In the animal kingdom, just as in engineering, any mechanical advantage comes with a sacrifice in some other area. Human beings have sacrificed much for their physical and mental capabilities. To sustain our unique metabolism and our potent brains, we have sacrificed musculoskeletal power. To support our erect posture, we suffer spinal problems and birth is especially traumatic. In exchange for the ability to move both in and out of the water, we’ve lost what might have been a warm coat of fur.
The list goes on and on. But the main advantage of being human is having a complex brain which can explore the past and the future from the vantage point of the present. This gives us enormous adaptability- unprecedented in the animal kingdom. The only creatures that inhabit more environments than we do are bugs and infectious organisms.
The disadvantage of this information processing system which enables us to explore possibilities in time is that we conflate our thoughts with our identity. We become attached to the things we hope for and the things we have known. The fear that comes with these attachments causes us emotional pain. This psychic pain is significant and no one is exempt. It is the source of all evil, corruption, and- if you’ll permit the term- sin.
But we have a mechanism that is readily available to us which can help us to cope with this existential angst. It is meditation.
There are so many misconceptions surrounding the idea of meditation I think it’s fair to say that we have been robbed of our birthright. We’ve been lead to believe that meditation is a peculiar thing that religious people do for religious reasons. This is wrong.
Meditation is a biological function like the movement of the bowels, exhalation, sleep, or sweating. The major difference between these biological functions and meditation is that you can choose not to meditate without becoming dramatically ill. But you cannot be fully well without this mind organizing capability that we all possess.
Second only to the misconception that meditation is strictly for religious purposes is the misconception that meditation is strenuous and that it means eliminating all thought. This too is wrong.
The purpose of meditation is to create a tangible sense of space between the mind and the thing that we truly are. We are, each of us, a particle of the totality of life. We are living energies bound up in living systems. We are not our mind any more than we are our heartbeat or the movement of our bowels. The function of meditation is to realize this simple fact.
The pain we feel is a direct consequence of the identification with the mind. But the mind is nothing more than the ongoing narrative which is created by the brain. The brain goes on generating this explanatory narrative which we call our life story. When we attach our beings to this story, we become fearful because we know that we will be separated from our story, our knowledge, our narrative. This fear is extended to our possessions and our relationships because we know we will be separated from those as well.
During meditation, as the experienced practitioner knows, the mind goes on weaving its persistent narrative. The purpose of this ceaseless process is to generate categories that will guide us as we attempt to navigate away from danger and toward rewards. Practitioners of meditation who attempt to shut off the activity of the mind will fail. They will experience meditation through the category of failure and risk losing interest.
You should not attempt to shut off the activity of the mind any more than you should attempt to shut off the activity of your bowels. And you should not be distracted by the activity of the mind any more than you should be distracted by the beating of your heart.
The secret of meditation is to find the stillness within that is separate from and other to the noise of the brain. The more time we spend in contact with that stillness, the more we realize that we are not the mind.
As for me, I think of the mind as like a finely made sword. My goal is to keep it clean and sharp. The only mistake I can make with it is to grasp it too firmly or to use it for cruelty. What happens if we cling too firmly to a sharp blade? We injure ourselves. Existential pain is like the injuries suffered by a person who clings to a blade as if it were his own life.
Learning to consider the mind as a biological function is the beginning of wisdom. Spending time with this awareness is the way to move away from the fear that leads to pain.
Meditation is not a strange behavior for religious zealots. It is an internal mechanism we have developed as creatures who partially inhabit the dimension of time. It’s an issue of emotional hygiene, and you neglect it at your peril.
But the potential benefits of the discipline of meditation are, it’s safe to say, yet to be fully discovered.