As long as I’ve been on the topic for the past several posts, I thought I’d give the definition of meditation a wholewheat-spaghetti stab.
For the record, I’m no meditation o-tar-a-ti, nor an experienced meditator. I can barely sit crosslegged. Therefore, the following is a grainy summary of what I’ve gleaned from other smart people who are in-the-know on the topic.
First, a few givens, confirmed by science and other advanced fields:
- Thoughts are electrical impulses, with real cause and effects.
- A large portion of the thoughts we generate is illusory, or made-up fiction.
- Most humans on the planet live their waking hours in a state of perpetual thought, and most of us are guided throughout our lives by those thoughts.
- The energy transmitted by the thoughts of those around us affects us much more than we consciously realize. In other words, it’s easy to be whipped into a judgment frenzy when we are bombarded by the forceful energy fields around us.
Second, what meditation isn’t: It is not a goal, an end, nor something to achieve.
So what is meditation?
Meditation is an exercise to create pockets of space around thoughts. It is training to help create gaps in our stream of thinking. Meditation is a practice to, even if a little, quiet the mind. And it’s a process to become, and remain, an observer, a witness, to our own presence.
And the benefits? What does having gaps in the thought stream achieve? How are pockets of space around thoughts of value? Why invest (time) to meditate? Hmm,…following is a partial list;
- Thanks again to science, we know that meditation practice significantly improves brain health, particularly the part of the gray matter responsible for memory.
- Through meditation, we grow more “mindful” of the impacts of our ponderings.
- Meditation practice enables us to convert detrimental and useless views into positive ones.
- Meditation helps, bit by bit, untangle the passive conditioning built up over eons. In other words, it helps clear (some of) the natural muck that clouds our perspective.
- Meditation equips us to become more fundamentally aware of our feelings and emotions, what affects them, and how to temper them.
- Meditation gives us the poise to (be able to) respond vs react.
- Meditation improves focus.
- Meditation reduces chronic stress.
- Meditation brings a deeper awareness (present-ness) throughout our lives when we are not actively meditating.
- Meditation helps (some of) us become nicer humans.
- Meditation leads to more joy.
- Meditation (can) lead to enlightenment. (Whatever that may be).
And I’ll go out on a limb and say, because everything in our body is connected, that if meditation practice has been proven to improve cognitive health and reduce stress, then it has upside potential for enhancing overall physical well-being.
Not that I’ve turned into a meditation advocate, but in our new digital age, with almost everyone on the planet cruising through life spending much of their time staring into handheld devices, our thoughts are not only more actively competing for our attention, but we are also turning them over to a growing influence of artificial stimulation. Meditation can help mitigate the digital stranglehold.
A Wholewheat Spaghetti Summary
Meditation is a healthy, perhaps vital, habit that empowers us to more frequently, genuinely, and gratifyingly, smile to ourselves and others, for the overall experience of being human.
Hmm,…I’d better get practicing…
The main title, Why Buddhism is True, is a bit misleading. Throughout most of the book, the author threads interesting, up-to-date, and digestible logic as to the (potentially huge) benefits of practicing mindful meditation. As a beginning meditator, Wright’s reasoning was compelling enough to have me hooked from the start.
But you don’t need to be attracted to meditation to be captivated by the book. In fairness, Wright does provide an abundance of thought-provoking (no pun) data not only from science, but also from modern psychology which seems to coincide with basic Buddhists concepts of not-self/emptiness, liberation from delusion (how we see ourselves is largely an illusion), and our thinking mind’s “default mode network.”
If anyone is, (shouldn’t we all be), interested in understanding the mechanics behind how feelings shape thoughts, behaviors, and perceptions, and how, through practice, we can become aware of “things in our environment that affect those feelings,” than the book is well worth the investment. Some feelings, he says “are good guiding lights,” while others can “push us around.” He provides first-hand examples of how we might successfully manipulate the feelings that may not be benefiting us.
Wright speckles the book with his own experiences, mainly with dry, relatable, yet subtlely perky humor. I found myself laughing out loud several times throughout the book.
The value of meditation, he says, is its use as a fundamental tool, one that enables us to see the stories we build and how we can more clearly separate illusion from truth. In other words, he says, mindfulness meditation helps us change our perception of the world, even with potentially simple annoyances like crabgrass, the buzzsaw of construction noise, or the impulse to respond to a pricky email. He also describes the benefit of continued meditation as an evolving capacity of “seeing things with higher resolution.”
The key, he says, through daily practices of mindful meditation, is becoming more aware of “what causes what,” (causality). But, he explains, the fruits of meditation is more than just awareness. It’s active learning how to change negative into positive.
The crux of the book and Wright’s principal argument for our feelings, he outlines, is the “conditioning” of natural selection, which is built into our core from millions of years of evolution. But many “natural tendencies” which served our species well over time may also be working against us (in our relatively recent, densely populated global community). He describes, through meditation, how we can “subvert the programming of (the undesirable aspects of) natural selection,” to achieve a measurable, positive impact in our lives and of those around us. In effect, he is saying that Darwin confirmed the truth behind Buddhism.
That is, if you can remember to ask yourself — repeatedly.
The trick is keeping this short query-to-self in the frontal cortex and at the ready.
Is what I’m thinking that which is wholesome or that which is not?
I heard the suggestion listening to Mark Webber’s 15 recordings from his month-long Dharma retreat last year called “All About Karma.” (No I’m not a Buddhist, but the philosophy/religions’s most basic tenets “do no harm” is worthy embracing). Webber says karma is causality, which is a different interpretation than most Asians or Westerners have. Karma, he says, is the activity of doing, which is causation. Karma is mental intent and the resultant activity. The source is our thoughts. To begin to see this, in his retreat Webber instructs his practitioners how to significantly slow down cognition.
Apparently, what certain enlightened individuals in the metaphysical realm have realized thousands of years ago, and what our scientific community is recently discovering is that;
- Thoughts are chemical impulses with real consequences. Although thoughts are mostly stories (illusions), they are not innocent. The chemical impulses, no matter how slight, create a cause and effect.
- Everything, meaning every human, animal, bug, plant, or thing on this earth is connected.
Is what I’m thinking that which is wholesome or that which is not? is a question one could ask of every thought, no matter how seemingly benign. Thoughts either spark a positive charge or one that is negative. They either construct or destruct. And while we may deem some to be neutral, every thought still produces a resulting consequence.
Of course, the topic is quite a bit deeper than a meager blog post could justify. Listening to the retreat, more than 25 hours worth, left me realizing what an underdeveloped human I am. Short of having the question on post-a-notes everywhere, most of us would need a lifetime of meditation to see causality as part of our stream of consciousness.
Except for a few individuals, most humans live with a busy thought voice every waking hour. The voice is usually too occupied to be interrupted for a self-evaluation. But like the beauty of compounded interest, many tiny (positive) thought adjustments accumulate to much larger (positive) effects. If, for example, just a couple of key times each day, especially those moments when someone does something we don’t like, or we must do something we don’t fancy, or when we are annoyed for whatever reason, we were to invoke this question-to-self and make small perspective adjustments from negative to positive, we could, without sounding dramatically gushy, contribute, in no small way, to changing our lives, and those around us, for the better.
An Audible book review — 10% Happier, by Dan Harris
Stories have a way of capturing us. Given that the author is in the story-making business, he creatively loops several facets of meditation, vis-a-vis a series of real-life tales, into a mainstream mindset. Overall, I found 10% Happier entertaining and well worth the listen.
Admittedly, I didn’t know who the author was when I came across this book. Being part of a major news network contributed a degree of credibility to the narrative, especially since he had the ability, and apparently, the desire, to interview a broad cross-section of leaders on the ‘spiritual’ side of the self-help business. He, therefore, brings an objective, albeit at times somewhat inelastic, perspective to the concept of meditation.
It was slightly off-putting, for example, that he needed to dis Eckhart Tolle right out of the gate, even though Tolle’s book, A New Earth, which he admittedly read three times before he started his journey, opened the door into a life-changing, philosophical shift in his thinking. His curious derision for Tolle seemed to be affected not only by concepts he evidently couldn’t grasp but also by his wardrobe. Thankfully, Harris somewhat redeemed himself in the epilogue, reluctantly giving Tolle (some) credit.
At times, it seemed like he was writing the book for his colleagues at ABC, perhaps to explain spats of conduct as well as elucidate the logic for his path into the quasi-spiritual world. Still, the book was highly engaging, with humorous bouts of self-deprecation and a partial inside view of the high-stress world of network news.
Apart from his highly skeptical nature — if there is no proof, and it’s not mainstream, then it borders fringe or beyond unless someone he respects provides scientific and logical evidence — Harris comes across relatively open, honest, with hefty doses of witty tongue-in-cheek, which adds to his likability.
For anyone wanting to increase their English vocabulary, I’d recommend the written book. Because I listened to the narrated version, I was (slightly) better able to understand, if only in context, the abundance of unfamiliar flowery words and phrases peppered throughout. Reading such a bounty of unusual words would have stopped me in my tracks more often than I would have liked (but that may be a good thing).
What I particularly liked about the book, besides the evocative anecdotes, is his method of spreading the value of meditation, which, because of his unique media role and presentation style, takes some of the mysteriousness out of an opaque topic. I’ve been on the cusp of starting this lifestyle practice for too long. After listening to the book, I’m a convert. Meditation, as it’s evidently been scientifically proven, is an exercise with only constructive upside benefits.
Even though I was slightly annoyed about the Tolle dissing, (it was useful mindfulness practice anyhow), I found myself wanting more when it ended. Hence, I’ve already pre-ordered his new guidelines coming out in Dec 2017. I’m at least 10% more motivated.
Suggestion: Harris closed the book with a self-developed list of ten useful “precepts.” I’d recommend changing #1 from “don’t be a jerk” to “be kind.” It’s easier to be something than not being something. Besides, jerk is relative, and kindness precludes jerkness.
Most of our bodily functions, under normal conditions, are either voluntary or involuntary. Not many are both. We can choose when to use the washroom (to a point), but we don’t choose our heartbeat. We might choose to control our breath, but it’s an involuntarily action that will happen regardless. For the most part, our functions are either/or.
One whopping exception is our thought process, which for most of us, is both voluntary and involuntary. And the beauty, as humans, is that we have an opportunity that repeats itself every second to take voluntary control over the involuntary process.
It’s an incredible reality. Every second of every day, we can decide what is processed through our “think” box, in addition to how we feel. We can decide, every second, whether to feel happy or sad, grateful or frustrated, loving or not so loving, or whether to let garbage thoughts stream or stop them in their tracks. The challenge is finding our transcendental ummph.
When I was 18 during my second semester of college in the early 70s, I sat in on an extracurricular course called Transcendental Meditation. The concept sounded intriguing. I guess the numerous LSD trips I had experimented with, although quite mind-bending experiences, were mostly joy rides and not so grounded in reality. The TM practice though, was too slow for my young head after the psychedelic form of expanded consciousness. Regardless, there was something about transcending the normal state of mind that was tempting. I left both of them behind not long after that semester.
Recently though, the idea of transcending mental noise has once again become alluring. But to be in continued control of what passes through the thought process seems to take extraordinary effort. If only it were as easy as going to the gym a few times a week. Life is full and busy for most of us — bombarding us with people and circumstances that challenge us from transcending anything.
Is getting to a form of permanent transcendence for yogis and spiritual masters only? Can’t be, because we all have the power within us to think and feel as we choose, to make decisions about, and take responsibility for, our thoughts, emotions, and reactions. Is it that simple? Maybe so, as many have known this over the last couple millennia. Perhaps it could be said then, that abdicating this responsibility of taking control over the involuntary thought process, of letting someone or something determine our emotional state, or permitting our thoughts run amok, is like saying we are not the masters of our own thought box.
But what do I know. It may be easier than I’m reckoning. It could be that those hallucinogenic trials in my (more) youthful years knocked a few rungs out of my transcendental ladder.
Nevertheless, whether for a second, or perhaps two, simply recognizing that there’s always another second, one second away, provides an exciting prospect of almost unlimited opportunities for poking our heads above the clatter. It’s possible because it’s an every-second decision.
Now I’d better get back to searching for a little of that ummph, the transcendental kind, which seems to continually evade me.