciousness, devotional music facilitates experience beyond the liminal threshold of the physical world. Such experience is directed toward what is often described as unknowable, spiritual, sublime, supernatural, the Divine—expressed in diverse terms across cultures, yet with universal underpinnings.

(Koen 2003, 77).

The therapeutic use of music is a time-honored modality in Eastern spiritual practices, world religions, and scores of indigenous societies. For example, it is well known that Christian traditions are rich in a musical history of hymns, gospel songs, spirituals, and other sacred songs that invite the listener into mystical realms of experience. Although states of joy, relaxation, and transcendence are commonly experienced through music of many varieties, scientific support for the mind-altering qualities of music is limited. A study that looked at the effects of music on mood, tension, and mental clarity showed that certain types of “designer music,” music created to generate a specific effect in the listener, demonstrated positive effects on relaxation, mental clarity, and vigor, as well as several health-enhancing physiological changes (McCraty et al. 1998). Describing ecstatic experiences during musical perception, Critchley and Henson elaborate on mystical joy experienced through music as likened to cosmic consciousness. In a further examination of the neurology of the musical experience, they explore the not uncommon phenomenon of synesthesias stimulated, not by meditation, but by musical perception (Critchley and Henson 1977).

If we assume that music does have the potential to generate a state of mystical or meditative consciousness, what are the mechanisms through which these effects are mediated? With the loosening of the mechanistic model that isolates the functioning (p. 313) of the mind from the body, how can we begin to understand a holistic view of the mind-altering qualities of music, modulating measurable effects on the “body/mind” as an irreducible system? What is to be learned from the writings about extraordinary healings reported from centuries of indigenous musical and spiritual practices? How can this knowledge and these practices be integrated into current developments in the health sciences?

Theorists of the Unexplainable

In examining the therapeutic benefits of mystical states, it is helpful to look at the work of theorists who have attempted to examine the ground from which the “ineffable” arises. To what degree is the ineffable irreducibly unexaminable by the scientific method? To what degree is it, in part, an experience whose psychophysiological underpinnings we have yet to examine through the correct lens?

Reinventing Medicine, Dossey (1999)

Dr. Larry Dossey has written extensively about the shifting of the paradigm of contemporary medicine. In has postulated a schematic for distinctive eras of contemporary Western medicine. Era I, which arose in the mid-1800s, was founded upon a purely mechanistic view of the body as a mindless machine in which simple and direct cause-and-effect manipulations were the basis for medical practice. By the mid-1900s, we see the advent of Era II medicine, with the infusion of the understanding that the mind and emotions interact with the physical substrate of the body. Era II encompassed the rise of mind-body medicine, where the influence of “mind” acts as a healing factor within a single person. Further citing such phenomena as the healing power of prayer, Dossey postulates the necessity for a new model of medicine that offers a theoretical framework that informs our understanding of anomalous healing events. Era III he terms “Non-Local Medicine.” Based on the activity of “nonlocal mind,” healing is mitigated through the mind, not simply within a single individual, but between individuals. In this model, healing at a distance is possible, modulated through consciousness. Consciousness is then viewed as an ordering principle that can deliver information into disordered or random systems and can generate a state of higher order in those systems. This model cannot be bound or explained by classical concepts of space and time or matter and energy. Era III is, simply speaking, a quantum physics model of medicine.

As Kuhn describes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, such paradigm shifts by their very nature undermine the accepted worldview. Thus they are not easily or smoothly integrated into dominant belief systems. The theory of Era III medicine has met with resistance in the conventional medical and scientific community. But professional resistance not withstanding, this conceptualization of nonlocal healing resonates with concepts of new physics and with the ideas of other (p. 314) theorists who are working to construct a more global, perhaps more spiritual, model of reality. Moreover, this notion is congruent with the vast ethnomusicological and anthropological literature that explores traditional practices and systems of healing that act nonlocally.

Sheldrake (1985)

Raising crucial questions about the incomplete framework of the laws of orthodox science, research biologist and biochemist Rupert calls for a somewhat radical but methodologically rigorous paradigm shift in how we view the way in which the world works. Sheldrake examines phenomena that cannot be easily explained in terms of known laws of chemistry and physics, phenomena that from a conventional view of causation ought not to occur. But because such inexplicable occurrences, including varieties of the paranormal and mystical, have been demonstrated, Sheldrake makes the assumption that they depend on laws of physics not yet known and/or depend on nonphysical causal factors or connecting principles.


As a biologist, Sheldrake is a keen observer of patterns of nature and speculates about the underlying mediators of animal behaviors that are difficult to explain through accepted scientific theories. Reduced to a simplistic form, Sheldrake's theory informs our understanding of the concept that is popularly known as the theory of “the hundredth monkey.” The essence of this theory is that when a behavior is learned by a critical mass of a species, for example, when a hundred monkeys learn to wash their food in a certain way, then all other members of that species can be shown to learn the task instantaneously and remotely in statistically significantly less time than individuals in the original population learned the same behavior. Sheldrake () relates detailed experimental support for what he terms a “hypothesis of formative causation” in a summary of Harvard studies on rat behavior by McDougall that demonstrate such rapid unexplainable transference of learned behaviors.

On the basis of examinations of certain “instinctual” behaviors in animals, such as the homing of pigeons or the immediate chaos rendered throughout an ant colony upon the death of the queen, Sheldrake dissects the operative forces at play in what can be most succinctly described as learning at a distance without modeling. He challenges orthodox theories that such behaviors are somehow directly genetically or biochemically encoded. Sheldrake proposes the concept of morphogenic fields, structures that can be conceptualized as giving form to probabilistic modes of causation. These probability structures shape and restrict to some degree the range of responses possible in an organism, be it a pigeon, a person, or the subatomic particles that compose them:

Morphogenic fields can be regarded as analogous to the known fields of physics in that they are capable of ordering physical changes, even though they themselves cannot be observed directly. Gravitational and electromagnetic fields are spatial structures which are invisible, intangible, inaudible, tasteless and odorless: they are detectable only through their respective gravitational and electromagnetic effects. In order to account for the fact that physical systems influence each other at a distance without any apparent material connection between (p. 315) them, these hypothetical fields are endowed with the property of traversing empty space, or even actually constituting it. In one sense, they are non-material: but in another sense they are aspects of matter because they can only be known through their effects on material systems. In effect, the scientific definition of matter has simply been widened to take them into account.

(Sheldrake 1985, 72)

Further delineating his theory of formative probabilistic causation, Sheldrake expands the concept of morphogenic fields, fields of transspatial causation, to the possibility of transtemporal causation, probabilistic causation over time, as well as across distance. The theory of morphic resonance proposes a process whereby forms of previous systems influence the behavior of subsequent systems: a resonant effect of form upon form across space and time, taking place between vibrating systems. This concept is clearly analogous to the concept of “entrainment,” the process by which biological rhythms are synchronized by environmental stimuli (see the chapters by Clair, Koen, and West and Ironson in this volume). Entrainment can be demonstrated by the tendency for a violin string to vibrate in resonance with the string of another violin played in close proximity to it despite the absence of any direct physical connection between the instruments. Although Sheldrake's theories of formative causation have been the subject of critical discussion in the scientific community, nonetheless, they provide an expanded working model that informs our ability to begin to describe the heretofore unexplainable.

Does the efficacy of morphic resonance somehow help explain the spontaneous recalibration of body, mind, and spirit that occurs in anomalous healing events? Are morphogenic fields involved in the unexplainable reordering of being that occurs in deep mystical states or indigenous musical healings? Might certain forms of music in fact generate morphogenic resonance and align or enhance an intrinsic vital force? These questions beg not only further research but also new and creative modes of investigation.

Harold Saxton Burr, an anatomist on the faculty at the Yale School of Medicine for 40 years, amassed a wide range of experimental evidence for the existence of such fields. Burr demonstrated the electrical evidence for life fields, or L-fields, through detection of subtle field voltage potentials, a more refined measurement than the standard gross detection of electrical currents. Much of his initial work involved identifying the easily demonstrable L-fields around plants, particularly trees. Expanding his area of inquiry to the fields that surround the human body, Burr began to formulate a methodology for correlating subtle changes in voltage gradients with fundamental shifts in biological activity. Burr conducted some 93 studies between 1916 and 1956 that demonstrated electrical correlates to biological function in a wide range of systems; these studies ranged from examining neurological development in worms and predicting by voltage gradients the precise time of ovulation in human females to examining the bioelectric correlates of the fields of trees after storms. His work suggested that identification of certain voltage potentials around human organs, such as the ovary, could be used to predict malignancies before their biological appearance. His studies of electrical characteristics of human altered states, such as hypnosis, make his work of curious relevance for further examination (p. 316) of other mystical states. His work was largely dismissed by the scientific medical community of his day but has resurfaced in contemporary theory, in which L-fields serve as an experimental analogue to Sheldrake's morphogenic fields. As we look at further realms of vibrational human anatomy, the question arises how a resurgence of Burr's techniques might inform our understanding of energy fields that impact health. And directed by Burr's early studies on the electric patterns of life, we are left with an experimental model that informs the study of the impact of consciousness itself on the field that surrounds us (Burr 1972).

The work of Dossey, Burr, and Sheldrake can be encapsulated as field models of organismic change that appear to function through an energetic or vibrational force. Is it possible that Dossey's concept of Era III medicine, healing that occurs nonlocally, may operate in this way? How might the mind-altering and healing effects of music be viewed in light of these theories?

Lessons from Shamanic States

Shamanic practices found across many cultures and periods of history are an excellent example of the link between musical experience and meditative mind. Virtually all shamanic rituals have music at their core. The anthropology of shamanism has become a subject of interest of many Western writers and scholars (see the chapter by Olsen in this volume; Achterberg 1985; Langdon and Baer 1992; and Arrien 1993). Rich and extensive ethnographic research into the power of shamanic ritual in the fields of ethnomusicology and cultural anthropology links such musical ceremonies with healing effects. Shamanic healers, most through rigorous training and mentoring, develop the power to move at will between states of consciousness, “journeying” between dimensions to guide others into alternate realities and ultimately to heal. The shaman aligns himself or herself with “spirit allies” that include animals, ancestors, spirit guides, or, in some cases, the essential nature of sacred plants.

Although investigating the depth of cultural and musical meaning of diverse shamanic practices is beyond the scope of this chapter (see the chapter by Olsen in this volume for an in-depth study of two South American shamanic healing practices), it is important to mention that central to many shamanic rituals is a driving rhythmic field that functions to facilitate the loosening of one's present state of consciousness. Diverse types of drums are often indispensable for the ritual practice and for effecting a change in consciousness. Also typical is the use of a variety of rattles, sticks, and bells and of chanting and clapping. Most often, a regular and repetitive auditory driving of consciousness is an essential part of a plethora of practices. For example, in addition to drums and rhythmic chanting, the Yakut shamans of Siberia wear cloaks of jingling metal to create a specialized ritual soundscape. The use of high-pitched whistles and flutes, as well as ceremonial shakers made of leaves (p. 317) indigenous to the rain forest, can be found across many Amazonian shamanic rituals. In the indigenous American tradition of the Pueblo culture, Zuni elders drum and chant while the mythic Zuni deities, the Kachinas, often with rattles made of turtle shells attached to their bodies, dance from sunset until dawn. Often more than one rhythmic modality is employed, including ritual dance with its kinesthetic effects on body and consciousness. Such combinations of modes of rhythm are consistent with Neher's findings that note that rhythmic stimulation in more than one modality simultaneously enhances the mind-altering quality of shamanic ritual (Neher 1962).

Neurological Correlates of Mystical and Meditative States

What are the physiological, biochemical, and energetic systems that may act as mediators through which such healing effects occur? Specifically, what are the neurological correlates of the mystical states induced by such rhythmic auditory driving? Neher conducted early studies of entrainment of EEG patterns with auditory driving in the 1960s. Using the stimulus of rhythmic beats played at varying frequencies, he was able to demonstrate the entrainment of brain-wave patterns corresponding with those frequencies. The spectrum of brain-wave patterns by EEG is as follows:

Delta: 0.5–4 cycles/second. Delta states are correlated with deep sleep and lack of wakeful consciousness, though there are some reports of highly trained mystics who are able to sustain wakefulness in delta states.

Theta: 4–8 cycles/second. Theta states are correlated with near-unconscious or subliminally conscious states that are often accompanied by hypnagogic imagery or dreamlike revelations (Greek hypnos, “sleep,” and agogos, “leading”). What appears to occur in theta states is a projection of impulses from unconscious sources. Unlike in a daydream, the content is not consciously followed but seems to appear suddenly out of nowhere. This state of “hypnagogic reverie” has been described as literally becoming conscious of the unconscious. Bursts of high-level creativity are sometimes born out of theta states (Green and Green 1977).

Alpha: 8–13 cycles/second. Alpha states are correlated with higher awareness than theta states. Alpha states are experienced as pleasant relaxation, a “lovely walk in the garden” state of being. Conscious daydreams are correlated with alpha states. Alpha is a state of wakefulness, though a person in a sustained alpha rhythm is likely to have a more inward focus than attention to external stimuli.

Beta: 13–26 cycles/second (and higher). Beta states are correlated with an active mind, high wakefulness, and engagement. A person who is actively speaking, reading, analyzing, or problem solving is found to be predominantly in beta. Some medical (p. 318) literature further subdivides beta states to include “high beta,” defined as higher than 26 cycles/second, and the gamma range, defined as greater than 40 cycles/second.

The medical literature on correlation of meditative states with brain-wave patterns is varied and challenging to interpret. In general, meditation of many types has been found to enhance movement into the tranquility of alpha states, as assessed by EEG measures (Hardt 1994; Aftanas and Golocheikine 2001; Travis 2001). The work of Aftanas and Golocheikine showed that in addition to alpha states, emotionally positive blissful states of meditation were accompanied by increased theta synchronization. Subjective scores of emotional experience were significantly correlated with theta, while scores of internalized attention yielded both alpha and theta patterns. Hardt demonstrated slow trains of theta EEG activity only in long-term Zen meditators, with experience ranging from 21 to 40 years. In a German doctoral dissertation of EEG patterns during meditation, high-amplitude theta activity was found to alternate with alpha bands (Splittstoesser 1983). This finding has been replicated in other studies as well (Kubota et al. 2001; Takahashi et al. 2005). Further study is needed to confirm that highly trained meditators, such as certain Buddhist monks, can more readily achieve sustained theta states (experientially and by EEG tracings) while absorbed in meditation. In a recent study, Buddhist monks engaged in a particular form of “compassion” meditation, where the internal focus is compassion for the external suffering of others, were found to produce frequent and sustained bursts of gamma brain-wave activity (Lutz et al. 2004). This can be thought of as a highly evolved wakeful awareness of the external world, concomitant with a deep meditative reverie.

When we examine more specifically the psychophysiological and spiritual similarities between meditative mind and mystical/healing states induced by music, the correlates in EEG patterns are intriguing. Though a true science of the neurophysiology of musically induced altered states is still in its infancy, there are trends that are referenced in popular writings on music and healing (Andrews 1992; Gaynor 2002). The vibrating resonance of Tibetan bowls has been correlated with the generation of an alpha brain-wave state, while ting-shag, small cymbal-like bells used by Tibetan meditators, have been described as producing the consciousness-altering theta state. Neher deduced that auditory driving with rhythms in the theta range would be ideal for ceremonial rituals whose intended purpose was to induce the mystical consciousness correlated with this state (Neher 1961). Jilek's study of the Salish Indians of the Pacific Northwest found that drumming in the theta frequency range predominated in Salish initiatory ceremonies and noted that theta drumming would be most effective in generating ritual trance states (Jilek 1974). More recently, Maxfield demonstrated a direct correlation of rhythmic shamanic drumming in the theta frequency range and the induction of a nonordinary or altered state of consciousness (ASC) in subjects, many of whom had no previous experience of ASC. The study protocol involved no cultural ritual, ceremonial structure, or healing intent in the rhythmic stimuli. Subjects were monitored for EEG response to tapes of recorded drum music, which included shamanic drumming at 4–4½ strikes of the drum per second, rhythmic drumming at 3–4 beats per (p. 319) second, and free drumming without a defined pattern. It was found that shamanic drumming sustained for at least 13 to 15 minutes elicited ASC in which experiential findings included loss of time continuum, changes in body temperature, intense emotion, vivid images of natives, animals, people, and landscapes, out-of-body experiences, and visitations. These states were correlated with demonstration of theta entrainment in the EEG patterns of the subjects (Maxfield 1990).

Clearly, the use of the encephalogram to trace physiological correlates of meditative and musically induced mystical experiences is a promising arena that is ripe for further study. Though the technology of EEG monitoring has advanced to produce smaller, portable instruments (Waterhouse 2001), the obvious challenges to the use of EEG monitoring in the field where shamanic rituals are being enacted must be addressed in order to pursue this line of research; and as Bursztajn et al. proposed in Medical Choices, Medical Chances (1981), how does the presence of the observer influence what is observed?

In addition to the demonstration of alterations in brain-wave patterns in both meditative states and altered states induced by musical experience, hemispheric neurological coherence, the balancing of activity in the right and left hemispheres of the brain, as evidenced by both EEG and other forms of brain imaging, has been reported in several studies. Both musical and meditative experiences appear to generate a spatial organization of activity in the brain, both within and between hemispheres. In examining the neurobiology of ritual trance, Lex discusses the ability common to those involved in both ritual trance and meditation to reduce or hold constant impinging stimuli, in effect decreasing the dominance of the analytical left hemisphere in favor of activation of the more intuitive, spatially oriented right hemisphere (Lex 1979). This phenomenon is echoed in the writings of Ornstein, who expounds upon the right hemispheric enhancement of esoteric practices, citing in particular the experience of nonlinear time, which is common to both ritual trance and meditative states, as localizing to the right cerebral hemisphere (Ornstein 1986). DʼAquili and Newberg (1999), proposing a science of “neurotheology,” have postulated that both hemispheres must become activated in order to generate certain meditative or mystical states. Neurological coherence during meditation has been demonstrated experimentally in enhancement of both alpha and theta EEG bands in both hemispheres of the brain (Splittstoesser 1983). Enhanced cerebral blood flow to both hemispheres has been shown during meditative states imaged through positron-emission tomography (PET) scans (a scan that localizes increased metabolic activity in the brain) (Lou et al. 1999). Individuals with substantial musical training were shown to exhibit coherence of spontaneous EEG patterns both within the right and left hemispheres and between them (Johnson et al. 1996). With the advent of more common use of imaging modalities such as PET scanning and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning, further data about intrahemispheric coherence in states of meditative mind and musically induced altered states will likely be forthcoming.

The Institute of Heart Math has generated an elegant physiological model that demonstrates the activation of a holistic concert of effects in the nervous system, (p. 320) heart, and immune system in response to positive emotional states. This model is helpful in guiding our understanding of additional underlying physiological processes that may be operative in the setting of meditative mind, whether they are induced by meditation or by music. Elaborating on the field of “neurocardiology,” this body of research reframes our understanding of the heart, not just as a circulatory organ or the poetic location in which love resides, but as a center of sensory processing, encoding, and processing information through its own extensive intrinsic nervous system, sufficiently qualified to be called a “heart brain.” The central tool for examining this interactive model of heart and brain is “heart-rate variability” (HRV). Simply described, HRV can be thought of as the “rhythm” of the heart rhythm, the way the pattern of beating of the heart responds to minute-to-minute external stimuli. HRV reflects the underlying balance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which are branches of what is termed the autonomic nervous system and have long been thought to be under exclusive control of the nervous system (brain and peripheral nerves alone). The sympathetic nervous system (ergotrophic) can be thought of as that which activates our physiology, modulated through release of adrenaline, and increases heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose in the bloodstream. In essence, it prepares the body for emergency. The parasympathetic nervous system (trophotrophic), on the other hand, mediated through acetylcholine, generally speaking, slows and relaxes the system through opposite physiological effects such as decreasing heart rate and blood pressure. The healthiest state of HRV coherence reflects an enhancement of parasympathetic tone, which modulates the highly driven sympathetic activity of contemporary living.

High states of coherence in fluctuation of heart rhythms, or physiological HRV coherence, reflect a retuning of the ergotrophic and trophotrophic systems, with overall decrease in sympathetic and increase in parasympathetic tone. Such states of physiological coherence are generated by positive emotional states, particularly the state of heartfelt appreciation. Thus a deeply felt sense of internal positivity appears to affect the “heart brain” directly. States of prolonged physiological coherence have been linked with improved health outcomes, including increased immunity, lowered blood pressure, and decreased stress, anxiety, and depression (McCraty et al. 2003). This physiological coherence, reflected in balanced patterns of HRV and enhanced parasympathetic tone, has been shown to be correlated with decreased mortality in trauma patients (Cooke et al. 2006) and patients who have suffered acute heart attack (Kiviniemi et al. 2007).

Meditation has been shown to have a beneficial effect on HRV (Neki et al. 2004). Supporting the long-held assertion that meditation enhances parasympathetic tone, two recent studies demonstrate this effect and specifically show that this finding is correlated with appearance of theta bands on the EEG (Kubota et al. 2001; Takahashi et al. 2005). An intriguing and related finding is reported in a study that examines cerebral hemispheric dominance with oscillating patterns of ergotrophic and tropotrophic states. Implications for the use of an ancient yogic practice of unilateral forced nostril breathing in consciously altering cerebral activity, cognition, (p. 321) and autonomic nervous system function are discussed (Shannahoff-Khalsa 1991). A detailed review of the ergotrophic and trophotrophic balance in mystical states can be found in The Mystical Mind (dʼAquili and Newberg 1999). Increased parasympathetic activity in listening to certain types of designer music has been demonstrated, especially if those subjects listen with an appreciative heart (McCraty et al. 1996 and 1998). Further investigation of autonomic balance, heart-rate variability, and healing induced through music is an arena rich in possibility.

The Subtle Energetic Body

Is it possible there exist human emanations that are still unknown to us? Do you remember how electrical currents and “unseen waves” were laughed at? The knowledge about humans is still in its infancy.

—Albert Einstein

Meditative and vibrational healing of the human subtle body has a long tradition in many Eastern cultures. Arising from the Vedic healing traditions of India, the practice of alignment of the body's seven energy centers, or chakras, is a tradition that is centuries old. Chakra, a Sanskrit word meaning “wheel,” describes vibrational centers in the body that can be conceptualized as whirling vortices of energy aligned along the spine from the coccyx at the base to the crown of the head. Broadly, these energy centers can be thought of as “batteries” whose state of charge directs the physical function within the portion of the body that is influenced by each one. The chakras, along with subtle energetic fields that surround the body (auric fields), also act as filters through which vibrational input or emotional energies from the external world are processed. Another model that has been proposed to understand chakras is that they act as energy transformers, both as processors of energy coming into the body from the environment and in extremely healthy clear states (such as those achieved by experienced meditators and healers) as transmitters of energies from within the chakra to the surroundings outside the body. Energetic information is also transmitted along energy lines called “nadis,” which can be considered roughly analogous to the meridians of the traditional Chinese system of acupuncture. There are three major nadis: the Ida arising along the left of the spine; the Pingala along the right of the spine; and the Sushumna, which is the central nadi that passes up the spinal column, and along which the chakras are aligned. The controlled movement of prana or life-force energy along the central channel, a skill developed in master yogis, is correlated with high states of mystical consciousness.

(p. 322) Although chakras and nadis are not visible anatomically, their presence and function have been demonstrated experimentally. Examining the premise long held in yogic practice that alterations in consciousness affect the function of the chakras and energy flow through them, a Japanese study examined variations in subtle electrical output over chakras consciously activated by experienced meditators. Findings revealed evidence of increased electrical activity in the vicinity of particular chakras in meditators who were consciously moving energy through those chakras, which had been activated and cleared through many years of meditative practice (Motoyama 1978). In research done at UCLA, electromyography (EMG) studies were performed that measured bioelectrical energy variations in areas of skin overlying the chakras. The results showed regular high-frequency electrical oscillations generated over these points (Hunt 1978). The suggestion that our bodies contain the “batteries” for generating our own energetic L-fields is a theory that warrants refined and expanded research.

The clarity, spin, and corresponding function of a chakra have long been known in Eastern cultures to have a deep influence on the human body, emotions, psychology, and spiritual sensibilities. Clearing and recalibrating the chakras can be seen as akin to the tuning of a vital force that drives the integrated system of body, mind, and soul (see discussions in Brennan 1988; Eden 1998; and Gerber 2001).

For centuries, sound has been used to clear and rebalance the chakras. The Bija mantras, a series of chanted sacred Sanskrit syllables, are well known to produce a rebalancing of the energy centers of the body, as well as the auric fields that surround the body. Rapid repetition of the monosyllabic mantras while conscious internal attention is directed to the corresponding chakra is postulated to have centering and activating effects on these centers and to yield a deep sense of well-being.

Certain musical notes, tones, and instruments are also thought to restore balanced energy flow through the chakras, resulting in enhanced physical, emotional, and spiritual balance. Though there are apparently no data on EEG entrainment with chanting of the Bija mantras, this would be an intriguing area of study.

Further Inquiry into Biology and Consciousness

Central to human subtle energetic anatomy is the fourth of the seven chakras, the heart chakra. The power of the open and loving heart has long been celebrated in all cultures. The work on physiological coherence from the Institute of Heart Math offers a burgeoning science to support this reverence for the power of the (p. 323) heart. Research of the Institute of Heart Math demonstrates the heart's ability to act as a master electrical oscillator capable of radiating health-inducing coherent frequencies. Glenn Rein and Rollin McCraty have proposed that positive emotional states, including the intent to remotely direct healing energies, affect the structure of DNA itself. Studying the effects of a loving appreciative state on the conformation of DNA, McCraty reported biochemical alterations in DNA structure (unwinding of DNA) after beakers of DNA were held for two minutes by a subject capable of exhibiting a high level of physiological coherence and focused on the heart-centered consciousness of love and appreciation. Control subjects without training in generating this state of physiological coherence were unable, under the same research conditions, to effect any alteration of DNA structure. An alternate protocol was also performed in which the effects of altering DNA structure remotely with heart-focused attention were accomplished with subjects half a mile away from the DNA samples (McCraty et al. 2003). These findings support earlier investigations into physiological coherence and DNA as a detector of subtle energies (Rein and McCraty 1993, 1994). The evolution of our understanding of the imprint of expanded consciousness on biological systems is burgeoning. Recent developments in research on states such as appreciation, loving-kindness, and absorption in beauty and their ability to alter the structure of water point toward discoveries whose surface we are only beginning to penetrate (Tomasino 1997; Emoto 2004)

Contemporary Applications of Music and Healing Field Theory

Although I was a physician trained in a conventional Western medical school, my education in the early 1980s was fortunately rich in a focus on the healing power of love as it flows through the doctor-patient relationship. Revered mentors, physicians skilled in the art of listening carefully to the nuances of patients' stories and emotions, peopled my training years. But the science of positive affective states embodied by both doctor and patient was not yet a focus of investigation, nor was the study of holistic healing practices of other cultures considered of value. Now, two decades later, physicians in training are slowly being exposed to such practices and their efficacy. Nonetheless, this remains the exception rather than the rule. In general, physicians have to look outside their conventional training for direct experience of the power of such interventions. As applications of traditional cross-cultural healing practices become more available in Western cultures, the opportunities for this quality of experiential learning expand. In the course of my own personal journey, opportunities to study with mentors in the field of music (p. 324) and healing have arisen. The work of Austrian master percussionist Reinhard Flatischler and writer and medicine woman Deena Metzger have informed and broadened my understanding of how music and the meditative mind can and do heal.

Reinhard Flatischler, a member of the Scientific Committee of the International Society for Music in Medicine and graduate of the Music University of Vienna in classical piano, parted ways with classical music in order to pursue training and experience in the healing powers of rhythm from teachers around the world. Spending 15 years studying with drumming masters and healers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Flatischler became one of the few westerners who were steeped in a rich blend of “rhythm archetypes.”

While traveling in Korea, Flatischler met Kim Sok Chul, a Korean elder and shaman. Though it is exceedingly rare for an outsider to be afforded access to ancient shamanic ceremonies, he was invited to stay with Kim Sok Chul and receive his tutelage. He describes sitting daily for hours at the tschanggo, a central drum used in Korean shamanic practice, and, surprisingly, meeting his own internal resistance to the powers of rhythm and shamanic practice he was privy to witness. Then, shortly before a journey to witness shamanic healing ceremonies, Flatischler became critically ill with a high fever, severe muscle pain, and weakness. He was diagnosed with dysentery, and despite being treated aggressively by conventional medicine, his condition worsened daily.

Kim Sok Chul returned to Flatischler and announced that he had prepared a healing ceremony for him. Despite years of training in the healing power of rhythm, Flatischler was terrified:

I felt paralyzed, depleted and all my limbs were in pain. In this state how would I be able to stand the loud music, which I had so often experienced? How could Korean rhythms improve my condition when even the strongest medicines had failed? Suddenly these shaman ceremonies seemed like nothing more than superstition.

(Flatischler 1992, 15)

With the palpable reassurance of Kim Sok Chul's mastery and healing intent, Flatischler agreed to be transported to the ceremony. He describes his experience once he was there:

I felt alone in a world of dark powers. My pain increased and it all seemed like an endless nightmare. The music began thunderously: the shrill sounds of the instruments splintered my thoughts and I fell into a state in which thinking was impossible. I recognized my surroundings and yet I found myself in a completely different world—a world full of feelings I had never experienced before. I felt parts of my body disassemble and then re-connect; I saw my body assume various colors, each of which produced a certain indescribable bodily sensation within and I sank into a state of which I have no recollection.



Flatischler awoke in a small room in Kim Sok Chul's house, feeling physically stronger. His recovery continued over the following weeks, a recovery that expanded (p. 325) beyond the physical. A sense of recalcitrant fear, doubt, and weakness that had surfaced during his apprenticeship with Kim Sok Chul had dissolved during the ceremony (Flatischler 1992). In this elegant example of shamanic healing, somehow, an integral order within Flatischler's being emerged or developed inexplicably out of disorder. Certainly Flatischler attempts to describe an ineffable state, one with hallmarks of theta consciousness. Many would describe Flatischler's illness itself as a “shamanic illness,” or sacred illness, one to which he, by necessity, needed to succumb in order for this totality of healing to occur.

In the years after his shamanic healing in Korea, Flatischler developed an innovative approach to the study of rhythm, TaKeTiNa. Working with groups of both experienced musicians and those with no musical training whatsoever, Flatischler guides groups of participants through high play with archetypal rhythms. One uses primarily one's own body as an instrument, and multilayered orchestrations of rhythm are created by stepping, clapping, and chanting. With gradually increasing complexities, it becomes impossible to remain “in rhythm” through the use of linear analytical consciousness. The result is an exploration of rhythmic chaos. In the meeting of what Flatischler terms “rhythmic disability,” participants are invited into a metaphor for subtle and not-so-subtle modes of disability in other arenas of life. The experience of chaos in this rhythmic practice is key to the experience of a new rhythmic order. Participants suddenly and inexplicably find themselves able to produce and sustain multilayered archetypal rhythms. Routinely those without musical experience can be found maintaining complex polyrhythms and having no conscious idea how they are doing it. The power of the rhythmic field “teaches” in a nonlinear way how to access and physically manifest the archetypal. Perhaps underlying this nonlinear learning is the generation of Sheldrake's morphogenic field.

The late German physiologist Dr. Hans-Peter Koepchen claimed, “Every disease is caused by a dysfunctioning of rhythm” (quoted in Flatischler 1996, 344). The TaKeTiNa process appears to facilitate meditative mind and bring a functional state of rhythm back to the body. Flatischler has conducted pilot studies of TaKeTiNa and pain control with the German Pain Colloquium in which statistically significant reductions in the use of pain medications have been demonstrated (findings not yet published). Anecdotally, a wide range of physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits are reported by participants. Enhanced musicality, creativity, and deep relaxation, all of which are sustained well after cessation of direct contact with the rhythmic field, have also been noted. TaKeTiNa has shown promise in working with people who exhibit psychotic states, as well as in post-traumatic stress syndrome (Flatischler 1996). TaKeTiNa's effect seems certainly related to its entraining properties and is an arena ripe for formal study of the health effects of musical entrainment.

Another contemporary example of the application of healing through a rhythmic musical field is based on the African concept of Dare (dar-ay), which means “healing council” in the Shona language of Zimbabwe. Monthly Dare gatherings of (p. 326) healers are arising around the United States, sparked primarily by the training and insights of American writer and medicine woman Deena Metzger. As a breast-cancer survivor, Metzger has written and lectured extensively about the healing power of beauty and the sacred dimensions of illness, including her own (Metzger 1997). In 2004, Metzger offered the keynote address, “The Soul of Medicine,” to the annual meeting of the American Holistic Medical Association, in which she invited the audience of several hundred physicians not merely to practice medicine but, in a way consistent with numerous indigenous traditions, to “carry medicine.” Invoking the transformation that is being called forth in conventional biomedicine, she elaborates:

“When you carry medicine as a sacred practice, you become a healing presence, medicine emanates from you. This is what it means to be a medicine person or a healer. It is not a quality that lives in an office; it lives in the world.” … As illness is understood to occur when the spirits, the community or the natural world has been violated, healing consists of reconstituting the world. One of the qualities necessarily connected to healing is beauty. Beauty like love is a fierce power that restores the world. The healer's power is greatly diminished if it [is] not associated with beauty.

(Metzger 2004)

Metzger has been mentored in such concepts through her initiation as a healer in Zimbabwe by a traditional African nganga (healer), Augustine Kandemwa. She brings an embodiment of an African-rooted indigenous view of the healing potential of the community itself to these gatherings. Central to the practice of Dare is the use of sound and music to “call the spirits” and invite healing forces to be present. Routinely, indigenous instruments are used, drums, rattles, and bells, as well as the voice, all of which direct layered healing forces to the body of the one afflicted. Beauty, through the use of music, is brought in tangible form into the venue of healing.

In Entering the Ghost River, Metzger explains further: “We are learning to improvise music based upon the configuration of illness as enacted in the person, to play the psyche and its disruptions until it is captured, or perhaps better to say, captivated. Then we take it, musically, to the particular harmonic that that life is seeking” (Metzger 2002, 239). Metzger witnessed healings in Zimbabwe offered by Kandemwa and his wife, dreamer and trance medium Simakuhle. Metzger speaks eloquently of the sacred quality of one remarkable shamanic healing that led to the cure of an American woman from advanced breast cancer. Of her own call into the awareness of the mystical quality of the gathering, she says:

When I reach the place of the call, I feel only the taste of sweetness. [Some] … people refer to this sensation as synesthesia, but this way of speaking is reductive. There is a place of knowing. I cannot go beyond it. At the perimeter is a wall. It cannot be penetrated. Within this place are the gifts that have been given to Simakuhle. They are palpable as mist and invisible. They look like baskets of sweet herbs for infants. They look like dreams. They look like shafts of light called understanding. They look like mothering. They look like a lap filled with fruits and watermelons. This place is sweet as honey.

ibid., 238


(p. 327) Conclusion

Perhaps one of the greatest voids in the practice of contemporary Western medicine is the relative absence of this quality of the “sweetness of honey” in the manner in which it cares for those it serves. Reinventing medicine must, of necessity, reincorporate the practice of such a high and tender aesthetic if it is to become truly holistic and healing. Both history and a slowly growing body of research point to the health benefits of meditative states and mystical states induced by music, which share key characteristics. More is yet to be learned about the extent to which these benefits share common physiological pathways. Further study of EEG analysis and the health-strengthening effects of autonomic balance and heart-rate variability after both meditative and music interventions are areas rich in possibility to guide our understanding of how beauty within and beauty without heal us.

There seems no doubt that the healing qualities of beauty and consciousness are mediated, at least in part, through energetic fields that have the potential to move an individual toward order of body, mind, and spirit. Through growing sophistication and sensitivity of research tools and design, understanding of the science of these fields will help us shape the next generation of questions that are waiting to be asked.

Lessons from ancient wisdom practices, including the practice of musical and meditative healing modalities, are slowly being incorporated into the practice of Western medicine in private offices and through integrative medicine training programs throughout the United States. This intersection of indigenous mind and contemporary vision offers promise to a field that is stumbling beneath the weight of discontent of its consumers, the rampant epidemic of chronic diseases, and the ever-swelling risks of iatrogenic harm.

In the words of the Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi, “The supernatural is not a thing set apart, but an awareness that fills and forms the natural.” Buoyed by a resurgence of information about the healing powers of the field that surrounds us, that indeed creates us, we are beginning to understand a new science of the assimilation of beauty. Perhaps meditative mind does, as Metzger reminds us, “reconstitute the world.” In a practice of medicine grounded in an understanding of the healing power of the ineffable, perhaps through meditation, sacred music, and ritual, the nectar of stillness itself may become the most efficacious prescription of the future.


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