This is Your Brain on Meditation.

Via Benjamin Riggs
on Jan 29, 2011
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Meditation & Science.

Can all the hype about the benefits of meditation become an obstacle?

A hugely popular New York Times article gets it wrong: the point of meditation is…

Recently I happened across (by which I mean I was approached by Waylon and asked to write about) a New York Times article entitled, “How Meditation May Change The Brain.” It’s the most popular article on the entire site—good news for those of us who think meditation is a good thing for humans of any religion of lack of religion.

But there’s a little catch. Meditation isn’t about any of this.

The article is written by Sindya N. Bhanoo, a lady who is married to a man who has of late become infatuated with the practice of meditation. He, Mr. Bhanoo I presume, is currently conducting

“…an experiment to determine whether and how meditation actually improves the quality of his life.”

He is curious to see if and how meditation changes the brain.

There is certainly a good deal of evidence to suggest that meditation does just that. In the post on the NYT, Sindya Bhanoo cites a great many of these findings. Most of the hype surrounding meditation in popular media springs forth from these studies. Everyone seems to be enraptured by meditation’s capacity to increase gray matter, decrease blood pressure, or improve one’s attention span.

This sort of infatuation is nothing new.

In fact, it is probably as old as meditation itself. There are countless accounts of people in ancient societies becoming enthralled with the symptoms of meditation. They thought that meditation would give them magical powers—the ability to levitate or change the weather. This infatuation manifests in our scientifically and technologically advanced society in a more sophisticated manner perhaps. With M.R.I. images and what not, but the general idea is the same. We are obsessed with transforming everything into some kind of technology that we can use to manipulate the environment in our favor.

We as a society do not seem to be attracted to meditation. That is to say, we are not interested in observing our confusion. We are not in the least bit concerned with taking to the path of simple observation our pain and suffering. Rather, we want to harness a technology that will give us the power to control life. We want to bypass suffering. We want to ignore the simple truth of dissatisfaction, by obsessively pursuing super-powers.

Meditation is simple observation. It is about observation… The point of meditation is meditation. When we simply watch the movement of mind a great many of our preconceived ideas are challenged. Ultimately our ideas about ourself are brought into question. When we observe the movement of thought, and notice that we cannot keep track of thought without thinking, we realize that who and what we thought we were was little more than a thought… One thought thinking about another thought. This is the truth of selflessness. It is emptiness. However, selflessness is not nothingness. The direct experience of emptiness is luminous. It is experience without an experiencer. Naked awareness. Resting in this is meditation.

Now it maybe that an M.R.I. machine measures the depth of such an experience by the increase in gray matter, but from the practitioners point of view, transforming meditation into an obsessive attempt to grow your gray matter is counter productive. Such a pursuit is a selfish pursuit… Materialism in a spiritual wardrobe! It is like the man who has got to lower his blood pressure… He sits down to meditate with the attitude, “Now I have got to relax!” He is freaking out about relaxing… It just won’t work.

Meditation is about the observation of confusion. In seeing our confusion for what it is, it is immediately transformed into insight! The fundamental misunderstanding to be challenged is the belief in a solid-separate self. The entire institution of selfishness and self-centeredness has to be challenged. It is the belief in an intrinsic self-image that puts us at odds with life. We call this friction between us and life stress or anxiety, but they are nothing more than symptoms of the fact that we believe the environment is something that we must control or conquer… Something that we must manipulate to our advantage. Meditation kills itself the moment it is revealed that there is no one meditating. Meditation becomes non-meditation when the truth of selflessness is discovered.

Meditation is about the discovery of total freedom. Such a whole and complete freedom is really freedom from self. This is something that Sindya Bhanoo, author of the NYT piece seems to have realized, but as of now, her husband has yet to notice. She ends her article by saying, “For now, I’m more than happy to support my husband’s little experiment, despite the fact that he now rises at 5 a.m. and is exhausted by 10 at night. An empathetic husband who takes out the trash and puts gas in the car because he knows I don’t like to — I’ll take that.”

Perhaps the best of both worlds?

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About Benjamin Riggs

Ben Riggs is the author of Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West. He is also the director of the Refuge Meditation Group in Shreveport, LA. Ben writes extensively about Buddhist & Christian spirituality for Elephant Journal, and The Web of Enlightenment. To keep up with all of his work follow him on Facebook or Twitter. He also teaches at Explore Yoga. Click here to listen to my podcast.


12 Responses to “This is Your Brain on Meditation.”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Waylon Lewis, Mila, Matthew Killorin, Refuge Meditation, Ben Riggs and others. Ben Riggs said: Interested in the #health benefits of meditation? Well here is an article about where #science and #meditation meet!- […]

  2. I haven't read the article in the NYT, but so far I don't understand the problem. What's wrong with trying to more fully understand the scientific explanation for why meditation is beneficial?

    And it doesn't seem to me that the meditative traditions have been as determinedly neutral about results as you say. Wasn't the original stated purpose of Buddhism to "end suffering".

    That's hardly just neutral observation.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  3. Hi, Ben. I hope you don't get tired of me showing up here with my troublesome comments. But I don't believe that any human being has the capability as you say they should, of detaching their own personal quest for happiness from the actions they take to try and achieve that happiness (or determined inaction in the case of meditation).

    One of the things I love about the Dalai Lama is that he is consistently and refreshingly clear on this point, as I once wrote in this blog:

    The Dalai Lama, when asked the purpose of life, unequivocally and unabashedly answers, “to find happiness.” Some would argue that happiness is not the purpose of life at all, rather some higher calling, such as achieving one’s full potential, or making the world a better place, or doing God’s will, or getting to heaven.

    It seems to me the ultimate purpose of life, deepest down, is the perpetuation of the species–but not just in the obvious ways like procreation. Seeking happiness is a day-to-day manifestation of our universal urge to insure our long-term survival. It drives everything we do.

    This purpose is not inconsistent with any other life purpose. For example, the golden rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) is a near universal religious principle. But it’s also a critical ingredient to our long-term success as a species. (Darwinists would say that even anti-Darwinist fundamentalism is an unconscious effort to perpetuate the species.)

    People seek happiness in many ways. If someone thinks life’s purpose is to “achieve one’s full potential”, it’s because they believe it will bring them happiness. Likewise with “making the world a better place”, or “doing God’s will”, or certainly “getting to heaven”.

    Even someone as selfless as Mother Theresa is seeking her own happiness, or at least “fulfillment”. Even artists who feel they need to be unhappy to fuel their creativity are expecting a long-term payoff in the happiness of artistic success.

    With this explanation, we can fully appreciate the Dalai Lama’s simple truth–the purpose of life is to find happiness. What seems at first like narrow selfishness is really a cosmic biological imperative.


  4. Nice article! I especially have to love the last bit about the 'little experiment'. I think that's how my boyfriend sees me most of the time. Much love, Tanya

  5. Viv says:

    Ben this is wild! I just wrote an article for Technocrati, with the same exact title! I thought I was so witty, and I had not seen your article yet! Wild and it's in response to same NYT article. Anyway-hope Google doesn't get flumoxed!

  6. Ron says:

    "Meditation is simple observation. It is about observation…"

    I was very excited as I began reading. I had the thought that perhaps I could comment a "great article!" on my first Elephant Journal article. All was well until we got to the above quote. It was all downhill from there.

    That is an incorrect statement. It is one method of meditation. It is not the truth of meditation.

    There is more to learn, my friend! Dig deep! Good luck!

  7. Tree says:

    Two things; 1. I do not think Buddha was trying to end suffering. He was just saying Life IS suffering, so deal with it. And a nice way to deal with it, is to know it. Meditation is one way to deal with it. 2. I know Mother Teresa was not in it for herself in anyway.
    She was not seeking happiness or fulfillment. Like Buddha and Jesus, she was just doing her work for LOVE of people.

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