What is Meditation?
Meditation is a practice that makes it possible to cultivate and develop certain basic positive human qualities in the same way as other forms of training make it possible to play a musical instrument or acquire any other skill.
Among several Asian words that translate as “meditation” in English are bhavana from Sanskrit, which means “to cultivate,” and its Tibetan equivalent, gom, meaning “to become familiar with.” Meditation helps us to familiarize ourselves with a clear and accurate way of seeing things and to cultivate wholesome qualities that remain dormant within us unless we make an effort to draw them out.
So let us begin by asking ourselves, “What do I really want out of life? Am I content to just keep improvising from day to day? Am I going to ignore the vague sense of discontent that I always feel deep down when, at the same time, I am longing for well-being and fulfillment?”
We have become accustomed to thinking that our shortcomings are inevitable and that we have to put up with the setbacks they have brought us throughout our lives. We take the dysfunctional aspects of ourselves for granted, not realizing that it is possible to break out of the vicious cycle of exhausting behavior patterns.
From a Buddhist point of view, every being has the potential for enlightenment just as surely, say the traditional texts, as every sesame seed contains oil. Despite this, to use another traditional comparison, we wander about in confusion like a beggar who is simultaneously both rich and poor because he does not know that he has a treasure buried under the floor of his hut. The goal of the Buddhist path is to come onto possession of this overlooked wealth of ours, which can imbue our lives with the most profound meaning.
A Global Effect
So the primary goal of meditation is to transform our experience of the world. In addition, studies have shown that meditation has beneficial effects on our physical and mental health. For the last ten years, intensive studies on meditation and its long- and short-term effects on the brain have been conducted by major American universities, such as the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Princeton, Harvard, and the University of California at Berkeley, as well as research centers in Zurich, Switzerland–all inspired by the activities of the Mind and Life Institute, which is dedicated to the collaboration between Buddhism and modern science. In these studies, experienced practitioners who over time have meditated for between 10,000 and 60,000 hours demonstrated qualities of focused attention that were not found among beginners. For example, they were able to maintain more or less perfect concentration on a particular task for 45 minutes, whereas most people cannot go beyond 5 or 10 minutes before they begin making an increasing number of mistakes.
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Experienced meditators are able to generate precise targeted mental states that are enduring and powerful. Among other things, experiments have shown that the region of the brain associated with mental states like compassion exhibits considerably greater activity among persons who have long meditative experience than among those who do not. These discoveries demonstrate that certain human qualities can be deliberately cultivated through mental training. Such studies have led to the publication of several articles in prestigious scientific journals, establishing the credibility of research on meditation, an area which had not been taken seriously until then. Richard Davidson, a leading neuroscientist, acknowledges: “These studies seem to demonstrate that the brain can be trained and physically modified in a way that few people would have imagined.”
Other scientific investigations have shown that you do not have to be a highly trained meditator to benefit from the effects of meditation: even 20 minutes of daily practice can contribute significantly to the reduction of stress, whose harmful effects on health are well established. It also reduces anxiety, the tendency toward anger (which has been shown to diminish the chances of survival following heart surgery), and the risk of relapse for people who have previously undergone at least two episodes of serious depression. Eight weeks of meditation (of the type known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR) for 30 minutes a day, significantly strengthens the immune system, reinforces positive emotions and the faculty of attention, reduces arterial pressure in those suffering from high blood pressure, and accelerates the healing of psoriasis.
To what extent can we train our mind to work in a constructive manner–for example, by replacing obsession with contentment, agitation with calmness, or hatred with kindness? Twenty years ago, it was almost universally accepted by neuroscientists that the brain contained all its neurons at birth and that their number did not change in adult life. We now know that new neurons are produced up until the moment of death. Moreover, scientists speak of “neuroplasticity,” the brain’s ability to continually change its structure and function in response to new experiences, so that a particular training, such as learning a musical instrument or a sport, can bring significant and lasting functional and structural changes in the brain. Mindfulness, altruism, and other basic human qualities can be cultivated in the same way. In general, if we engage repeatedly in a new activity or train in a new skill, modifications in the neuronal system of the brain can be observed within a month. It is essential, therefore, to meditate regularly.
Study of the influence of our mental states on our way of being and our health, which was once considered a purely eccentric notion, is now becoming a mainstream approach in scientific research. The increasingly powerful Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) techniques and sophisticated electroencephalograms (EEG) as well as magnetoencephalography (MEG), combined with the participation of experienced contemplatives, have led us toward a golden age of contemplative neuroscience. It is a fascinating prospect, and there is so much more to discover.
This excerpt is taken from the book Why Meditate? Working with Thoughts and Emotions by Matthieu Ricard. It is published by Hay House (September 2010) and is available at all bookstores or online.
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