Tummo (inner fire) meditation is an ancient technique of personal enlightenment centered on the creation of bodily warmth. Autogenic training, some hundred years old, is a system of self-control, centered on the creation of sensations of heaviness, and also of bodily warmth. Both techniques implicate conscious entry into nervous system networks because heaviness and warmth are sensory modalities. Both techniques also aim to create higher states of well-being derived from greater body/mind entente, yet suggest that dedicated practice opens doors to dimensions of the self hitherto unknown.
Holistic psychotherapy embodies a concept that invites the engagement of the body in any meaningful personal transformation. This approach incorporates, by any number of methods, the expansion of awareness into the workings of bodily organs, resulting in experiences of inner harmony and of centering of self.
Many contemporary therapies, from classical psychoanalysis to cognitive therapy, seek to engage the mind, yet the mind only, to satisfy one’s quest for personal evolution. This is insufficient and can only have limited success. Attaining a sense of wholeness necessarily engages the body/mind interface.
In this article, two mind/body techniques are selected for their ability to activate multi-level personal transformation. These techniques can be integrated within most psychotherapeutic methods. Melded into the psychotherapy process, mind/body practices can offer physical and psychological benefits that can turn out to be far more substantial than would be seen from either modality used alone.
Several practices have shown usefulness as activators of personal transformation within the framework of psychotherapy. Added to the mission of self-discovery and self-actualization that psychotherapy embodies, techniques such as hypnosis, and its auto-administered modification, self-hypnosis, yoga, meditative disciplines in their various forms, and autogenic training (AT), can be utilized to kindle the push to coveted personal change.
Increasingly appreciated, is that the therapy of the mind becomes more comprehensive, and its mission most successfully attained, when the deeper workings of the body are more fully explored and, in a sense, mastered. Cliché and true: harmony of body resonates profoundly with harmony of mind.
Visceral regulation: Relationship to spiritual development.
The human psyche generates a vast array of emotions, from the most primal, such as fear, hunger, anger, and libido, to the most subtle, as with empathy, love and gratitude. Emotions drive self-adaptation and change; without them life would remain strangely static.
Primal emotions, however, are not only the strongest and most pervasive in the mind’s emotional repertoire, but importantly, they usurp much of the psyche’s energy reserves, and this mostly subliminally.
Primal emotions are mainly experienced in the brain, and specifically in the ancient limbic system and its extensive ramifications, but for the most part, they biologically take place in the body. Emotions in the anxiety/fear/worry spectrum, and the in the anger spectrum (irritation, annoyance, resentment, rage), recruit vast conglomerations of nerves connected to the spinal cord – including the celiac (solar) plexus – and further relayed to organs of the chest, the abdomen and pelvis, and to the entire musculature.
Much of all this activity occurs below the threshold for consciousness, churning organs all the more because inhibitory signals originating in higher brain centers temper the full expression of primal emotions. Energies spent in this process are simply that: spent, and unavailable to those dynamics that would otherwise awaken personal evolution and higher order states of experiencing.
The dissolution of stress, in all its myriad physical and psychological manifestations, is the primordial indication for the practice of Autogenic Training and Tummo Meditation.
Executive Awareness (EA) is herewith defined as the experiencing of the immediacy of personal existence. Translated into the fabric of emotions, EA is the feeling of “I,” the ongoing perception of “I am, here and now.”
Awareness - much like human memory - is located ubiquitously in the brain, involving the activities of all neurons. Various cerebral areas contribute selectively to awareness’ intensity and configuration. Although there is no single brain locus housing the core entity of awareness, the brain’s frontal cortex illuminates the largest component of willful intent, a fundamental component of executive awareness. Will, as a penultimate human faculty, incorporates clarity, direction and determination, all essential ingredients for meditation.
Executive awareness can exercise several decisive functions, amongst them a capacity to project itself into and through the brain’s outflow conduits that, via their most distant tendrils, reach the totality of the organ systems they energize.
The fact remains, however, that although science can explain many dynamics of awareness as it travels within nervous system circuitry, its true and fundamental nature is yet totally unknown.
Autogenic training (AT) in clinical practice
Autogenic Training, a healing modality developed by a psychiatrist in the last century (and further perfected by many other clinicians over the decades) (Luthe 1969), offers a process of self-development leading to improvements similar to those achieved via hypnosis and meditation. The impetus for the creation of this technique came from the ambivalence some people voiced about hypnosis as it was viewed at the time, implicating some abdication of self-control. Today, clinical hypnosis, and its modification, self-hypnosis, are viewed as skills leading to enhanced self-knowledge and fluid self-control.
In the beginning stages of this training, in the context of comfortable body positioning, sensations of relaxed heaviness are elicited in the extremities, mentally amplified, and then progressively channeled into the entire body volume. Soothing sensations of warmth are subsequently evoked in the same bodily spaces. Care is taken to avoid tensing muscles, and generating motion of any kind, except for respiration. The expansion of awareness into hitherto autonomously functioning bodily processes gradually takes place.
Autogenic Training’s beneficial sensations can be brought on more quickly by creating verbal reflexes. During practice, the inner voicing of selected words or phrases, such as “calm, relaxation, energy” engage the brain’s extensive language networks, eventually eliciting heaviness and warmth with their verbal prompts.
Autogenic Training may be suggested to someone experiencing symptoms of visceral imbalance due to stress. Talk of “stress” is often brought out early in the initial interview of individuals who thus show a capacity for insight that tends to make them good candidates for mind/body training. Stress is invariably described as involving any number of organ systems: cardiovascular, respiratory, gastro-intestinal, skin, urinary, and immune among others.
Tummo Meditation in clinical practice
Tummo meditation derives its name from the nature of its meditative focus. Most meditation practices offer a direction for meditative centering. An exception may be Zen meditation, which seeks to banish all thought forms, so that meditating on nothingness allows new perceptions to emerge.
Tummo is the Tibetan word whose meaning approximates “inner fire.” In this practice, the meditator focuses on the creation and amplification of imagery that, in the realm of the senses, belongs to the experiencing of bodily warmth, if not outright heat, and of inner light.
The description of the benefits of Tummo meditation features the attainment of special abilities for confronting cold environments with physiological grace. While this capacity may be useful in milieus commonly encountered by developers of these techniques, namely the Tibetan monks of the Himalayas, the true intent of Tummo meditation lies far beyond cold tolerance. Indeed, the attainment of the “inner fire,” even in its beginning stages, yields far-reaching rewards of enhanced mind/body capabilities, and in more advanced stages, offers pathways to higher order transcendental experiences.
Tummo meditators invite heightened sensations of bodily heat, often coupled with the imagery of symbols designed to summon spiritual knowledge. Heat, paired with light in the mind’s eye, may initially be visualized as emitted by a candle radiating from the abdomen’s center. The visualization of this inner flame is coaxed to expand in its intensity and configuration, eventually infusing the totality of the body schema. Rising from the abdomen’s center and becoming more brilliant with every breath, it is beckoned to rise into the crown of the head. Heat and light, as metaphors for life energies thus rise from the body to flower in the mind.
Documented are the abilities of seasoned Tummo meditators for reducing their oxygen consumption, and for raising their bodily temperature. (Benson 1982, 1990; Kozhevnikov 2013). Beyond the attainment of physiological harmony - such as cardiovascular and circadian rhythm regulation – Tummo meditators invariably report experiences that may be described as transcendent (Sunnen 2013, “Spiritual epiphanies during hypnosis”).
In clinical practice, Tummo Meditation is suggested when the visceral nervous network shows signs and symptoms of dysregulation referable to cardiovascular, respiratory, gastro-intestinal, skin, urinary, and immune systems, among others. The art of meditative focusing, at times problematic in practice, can be developed via clinical strategies tailor-fitted to the proclivities of meditators.
The neurology of Autogenic Training
In the beginning phases of Autogenic Training, awareness is directed to sensitizing the sensory circuits of the extremities. One or both arms, then both legs are invited to amplify sensations of relaxed heaviness, maintaining all the while an awareness connection to the flow of respiration. The sensation of heaviness then diffuses outwardly, ever further into the spaces of the chest, abdomen and pelvis.
Subsequently, and melded with sensations of heaviness, is the elicitation of sensations of warmth. The heaviness-warmth combo is then progressively disseminated into the entire body space.
The signals initiating Autogenic Training start within Executive Awareness (EA). They are then channeled into the domain of the somesthetic cortical areas where bodily sensations are experienced in all their nuances. Awareness, continuing in its exploratory journey, reaches more primal sensory centers in the thalamus, then onward into the nerve conduits that, from the spinal cord, receive signals from receptors in the skin, muscles and joints, including those for touch, pressure and heat.
The sensations of bodily heaviness and warmth elicited in AT are correlated with muscular relaxation. As training progresses, finer awareness develops for micro-tensions as they are generated deeply within the body, giving rise to stress. This new internal sensitivity offers the realization that stress can be un-created as easily as it is created.
In Autogenic Training, the body’s voluntary muscles become ever more relaxed, often far beyond ordinary experience. Pushing onward beyond voluntary muscles, the smooth muscles are then imbued with calming awareness, as the ultimate gateway to the dissolution of stress.
Smooth muscles function within the jurisdiction of the visceral nervous system and therefore are ordinarily beyond voluntary influence. Smooth muscles regulate the functions of the heart, vascular tension, digestive peristalsis, respiratory rhythm, urination, sexual function, the eye’s workings, and numerous basic reflexes.
As stress reactions are transcended in Autogenic Training, other sensations may be manifested. Beyond heaviness, there can appear a pervasive lightness of being; and beyond warmth, there sometimes comes a sensation of refreshing global coolness, first appearing around the forehead and temples.
The neurology of Tummo Meditation.
Tummo Meditation entrains the participation of several major mental functions, recruiting the action of vast nervous system networks, implicating visual, somesthetic, and visceral systems. Participating, as well, are higher-level cortical functions because they draw on Tummo’s spiritual significance.
The experiencing of warmth, and eventually of heat in the abdominal, thoracic and pelvic bodily spaces implies an involvement of the rich conglomeration of nerve plexuses inhabiting these areas. Indeed, it is said that the number of neurons in the peripheral nervous system rivals those in the brain.
Heat and light from the image of a lit candle in the abdomen’s center activate nerve plexuses in visceral regions. Participating plexuses include those sprouting from the spinal cord (cervical, brachial, lumbar and sacral), and the diffuse networks innervating the visceral organs (cardiac, celiac, gastric, mesenteric, phrenic, hepatic and pelvic).
Techniques that develop heightened entente between mind and body can easily complement contemporary psychotherapies. The benefits include new levels of well-being that incorporate multi-level relaxation, visceral organ harmony, and hitherto unknown (and higher) states of experiencing.
Autogenic Training (AT) and Tummo Mediation originate from different paradigms. While AT derives from Western neurological concepts, Tummo strives to tap into energies conceptualized as resonating with a parallel dimension of a universal kind.
This paper proposes two disciplines of body/mind development, Autogenic Training, and Tummo Meditation. Each can be practiced alone or within the context of psychotherapy. The meditator has the choice, not only of developing either method according to one’s capacities and preferences, but also to incorporate elements of both in the creation of a unique personal meditative blend.
(Ret.) Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Bellevue-NYU Medical Center, New York
Board Certified in Psychiatry and Neurology.