EV banner
"For we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not of ourselves."

On the Subject of Mindfulness
(i.e., Meditation)

Two women in lotus position meditating

The subject of Meditation can be approached from various angles: whether it has practical benefit for mind and body health, whether it should be practiced to gain advantage in business and creativity, whether it benefits society at large through the benefits attained by individuals, whether it can have unintended, adverse effects, and even whether the spiritual content is benign or malevolent.

The following article was sent to Friend 1 on the subject of meditation. He sent it to Friend 2:

The Morality of Meditation

Published: July 8 2013
New York Times

MEDITATION is fast becoming a fashionable tool for improving your mind. With mounting scientific evidence that the practice can enhance creativity, memory and scores on standardized intelligence tests, interest in its practical benefits is growing. A number of “mindfulness” training programs, like that developed by the engineer Chade-Meng Tan at Google, and conferences like Wisdom 2.0 for business and tech leaders, promise attendees insight into how meditation can be used to augment individual performance, leadership and productivity.

This is all well and good, but if you stop to think about it, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the (perfectly commendable) pursuit of these benefits and the purpose for which meditation was originally intended. Gaining competitive advantage on exams and increasing creativity in business weren’t of the utmost concern to Buddha and other early meditation teachers. As Buddha himself said, “I teach one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering.” For Buddha, as for many modern spiritual leaders, the goal of meditation was as simple as that. The heightened control of the mind that meditation offers was supposed to help its practitioners see the world in a new and more compassionate way, allowing them to break free from the categorizations (us/them, self/other) that commonly divide people from one another.

But does meditation work as promised? Is its originally intended effect — the reduction of suffering — empirically demonstrable?

To put the question to the test, my lab, led in this work by the psychologist Paul Condon, joined with the neuroscientist Gaëlle Desbordes and the Buddhist lama Willa Miller to conduct an experiment whose publication is forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science. We recruited 39 people from the Boston area who were willing to take part in an eight-week course on meditation (and who had never taken any such course before). We then randomly assigned 20 of them to take part in weekly meditation classes, which also required them to practice at home using guided recordings. The remaining 19 were told that they had been placed on a waiting list for a future course.

After the eight-week period of instruction, we invited the participants to the lab for an experiment that purported to examine their memory, attention and related cognitive abilities. But as you might anticipate, what actually interested us was whether those who had been meditating would exhibit greater compassion in the face of suffering. To find out, we staged a situation designed to test the participants’ behavior before they were aware that the experiment had begun.

WHEN a participant entered the waiting area for our lab, he (or she) found three chairs, two of which were already occupied. Naturally, he sat in the remaining chair. As he waited, a fourth person, using crutches and wearing a boot for a broken foot, entered the room and audibly sighed in pain as she leaned uncomfortably against a wall. The other two people in the room — who, like the woman on crutches, secretly worked for us — ignored the woman, thus confronting the participant with a moral quandary. Would he act compassionately, giving up his chair for her, or selfishly ignore her plight?

The results were striking. Although only 16 percent of the nonmeditators gave up their seats — an admittedly disheartening fact — the proportion rose to 50 percent among those who had meditated. This increase is impressive not solely because it occurred after only eight weeks of meditation, but also because it did so within the context of a situation known to inhibit considerate behavior: witnessing others ignoring a person in distress — what psychologists call the bystander effect — reduces the odds that any single individual will help. Nonetheless, the meditation increased the compassionate response threefold.

Although we don’t yet know why meditation has this effect, one of two explanations seems likely. The first rests on meditation’s documented ability to enhance attention, which might in turn increase the odds of noticing someone in pain (as opposed to being lost in one’s own thoughts). My favored explanation, though, derives from a different aspect of meditation: its ability to foster a view that all beings are interconnected. The psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo and I have found that any marker of affiliation between two people, even something as subtle as tapping their hands together in synchrony, causes them to feel more compassion for each other when distressed. The increased compassion of meditators, then, might stem directly from meditation’s ability to dissolve the artificial social distinctions — ethnicity, religion, ideology and the like — that divide us.

Supporting this view, recent findings by the neuroscientists Helen Weng, Richard Davidson and colleagues confirm that even relatively brief training in meditative techniques can alter neural functioning in brain areas associated with empathic understanding of others’ distress — areas whose responsiveness is also modulated by a person’s degree of felt associations with others.

So take heart. The next time you meditate, know that you’re not just benefiting yourself, you’re also benefiting your neighbors, community members and as-yet-unknown strangers by increasing the odds that you’ll feel their pain when the time comes, and act to lessen it as well.

David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, where he directs the Social Emotions Group. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on July 7, 2013, on page SR12 of the New York edition with the headline: The Morality of Meditation.

Friend 1 then added this:

There is a substantial emerging body of clinical studies done at US medical schools about 'meditation'. Some studies use a TM approach, double blind with volunteers; some other studies are done on long-time meditators using primarily Tibetan Buddhist monks. Here is some info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research_on_meditation

In this article from Wikipedia is the following entry:

Western therapeutic use and MBSR See also: Mindfulness (psychology) and Mindfulness-based stress reduction
Meditation has entered the mainstream of health care as a method of stress and pain reduction. As a method of stress reduction, meditation has been used in hospitals in cases of chronic or terminal illness to reduce complications associated with increased stress that include depressed immune systems. There is growing agreement in the medical community that mental factors such as stress significantly contribute to a lack of physical health, and there is a growing movement in mainstream science to fund research in this area. There are now several mainstream health care programs which aid those, both sick and healthy, in promoting their inner well-being, especially mindfulness-based programs such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

A 2003 meta-analysis found that MBSR, which involves continuous awareness of consciousness, without seeking to censor thoughts, concluded that the form of meditation may be broadly useful for individuals attempting to cope with clinical and nonclinical problems. Diagnoses for which MBSR was found to be helpful included chronic pain, fibromyalgia, cancer patients and coronary artery disease. Improvements were noted for both physical and mental health measures.

Friend 2 replied to Friend 1:

Dear Friend, glad the meditation article I sent you stirred some further articles. Thanks for sending them. But I have to put in my three pence worth.

It's been also noted that some meditation 'research' is self-serving, particularly studies done by TM.

Further, I personally know of a case of a guy who took up TM and experienced constant headaches thereafter, for years thereafter. A Jaguar salesman here in our county did the Siddhis TM for 11 years, and two other friends did it over two hours a day consistently, one for 16 years and the other for 21 years. Each declared that it didn't do 'em a damn bit of good (no, none of them became Christians). I also had lenghthy conversations with a long-time TM teacher in Varanasi [India] who said it tips some people over the edge – they go mad. We know people who've gone nuts after shaktipat , even committing suicide. John Doe and Jane Doe went nuts after receiving shaktipat, and neither ever recovered. My father had beaten asthma for 25 years through disciplined breathing exercises. His asthma returned after an intensive in Oakland with Baba. A medical colleague of my father (a renowned Melbourne psychiatrist) went clinically insane for three weeks after she did an intensive, had to be committed, but fortunately recovered afterwards. We know someone from the New York ashram who committed suicide after shaktipat, and I knew a woman, the more she meditated the more dysfunctional she became (Baba told her to stop meditating).

I do make a distinction between what I call 'formal' meditation and spontaneous shakti-induced meditation, but both kinds can go either way. However, I remain an advocate of both forms (with qualifications), but I don't miss the hype associated with the subject.

Meditation of either sort never did me any good. The formal type actually made me snitchy and vague-headed when done in excess of an hour a day. Yet, ironically these days, I do both forms (though under a different umbrella), sometimes twice or thrice daily and in the middle of the night at 2 a.m. I enjoy the two forms of stillness they both induce, each having a different quality. But I can't honestly say either form did or does me any good.

Just good to balance up the trendy self-serving bulls--- on the subject. Our Hindu mates certainly set the trend for hyperbole.

Perhaps I have a right to comment. I have had plenty of experience in this game.

Fondly, Friend 2

Now, consider a completely different view:

Mindfulness – Another View

In Sunday's Washington Post, May 25, 2014, is a story about a Buddhist teacher/therapist who works with military veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Her theory, as outlined by the Post journalist, is that keeping one's mind on the here and now is healing.

Her approach seems to recommend focusing on oneself, centering on where one is and how one feels right now. Question: Is this ego-centric? If you think about others or the troubles you are presently facing, are you not being mindful?

Perhaps being mindful is beneficial, but like everything else, that is debatable. I suspect some will find a measure of relief while others will not.

Mindfulness! I read and hear of this often, since I live in Mill Valley, California, a bastion for Buddhist and yoga-style meditators. One of my friends at our local gym is the director of a Zen center, and he and I have talked on and off over the years on the subject of mindfulness.

Mindfulness! I suppose one ought to be mindful. It sounds like a good thing, maybe even a virtue. Mindful of the moment, mindful in the moment; it seems like a worthy goal, I suppose. Certainly, if a train were bearing down on you, you would want to be mindful of yourself, exactly where you were at in that moment.

To ask, mindful of what? probably misses the point. I don't think it is about jumping out of the way of trains, planes, or automobiles, but it might encompass such. Seems like a koan, one of those sayings that leave a person scratching his or her head, like "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

This is now bordering on being silly; even I know it. I am not mindless. Let me get down to it: I am suspicious that what the mindfulness practitioner means is she has discovered something very large and that those who do not practice mindfulness are missing out.

I also wonder if the call to mindfulness is not a form of Buddhist evangelism. There is a Christian type evangelism which basically looks like this: Christians speak of their gospel which may be reduced to a three part formula: Law plus Grace = Gospel. The Christian evangelist points out that the Law of Moses, whose centerpiece is the Ten Commandments of Exodus chapter 20, when read will lead the reader to understand that they have sinned and fall well short of God's demands. Bad News. The second part of the formula is Grace, which means that though God could send the poor Law breaker to hell, He instead pardons, forgives, and saves the miserable sinner. Good News. The result is Gospel, which literally means Good News. Shocking! Instead of hell there is now heaven.

So then, is there anything of a mindful nature here? It is self focused to a considerable degree and it centers on really large issues that impact the here and now. It is ultimate present conversation between the Creator and creature. How much more significant, hey, even mindful can you get?

Mindfulness. The impression I often get is that the Buddhist, or perhaps the Hindu yogi, those who meditate and focus on the NOW are where one ought to be as opposed to those Christian types who are thinking only about the kingdom to come with the harps, angel wings, fluffy clouds, and much more in the sweet bye and bye, which is down the road someplace and certainly not in the here and now. Is this the Buddhist version of the good news and is it superior to the Christian version. Of course, like everything else, this is debatable.

Let me get down to it right now. I am mindful that living in the now is a good thing. No question, I embrace it, but is that all there is? Since there is a future, however short or long, there is more to life than now. I confess I do not get too excited about now all the time. Sometimes now is painful, discouraging, boring and I would rather not focus on it. Hope is a good thing, and hope is future oriented and centers on what may or may not come to pass. But it is nonetheless not now. Is this an acceptable state of mindfulness?

Kent Philpott

Bookmark and Share

Last Update: 2016-09-01 12:11