Psychiatry and Meditation
Dr. Dhananjay Chavan
In the world today, there is much confusion, ignorance and controversy about
psychiatry, meditation and the relationship between the two. Health professionals and
mental health professionals are not even clear about the scope of their own field of
expertise. Neither do they have a clear understanding of exactly what meditation is. It is
little wonder, then, that the common man is puzzled.
Both the words "psychiatry" and "meditation" carry mystical auras.
In fact, psychiatry is a very young science, barely a century old, while many meditation
techniques derive from the ancient past. Nevertheless, sometimes the claim is made that
meditation is not scientific. Actually, meditation is a science, a methodology practised
and perfected centuries ago by the scientists of mind and matter, by the Rishis, Munis,
and Buddhas. After all, what is science? Science is objective observation and analysis of
data, and their application. Science seeks to know the truth. We will see later in this
article how, even by modem criteria, Vipassana meditation is a perfect science.
People think of psychiatry as a science dealing with abnormal minds. But it would be
more accurate if the word "behaviour" were substituted for "minds" in
this definition, for, indeed, this is what psychiatry is' It is the study of abnormal
behaviour. Now, to define normality is a difficult task. Normality generally means
"average." Behaviour refers to vocal or physical actions, i.e., vocal or
physical behaviour. In psychiatry and psychology, mental behaviour is studied only by
inference after it manifests in vocal and physical actions. The aim of these sciences is
to bring the behaviour of an individual closer to normal (which most of the time means
We might use a more modern definition of psychiatry: an application of neuroscience to
the problems of particular groups of patients. Initially the scope of psychiatry was not
well defined. As a result, psychiatrists were dealing mostly with minor illnesses. During
the 1960s and 1970s, many psychiatrists in the West were practising psychoanalysis. Their
subjects were often people with minor psychiatric problems; very rarely were they
psychotic. During this period an impression was created in some quarters that psychiatry
can deal with all the problems of humanity. But the reality was that psychiatry was not
contributing to peace in the general society in any significant way, except for helping a
small number of patients.
Reasonable psychiatrists gradually realized that the boundaries of psychiatry are not
coextensive with those of all human mental activity. This realization is of immense
significance, since it helps both the psychiatrist and the common man to define the scope
of psychiatry. Failure on the part of the ordinary person to understand the scope of
psychiatry has led to various problems. For example, at times a psychiatrist is called
upon to help when the problem is not actually psychiatric, stemming from the unreasonable
faith and expectation that the psychiatrist knows everything about the mind. In contrast
to this LWeption of the psychiatrist's omniscience, there is the other side of the coin: a
lack of M. in the whole specialty, even on the part of some health professionals, with the
result that psychiatric help is not sought even when it is appropriate and beneficial.
In recent times psychiatry has emerged as a branch of medicine with more focus on major
psychiatric illnesses. This has redefined the role of psychiatry as a biological science,
and pychiatrists are now playing the more appropriate role of specialists treating
biological disorders which are accompanied by behavioural disturbances. This certainly
does not mean that the psychiatrist’s role is limited to prescribing medicine; he or she
uses various other modalities of therapy as well. But more and more, psychiatrists have
started restricting themselves to their proper domain: the treatment of major psychiatric
disorders. These conditions are ones which psychiatrists
are better equipped and better qualified to treat. Psychiatrists are trained to deal
with "abnormal" behaviour. In cases which are closer to normal (or average)
behaviour, the difference in effectiveness between psychiatric treatment and other
treatment modalities rapidly decreases.
The World Health Organization is constantly trying to improve its diagnostic criteria
for psychiatric disorders. The new International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) is an
Important step in that direction. Many efforts are currently being taken to systematically
demarcate the field of psychiatry. This is to help psychiatrists concentrate on a specific
sub-population, to assist researchers in seeking to find remedies for various disorders,
and to protect people from improperly being labelled as psychiatric patients. However, the
boundaries remain fuzzy. Even a competent psychiatrist at times finds it difficult to
decide whether to try treat a particular individual, or to conclude that the person is not
in need of psychiatric treatment.
Everyone suffers from various kinds of misery. When confronted with problems in
business, one person might become angry very easily, while another person is inclined to
sadness. In such instances, the individual may well not have a psychiatric disorder. He or
she might benefit as much from the advice and support of a friend or relative as from
psychiatric intervention. Even so, everyone's life is bound to have challenges, and
suffering occurs again and again.
What does any person do when faced with life's problems? Every individual encounters
the suffering that results when unwanted things happen, when wanted things do not happen;
when one gets what one does not like, or loses what he likes. Where should one look for
Mind is the principal factor. We have to study it-probe it to its depths in order to
master it-in order to solve our problems. This is precisely what the science of meditation
is all about. Meditation is the science of exploring the entire phenomenon of mind and
matter. Psychiatry studies mind only indirectly and only to the extent that it renders
itself observable by its manifestation in vocal and physical actions. In the science of
meditation, the mind is studied directly. This science has been extensively practised in
India since ancient times.
It is true that all actions have their origin in the mind. But not everything that
arises in the mind manifests as a vocal or physical action. Physical actions which appear
to be similar might originate from quite different mental volitions. For example, a person
who freezes when he sees a snake might have two entirely different reasons for this
action. He may be extremely frightened; or he may be very calm and is staying immobile so
as not to frighten the snake, or so as to observe the snake. Similarly, a person who gives
a coin to a beggar may be giving it out of compassion; just to get rid of a nuisance; or
because others are watching him and he does not want to appear to be a stingy person.
So the first problem with the psychiatric approach is that it is very difficult to
derive conclusions about the mind from vocal and physical behaviour. The mind must be
studied directly. Another problem results from what is known as "Cartesian
dualism," the arbitrary separation of mind and matter. For a long time the
specialized medical profession studied the body but excluded study of the mind. And when
psychiatrists started studying the mind, in whatever manner, they ignored the body. Today
the importance of a holistic approach is widely accepted. But there is neither a
satisfactory method of enquiry, nor proper understanding of the interaction of mind and
matter, with the result that there are many theories, but few facts. The mind-matter
phenomenon is not being properly studied.
These problems are solved through the proper understanding of meditation. The term
"meditation" has a variety of meanings. In English, the term is loosely used to
refer to thinking about something. Dictionaries define it as "contemplation": to
exercise the mind in contemplation, to focus on a subject of contemplation; to ponder,
muse, or ruminate. When we refer to meditation here, we are not using the term in this
The Enlightened One, Gotama Buddha, used the word bhavana to describe practices
of mental development. This word can be translated roughly as meditation. It refers to
specific mental exercises, precise techniques for focusing and purifying the mind. When we
use the word "meditation" here, we use it in this technical sense. Almost all
Indian languages have specific words for different meditation practices because India has
a rich tradition of these disciplines. Such words as dhyana, japa, traa.taka,
saadhandaa, vipassanaa, (vidarshanaa), bhaavanaa, etc., refer to different kinds of
mental practices. Broadly speaking, meditation is an exercise in the concentration
of mind on various objects. Since concentration of mind is the prerequisite for any
task, it is a very important factor in the exploration of the mind-matter phenomenon.
There are many possible objects of concentration: visual, auditory, imaginations,
The Enlightened One gave us a wonderful object of concentration, our own natural
respiration. Unlike other objects which are either external or do not have any direct
relation to our mind and body, this is an object which has many advantages. It is
internal, and constantly present from birth to death. It is a tangible reality, even if a
gross one. It is both conscious and unconscious, intentional and unintentional. Its rhythm
is so intimately connected with the mental state that any defilement arising in mind, even
the slightest agitation, disturbs the rhythm of the respiration. We cannot find any other
object of concentration which is so intimately connected with the mind-matter phenomenon
and yet renders itself so easily to observation.
But concentration is not the goal of meditation; it is only a tool. A tool for what?
Here we encounter the third problem of the modern scientific approach, that of defining
the problem itself. The four Noble Truths of suffering are very simple, logical and
universal: suffering exists; it has a cause; this cause can be eradicated; there is a Path
to its eradication. Yet these universal truths are not appreciated by many modern
psychiatrists because psychiatry focuses more on the "why" than on the
"how." This attitude of searching for meaning while ignoring fundamental
mechanisms of reality serves to obscure, rather than enhance, the study of the problems of
the human mind.
The Enlightened One was a true scientist, the greatest scientist of mind and matter. He
not only explored the mind and matter phenomenon himself in its entirety, but he showed
the way to do it so that other people could come out of their misery. He taught a method
to observe how the mind works, how mind and matter interact. He taught Vipassana.
Vipassana means to see, to see in a special way, to observe inside. It is objective
observation of the internal reality. It is development of insight into one's own nature.
It involves no assumptions; rather, mere observation. It is a practical way of
understanding our problem of suffering and solving it. In the same way as the problem is
universal, the remedy also is universal. In Vipassana we learn to observe our sensations
objectively. Sensations are the meeting point of the intimate mind-matter interaction.
Though sensations arise in the body, they are felt by the mind. While observing the
sensations, we start understanding how the mind works. Each of us becomes a scientist of
mind and matter. We get direct knowledge. The Enlightened One described four fundamental
processes of mind: consciousness, perception, sensations, and conditionings. No one need
accept these processes intellectually; they become clear once we start experiencing the
As we learn to observe the sensations inside, it becomes experientially clear that it
is towards these very sensations that we keep continuously reacting. The sensations are
the basis on which the old conditionings, the patterns of reaction-craving and
aversion-develop. This profound discovery was the kingpin upon which the liberation of the
Enlightened One rested. It is our conditioning which makes us suffer again and again, and
this conditioning can be eradicated by the practice of objective observation of the
sensations. By practising Vipassana we learn not to develop new conditionings of craving
and aversion towards the sensations; and as a consequence, we start to eradicate the old
conditionings. The practice is a process of gradual eradication of mental defilements.
Hence, it is a process of eradication of misery.
This non-sectarian scientific technique is useful in enabling one and all to live
better lives, happy lives, peaceful lives. For many who undergo a ten-day Vipassana course
under the supervision of a competent instructor, the course is a life-transforming
The practice of exploring mind and matter at the deepest level is not easy. It requires
a certain mental and physical stability. A sincere seeker who wishes to undergo the
training in Vipassana meditation needs to have a minimum mental and physical health.
Generally all but those with severe psychiatric problems are fit to undertake a course.
(It is advisable to contact the management of the Vipassana course in advance if an
applicant's mental suitability is in question.)
Vipassana is the universal remedy to the universal malady of misery. But this does not
mean that psychiatry has no role to play in helping the suffering humanity. For those who
are so deranged as to be incapable of taking up the delicate task of Vipassana meditation,
psychiatrists have an important role to play. Psychiatrists can help in alleviating
suffering of people with mental illness. Except from the small section of the population
with severe psychiatric disorders, Vipassana is useful to one and all.
The scope of psychiatry is limited to a small population. Vipassana meditation is
universal in scope because it encompasses all aspects of human mental activity. Psychology
purports to study the entirety of human mental activity, but as we have already discussed,
it is the "science of behaviour," and therefore, limited. Behaviour in this
context is defined as anything a person does that can be observed in some way. The
contention is that behaviour, unlike mind, thoughts or feelings, can be observed and
studied. The catch here is that the observer is always an outsider, another person. Modem
psychologists believe that behaviour is the only avenue through which internal mental
events can be studied.
Any person who takes a ten-day course in Vipassana can easily see the fallacy in this
approach of modem psychology. He knows from his own experience that internal mental events
can be observed directly. Every Vipassana meditator becomes a true psychologist unto
himself. And through this pure science of self-observation, he starts coming out of
May more and more people walk on the Path shown by the Enlightened One. May more and
more people learn to observe the reality within. May all beings be happy, may all beings