I feel like most of the suffering that we as humans create for ourselves originates with just a few misguided behavioral tendencies that become reinforced by society until they solidify into norms that lead us astray from our true fundamental selves. One of those tendencies is the habit of refusing to admit when we are wrong about something; i.e., our tendency to protect our worldview through defensiveness and refusal to accept new information/evidence that is presented before us as ‘truth’.
If we as individuals, as well as society as a whole, were better able to (or perhaps better encouraged to) admit when we are wrong about something and be open to other possibilities, we would subject ourselves to a significantly lower amount of suffering and delusion. The field of science, while far from an error or value free existence, is one of the few professions that appears to encourage a trial and error approach in which errors and mistakes are considered a valuable component of moving closer to the ultimate truth. When you are trained as a scientist, you prepare yourself for being wrong (or at least only partially right), for making mistakes, and for starting from scratch again and again. In fact, the scientific process thrives on this iterative approach in which incremental successes are built of a delicate play between errors and discoveries, until a clearer and more accurate picture of our world is slowly constructed across the eons.
Unfortunately, in most other professions (and societal roles), admitting that you are wrong is often considered weak or shameful–whether it be in the realm of law, politics, law enforcement, or even teaching, where admitting that you were wrong about something is typically perceived as losing face and credibility. Even as a parent, admitting wrongness to your children may feel like you are undermining your own authority and ability to garner respect. It’s quite sad really–most leadership positions require at least the appearance of unquestioning faith and confidence, even though most of us are fumbling about in this world looking for half-hidden answers. When you attempt to perform a task or gain understanding and are genuinely wrong, admitting your mistake should be considered noble and honest, not weak or wavering. It should be a sign of a thoughtful, critical, and scrutinizing individual.
We are all continuously re-writing our realities, coming to terms with who we think we are and how we engage the external world. Nothing is constant, so why must we pretend that our perceptions are so unwavering? Perhaps it is just an extension of our brain’s ability to filter out all ‘unnecessary’ information, to shield us from information overload. Maybe we shield ourselves from the many other possible ‘truths’ and ‘rights’ that don’t fit our personal worldviews or paradigms in fear that this openness would overload our sense of self, doing away with the Ego for good. It’s a legitimate fear—we spend our whole lives building up a sense of self, so the threat of losing it does seem great indeed. But maintaining that persona comes at great pain and often violence or emotional suffering not only for ourselves, but for others we subject to it.
Sometimes, I feel like we would all benefit from letting go of our sense of selves, at least temporarily, a bit each day. This is, really, the point of meditation, isn’t it? To let go of our ego, our ‘personality’, that is not the true US, just the caricature we have built up over the years to try to protect our underlying selves from pain and embarrassment (which, ironically, tends to open us up to even MORE suffering!). I wish we could all be better encouraged to lower our shields and respect each other for who we truly are, and to realize that everyone is valid, everyone makes mistakes, and that all paths may ultimately lead to the same place. Those that are misguided have become so lost in their solidified personalities, trying to protect themselves from being torn down, that they lash out at others, sometimes entire groups of people, causing great pain, only because they are crumbling inside.
I guess that the ultimate remedy for all of this defensiveness is compassion. Compassion allows people to let down their guard, to realize that their likes and dislikes, their understanding of science and religion, or their struggle for meaning in life, is all part of one giant puzzle–they fit together with everyone else, and we are constantly rearranging that puzzle in an attempt to ‘solve’ it, when in reality it is what we make of it! All the puzzle pieces are really just fractals of one giant ‘reality’, universe, existence, or whatever you want to call it.
If we could only admit that we are all ‘wrong’ sometimes (in that our perception is inevitably limited and as new information is introduced it is normal to evolve and negotiate new relationships with the world), we would be a giant step closer to the world that I think almost all of us imagines would be a ‘better’ place to live.
‘Life can be found only in the present moment. The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.’
-Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding
Eckart Tolle describes the concept of false sense of self in his book The Power of Now, which describes his process of reaching enlightenment by realizing that his thoughts were not him; rather his ‘identity’ was revealed once he could quiet his thoughts. He came to believe that he was not separate from the rest of the universe, but rather integrally tied into it, and it was this realization that imbued him with a feeling of bliss that could be considered at least the beginning stage of ‘realization’, ‘Nirvana’, or ‘enlightenment’ (whichever you want to identify with).
Whether you believe Tolle is a genuine spiritual master or a commercialized sell-out, there is no doubt that he has had a profound influence on the lives of many people seeking deeper meaning in their lives. I like to give him the benefit of the doubt, and regardless of his commercial success feel that much of his writing does provide an insightful perspective on spirituality in language that hits home with modern Western audiences.
In The Power of Now he writes, “the single most vital step on your journey toward enlightenment is this: learn to dis-identify from your mind. Every time you create a gap in the stream of mind, the light of your consciousness grows stronger.” He describes this experience as acknowledging the present, rather than living in the past and future. “To the ego, the present moment hardly exists,” he explains. “Only past and future are considered important. This total reversal of the truth accounts for the fact that in the ego mode the mind is so dysfunctional. It is always concerned with keeping the past alive, because without it – who are you?”
Here goes the ego
For most of us, myself included, we define ourselves mainly by our past experiences and future aspirations. For some, the past is a whimsical journey of nostalgia, while for others it is a crutch upon which they painfully hobble. My own past is at times a source of reverence, other times of angst. While I wish I could relive certain early experiences in my life, I run disjointed memories through my head like a jolty movie reel and feel as if I am observing the history of a stranger. I may empathize, feel pangs of joy or regret as various images surface momentarily, but somehow I cannot sense a direct connection to that past self that is supposedly ‘me’. Similarly, we tend to project scenes onto the future, paint it with expectations, and lose ourselves in speculation. All the while, the present moment is lost. We miss so much of our lives by not simply living in the ‘now’, enjoying each precious moment.
I think this is why the idea of meditation is so captivating. While the attainment of instant spiritual enlightenment as extolled by Tolle may be a bit of a stretch for most of us, a more down-to-earth and tangible appreciation for meditation is not something to scoff at. As Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestioned ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.” If we cannot even take a few minutes each day to sit quietly and clear the clouds of thought constantly floating through our heads, how can we ever hope to have a fundamental understanding of ourselves, the clear blue sky that exists beyond the haze?
Author David Michie has highlighted many of the scientifically validated benefits of practicing meditation and mindfulness. An excerpt from the introduction of his latest book highlights our growing awareness of these:
“As Technological advancements enable neurologists to study the workings of the mind in greater detail, we are seeing a wonderful convergence take place. Ancient meditation-based wisdom and contemporary science are drawing together. We are coming to understand that our sensory awareness—such as sight—has as much to do with mental functioning and the way we interpret stimuli as it has with our sense receptors. We are gaining new insights showing how pleasure or pain is as much a result of our conditioning as our circumstances. Very recent studies confirm that we have it in our power to cultivate positive states of mind, and even change our neural pathways to enjoy happiness on a more ongoing basis. In short, contemporary research is affirming the ancient wisdom that we are the creators of our own reality. If we don’t like the way we feel, we have the power to change it.”
Your Brain on Meditation
Not surprisingly, the most prominent benefit of meditation is stress reduction. This, in turn, lowers blood pressure, boosts immunity, and thus reduces the likelihood of disease. Meditation has also been shown to heighten activity in the pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with happiness and relaxation. Even more encouraging, meditation has been shown to greatly increase the quality of life of terminally ill patients, and in many documented cases has even helped them fully recover.
Neurologists have also studied how meditation changes the brain, and have discovered that the brain’s limbic system (often called the brain’s emotional network) becomes more active with repeated meditation, resulting in increased empathy and compassion in the meditator. Dozens of research studies confirm observable changes (using MRI scans) to the brain from undergoing meditation, including significantly heightened activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of our brain responsible for attention, and reduced activity in the superior parietal lobe, the area of the brain that helps us orient in time and space. In other words, meditation increases the brain’s ability to focus while reducing its perception of our external surroundings.
One of the most extreme examples is that of Matthieu Riccard, a Buddhist monk who has been labeled the ‘world’s happiest man’. Neurologists have scanned Riccard’s brain while he meditates and found extremely heightened activity in his left prefrontal cortex. Even more fascinating, they have discovered a level of gamma waves produced by his brain that has never been measured before. Gamma waves are what scientists associated with consciousness. The conclusion is that his brain is operating in such a way as to produce incredibly high doses of ‘compassion’ and ‘happiness’, or in essence operating at a higher consciousness.. Riccard is a unique case, but researchers have found good evidence that the brain begins to shift in this positive direction after only a few weeks of meditation—so there is hope for the rest of us!
The Ian Gawler foundation in Australia has helped many people with cancer or similar ‘terminal’ illnesses overcome their disease despite the sentence of doom placed on them by conventional medicine practitioners. Clearly, our minds are powerful entities, if we learn to harness them as such. In a later post I will highlight some of the biological studies which explain our mental abilities, as researchers learn more about the way electro-magnetic wave energy transfers signals throughout the body much more efficiently than chemical signals.
Some of the most interesting meditation research has centered on the ‘Maharishi effect’, which is defined as the influence of coherence and positivity in the social and natural environment generated by the practice of transcendental mediation (TM). Several studies have shown that when at least 1% of the population in a given region is practicing such meditation, crime rates are noticeably reduced in that area.
This trend has been documented several times—recently in Washington D.C., 4,000 practitioners of TM visited the city to again test the effect. During the same period that they remained in the city, crime rates fell by 21%. Similarly, programs in which criminals have been prescribed ‘enlightened sentences’ (basically, forced meditation during their prison time) have documented a 30-40% reduction in repeat offenses by participating prisoners. Think of the possibilities these studies suggest! Even a small (albeit significant) increase in the number of people who learn to cultivate inner peace can actually have a measurable positive impact on society as a whole.
I do not believe that conventional (a.k.a. ‘modern’) medicine is worthless, and neither do the aforementioned authors. However, I think that for a long time our modern society has taken for granted that the answer to our problems lies in technological and medical advancements. In doing so we have ignored or forgotten many of the most fundamental aspects of healthy, meaningful, holistic living.
As Michie comments, “If meditation were available in capsule form, it would be the biggest selling drug of all time.”
Indeed, modern society’s obsession with drugs, whether prescribed or self-medicated, underscores how desperate most of us are to find a quick fix for health, or to escape the reality of our situation all together. This trend extends to fad diets and fad supplements, which are not only unproven or potentially harmful to our health, but destructive to the environment which we depend on as well (e.g. fish oil, whose popularity threatens to wipe out several fish species thus disrupting a large portion of the marine ecosystem, and is often tainted with heavy metals).
Yet the idea that a balanced, wholesome (not to mention ethical) diet and cultivation of a clear, peaceful mind might actually be more effective in achieving health than a daily dose of vitamins, supplements, heart meds, depression meds, etc etc. is dismissed as “new-agey” or “hippy-ish”. In reality I think it’s because a lot of people have just grown too complacent due to our dependence on technological advancement. Eating and thinking mindfully requires an effort every day, over the span of an entire lifetime. It’s a worth-while but long term change in lifestyle that a lot of us aren’t willing to invest in. But why?
We will dive more into that in the next blog edition….
Now, beshrew my father’s ambition! He was thinking of civil wars when he got me: therefore was I created with a stubborn outside, with an aspect of iron, that, when I come to woo ladies, I frighten them. -William Shakespeare, Henry V Act V scene 2
What makes us who we are? I mean, I know in genetic terms why my eyes are green and my skin is annoyingly pale and prone to freckle. But why am I an introvert rather than an extrovert, or have a passion for environmental conservation rather than for playing the stock market? Why do I prefer the color purple over yellow?
Are we each nothing more than the definitive sum of a series of genetic expressions? Perhaps we are simply the biological end-products of the chemical components in the minerals and nutrients we must daily consume—i.e., we are what we eat. Or is our sense of self shaped through our interactions with others; the influence of parents, acceptance or rejection by peers, pressures of society; our interpretation of these interactions weaving together a subconscious tapestry of beliefs and emotions that blanket us in self awareness? Or, if I were to believe the theory of many enlightened spiritual thinkers, then I would have to consider that our true ‘selves’ are not any of these things, but rather that our minds and bodies are mere abstractions (or distractions, as the case may be) of an underlying core that is our essential ‘Being’. At the level of ‘Being’, none of us can be individualized into separate and distinct bodies. Rather, all sentient “beings” are connected by one consciousness, like countless rays of light (some brighter than others, granted) emanating from a single, universal sun.
As it happens, I have read several books recently that touch on various aspects of these possibilities, from scientific theories of gene expression and investigations into the lamentable modern diet, to evidence that our thoughts and attitudes influence our physical health, and studies on the positive impact that meditation can have within ourselves and society as a whole. Interestingly, the ideas expressed in each of these books complement each other, and taken together create a holistic approach to understanding who we are, why we are here, and how we can improve both our own physical and mental health, and the health of the environment.
In my next few posts I thought I’d explore some of the themes expressed in these books that I’ve found relevant, and how they relate to each other. Perhaps some of these ideas will grasp your interest as well, especially if you are like me and wish to cultivate more balance in your life while reducing the need for harmful prescribed medications, or industrially produced preservative-filled ‘food’ and ‘nutritional supplements’. At any rate, consider the following reflections and excerpts as “food for thought”, which may yet be more nourishing than the microwavable organic TV dinner from Whole Foods waiting conveniently in the freezer.