January 30, 2011

This is Your Brain on Meditation.

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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