It was fine for George Harrison of the Beatles to visit an Indian guru in the 1960s to learn how to meditate. And it’s okay if you inhabit a hilltop monastery in Tibet. But for most of us in “the real world,” meditation seems of little practical value.
In recent years, however, there has been an upsurge of interest in the practice—some would call it the art—of meditation; it has even drawn in a number of scientists keen to assess its claimed benefits and study its effect on neurological processes.
What is meditation? Does meditating have anything of value to offer, and is it a worthwhile pursuit for the average person?
Though it is typically defined as focusing the mind for a period of time, especially for spiritual purposes, advocates list a range of practical benefits such as reducing stress and anxiety, strengthening the immune system, and reducing high blood pressure. In his book on the history of meditation, Riding the Ox Home, late professor of religious studies Willard Johnson argued that the process of healing goes beyond “better tuning of the body’s ‘machine.’” Many researchers now believe that healing and preventing illness involve the mind as well; some postulate that the ability to manage one’s emotions through meditation can bring about improvement in anything from eating disorders and substance abuse to depression and chronic pain. In a study on pain sensitivity at Wake Forest University, the research of psychologist Fadel Zeidan suggests that while meditation does not remove the sensation of pain, it teaches sufferers to control their emotional reaction to it and so reduce stress responses.
Controlling thoughts and emotions is also a technique that athletes and others use to increase success. Skilled participants of any pursuit often talk of being “in the zone” or “in the flow,” where there is a sense of clarity and being fully present in the moment. In practice this means being able to focus and to limit distractions, as well as to fend off negative emotions and overcome the desire to give in when the going gets tough, thus opening up the potential for whatever we are doing to be done more effectively. This may seem far removed from the notion of meditation in the popular imagination. Johnson attributed this to a certain cultural bias that limits our understanding of meditation and declared that it can in fact be used as a tool to improve many activities.
“Sometimes we do have moments of inner peace, of altruistic love, of deep-felt confidence, but, for the most part, these are only fleeting experiences that quickly give way to other less pleasant ones. What if we could train our mind to cultivate these wholesome moments?”
The practical application of techniques that help us control thought processes and harness them for a positive outcome is something almost everyone can benefit from. Former cellular geneticist Matthieu Ricard makes the case that “meditation is not about sitting quietly in the shade of a tree and relaxing in a moment of respite from the daily grind; it is about . . . a new way to manage your thoughts . . .” (Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill). Too often, however, we are held captive by our mental ruminations, to the detriment of peace of mind and well-being.
You Are What You Think
Have we ever taken the time to ask ourselves why we think and react the way we do? Why is it that at times we feel we cannot be content until we have acquired a certain possession such as a particular smartphone, car or house, or have earned so much money, or have a particular job or position, or are with a certain someone? Or why, if we’ve achieved that goal, the goalpost seems to shift elsewhere, just over the horizon? And why do we dwell on past mistakes like a needle stuck in a groove on a phonograph record, repeating the same discordant note, until we become overburdened by guilt to the point of immobilization, unable to deal with or confront our shortcomings? Why do we react with anger when someone cuts us off on the road? Why do we worry about potential problems, catastrophizing our future into a series of unpleasant scenarios? Do we ever stop to consider the toll all of this might be taking on our health, or the impact we might be having on others?
Being aware of how we think and react requires that we give greater priority to pausing from our often rushed and harried existence, and instead contemplating. As William Henry Davies asked in his poem Leisure, “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” Meditation is, among other things, the means by which we can “stare” at ourselves. Johnson argued that one of the greatest benefits of meditating is gaining greater levels of self-knowledge. He cited Socrates as having said that “people derive most of their benefits from knowing themselves, and most of their misfortunes from being self-deceived.” Meditative introspection is a means by which we can first notice harmful patterns of thinking, realize they are not inevitable, and then work to correct them. This, of course, takes time and effort. Ricard says: “We readily accept the idea that it takes time and perseverance to master an art, a sport, a language or any other discipline. Why should it not be the same with training the mind?” (The Art of Meditation). Developing this ability will also enable us to step back from a situation and be aware of personal emotions, feelings, motivations, etc., as well as those of others, before making important decisions. Too often, however, we simply react.
But can we really make changes to the way we think, or are we forever destined to continue along the path we currently find ourselves following?
In recent years neuroscientists have developed the concept of neuroplasticity, identifying that the brain can change by establishing new neural networks. Ricard asks: “Can a voluntary inner enrichment, such as the long-term practice of meditation, . . . induce important and lasting changes in the workings of the brain?” He feels the answer is generally yes. “If happiness and emotional balance are skills, we cannot underestimate the power of the transformation of the mind and must give due importance to the profound methods that allow us to become better human beings.” As Ricard argues, meditation is not about creating a void in the mind; nor is it an attempt to provide a short-term block to what mentally ails us. In fact, a method advocating the opposite, mindfulness, is gaining increasing attention. This type of meditation stresses paying attention to our thoughts to change the way we think, feel and act. We benefit from time and effort spent challenging negative tendencies and working to replace emotions such as anger, greed and jealousy with others such as patience, generosity and kindness.
Coming to know ourselves better should thus be anything but a self-centered obsession. In The Selfless Self, meditation advocate Laurence Freeman argues that we will always want something, and that even during times of abundance our minds naturally tend to focus on what we do not have. He posits that “if we can take our attention off our needs even for a short period we will discover the extraordinary transforming effect that a redirected consciousness has on us, as we live our daily lives, cope with emotions and anxieties of every kind.” Developing emotional intelligence, with the aid of meditation, can help us focus away from self. Putting time and effort into changing our brain by redirecting thoughts not only benefits ourselves; it should also be a springboard to better considering the needs of others.
Searching for the Source
Johnson made the case that meditation has no intrinsic goals but rather is a tool that can be used to achieve a variety of objectives, such as improved health or greater sensitivity to the needs of others.
For some, however, meditation takes on a more ethereal quality, with advocates arguing that it goes beyond practical benefits. Texts often portray the meditative experience as a path along which one travels, the pinnacle of which is a state of consciousness sometimes referred to as enlightenment.
Stephan Bodian is a psychotherapist and spiritual teacher in the tradition of Zen Buddhism. In a volume on meditation written for the Dummies series he relates that for many, enlightenment is the source of ultimate truth, love, wisdom, happiness and joy. Bodian uses the metaphor of a spring that gushes forth “the pure water of being” from the top of the mountain. He reasons that when we meditate, we get closer to the source of that water. Where is this to be found? We are told, “The summit . . . exists in the depths of your being—some traditions say in the heart.” He further relates the fable of a man who, after much wandering and searching, finds the treasure he was looking for hidden in his own house. Bodian explains that the point of the story is that “the peace and love and wisdom we seek are invariably here all along, hidden within our own hearts.”
From a human-centric viewpoint it may be tempting to turn inward in hopes of finding the source of all things good, as if it merely awaits discovery. However, we will benefit by considering an alternative perspective—one gained by seeing ourselves in the way our Creator sees us. In the Bible we find a very different description of what lies at the heart of humankind. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, English Standard Version). Further, we are told: “O Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). The Bible doesn’t say we can attain peace of mind and happiness or find truth and love by looking within ourselves for the answers but by looking outward, toward God.
Several thousand years of recorded history provide us with a clear indication of the triumphs and failures of human endeavor. For every high achieved in the realms of art, music, literature, engineering, construction or science, there have been lows, demonstrated by poor governance, oppression, violence, a lack of social cohesion, profligate waste and environmental degradation. Whatever philosophy, religion, societal model, economic policy or form of government human beings have devised, the result is always the same: a mixed bag of both good and evil. Within this context, meditation can be seen as another humanly devised construct, having the potential to provide benefits but ultimately failing to provide the answers we seek to all the questions we ask.
To train our minds to be more altruistic, to respond less harshly when wronged, to be calmer and more considerate—these are some of the positive outcomes meditation can facilitate. But what kind of meditation? To seek a path to the source of love, joy and peace within ourselves is a step too far. It is ironic that meditative literature often cites loss of ego and self as part of the process of gaining enlightenment, yet the same sources advise that the path is to be found by searching within ourselves, in our own hearts. What lies at the heart of humankind is what has created the world in which we live. Our personal failings and shortcomings, combined with a daily diet of bad news on the world stage, should teach us that we are not the fount, the wellspring of life, but rather a broken cistern in need of repair.
Seeking the Divine
Freeman argues that “modern attempts to despiritualise meditation and reduce it to a physical skill or psychological technique fail to lead people beyond the first elementary stages.” He further states that meditation is “a path to true selfhood.” This he regards as synonymous with the path to God—a God that is to be found at the center of our personal being. While not all meditative traditions have this at their core, the climax of the meditative experience is often portrayed as being at one with “the Divine,” whether defined as the deity of a particular religious group or a vague and insubstantial spiritual entity or life force. Bodian explains that, depending on their perspective, some may describe attaining the pinnacle of the meditative experience as “spirit or soul, true nature or true self, the ultimate truth or the ground of being. . . . Others call it God or the Divine or the Holy Mystery, or simply the One.” From this perspective the route to the divine is the same one taken to reach the source of love, joy, peace, etc.; it is seen as the natural outcome of the same mystical process; namely, taking the path of meditative introspection to seek the divine within ourselves.
But is this a route to the divine, whoever or whatever one considers that to be?
Revealing the path to the true God—not a feeling or a sensation, not a vague notion, not an entity of our own imagining, and certainly not something that exists within ourselves, but rather the self-existing, self-sustaining Creator of all things—is the major aim of the Bible. Through its pages God reveals Himself, on His own terms and by His own definitions, clear and unequivocal. God is described as being synonymous with love (1 John 4:16), and His actions back up this claim. He demonstrated it by allowing His own Son to die so that humanity could be reconciled to Himself (John 3:16–17). Seeking God does not take us down the path to our own hearts. The murky well in the heart of humankind actually separates us from the pure spring of God’s character.
In the Bible God clearly lays out the path to true enlightenment, and meditation plays an important part. But this kind of meditation does not lead to a self-centered, mystical spirituality. God spoke to Joshua after Moses died and gave him this advice: “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:8).
Ancient Israel’s King David understood the principle as well; in Psalm 119, he expressed it in various ways: “I will meditate on Your precepts, and contemplate Your ways. . . . Teach me Your statutes. Make me understand the way of Your precepts; so shall I meditate on Your wonderful works. . . . I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation” (verses 15, 26–27, 99). This “man after [God’s] own heart” (Acts 13:22) spent time focusing on God’s way and in so doing drew closer to Him.
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.”
The apostle Paul, too, gave instruction on meditation: “Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things”; that is, spend time focusing your thoughts on things that are godly and right (Philippians 4:8).
This is the kind of meditation that leads to the true “water of being.” Jesus told His followers: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). He further stated: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37–38). This is not our default state of being. No amount of searching in the cesspool will lead to life-giving waters. Required is a spiritually transformative process, whereby we focus on God’s laws and His way; when we are so focused, He helps us change from the inside out (Romans 12:2) and gives us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26).
“The teaching of Jesus . . . recognises that when we are over-concerned with our material needs or status we will be in a condition of anxiety and disharmony in relation to others and to God.”
As we embark on this path, we realize that a relationship with God involves conforming to a way of life that, when put into practice, leads to happiness and joy, to peace and patience, to a truly rewarding and fulfilling life. Talking of God, the psalmist said: “You will show me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). And to his instruction on meditation, Paul added, “The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). The starting point to inner peace is awakening to the reality that we should not look to ourselves for the answers but rather defer to God (Proverbs 3:5–8); that is the true expression of sacrificing self and ego.
Meditation can have many practical benefits and holds out the hope of a variety of positive outcomes. Part of this undoubtedly involves looking within ourselves, challenging the way we think and creating new and better mental attitudes. But if we wish to attain the source of love, true peace of mind and the path to God, we will need to embark on more than a mystical self-improvement program. God declares: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely to him who thirsts” (Revelation 21:6). This crystal-clear and pure water is freely available to all, but to find it we must first acknowledge our thirst and then seek to quench it in the right place.