The summer of 1971 at the University of Massachusett, Amherst, Maharishi held the first symposium on the Science of Creative Intelligence. Speakers included a bevy of scientists and educators sharing the stage with Maharishi to discuss physics, chemistry, psychology, and the arts. But, the speaker I was most eager to see was Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, coiner of the phrase “spaceship earth,” and author of, "No More Secondhand God. " The symposium began some three weeks into a concurrently scheduled month long intensive of meditation- the first step of my TM teacher training.
In my eagerness to see Bucky, I stopped the meditation routine I’d been following. For three weeks I had been meditating for 6 hours a day. Then suddenly, in a single day I dropped down to the usual TM routine of 20 minutes twice a day.
The day after that I was sick as a dog.
All I could do was lie in my bed with high fever, clogged head, aching all over. Even my hair hurt. Apparently, if you stopped a routine of extensive meditation abruptly, the body rebelled with fever. I discovered more experienced meditators called it the “CC flu.” This so called “Cosmic Consciousness flu” was one hazard to negotiate as one cultured the body for enlightenment.
Now this is a fascinating experimental result.
While easily repeatable with TM, I have since discovered similar flu-like symptoms arise from other practices. The first year I practiced Sum Faht, I joined a meditation group that met for an hour and a half Saturday mornings. On the drive home I’d begin to feel feverish and many a Saturday afternoon was spent lying in bed. It took about a year for my body to adapt and remain symptom free. Recently, in her blog devoted to understanding Kundalini, Dorothy Walters introduced the phrase, “Is it energy or allergies?”
What are we to make of these aches and pain that arise from meditation?
In 1971, I assumed that meditation was stirring up impurities to be thrown out of the body. This is, after all, the definition of unstressing- the most immediate purpose of meditation. While methods and terms vary, all spiritual paths devote efforts towards purification. But, there seemed no science here: only words like unstressing, tapas, alchemy, baptism by fire…
Today, immunology has discovered the molecules that cause fever and the aches of flu. There is a whole family of related molecules called cytokines. These molecules are secreted from certain white blood cells (macrophages and neutrophils). Three cytokines in particular: interleukin-1, interleukin 6 (IL-1 and IL- 6, respectively) and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNK-alpha) are secreted as part of the immune response to bacterial infection.
Cytokines are also called endogenous pyrogens. That’s “pyro” from the Latin root for fire and “endogenous” because they arise from within us. Carried by the blood stream these endogenous pyrogens make their way to sites within the brain. Binding to receptors in the hypothalamus, they cause an increase in body temperature. Fever not only makes it harder for bacteria to growth, but also helps to activate other immune responses, changing liver function, mobilizing immune cells from deep inside the bone marrow, and altering fat and muscle metabolism- creating all that muscle ache.
How does meditation stimulate production of cytokines? More precisely, why does a sudden decrease in meditation create a surge in cytokine expression and symptoms of the “CC Flu” in TM? Why would Sum Faht meditation create a fever in one beginner's session? Or, ranging further- Why does a fresh juice fast, another means of purification, also lead to running nose, fever and aches?
“I don’t know,” is my short answer. But, it is instructive to consider the HPA axis- a pathway that links the brain (Hypothalamus and Pituitary) to the Adrenals. The HPA axis lies at the core of the body’s ability to handle stress. What is obvious is that meditation affects the HPA axis in a manner exactly opposite from that of cytokines.
Meditation lowers HPA activity, resulting in lower levels of cortisol- the traditional molecule that’s measured to see how “stressed out” you are.
The interleukins and TNK-alpha bind to receptors in the hypothalamus and pituitary and activate the HPA axis at all levels generating a classic stress response that culminates in not only fever, but the adrenal’s increased production of cortisol. Eventually, the cortisol feeds back to macrophage and neutrophils and shuts down cytokine secretion and re-establishes homeostatic balance. But, in the meantime, you burn.