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I decided to write this text after Vinay Gupta wrote this tweet, spurring a larger discussion about meditation:
Do you think we get a better world if everybody doing social change work meditates an hour a day?
What about business people?
— Vinay Gupta (@leashless) August 2, 2016
My response was this:
@leashless The question isn’t if, but how. Capitalist brain filters make “meditate for an hour a day” about efficiency, productivity etc.
— Sindre Aspaas (@Triquetrea) August 2, 2016
I won’t talk about capitalism today, but I will talk about meditation. As my response implies, I think it is a very misunderstood activity. It is not about efficiency. It is not about de-stressing. It is much more serious than that.
Imagine it’s night, and your house is on fire. You’re the only person awake, and you and your family need to get out or you are all going to die. Yet you sit down in front of your computer, sigh, take a sip of your coffee and share a picture of your burning kitchen on Facebook. Obviously, this example is absurd. But take it up a few levels. Look at your society, your world. You don’t have to go very far to find something that’s burning.
When 70 million people shared their prayers for Paris, was anybody saved? And what about the bigger threats lurking in the wings, the stuff nobody likes to talk about — climate change (man-made or not), volatile technological advancement and stagnating economies, hollow states and so on? Is sharing this stuff on your feeds really going to change anything? What would help?
To answer this latter question, let’s start with something familiar to most of us: over-reliance on technology.
GPS and the internal chatterbox
Before GPS systems became as ubiquitous as they are today, ship navigators were forced to navigate by the sun. Whether they used scientific instruments or rudimentary pre-scientific technology, they had no choice but to be attentive and immersed in their senses in order to steer their ships safely.
Today, GPS technology isn’t just used on the sea or in other difficult-to-navigate terrain. Increasingly, it also defines how most of us find our way around our cities, our highways and even our neighbourhoods. With ubiquitous Wi-Fi and cheap mobile internet, it is easy to use the very precise GPS locator in our phones to get by. The need to be immersed in our senses is replaced with the need to engage our minds: “It looks like Google is mistaking that highway for a footpath; I don’t recognize this place, I wonder if my net is still working.”
This becomes a problem. Every time we withdraw from our senses to the world of abstractions, thoughts and emotions, we are feeding attention towards our minds, training ourselves to rely on it. The mind is very useful. It’s the part of us that reminds us about appointments, and to make sure we’ve turned the oven off. But it’s also the part of us that keeps us awake all night because we’ve got an important day coming up and we’re nervous — it’s the part of us that just won’t shut up, even when it would obviously be the best thing to do.
We are often harsh on our minds. We blame them for the worst aspects of our character — for the incessant chattering, self-doubt and other weird qualia associated with having a never-ending stream of words and images playing inside our heads. However, this is the same as blaming our legs for our crippled hamstring mobility, when the problem is really that we sit too much. Our legs are just doing their jobs, trying to accommodate our lifestyles; the same is true of our minds. Their grotesqueries and frailties are a by-product of abuse and overuse. It’s adaptability, not disability.
In the same way as our bodies bend, stress and distort to accommodate our sedentary lifestyles, our minds bend, stress and distort to get our poor hunter-gatherer brains coordinated enough to remember hundreds of appointments and obligations — not to mention to prevent us from killing our bosses, co-workers, friends and family when the stress becomes too much. Thus the incessant internal chatter, as our minds desperately try to keep our attention from our senses and those scary, scary emotions. This process is what keeps our everyday experience from turning into this scene from The Office:
Gods and lab coats
This is where we come to religion. Or specifically, to meditation. It’s well-understood by now that mindfulness meditation can reduce stress and help people get a bit more effective, a bit more controlled in their emotions and their everyday lives. This is all sound science.
What’s not as widely understood or accepted outside of perhaps Buddhism, Hinduism and certain ascetic branches of the Abrahamic religions, is that the techniques were originally developed to break down our reliance on the mind — to grant us so-called enlightenment.
This probably makes you think of Buddhism, and quite possibly you’re also thinking “but that’s bullshit.” Hold that thought for a moment. The problem most scientifically literate people have with enlightenment is that all the literature on it is dripping with religious superstitions — Buddhist and Hindu writings claiming to confer physical immortality and psychic powers; Christian and alchemical texts that describe becoming one with God or a God yourself. All of this is obviously bullshit.
However, meditation is not bullshit. As evidenced by the strange brain functioning of extreme meditators, this stuff definitely does something. At the moment the science on it is very rudimentary — we can confirm that the brains of long-term meditators are functionally different from those of other people, but we have yet to build solid theories around what this could mean. The science is still incubating.
I myself have experienced unusual mental states after meditating. If you have ever taken mood stabilizers for whatever reason, you will know what I mean. I’ve had sequences of several days where I felt almost like I was permantently on heavy tranquilizers (with the calm awareness, not the sluggishness and nausea), where the mental chatter was cut almost to a minimum and sensory input felt much more immediate. Those experiences faded, but it’s not such a big leap to think they could be made to last with extended practice.
I’ve also experienced weirder states that a person living a thousand years ago might easily assume were divine in origin. These got more potent with extended practice as well. Hence, all the weird shit in the scriptures. It’s obviously something that is happening as a natural by-product of your brain activity, but try explaining this to a peasant who thinks rainfall is the gods crying.
If the ancients invented meditation and discovered all its basic functions like enhanced emotional clarity, how likely is it that they were dishonest when they claimed that doing it a lot has a more profound effect? Clearly these people were much like us; some of them were evidently also very insightful, just hampered by their pre-scientific knowledge base. Imagine you had to explain the effects of psychedelic drugs, using only pre-scientific language — would you manage to sound sane? At best you’d come up with something like this:
“I went up to heaven and there I saw that all the people were really just embodied light. WE ARE ALL JUST LIGHT. Can’t you see? It’s so beautiful! And then I realized all life is love and all life is sacred. And then my hand lit on fire. And then I came down from heaven and I felt this deep sense of contentment. Wanna try?”
This, the testimonies of people who claim to be enlightened, and the historical examples of other people claiming the same, is my basis for believing there is such a thing as enlightenment. The old masters just didn’t know how to describe it without resorting to God, supernatural powers etc. — the same way they couldn’t explain things like gravity or the night sky without resorting to gods and portents.
Enlightenment for Modern People
Let’s cut religion from the discussion. If we examine historical figures supposed to have been enlightened, we find characters like Gandhi and the good old Buddha himself. An example from the West might be Martin Luther King jr.
These people were clearly exceptional. You might find that in some ways they were very similar to psychopaths. They had tremendous charisma, lucidity and moral clarity (just like psychopaths have tremendous charisma, lucidity and amoral clarity). And they definitely got shit done. They all inspired massive social movements that accomplished great things.
The uncomfortable truth is, no individual on their own can do anything about any of our global problems. Slavery, colonialism, nuclear weapons and apartheid all required massive social effort to overcome or prevent, and we see ourselves slipping back towards these things as our social fabric fractures. Our current problems are no different in this sense.
Now, as ever, we need powerful engagement— not the hackneyed kind that satisfies itself with posting memes on Facebook, nor the kind that comes about when millions are misled by the latest narcissists claiming to know what’s best for us (see: modern politics, self-help literature etc.). Actual, sane effort by real people is needed to fix real problems.
This is where enlightenment comes in. Just like psychopaths distort society around them and empower our amoral, vicious sides, enlightened people can create bubbles of sanity — if they try.
Thus, the necessary engagement comes about when ordinary people are willing to put the work in — not to become literal gods or supernatural beings as the religious texts suggest, but lucid and aware members of society who are actually able to face the tremendous horror of our worst problems.
And this is why, if you want to do something about these problems, you might consider meditating. Do an hour every day. Sit still. Close your eyes. Pay attention. See if it works for you. Even if you don’t plan to become enlightened or believe that such a thing is possible, the practice could still do you some good. On that, at least, the science is already conclusive.
There’s an app for that!
There’s the meditation app that Future Thinkers made with Vinay Gupta for this purpose. The whole future thinkers podcast on enlightenment with Vinay Gupta also goes into a lot more detail on the topics of meditation.