DISCOVERING OUR ‘BETTER NATURE’ THROUGH MEDITATION
Once upon a time, meditation used to be the tool of the mystics and spiritual seekers only. This ancient spiritual practice was developed to facilitate altered states of consciousness and profound personal transformation. In recent years, however, there is a growing interest in meditation beyond the realm of spirituality. Many people have reported numerous benefits gained through meditation, from improved physical health to relief from various emotional disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
Two approaches to meditation: the deep path and the wide path
Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson present two approaches to meditation: the deep and the wide, and stress they are fundamentally vastly different from one another. The deep path, which has the long-term goal of spiritual awakening, has two levels: Level 1 and Level 2. Level 1 is the pure and intensive, and it is practiced within spiritual systems (traditions, lineages), such as Theravada Buddhism or Tibetan Yoga. Level 2 is an adaptation of the Level 1 practices, suitable to the needs of the modern man—while the tools/techniques are preserved, the requirement to live a life of a monk/yogi is no longer there. The wide path consists of Level 3 and Level 4. Level 3 is a further simplification of the traditional practices. The techniques, stripped almost entirely off their original spiritual context, are widely disseminated across groups, communities and societies interested solely in their pragmatic value. Examples of such ‘user friendly’ programs include mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and Transcendental Meditation (TM). Level 4 is the most simplified version of meditation, promoted through simple, highly commercialized tools and techniques for achieving mindfulness. Examples include meditation apps which promise instantaneous, 1-min stillness. One can even predict the occurrence of Level 5, at which meditation is presented in only ‘bits and pieces,’ leading to even wider popularity of stillness and mindfulness among people with no prior interest in meditation.
Meditation trains the mind, reshapes the brain, and creates enduring altered traits
Modern scientific disciplines—from psychology to neurosciences—now study altered traits (new characteristics that arise from a meditation practice). Altered traits are lasting effects of meditation, which determine one’s behavior long after the meditation session is over. Particularly powerful in developing altered traits (including selflessness and compassion) is the practice of the deep path. These altered traits are expressions of the changed brain function in meditators. Not surprisingly, however, even the wide path approach toward meditation leads to a development of altered traits—it can help, for example, tame destructive emotions such as anger and rage. Based on scientific findings, evidence-based applications of traditional meditation practices are now used in hospitals, schools, and businesses around the world.
Today, numerous meditation tools and techniques with origin in various spiritual systems are widely popularized and made available to everyone. Yet the search for the “right” or the “perfect” technique that will work best for a particular individual may seem like a daunting task. One good approach is to adopt a technique which appears appealing and evaluate it by sticking with it for a while—practicing daily over a month.
The way toward our “better nature”
As one example of altered traits resulting from the practice of meditation, Goleman and Davidson write about kindness. In the course of their research and personal transformative journeys in India, they have come across two masters of meditation who embodied the highest qualities of humility, kindness, and compassion—Khunu Lama, a Tibetan monk, and Neem Karoli Baba, an Indian yogi. Both the masters shared a common trait—kindness and warmth toward anyone whom they encountered, regardless of their socio-economic status. Nothing and no one could ever disturb the peace, bliss, and love which the masters radiated.
The authors also point out a remarkable difference between modern psychology and ancient spiritual literature in the way they approach human state and human nature. While modern psychology focuses on overcoming problems or pathology, the Eastern approach has always focused on how to achieve ultimate freedom from limitations and how to fulfill the highest human potential. This was to be achieved by moving beyond the three major states of consciousness (waking, sleeping, and dreaming) toward altered, higher states of consciousness in meditation.
However, it is only through sustained, long-term practice, that the meditation “highs” or transcendental/mystical experiences can translate into enduring altered traits. There is an old Indian story about a yogi who, after years of solitary meditation in the mountains, came down to the valley, convinced in his spiritual achievements. As soon as he entered the marketplace, a Raja paraded on an elephant through the main street. A local boy, overwhelmed by a sense of fear and owe, stepped back from the street, and stomped on the yogi’s bare foot. The yogi got angry and raised his walking stick, ready to hit the boy. When he suddenly became aware of what he was about to do, the yogi realized how fleeting his meditative bliss had been. He immediately left the valley, going back to his cave up in the hills, to continue his spiritual practice.
~Based on the book “The Science of Meditation: How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body” by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson. Penguin Life. UK, 2017.