“Suppose you read about a pill that you could take once a day to reduce anxiety and increase your contentment. Suppose further that the pill increases self-esteem, improves memory, is all-natural and costs nothing. Would you take it? This pill exists and it is called ‘meditation’.” Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt asks the question and answers it in his book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’. If it is so, why do so few people use such medicine?
Pretexts abound. The most common –I cannot concentrate– is, indeed, the best reason to start meditating. Cravings and aversions, the components of our redundant ego, are the cause of the resistance. The frantic and bossy redundant ego –”the monkey in the forest”, for the Buddha; “the voice in your head that pretends to be you”, for Eckhart Tolle; “the butterflies of the night, intrusive and restless”, for Saint Teresa of Ávila –refuses to meditate.
After immobilizing our autonomous, essential self, the redundant ego deprives us from freedom of action and becomes the decision maker in charge in our life. What does mindfulness meditation do? Its continued practice downsizes the redundant ego, ends its controlling power, annihilates it eventually, and gives the power back to the essential self.
Mindfulness meditation was developed by the Buddha twenty-four centuries ago. In its basic form, the meditator sits motionless, with closed eyes, in a comfortable position and in a quiet place, for as long as possible, impartially observing his/her breath and returning the attention to it, whenever the mind wanders. There are several other approaches to meditation (raja yoga, zazen, transcendental…); these, however, are ‘lower power pills’.
Mindfulness meditation is the most important part of the recipe the Buddha proposed for the elimination of human suffering –anxiety and stress in modern terminology–. Inner harmony, the ensuing destination of meditation, is the absence of suffering.
Neuroscience is beginning to understand the functioning of meditation. Neurons, the cells of our nervous system, which includes the brain, do not work in isolation. Instead, they are organized in ensembles or circuits that process specific types of information. Some groups order the execution of tasks or the escalation of their activity (excitatory circuits); others stop actions or diminish their momentum (inhibitory circuits).
From the physiological point of view, mindfulness meditation is an exercise in physical stillness (the easy part) and mental silencing (the hard part); as such, it is an intensive training of the inhibitory circuits that restrain our body and appease our mind. Following the rule of ‘use it or lose it’, the inhibitory neuronal circuits, when they are underused or ignored, become lazy or paralyze, and suspend their healthy role of control.
For example, if we continue eating, after being already full, we are overlooking the inhibitory circuit that says “enough!” If we go through a threatening incident and are still frightened long after the event, we are ignoring the circuit that commands “calm down now!” When the inhibitory guards notice that we are bypassing them, they get bored and stop working. Result? Gluttony, overweight, high blood pressure, cardiologist… Or unfounded fears, traumas, compulsive panics, psychotherapist…
The practice of mindfulness meditation turns on and off, repeatedly and intensively, the inhibitory circuits (distracted, inhibition off; focused, inhibition on) and, in a sort of neuronal calisthenics, it returns them to their normal functionality. Then the sweet tooth will be satisfied as soon he or she has eaten just the normal portion and the obsessive fearful will relax when the danger is gone.
With persistent practice of mindfulness meditation, several things begin to happen: (1) meditation becomes a pleasant task and a habit that does not demand effort to find time for it; (2) the meditator enters deeper and deeper levels of mental silence; (3) the faculty of awareness is strengthened; (4) health improves. These developments just happen; then, without us seeking it or being aware of what is going on, inner harmony spontaneously enters our life.
While the mind of a person is in the hands of the redundant ego, neither the teachings of the Buddha nor neurology will convince him or her of the benefits of meditation. Interested beginners need to jump instinctively into the water. Logic reasoning will never persuade the redundant ego to act. Do not limit yourself then, dear reader, to simply test this wonderful pill… Without much thought, start taking it today… And every day.
Atlanta, February 14, 2015