Let’s stop fooling ourselves and admit it: the human brain has had a difficult evolutionary history. And that’s why it’s constantly wanting, constantly afraid and constantly looking. What should we do about it? Meditate.
I sit on the floor and try not to think. But the harder I try, the more thoughts gush into my head. They range from the trivial (“What will we have for breakfast”) to the more pragmatic (“When will the kids get up?) to the existential (“Is the coronavirus the end of humanity?”). Having been prepared by one of my yoga teachers, I allow myself to be gentle to my intellectual hyperactivity. I let my thoughts flow and do not assess their content. They therefore appear, summon me to take action and die a moment later, only to come full circle and return in a different, more or less compulsive form. Sometimes during those 10 minutes of morning meditation, I manage to experience a few moments of blissful suspension. Thoughtless minutes. I understand they do wonders for the mind. In the chaos of life abroad, in a large city, with two children and endless challenges, I really treasure these few minutes of tranquillity.
Over the past few years, mindfulness and meditation have been entering the mainstream. It seems that anywhere from 200 to 500 million people meditate every day throughout the world. Nearly all yoga sessions wrap up with a moment of meditation. In Singapore, Sydney or London, no-one is surprised by the sight of businesspeople sitting in the lotus position on green lawns near business centres, or focused people with headphones, who seek a moment of peace during their morning commute on the train. When planning common spaces, most major companies designate special relaxation rooms or corners as an investment in the health and morale of employees.
Meditation has also entered our homes, as it is free, co-educational, democratic and safe; you can practice it less than perfectly, and independently or under the care of a spiritual master. In addition, it brings quick results, allowing those who practice meditation to momentarily cut themselves off from a world packed with stimuli and information and thus reduce the symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression. That’s also why people from a variety of social groups practise meditation and share their experiences on blogs or social media. In Australia, where I live, meditation is encouraged among older children in pre-school instead of naps. Most of my friends who are mothers also meditate. Some of them have a purely pragmatic approach to the matter, explaining that “I need those few minutes of peace, otherwise I feel I’m going crazy.”
No wonder. People crave spirituality by nature. Although meditation has its roots in ancient India, it’s the ideal practice for the secular 21st-century human. Why? Because it fills in the void left by the collapse of formal religious structures. Instead of gloomy churches, less than empathetic priests or pompous mass hymns, meditation offers rituals that tempt with states of nirvana and enlightenment and involve subtle body bending, conscious breathing, or chanting mantras and prayers. Meditation is the ticket to a world cloaked in ethereal robes.
In one of the most famous scenes from The Matrix, a small boy with a shaved head tells Neo (played by Keanu Reeves):
“Don’t try and bend the spoon, it’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth.”
“There is no spoon.”
“There is no spoon?”
“Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”
When Keanu Reeves was preparing for his role in The Matrix, the directors suggested that he should read through Robert Wright’s Moral Animal. In a scientific manner, the book presents a rather metaphysical truth: in the course of evolution, the human brain has been developed to enslave and deceive people. In other words, as a result of evolution, we are doomed to suffer. Wright, a common-sense Darwinist with both feet firmly on the ground, was at first sincerely surprised that his book was an inspiration for the creators of The Matrix. Yet a few years later, he came to the conclusion that in a certain sense, Darwin was telling us the same thing as the Buddha was. And that’s how his book with the rather unceremonious title Why Buddhism is True came to be.
To put things in the fewest possible words, while putting aside spiritual depths and complexities, Buddhism can be defined as a good news / bad news story. The bad news is that life is full of illusions and temptations that cause us suffering. But the good news is that you can free yourself of the suffering. All you have to do is reject the illusions, allowing you to avoid temptation and see everything clearly and without decoration; as it really is. Only then will our suffering (dukkha) end and we will be able to be happy.
As Wright explains: “What’s fundamental to the Buddha’s teachings is the general dynamic of being powerfully drawn to sensory pleasure that winds up being fleeting at best. [...] We spend our time looking for the next gratifying thing – the next powdered-sugar doughnut, the next sexual encounter, the next status-enhancing promotion, the next online purchase. But the thrill always fades, and it always leaves us wanting more. The old Rolling Stones lyric I can’t get no satisfaction is, according to Buddhism, the human condition.”
The fleeting sweetness of a doughnut
In essence, the human brain works the same way. Everything that Prince Siddhārtha Gautama of the Shakya clan (later known as the Buddha) had observed 2500 years ago is being confirmed today by scientific research. The human brain always wants more. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter – also referred to as the hormone of happiness and love – is constantly pushing us forward; in this evolutionary momentum, it forces us to reach for the stars, travel to outer space, eat a pound of fudge or seduce our neighbour’s beautiful wife. “Natural selection doesn’t ‘want’ us to be happy, after all; it just ‘wants’ us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive,” Wright emphasizes.
The most interesting thing is that in our human tendency to give in to illusions, even those fleeting moments of happiness we desire so much – like the pleasure of a kiss or the taste of a sweet doughnut – really don’t exist, just like in the scene from The Matrix. Dopamine in the human brain is not released when our taste buds come into contact with something that has a heavenly flavour, but much earlier, when we start dreaming about it.
In 1997, Science magazine published the work of a team of neurobiologists: Wolfram Schultz, Peter Dayan and Terry Sejnowski. As the experiments they led over the course of several years showed, in monkeys that were accustomed to receiving a drop of glucose when the light went on, the level of dopamine would increase the most when it became light in the room and not when they were given the sweet liquid. Scientists defined this phenomenon as ‘reward prediction error’. Wright claims that it’s an example of the trap in which we get caught by our own free will. As we remain confined in a state of eternal reward anticipation, we keep on spinning around like hamsters on a running wheel, edging towards insanity and never being satiated, because, after all, evolution never wanted us to be satiated. Who would reproduce, build skyscrapers, keep on innovating and blast off into space otherwise?
The pain that doesn’t hurt
To coin a reference once again to The Matrix, here is where the magic red pill comes into the picture. The remedy for our neurobiological flaw, condemning us to our pursuit of pleasure, is meditation. Robert Wright is not your typical, highly spiritual follower of Buddhism. Quite the contrary – he’s rather self-ironic in a way typical of the secular. For example, he reminisces on one of his first retreats at a centre where for a week, in complete silence, he was learning to meditate: “[...] I had never had any success in meditating. I have like a really limited attention span. I’m fidgety. I’m not a picture of emotional stability.[...] The first two days were hell. I couldn’t focus on my breaths for 10 consecutive breaths [...]” Yet later, the sceptical meditator experienced his version of nirvana: “[…] But I eventually had pretty memorable experiences and beyond that, beyond the experiences I had meditating, which included some pretty powerful experiences, there was just an ongoing transformation of my consciousness.” The American writer also claims that at that moment he was cured of nervousness, anxieties and human susceptibility to illusions, too.
What are the most tangible benefits of meditation?
Some studies seem to indicate that regular meditation fundamentally changes the brain and its neural plasticity. In 2011, Sara Lazar, a neurobiologist from Harvard Medical School, decided to investigate how mindfulness and meditation affect the structure of the brain, and in particular the area of the cerebral cortex, responsible for decision-making and memory. Participants in the study meditated daily for eight weeks, at least 27 minutes each day. The outcome? The surface of grey matter in the brains of people who had meditated in a systematic manner increased, even after such a short period of time. After a longer period of time, 50-year-old participants of the study had as many active grey cells as people half their age. What’s more, regular meditation also reduced activity of the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety and aggression.
In his book, Robert Wright tells the story of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thích Quảng Đức. In 1963, during the brutal and destructive war in Vietnam, an unusual protest took place on the streets of Saigon. A monk dressed in robes and seated in the lotus position first started to meditate, only to later douse himself with petrol and light a match. One of the witnesses, journalist David Halberstam, described the scene as follows: “As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him. He felt no pain.”
The Buddha claimed that in addition to susceptibility to temptation, the human has other shortcomings. We succumb to the illusion of self and we also tend to attribute some kind of permanent essence to things. This can be manifested in the way we place too much focus on the material aspects of life, as if objects were to give us the ability to experience certain states and emotions. We tend to think that once we have a house with a swimming pool, an SUV or a brand-name watch, we’ll be successful and happy.
Yet much like other areas of life, meditation and Buddhist practices themselves have also partially fallen into a phase of illusion. Many modern-day followers attribute supernatural powers to them. Even Wright himself, a down-to-earth Darwinist, says at one point that “I think the salvation of the world can be secured via the cultivation of calm, clear minds and the wisdom they allow.”
Perhaps he is right. But the Buddha advised only this much: “Believe nothing, live a simple life, be where you are.” And maybe it’s these minimalist truths, rather than ambitious books by writers and scientists, that hide the true secret of enlightenment.
Translated from the Polish by Mark Ordon
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