Why Meditation should be a necessity
Its so important it should be taught in schools to children. It can bring order to an anxious mind, and peace to a troubled heart. Who doesn't need more of that!
From thinking of it as something of a hobby to doing it as part of your daily chore, we’re all quite aware (for quite some time now) about the benefits of meditation. However, the reasons for engaging in it are still blurry. That is- although they have been stated before by countless practitioners, I want to extend that thread and bring somewhat of a reality to light- that, today, meditation should be a necessity. It should be taught in schools to children. One would need to meditate for ten minutes to get a passport (ok, maybe that’s extreme but you get the point).
From folks using apps like Headspace and Calm to people sitting in the lotus position and attending Meditation retreats, the practice of sitting in silence has been on the rise for quite some time now. As our lives on the outside get more automatic, it’s no surprise our internal world needs some improvement. That is- today, more than ever perhaps, we need to meditate to live in harmony.
That said, however, I still come across folks who whole-heartedly believe that they cannot Meditate. Meditation (from their opinion at least), isn’t “for them”. The most common arguments revolve around the dilemma they face around struggling to get any quick benefits from the practice. Since we’re so used to instant rewards (chocolates, social media, porn), we unconsciously apply the same logos to Meditation, expecting a thoughtless mind right after a couple of sessions.
Then there’s the whole thing about intellectualizing the experience. If we end up asking a seasoned Meditator about her experience, she’d most likely say: “I can’t really describe it”, or, “it’s really something you have to experience, not think about experiencing.”
And, to be quite honest, that is the point. To shut down our minds, we need to be okay with not making sense out of everything. However, it made me wonder how many people would give Meditation another thought if I tried to make sense out of this experience. More specifically, why do we need to Meditate? And what are the benefits?
I’ve been trying to make sense out of this experience for quite some time now. Every time I meditate, I feel a sense of bliss, like my thoughts and feelings have been moped (so to speak).
But, what does it really happen? I mean, what do scientific studies tell us?
There’s a default mode of a network which is active even when we’re not. That is- when we’re not doing anything, in particular, just sitting on the couch (for instance), this network is active- it thinks thoughts. So, for most of us today, the default mode of the network is mind wandering.
Fortunately, that is where Meditation comes in. While sitting in silence (for mindfulness meditation), we only need to do two things: observe our breaths (in and out) and label the distractions (thoughts and feelings). The former is a no-brainer – watching as air comes in through the nose (our chest expanding) and as it leaves the mouth (muscles relaxing).
The latter, however, is interesting.
It doesn’t take long for one to realize that while sitting in silence, thoughts and feelings erupt very frequently, and so, it’s incredibly hard to have a “thoughtless mind”, which, unfortunately, is what most people believe will happen.
The goal is something much simpler- all we need to do is label our distractions as they come and then slowly return back to our breaths. So, let’s say the fifth time you breathe in and out, your mind starts thinking about that fight you had with your best friend. What’s more- that thought is coupled with a feeling in your chest. So, we’d label that as a thought and observe the feeling.
Where is it? What does it feel like? If this feeling had a shape attached to it what would it be?
Nonjudgmental curiosity and compassion, interestingly enough, suffice to cease that feeling, helping you distance yourself from it.
Robert Wright, the author of the NYT Best Seller, Why Buddhism is True,commented on how this practice interrupts the work of the default mode of the network:
By interrupting the workings of my default mode network, by “snapping out of it”, and realizing that my mind was wandering, and then returning to my breadth, I was diluting the networks dominance. As I got better at focusing on my breaths for longer periods, this network would become less and less active.
Imagine meditation as a pill. To get anywhere close to enlightenment, or, if we’re being realistic- a clearer mind, we need to take this pill every day. It’s bitter and sometimes, it will annoy the bejesus out of you, but, that annoyance, ironically, is good if noticed mindfully.
But, why bother? I mean, with all pills, the central reason for taking it is – something is wrong with us.
What’s that in our case? Natural Selection calling the shots in an environment that is far different from the one our ancestors lived in (and perhaps different from the one that created these behaviors in the first place).
Let’s try to answer that question from a macro perspective. We’re all, to some extent, pretty anxious people. To make things worse, we genuinely believe that we’re the sole victims. Fortunately, natural selection designed it another way.
Here’s Wright again: |What kind of perceptions and thoughts and feelings guide us through life each day? The answer, at the most basic level, isn’t- the kind of thoughts and feelings and perceptions that give us an accurate picture of reality. No, at the most basic level, the answer is- the kind of thoughts and feelings and perceptions that helped our ancestors get genes into the next generation.
So, taken from this perspective, everything we do, at the most basic level, has an umbrella purpose of surviving and passing our genes further on. Take road rage as an example. Technically, yes, it’s bad. However, if we look at it closely, we can see how this behavior helped our first ancestors in the past- if someone took advantage of you, you’d need to teach him a lesson. No one in the community should know that you didn’t fight back, after all, if they did, they’d come again for food.
#1 Self-Consciousness It was imperative to be loved in a village of hunter-gatherers. In fact, the only reason we moved at the top of the food chain was due to our social skills. Not only did one need to liked by the community, they also had to work together for safety and food hunting.
Today, we’re extremely conscious about the way people think about us, in fact, every time we meet someone, our first afterthought is:
“What do they think about us? I hope I didn’t do anything stupid.”
Now, of course, some self-consciousness is needed. However, the people whose opinions we are so anxious about, are most likely never going to see us again. Further, back in the days, the people we lived with had a full catalog of the emotions we displayed. So, they’re less likely to judge us for a rare display of anger or irritation.
So, even here, natural selection designed the behavior deliberately for an environment that needed it (hunter-gatherer), however, it’s been used in one that no longer demands such behavior.
#2 Social Anxiety To pass on your genes and cooperate with the rest of the village (for food and safety), it was, in a very real sense, necessary to be liked. Now, although that didn’t involve sophisticated office parties, that behavior can be branched out to the anxiety most of us face today before giving big presentations to out teams, or attending social events.
So, again, in this case, that behavior isn’t really required, since, being liked is fortunately no longer important. It’s not really life or death. Here again, we can see how natural selection shaped our minds and behaviors with the ultimate goal being: passing our genes to the next generation.
#3 Sweet Tooth This is perhaps the most relatable. The two items deduced above begs to question- okay, I get it that natural selection designed most of our thoughts and feelings. However, did it really have our best interests in mind? And that’s when we can take the example of having a sweet tooth.
Why would natural selection make us have a sweet tooth? Clearly, if things go overboard, eating too many sweets is bad for us. However, let’s think about this in context of the environment our ancestors lived in. One where, folks did not run on Dunkin, where, the only sweet that was accessible was a piece of fruit.
So, yes, natural selection gave us the feature of the sweet tooth in an environment that was accessible. Unfortunately, that doesn’t match anymore given the world we live in today.
Again- environmental mismatch.
So, the point of taking the pill or bothering about this is not to blame evolution for making our lives so miserable. Far from it. It’s to intellectually understand why we are the way we are
The problems we face daily, fortunately, are way beyond us. They have been engaging Homo sapiens to misery since the dawn of time. And as our lives become more and more advanced, the nature of our misery change, the root cause, however, is the same- an environmental mismatch.
Meditation, therefore, helps bring this to light. Intellectually, we now know that our anxiety isn’t us, that our awkwardness during parties isn’t us. That, unfortunately, isn’t helpful when we’re being swayed by intense emotions like anger.
To really “use” this knowledge, then, we need to experience it. We need to feel what its like to get distanced from anxiety, to see it, not as something that’s “us”, but rather something that’s been parading the population for eons.
To see this, we need to meditate.What about you? Do you think is right to say that meditation should be a necessity?