The How and Why of Mindfulness Meditation
In the 1950s, Zen Buddhism energized the beat generation, and today, it is the Mindfulness Meditation that is being followed by Wall Street, the Silicon Valley and the Medical Establishment. in an interview with Bloomberg News, hedge fund manager David Ford said, “I react to volatile markets much more calmly now.” He then added ““To make a killing on Wall Street, start meditating.” When companies like Goldman Sachs start offering free meditation training to employees, you know Buddha is alive in America.
The medical establishment—Mayo Clinic included—tout its therapeutic–stress reduction– aspect. To the millions of Buddhists, who practice it for its spiritual benefits, such banal uses (for monetary or even therapeutic benefits) seem like a degradation. To the Buddhists like Asoka, the objective of the practice was nothing less than “awakening”: enlightenment, liberation, nirvana from the cycle of suffering.
What about the common man? Robert Wright, in his recent book: Why Buddhism is True, takes the view is that “though things like stress reduction or grappling with melancholy or remorse or self-loathing may seem “therapeutic,” they are organically connected to the very roots of Buddhist philosophy” which means “profound spiritual exploration and radical philosophical reorientation” for day-to-day living.
One of the Buddhist ideas is that of “not-self”, the other is of “emptiness.” According to Buddhist philosophy, our intuition that there is a “self” at our core—the thinker of our thoughts, the doer of deeds—is a great illusion. Walpola Rahula, a Buddhist monk published an influential book in 1959 called What the Buddha Taught, in which he said that the false notion of ‘self’ “produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine,’ selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilement. It is the source of all the troubles in the world from personal conflicts to wars between nations. But the trouble is the experience of ‘not-self’ is highly elusive and few can reach that level. But there is also good news. Most of us, with even a fairly modest daily meditation practice, can experience bits of ‘not-self’. So with practice, progress can be made, and benefits for all can accrue along the way. The key is practice, practice, practice. Practice focusing on the breath as you meditate with closed eyes in silence, in a room with no TV, no internet, no news from the outside world. And, of course, no talking. The point of focusing on your breath isn’t just to focus on your breath. It’s to stabilize your mind, to free it of its normal flights so you can observe things that are happening there in a clear, unhurried, less reactive way. And what is happening inside your mind is important to know: Feelings arise within you—sadness, anxiety, annoyance, relief, joy. But as you begin to observe, you try to experience them from a different vantage point, neither clinging to the good feelings nor running away from the bad ones but rather just experiencing them straightforwardly and observing them. This altered perspective can be the beginning of a fundamental and enduring change in your relationship to your feelings, sensations, perceptions. You can, if all goes well, cease to be their slave. You become clear about what you are feelings; you also gain distance at the same time. You gain a degree of detachment. You let go a part of your ‘self.’
Buddha chips away at the notion of ‘self’ bit by bit. Buddha’s point is that we can’t control the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that arise inside us and it often causes us pain. We suffer because we feel so helpless. Can things that we cannot control be part of our ‘self’? Thoughts may feel like the stuff we generate, but when viewed mindfully, with “non-attachment,” they are seen to be things that just float into our awareness. They aren’t generated by the conscious self but, rather, come from somewhere beyond it. As the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga has put it, “Whichever notion you happen to be conscious of at a particular moment is the one that comes bubbling up, the one that becomes dominant. It’s a dog-eat-dog world going on in your brain, with different systems competing to make it to the surface to win the prize of conscious recognition.” But Mindfulness, in the Buddhist sense of the term, is about an exhaustive, careful, and calm examination of the contents of human experience, an examination that can radically alter your interpretation of that involuntary stream of experience.
To have a brush with your “not-self”, you can do the practice Mindfulness Meditation at one of the several “retreats” (that charge an arm and a leg), with a teacher, online or even with the help of a good meditation app, like Headspace or 10% Happier. If sending fewer incendiary emails and spending less time fulminating in checkout lines reduces the amount of agitation in your life, maybe this effect will be so gratifying—so liberating—that it encourages you to meditate for 30 minutes a day instead of 20. Think of enlightenment as a process, and of liberation the same way. And the first step on that path is to calm down just a little—even if you want to calm down to make a killing in the stock market.