In the span of about one generation, the practice of meditation has gone from hippy esoterica to self-help industry panacea to the subject of serious medical research at universities and hospitals around the world. Under the microscope of Western science, meditation is beginning to prove what practitioners have been espousing for thousands of years: Focusing the mind is good for you. And not just in a vaguely holistic way. Neuroplasticity studies have confirmed that brain chemistry actually changes with meditation, resulting in everything from decreased pain sensitivity to reduced blood pressure, reductions in inflammation benefitting the immune system to increased fertility. Yet there are researchers and practitioners who claim that the positive effects don’t end with the individual. Through a mechanism that has yet to be officially mapped, meditation may have the ability to influence whole populations simply through the focused intention of a group of practitioners.
This is Bethany Gonyea’s working thesis. Drawing on 50 years of research into the subject, which has been largely dismissed as pseudoscience by the scientific etablishment, Gonyea has launched the Albany Peace Project to put the thesis to test. Throughout the month of January, an international group of several hundred meditators will follow a 15-minute guided online meditation aimed at reducing the rate of violent assaults in the city of Albany. University of Albany professor Dr. John Foldy will then analyze Albany Police Department crime statistics to see if there is a substantive correlation between the two variables.
“I’m into this stuff because I’m a skeptic. I need research and data,” says Gonyea, a specialist in the science of biofeedback, who runs the interfaith spiritual organization NUMINOUS based in Clifton Park. “It was my long-term mission of NUMINOUS to gather a collection of meditators who would come together for this.” Working in conjunction with Unity Church, the Capital District Psychiatric Center and Trinity Alliance, the group hopes to contribute data through individual studies carried out over the next 10 years.
Such inquiries into the effect of meditation on quantifiable changes in larger human populations were first undertaken by the research branch of the Transcendental Meditation organization, founded by Maharishi Mahesh of Beatles fame, going back to the early ’70s. One notable study in 1993 tasked 4,000 meditators to meditate for 20 minutes twice daily over the course of eight weeks, focusing on certain neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. Accounting for external variables such as weather, daylight and historical crime patterns, violent crime was shown to have declined by 15.6 percent.
“When I heard about the TM research I wondered why this wasn’t being shouted from the rooftops,” Gonyea says. Even while these studies have survived peer review in a host of psychology, law and science journals, the TM organization has faced legitimacy issues in its research methods, requiring independent replication of these findings to earn scientific credence.
Another researcher who has pursued the subject is Lynn McTaggert. The author and investigative journalist began studying the effects of human intention on the growth pattern of plants and has expanded her research to human populations. In a 2011 study, participants from 75 countries sent peaceful intentions to Helmand and Kandahar provinces of Afghanistan, through a week of 15-minute meditations. The rate of civilians killed dropped by 10 percent during the study and 23 percent in the following month.
If these studies are to be taken seriously, they beg the question of what the causal link could be between the psychological experience of a meditating individual and the behavior of a population unaware of the experiment.
“What I’ve learned in biofeedback is that wherever the mind is focused, there is an effect,” says Gonyea. “If you focus on your hands and say ‘My hands are warm and heavy,’ you will send blood flow to your hands.” This effect is what the TM community calls “coherence,” focusing the mind to control the nervous system and thereby influence other systems that respond to those neural connections. The study relies on an extrapolation of these biofeedback studies into a hypothetically larger field of consciousness or larger network of individual nervous systems. McTaggert has written extensively about this invisible field of transference, while biologist Rupert Sheldrake has proferred a similar model called “morphic resonance.” In many ways, these theories mirror the astral or akashic field posited by Hindu metaphysics, informing the strategies of Mahesh and other Eastern spiritual practicioners. Instead of attempting to verify some such model, though, the Albany Peace Project is more interested in simply demonstrating results. “Sometimes you don’t see the animal, you just see the footprints,” Gonyea explains.
“Ordinary consciousness is like a lightbulb,” Gonyea ventures, with a different metaphor. “It lights the whole room but if you take those light waves and you line them up, it becomes a laser.” At 100 watts, the lightbulb fills a room, while the laser slices sheet metal. Meditation then becomes like the laser, focusing the strength of the nervous system around the object of intention. If peace is the intention and a sufficient number of lasers synchronize their focus, then a quantifiable reduction of violence is the reciprocal hypothesis.
Hypnotherapist, Unity Church member and musician Mark Shepard says the language the meditators use is important to the practice. “If we focus on reducing violence, we’re still focusing on violence,” he says, so the participants in the Albany Peace Project have been instructed to “increase the peace by 15 percent,” making the intention both positive in nature and specific in its quantifiable goal. Participants are asked to follow a 15-minute online meditation at the group’s website, albanypeaceproject.com, which takes the meditator through six steps. First the meditator centers their mind on the present, then they invoke feelings of love and appreciation, moving toward that state of “coherence.” Next, the participant is asked to visualize peaceful light connecting them to their loved ones before expanding the reach of the light to Albany as a whole, increasing the peace by 15 percent. The visualization then expands to the globe as a whole, ending in an internal intention to maintain the peaceful state for the rest of the day.
When the meditations end this month, the group will continue to gather crime data regarding the number of violent assaults through April as a control variable. By May, the Albany Peace Project will know if their efforts have had any demonstrable effect. “I’m not saying we’re going to get a result,” Gonyea admits. “We’re going to get what we get. We need to know if there’s an effect.” Despite the inevitable backlash of skepticism that will follow from either outcome, she says the potential implications are too important not to be given proper consideration.
Following seven shootings in the month of December, Shepard is happy to announce there hasn’t been a single one through half of January’s study. “That doesn’t mean we’re having an effect,” he says, “but maybe we are. At least there’s hope.”