Can Meditation Change the Human Heart?

It’s Saturday when people have more time to read. A puff piece with a serious title in the New York Times is the most popular article in America’s leading newspaper today. Its title? “How Meditation May Change the Brain.”

It’s written by the “skeptic” wife of a man who spent 10 days over the holidays on a silent meditation retreat. “The experience was so transformational that he has committed to meditating for two hours a day, once in the morning and once in the evening,” the author says.

The level of awareness in this piece is summed up by the last line: “An empathetic husband who takes out the trash and puts gas in the car because he knows I don’t like to — I’ll take that.”

With that mindset, and the escape, I mean retreat, of her husband during the holidays, the woman tells the reader more about her marriage than one wants to know. But the article reflects something the “lamestream media” (to borrow one of the few quotable phrases from Sarah Palin) is still ridiculing—the hunger for a spiritual life and for transformation (after the Obama-con).

As someone who has meditated for 40 years, the idea of spending a fortnight on one of these high-priced silent retreats sounds about as enticing as being locked in a small cell. Then again, it’s the same thing.

Why is it that people will put themselves through such tortures rather than simply take the time to observe the movement of their own minds and hearts, gathering the attention from which meditative states actually flow?

America still has strong Puritan and Calvinistic streaks. Add to that the moronic notion that we need authorities on meditation. Mix in the idea that meditation is a skill that can be taught, and you can see why it has taken the form of a fad.

There are two motivations for meditation. The first is the clichéd need for “stress reduction” as well as “enhanced cognitive functions;” the second is for spiritual growth. They are often conflated as if spirituality confers stress reduction, and stress reduction confers spirituality.

The article states, “M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.”

Such studies feed the first motivation. But what about the spiritual dimension? Beyond growing “empathetic husbands who take out the trash and put gas in the car,” does meditation increase the capacity of the human heart?

“The main idea is to use different objects to focus one’s attention, and it could be a focus on sensations of breathing, or emotions or thoughts, or observing any type of body sensations,” says Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and a leading ‘expert’ on meditation.

As such, not only is “Mindfulness Meditation” (the approach most often taken in the West) a redundancy, but it misses the point of meditation completely as I see it.

People are told that meditation is “about bringing the mind back to the here and now, as opposed to letting the mind drift.” But who or what brings the mind back to the here and now? That implies a separate entity making an effort to do so. And upholding the separate self is antithetical to meditation.

Indeed, to initiate authentically meditative states one has to let the mind drift, and watch it as it does. Control is an illusion, and effort is a diversion from what is. Letting go of control and effort opens up space in the mind, releases emotions, and allows insight. It is an insight that changes the brain.

Meditation isn’t about methods, techniques, effort, or stress reduction; it’s about a play, experiment, discovery, and insight.

After the mind quiets down simply by listening to the sounds of nature and man, try asking: Is the separate observer operating? The question itself brings attention to thought dividing itself from itself. When awareness catches thought in the act of separation, division ends. That’s when meditation begins.

The fog hadn’t completely burned off at midday when I took my seat in Upper Park overlooking the gorge. A hundred meters below, the full-flowing stream spilled over and around volcanic rocks. Straight ahead, as the sun burned off the last of the fog, the canyon opened up and one could see for miles.

Just one person passes by during the hour and a half sitting, and I pass just one person during the hour and a half walk up the canyon and back. For the entire time, a feeling of blessed solitude and silence filled one.

Martin LeFevre

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