THE IMPORTANCE OF MEDITATION
Regarding psychological/spiritual development, the starting point is our emotional life. Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence, pointed out that childhood and adolescence are the preferred windows of opportunity for learning basic emotion-handling skills. He also made the case that these skills are essential: “People with well-developed emotional skills are…more likely to be content and effective in their lives, mastering the habits of mind that foster their own productivity; people who cannot marshal some control over their emotional life fight inner battles that sabotage their ability for focused work and clear thought.”6
Goleman’s list of skills includes self–control (including patience and the ability to defer gratification), empathy, zeal, persistence, and the ability to motivate oneself. Goleman devotes part of his book to proposals for introducing training in these matters into the educational system. He also makes it clear that one of the greatest gifts that parents can give their children is to help them acquire these basic emotional skills.
For those of us whose childhood is long past, hope remains. Through increased attentiveness to what is going on in our minds, we can avoid getting into reactive emotional states and benefit in many other ways. If we think back to our childhoods, most of us can recall the refrain “Pay attention!” being delivered by parents and teachers in a scolding tone. Kids have trouble paying attention, but so do we adults. A friend of mine once said, “When I think back on all the things that have gone wrong in my life, each was the result of not paying close enough attention.”
The truth is, the more attentive we are, the less we screw up, the more clearly we come to know ourselves, the more at peace we are, and the better able we are to live the kind of life we want to live. As I have pointed out elsewhere,7 reactive emotional states always begin with a single impulse — of fear, anger, jealousy, lust, etc. If we are attentive enough to see the impulse when it first arises, it is possible to avoid going down the path of events that result in a state of fear, anger, jealousy, lust, etc. It is simple — at least in principle. We just note the impulse has occurred (perhaps recalling that it is a one-blip message from the amygdala to the global workspace of the mind) and then let it go. What often happens, however, is we allow the impulse to trigger discursive thinking about the situation, which in turn triggers more impulses, which then triggers more thinking, etc. This looping feedback continues until we find ourselves in a high-adrenaline, very upset, emotional STATE. We can do nothing to prevent the appearance of the initial impulse; the amygdala kicks out impulses whenever it decides to. Our point of leverage and control lies in consciously noting the impulse. If we notice it when it first arises, we can make a conscious choice not to turn it into an emotional state.
Attentiveness (or mindfulness, as it is often called) is another of those invisible hands — one that can greatly facilitate our psychological/spiritual development and increase our enjoyment of life. For one thing, attentiveness helps us to develop that other key element of emotional intelligence: empathy. It is only by paying very close attention to people in a caring, highly observant way that we can come to know them in all their richness and subtlety. For another, attentiveness is the direct path to knowing ourselves. If we learn to watch our own mind contents and processes in a caring but detached fashion — rather than being lost in the melodrama of our lives as we usually are — we get helpful insight after helpful insight.
How can we develop heightened attention? The Indian spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti told us to just do it. That intention is certainly helpful, but for most people the intention alone is not enough. With our brain wired the way it is and lifelong patterns of inattention already in place, Krishnamurti’s advice to just do it is asking too much. Fortunately, like an athletic or musical skill, the skill of heightened attentiveness can be developed gradually through repeated practice. Hatha yoga, tai chi, and the various martial arts all require sustained attention and thus help develop it. A very effective meditative practice centered on attentiveness goes by the names mindfulness, vipassana, and insight meditation.
The way mindfulness meditation is normally taught, you first develop attentional steadiness or concentration by spending time paying attention to physical sensations, especially those that arise in connection with breathing. You are given the option of paying attention either to the sensations created by the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils, or to the sensations associated with the rising and falling of the abdomen. Because the body always breathes and these breath-associated sensations are relatively subtle, they make good objects of attention. Once you are able to watch breath sensations continuously for modest periods without your attention wandering, you then widen the focus of attention to include other mental objects — physical sensations, feelings, sounds, incipient thoughts — and ultimately, whatever arises in the mind.
How often does one do this practice and for how long each time? Robert de Ropp, author of The Master Game, put it simply: “Enter the silence as often as possible; remain there for as long as possible.”8 (Emphasis his.) The specifics depend largely on how eager a person is to get on with their own inner development. Established practices typically involve one or two forty-five-minute periods a day, and many practitioners annually attend one or more intensive retreats of seven to ten days duration. The practice is normally done in a sitting posture in a quiet place, but it can be done anywhere, in any posture. Any forced wait can be turned into a meditation period — sitting in your car at a red light, standing in line at the supermarket or bank, sitting in the dentist’s waiting room.
“The medium of spirituality is intuition, the integrating function of the right cerebral hemisphere,” observed philosopher Rudolph Bahro. “In decisive moments of our lives, it is from here that our experience of the world must come, if we are to experience ourselves unified with the whole. If the left hemisphere, dominated by analytical reason and its cultural externalisations, continually takes charge, the intuitive mode of integration into the world-whole will be subordinate and underdeveloped.”9 How do we avoid this undesirable left-hemisphere domination? According to many people, it is through the regular practice of meditation. Philip Goldberg and Frances Vaughan have said that they consider meditation to be the single most powerful means of increasing intuition.10 Ken Wilber cites research indicating that meditation is the only proven way to move our psychological/spiritual development beyond the “sensitive self” stage to the “integrative” and “holistic” stages. He noted, “Less than 2 percent of the adult population scores at Jane Loevinger’s highest two stages of self development (autonomous and integrated),” and went on to say, “No practice (including psychotherapy, holotropic breathwork, or NLP) has been shown to substantially increase that percentage. With one exception: studies have shown that consistent meditation practice over a several-year period increases that percentage from 2 percent to an astonishing 38 percent….”11 (Emphasis his.)
Neurological research is starting to tell us why meditation is such a powerful tool. Tenzin Gyatso (the current Dalai Lama) wrote in the New York Times about research by Dr. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin that explored the effect of mindfulness meditation on brain function. In the Dalai Lama’s words: “mindfulness meditation strengthens the neurological circuits that calm a part of the brain that acts as a trigger for fear and anger.” Some of Dr. Davidson’s research involved people who worked in highly stressful jobs. Regarding this, the Dalai Lama said: “These people — non-Buddhists — were taught mindfulness, a state of alertness in which the mind does not get caught up in thoughts or sensations, but lets them come and go much like watching a river flow by. After eight weeks, Dr. Davidson found that in these people, the parts of their brains that help to form positive emotions became increasingly active.” The Dalai Lama went on to say, “It’s worth noting that these methods are not just useful, but inexpensive. You don’t need a drug or an injection. You don’t have to become a Buddhist or adopt any particular religious faith. Everybody has the potential to lead a peaceful, meaningful life.”12
Mindfulness meditation quiets the mind, and a quiet mind opens the door to the subconscious. It turns out we can’t pay attention and think discursively at the same time. So, as we work on paying continuous attention and as our ability to do it gradually develops, the level of discursive thinking diminishes and our minds quiet down. In turn, this mental silence facilitates communication between conscious and subconscious mental processes. Things that our subconscious may have been trying to tell us start bubbling up into consciousness. We start to see some of those lies we’ve been telling ourselves and to find new meanings in old data.
Improved creativity is another benefit of quieting the mind. Under quiet mind conditions, the intuitive process’s creative Muse is able to communicate effectively with the intellect and the global workspace, and the number of Aha! and Eureka! experiences goes up. This is not too surprising when we think of the number of writers and artists who find solitude essential for significant work. Another plus: when the mind is quiet, we sometimes undergo insightful shifts of perspective. We suddenly apply a new interpretive framework to the same old facts and see things in a dramatically different way.
The spiritual traditions rooted in the perennial philosophy hold that existence involves a monistic, enduring, unchanging, absolute reality and a dualistic, ephemeral, constantly changing relative reality. Evolution crafted the human cognitive system to deal with relative (informational) reality because it is in this arena that the drama of survival and reproduction play out. We can assume human mentality was not designed to allow us to understand absolute reality with ease, because such understanding provided no survival or reproduction payoff. Now, in our present circumstances, we want to understand the deeper truth — ABSOLUTE truth. Because we are attempting to use the human cognitive system for something other than its intended purpose, this deep understanding is difficult — but not impossible.
Meditative practices are tools that give us some hope of seeing through the relative to the absolute. In mindfulness meditation, we are, for the most part, still paying attention to the relative. But because we are more detached from mental information than before we began to practice meditation, gradually, bit by bit, insight by insight, we begin to see more deeply into the nature of mind and mental processes. We begin to see the impersonal nature of the brain’s churning out of information. There is no “I” doing it. It just happens mechanically, automatically.
We also discover that the arising informational stuff has no inherent power. With practice, we learn that when we are able to accept the present informational reality, rather than trying to get rid of it, we can experience the emergence of even physical discomfort and heavy emotions, such as fear and anger, without suffering. We come to see that it is our reaction to presently existing mental information that binds us and disturbs us. Pleasant or unpleasant mind content has no power as long as we remain detached and simply watch it arise and disappear on its own. It is when we cling to the pleasant, wanting it to continue, or when we push away the unpleasant, wanting it to disappear, that we suffer and lose sight of our innate equanimity and freedom.13 Mindfulness practice gives us many insights we need in order to understand how trapped we usually are in this relative realm.
John Stewart has pointed out that practices like mindfulness meditation could also help release humanity from an evolutionary trap. We human beings are the new evolutionary players, the new producers of complexity, the new agents of Energy/Being/Spirit. Humanity’s evolutionary future will be determined much more by human analysis and choice than by the evolutionary mechanisms of the past. That said, human choices are today largely determined by a matrix of wants and desires which came out of that past. Satisfying personal wants is humanity’s central preoccupation, and very little attention is given to the long-term adaptation of our species to changing circumstances. Stewart sees this as a barrier to humanity’s “pursuit of evolutionary success.” He feels that spiritual practices which allow us to detach from these wants are our best hope of getting past this barrier. They free us to “align our internal reward and motivation system with evolutionary goals.”14
When the mind–watching effort is pursued for an extended period — as in one-week or ten-day retreats — the mind can become very quiet. At such times, one may become aware that even though little is happening in the mind informationally, intense awareness is still present. As I once put it: “A moment may come…when awareness becomes aware of awareness — when the observing faculty becomes aware of itself as an entity separate in some sense from the show and different in nature. At such moments, it becomes clear that awareness is inherently still and unchanging and that all motion, all change, resides in the informational show.”15 At such moments, we cognitively touch the absolute.
Such moments can also trigger profound insights into who “I” really am. Each of us has an unequivocal feeling of basic existence, a “self” sense, an “I am” sense. But what does this sense refer to? What or who is the truest, the deepest “me?” And why should we care? As noted in Ken Wilber’s “spectrum of consciousness,” our sense of self shifts and broadens as we develop psychologically and spiritually. One reason we should care is because this broadening is intimately linked with our moral development.
As Wilber has noted: "If you identify only with you, you will treat others narcissistically. If you identify with your friends and family, you will treat them with care. If you identify with your nation, you will treat your countrymen as compatriots. If you identify with all human beings, you will strive to treat all people fairly and compassionately, regardless of race, sex, color, or creed. If your identity expands to embrace the Kosmos, you will treat all sentient beings with respect and kindness, for they are all perfect manifestations of the same radiant Self, which is your very own Self as well."16
Narrow identifications that include only person, family, and clan had survival value back in hunter-gatherer times. Today, however, with billions of people impacting the planet and with ethnic groups possessing modern armaments, narrow identifications have become part of the problem. Now, the broader identifications — identification with all humanity, life itself, the cosmic process, and cosmic ground — have survival value. And these identifications can open the door to some new and very exciting personal purposes.
Those who have developed attentiveness/mindfulness to a fairly advanced degree sometimes move on to nondual practices, which specifically promote cognizance of the absolute and identification with it. Ken Wilber describes his “favorite meditation on nondual awareness” — and one of mine — in chapter twelve of his book The Eye of Spirit, entitled “Always Ready: The Brilliant Clarity of Ever-Present Awareness.”17 Another nondual practice, Tibetan Buddhism’s Dzogchen, is covered in a growing body of contemporary English-language literature. As with Wilber’s meditation, the aim of Dzogchen practice is to relax, to just BE, to become cognizant of Spirit (the ever-present absolute aspect of mind, the ever-present absolute aspect of everything), and to realize that your deepest, truest self is nothing other than this primal sentient/active Oneness.
Other practices with a similar aim are found in Taoism, Advaita Vedanta, Zen Buddhism, Christian mysticism, and even biofeedback research..18 Among these is a practice found in both Advaita Vedanta and Christian mysticism in which one pays attention to the primal sense of existing, the self–sense, the “I am” feeling. The object is to find out where that sense is rooted, to what it is connected. The observed associations constantly change — first this feeling, then that, then this perception, then that thought. No association is constant, so all are rejected. Eventually, the practitioner’s perspective shifts from mind content to the ground of mind. There is a sudden epiphany, a Eureka experience, a satori moment, as the realization hits that awareness itself, sentience, the ground of all mental experience, is the one constant factor. This universal quality, present in every mind, is mind’s only unchanging aspect, and in that moment, it is seen to be the true, the fundamental I, or self.19 Regarding this realization process, Wilber has said, “Spirit slumbers in nature, begins to awaken in mind, and finally recognizes itself as Spirit in the transpersonal domains—but it is the same Spirit present throughout the entire sequence: the ground, path, and fruition of the whole display.”20
A quiet mind brings inner peace, but identification with awareness, Spirit, the ground of mind, takes us even further — to a profound, unshakable happiness. When we have seen, profoundly and deeply, that we are equanimous subjectivity itself, then we can pull back at any time from our lost-in-the-show informational existence. We can simply BE, totally happy, totally at peace, identified with the ocean of Spirit, and undisturbed by its informational waves. Most people who find this option don’t abandon everyday life. Instead, they bring to it a new perspective. These people have come to understand that they really are Being, they really are Spirit, and that playing the Existence Game with skill and understanding is what existence in relative reality is all about.
Note: For references to a variety of meditation resources check http://www.wisdompage.com/innerwork.html.
6. Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence. New York:Banam Books, 1995, p. 36.
7. Macdonald, Copthorne. Getting a Life: Strategies for Joyful & Effective Living. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2001, Chapter 6. [Published previously by Hounslow Press, Toronto.]
8. de Ropp, Robert S. The Master Game. New York: Delacorte Press, 1968, p. 71.
9. Bahro, Rudolph. Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster: The Politics of World Transformation. Bath, UK: Gateway Books,1994, p. 71.
10. Goldberg, Philip. The Intuitive Edge: Understanding Intuition and Applying it in Everyday life. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1983, p. 179–80.
11. The quote is from Wilber’s online announcement of the formation of Integral Institute, read on 24 October 2000 at http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/books/formation_int_inst.cfm/xid,8287/yid,9296268. He also makes this point in Wilber, Ken. A Theory of Everything. Boston Shambhala Publications, 2000, p. 138, and goes into more detail in the second edition of The Eye of Spirit (part of Wilber, Ken. Collected Works of Ken Wilber, Volume 7: A Brief Theory of Everything, The Eye of Spirit. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000.)
12. Gyatso, Tenzin. "The Monk in the Lab." New York Times, April 6, 2003.
13. This, of course, is one of Buddhism’s basic messages.
14. John Stewart’s insightful article, “The Evolutionary Significance of Spiritual Development,” is online at http://www4.tpg.com.au/users/jes999/EvSpirit.htm.
15. Macdonald, Copthorne. Toward Wisdom: Finding Our Way to Inner Peace, Love, and Happiness. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2001, p. 89. [Published previously by Hounslow Press, Toronto, and Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Charlottesville, VA]]
16. Wilber, Ken. Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000, p. 116.
17. As noted in the introduction to volume seven of Ken Wilber’s Collected Works (Wilber, Ken. Collected Works of Ken Wilber, Volume 7: A Brief Theory of Everything, The Eye of Spirit. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000).
18. For information about meditation-related resources, including books on meditative practice, go to http://www.wisdompage.com/innerwork.html.
19. A personal experience with this process is described in Chapter 9 of Toward Wisdom (Macdonald, Copthorne. Toward Wisdom: Finding Our Way to Inner Peace, Love, and Happiness. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2001) and can be read online at http://www.wisdompage.com/twch9.html. The Advaita Vedanta variation of the practice is discussed in Nisargadatta Maharaj. I AM THAT: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta (reprint edition). Durham, NC: Acorn Press, 1990. The Christian variation is discussed in The Book of Privy Counseling section of Johnston, William (Ed.). The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling. New York, Image Books, 1973, pp. 149–88. Current information about the OPEN FOCUS biofeedback technique can be found at http://www.openfocus.com/, and an overview of the available practice materials is at http://www.openfocus.biz/cds.html.
20. Wilber, Ken. A Brief History of Everything. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1996, p. 246.