Why Bother to Meditate?

Mind and Life XIII 

The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation

"The topic for this meeting comes from the recognition that our work at the Mind and Life Institute is no longer limited to dialogue and understanding. More important is the need to translate these understandings into programs, interventions, and tools that will bring tangible benefit into peoples’ lives. Hence, we have begun to ask very practical questions: How do we nurture and maintain healthy minds? How can we cultivate more emotional balance in our lives and in our societies? And how can we teach these self-management skills earlier in life?"

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Why Meditate? by Matthieu Ricard (Hay House) The French translator for the Dalai Lama since 1989, Matthieu Ricard lives at the Shechen Monastery in Nepal and devotes much of his time to humanitarian projects in Asia (www.karuna-shechen.org) and to the preservation of the Tibetan Buddhism cultural heritage (www.shechen.org). All proceeds from his books and photography are donated to these projects. 

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"This morning we are going to reflect on the nature of meditation, the principle of applying mindfulness-based meditation to better well-being, and how meditation can be studied in collaboration with neuroscience.

 

One of the first questions we ask ourselves is why bother to meditate, and if we do, on what, and how? The very nature of meditation is mental training, a tool of transformation over the long term of our life. We should understand that mental health is not simply the absence of mental illness. Are we really living our life in the most optimal way? Is what we call our “normal” state of going about life really optimal? We can see from our own experience that the way we engage with and interpret the world is often distorted by a mode of perception that doesn’t correspond with the way things are. Often we find ourselves in the pangs of torment from mental toxins such as hatred, obsessive desire, arrogance and nagging jealousy. Those are certainly not optimal ways of relating to our own experience or to others. We know that we can experience genuine altruistic love and compassion, but couldn’t we do so more often, so that those states of mind become the normal way we relate to others?

 

Hence, the ideal of long-term transformation: becoming a better human being for one’s own well-being and that of others as well. These two go together. That is precisely the meaning of meditation. Meditation is not just sitting and blissing out under a mango tree in order to have a better day, although it might help. If we look at the Eastern roots of the word for meditation, it truly means cultivation—cultivating new qualities, new ways of being.

 

It also means familiarization: familiarization with a new way of seeing the world; for example, not grasping at permanence, and instead seeing the dynamic flow of interdependence. Meditation means familiarization with qualities that we have the potential to enhance, like unconditional compassion, openness to others, and inner peace. It’s also familiarization with the very way the mind works. So often we are full of thoughts that ceaselessly go through our mind. We hardly notice what’s going on. What is behind the screen of thoughts? Can we relate to some kind of basic mindfulness and open presence? All of these sorts of inner explorations are considered meditation.

 

From the start, the Buddhist path has a therapeutic goal: to free ourselves and others from suffering. Obviously this is not a mere hobby, something nice to add to our lives. Rather, inner transformation is something that determines the quality of every instant we live. Still, we may ask why there is a need for the contemplative traditions to collaborate with science. What can both sides expect? What can humanity expect from that?

 

For those who have been engaged in this process of mental transformation, the benefits are obvious (hopefully, if our practice goes well). This creates a wish to share something dear to ourselves, which has brought so much to our lives and could do the same for others.

 

Collaborating with science also speaks to the aspiration to know things as they are. We know about the experience of specific states of meditation, but what is their signature in the brain? What is the relation of different states of meditation with other known cognitive and emotional states that have been studied in the mind and the brain? What might the effects of long-term mind training be? We know that learning to play a musical instrument, for instance, can change your brain.

 

It’s wonderful to play the piano, though it’s not a major deficit if you don’t. But compassion, attention, vigilance, mindfulness, inner peace—these are fundamental aspects of the quality of our life, and it is quite sad if we don’t develop them to their optimal point. The hope of this dialogue is to increase and deepen our knowledge of both what mental training really is and how it affects the brain, the body, and our relation to the world and to others in the short term and the long term. How will that eventually be a contribution to humanity? That is truly our common goal. Can we contribute something to education through cultivating emotional balance? As His Holiness often says, we cannot have outer peace without inner peace. We cannot have an outer disarmament without inner disarmament. If we want to have a harmonious society, it has to begin with and within each of us. That is what meditation is about."

The Mind's Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation,

New Harbinger Publications. Kindle Edition

 

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