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?


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 and a teacher at Explore Yoga. Ben writes extensively about Buddhist and Christian spirituality on Elephant Journal, and his blog. Click here to listen to the Finding God in the Body Podcast. To keep up with all of his work follow him on Facebook or Twitter.


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. BenRiggs says:

    Wasn't the original stated purpose of Buddhism to "end suffering?" The answer to this question is, YES!

    Now I have a question, "What is the difference between Buddhism and Meditation???"

    Buddhism intends to end suffering, which they have determined has its roots in confusion… So in comes meditation… Meditation is not about the alleviation of suffering, but complete and total observation, which includes the observation of confusion. When confusion is seen for what it is it ceases to be confusion, and therefore the whole network of suffering comes tumbling down. So I would suggest that meditation which seeks to alleviate suffering will only find disappointment because it misses the point…

    There is nothing wrong with trying to understand the scientific explanation for why meditation is beneficial… However, when this affects my intentions, and I become hell bent on relaxing I have pissed in my own Cheerios! I cannot force myself to relax, and this is precisely what I am trying to do if I come to meditation with the intention of doing just that…

    On the other hand, I also recognize that the confusion which must be observed is the very patterns I have described above… So with that said, if we can bring these selfish intentions to the cushion and see them, then I would suspect we are in good shape!

  4. Sorry, Ben. I still don't get the logic. Seems like you're saying:

    –I like Buddhism, which means my purpose is to end suffering.
    –Meditation is my main method of doing that.
    –But once I start meditating I'm not going to pay any attention whether my initial purpose is being fulfilled or not.
    –And scientifically studying why meditation works ruins the process.

    Have I got it right?

  5. BenRiggs says:


    Meditation is not a method. You are just sitting there… Watching. A method of what? The moment it becomes a method I would suggest you are thinking about things, which isn't that much different than what you were doing before you sat down…

    As far as the "I like Buddhism" bit… If you "like" Buddhism then you have probably read the first 2 Noble Truths. They suggest that you suffer because you cling to your interpretation of reality, which is full of false assumptions. Meditation addresses these false assumptions, but not as an answer to a problem. It simply observes reality to see if they are true. The Buddha, and other realized beings have told us that they are not true, but their words does not come before their experience. They are describing what they found out when they tested their assumptions against the grain of reality…

    This brings us to the third point: "Scientifically studying why meditation works ruins the process."
    When we read the words of these realized beings and confuse their words for our reality we put the cart before the horse. The article above could just as easily been about striving to bring to fruition the experience of others… In fact the first post in my new discussion group address this very issue… If I am pursuing some thing then it is a selfish pursuit, and the fundamental misunderstanding is the belief in a self. It does not matter if I am pursuing enlightenment or more gray matter. From this point of view I have transformed meditation into a method that reinforces the most basic misunderstanding. Ananda, the Buddha's main assistant, attained enlightenment only once he gave up, and laid his head down to rest!
    But in this article I am suggesting when we pursue the benefits of meditation we are pursuing symptoms… The increase of gray matter or the decrease in blood pressure is a symptom of insight. In pursuing the symptom we ignore the cause, and therefore never experience the symptom. We relax as a result of insight… When we realize that life is not attacking us, because there is no solid thing for it to attack. We lighten up, and take things easy. As a result blood pressure drops. This insight is born out of simple observation. We cannot force insight because we are ignorant to what we do not see. All we can do is open our mind and watch. Then insight naturally dawns… and the blood pressure may drop.

  6. BenRiggs says:

    Precisely… And if I am pursuing side-effects I am ignoring their causes, which means nothing is going to change. I will be stuck in the same self-centered pattern that invited me to meditation in the first place.

  7. 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.


  8. BenRiggs says:

    Certainly do not get tired of troublesome comments…

    As I have said before (see comments section of the Joel Burns Bodhisattva article) I reserve the right to disagree with the Dalai Lama…

    I agree, Everything that we do, we are doing in order to create personal happiness. This is the glue that holds samsara together… So in the end we are really just perpetuating self-centered states of mind.

    I do not disagree with the Dalai Lama on the point of happiness. We are hardwired for happiness. Our disagreement may just be semantics, or maybe not— I do not know… But I would suggest that we are not other than happiness. In other words, happiness is not something that we can pursue. I would say happiness is a by-product or a symptom of realizing the truth of selflessness. Happiness is our natural state of mind, but the mind can not rest in its natural state so long as it is being organized around an idea— self-centered.

    So if it were up to me, I would strike from The Declaration of Independence that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right… Pursuing happiness seems to be more of a cyclic disaster that a fundamental right!

    Never thought I would write a short little blurb where I found myself at odds with H.H. the Dalai Lama and Thomas Jefferson… Scary!

  9. 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

  10. 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!

  11. 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!

  12. 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.