Thursday, July 24, 2014

What is meditation

Meditation, seldom is a word more misunderstood. From a written discourse expressing carefully considered thoughts on a subject, as the writings that mark the purported origin of the scientific method by René Descartes, to a transcendental connection to the divine, whatever that is. But in reality, as it is used by Tibetan Buddhists around the world, it is just thinking carefully and methodically. A mental exercise.
To Meditate, in the Buddhist sense, is simply to exercise the mind into deep introspection. It is to exercise an organ, just like lifting weights for your biceps or doing abdominal crunches. To meditate is to exercise our powers of understanding and focus it inward to understand our mind and to make better use of it in every day life.

Buddhism in general, and Tibetan Buddhism in particular, have multiple meditation excercises and ancillary practices for that purpose. Prayers, mantras, visualization, genuflections, all serve this specific purpose. Regardless of how these externally look, the focus is—or at least should be—internal and directed to the person's mind. The most basic meditation technique is mindfulness, whose purpose is to steady the mind, to learn to control it so that deeper forms of meditation can be achieved. Samatha.

Many people meditate hoping for some transcendental outcome, even devices and methodologies have been created that allow us to have the transcendental outcome without need for the meditation, just like drugs that can provide a dopamine high without carrying any rewarding action. But then, that is just mental figure skating. Thrill-seeking of a mindful form. Real meditation is not transcendental, it is reality, it is to allow us to better connect to reality. The reality that is really there, not the reality that we want to impose to our mental state.

Ideal meditation is common life. It is to be able to maintain a mental equipoise in everyday life. To be able to go with the flow of life itself in a well-balanced meditative state. To achieve such feat, one possible way is the use of meditative exercises, but it is not the only way or even the fastest and most effective way for people that do not have the proper mental framework to achieve it. It is rather likely that many people achieve equivalent states, without ever realizing that is what they have done.

For some people prayer might be more effective, the recitation of mantras, the following of an internal conscience or even 'voice of god' inside their own heads. Many of the things that modernity would qualify as simply craziness. But then so is spending all of your life cross-legged in the top of a mountain to achieve something that you have lost by doing that: the pleasure of loving human contact.

I believe the the devotional fervor of some well-balanced people may be equivalent to the meditative equipoise of others. That the trust that some put in an ever-present god to guide them in everyday life, is somewhat equivalent to the trust placed on understanding reality as it is and using our very human mind to its fullest. The expressions and the contexts might have been quite different, but Jesus could have been closer to a Buddha than many might believe. His divinity but the reflection of the era and society he lived in.

But you might say that there is no proof Jesus even existed, or Buddha for that matter. To me the proof is in the text, in the well-read and understood discourse that has so many similarities to the descriptions heard by contemporary mental institutions. Too many similarities to the descriptions of Willian James 1901's 'varieties of religious experiences', to be ignored. In Buddhism the existence of Buddha is not a problem. Even if he did not exist his teachings exist to this day, which, just as with science, is all that really matters. We can apply the same idea to Jesus, even if with a more oppressive church and following. Its fruits do betray them, can you pick grapes from thorn-bushes, or figs from thistles? (For the Biblical illiterate: that is a Mark reference.)

Meditation, well understood, as an exercise that uses our mental qualities and trains our emotions, should be considered a requirement for our modern human life. It is an exercise that allows us to better function, to better understand others around us. It is an exercise that should be given to our children and loved ones to better prepare them for the realities of modern life. It is an exercise that can be made no worse than a daily prayer, which the majority of parents have no problem imposing to their children.

Meditation at the simplest level can even take the form of a mantra invocation, but a properly internalized and properly understood mantra, not rote repetition towards a non-existing entity, but a repetition towards an internalized you. A simple directing love to the present while setting dreams, goals, and intentions within a healthy context can be made a mantra for the child to explore and modify as needed. What can be done in the present to move towards a goal dream or desire. It is a practice that even an adult should follow.

This personal mantra should be balanced by setting a social intention as well, we humans are above all social animals and the requirements of society are the ones that impose the biggest burden on our well-being. This can perhaps be done via following variations of Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot as a mantra: "everything you love is in this pale blue dot we call earth." One of the greatest mantras ever to be televised. No magic needed, simple mental training and allowing our goals and dreams to be consolidated and explored in our brains as we sleep:
Imagine yourself floating, love flowing out like fog from within you,
imagine observing yourself from the outside as if from a mirror,
looking at your house, your town, your state, your country, your love filling it all.
Every foe, every friend, and everyone you know and love,
as small lights blinking in the distance that you can see through your fog.
You the brightest light of all.
The whole world under you, the whole blue earth rotating under you.
That blue sphere rotating in the distance, that pale blue dot, that's home. That's us.
On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of,
every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.
The aggregate of our joy and suffering,
thousands of confident religions and ideologies,
every hunter and forager, every hero and coward,
every king and peasant, every young couple in love,
every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer,
every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there
– on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
May your dreams be sunny in this our pale blue dot.

–Robo Bard © 2014 CC by-nc-sa, with a major contribution by Carl Sagan © 1997–
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