Meditation is pointless

A friend of mine – who ironically is starting a meditation retreat this week in the US – expressed the opinion not so long ago that sitting meditation was just pointless. I knew what she meant at the time, but knew also that she had to discover its real value for herself.  In one sense she was right – sitting practice is waste of time because it is a dedicated period of non-doing. On an outward level it appears to achieve nothing. Another aspect which she drew attention to was the fact that nothing really changes day to day: you sit, you get distracted, you return to the breath, you get distracted, day after day.

One difficulty in meditation is the the results are not immediately tangible while the actual practice can be difficult. The point to meditation, however, is precisely by doing “nothing” and slowing down, gaps are created between activities and we work on our capacity to be aware of what is going on. And it seems that when one is aware, things tend to fall as they should.

However, we can probably find scientific backing for stating that this “pointless” activity is, in fact, achieving something simply while we are sitting. It has been shown that people who meditate activate a different part of their brain that is associated with less anxiety and a better outlook on life. By not activating the anxious parts of the for dedicated periods of each day, our bodies are less likely to be tense, less likely to trigger well-conditioned patterns when faced with difficulties.

Daniel Goleman & Tara Bennett-Goleman*, suggest that meditation works because of the relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. Simply put, the amygdala is the part of the brain that decides, among other things, if we should get angry or anxious, and the pre-frontal cortex is the part that makes us stop and think about things. However, the amygdala is prone to error, such as seeing danger or exaggerating anxiety where there is none. Because there is roughly a quarter of a second gap between the time an event occurs and the time it takes the amygdala to react, the slowing down practicing in meditation may allow us be able to intervene before an automatic response takes over, and perhaps even redirect it into more constructive or positive feelings. In other words, meditation seems to develop emotional brain fitness and therefore this pointless activity may not be pointless after all.

Bennett-Goleman, Tara, 2001. Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind can Heal the Heart, Harmony, (2001).

Come down from the mountain

Meditators face a very real danger of coming to prefer the view from the top of the pole to their real life on the ground. But such peak moments, no matter how profound, always end, leaving us with the problem of how to live in accord with the perspective they provide. Unless we learn to step off the pole, our practice will devolve into mere addiction to the highs of peak experience.

Barry Magid, Ordinary Mind

Developing a secure sense of self:2 – True self, False Self

In the previous related post we saw how our sense of self is shaped in our early years. There is a relationship between a strong inner sense of self-cohesion and the consistency of love we got in our early relationships. However we also saw that an  insecure working model of relationships can be formed and will be reflected in the way we relate to others in adult life, due to the fact that we did not feel safe some or most of the time. The last post ended with the encouragement to understand your childhood insecurity and the force it still contains. This post will suggest some other reflections.

One way we respond to our unmet needs when we are a child is to create a False Self. We realized that safety and affection were more likely when we behaved in certain ways. Thus the False Self is created, effectively to please the parents or other caregivers and maintain their love, which we instinctively grasped to be based on certain conditions –  such as that we always perform well. It develops when the mother, father or other caregiver reflect their own defenses or emotional lacks onto the infant rather than reflecting the infant’s actual moods.  It then goes on, even into adulthood, to constantly anticipate the demands of others and keeps up this mask  because it believes that is the best way to get approval.

Now,  most of us, to some extent, have masks or public personas which we use in different situations in adult life. However, what we are referring to here is a False Self functioning which operates in an unconscious way in repeating patterns and internal demands in our adult choices.

The False Self helps comes about to hold the family together by balancing or denying problems and keeps a certain functional harmony alive. However, it becomes so well constructed and adapted that eventually the true self can become lost to us. We find it hard to “be ourselves”. We use the False Self as our “better self” because our true self feels  too weak at times to gain approval.

This can lead to low self-esteem.  Self-esteem is a person’s core belief about himself or herself,  and although it varies depending on circumstances, the pattern usually leans toward a optimistic  or pessimistic sense of self. In general,  one way of dealing with a pessimistic view is to look for anything outside to make us feel better. For example we may have chosen  to become a perfectionist.  The reasons are clear: if we do something perfectly, then we will be praised and get the affection of others.  Or we can develop dependent behaviour, when as Dr Weiss states, one’s “whole life is spent in wildly swinging arcs to meet others’ expectations. If you’re nice to me, I’m a good person. If you look at me funny, I’m a bad person. I don’t know who I am. I am incredibly dependent on other people to tell me who I am.”

Developing Self Compassion is one way to work with low self esteem. This is the ability to  treat oneself kindly in the face of failure, rejection, defeat, and other negative events. Being self-compassionate means we are less likely to compare ourselves with others, to seek all our support outside ourselves and to dwell too long on negative feedback. We will post more on this in the next post.

A world in tatters

I love desire, the state of want and thought
of how to get; building a kingdom in a soul
requires desire. I love the things I’ve sought-
you in your beltless bathrobe, tongues of cash that loll from my billfold- and love what I want: clothes, houses, redemption. Can a new mauve suit
equal God? Oh no, desire is ranked.

To lose a loved pen is not like losing faith.Acute
desire for nut gateau is driven out by death,
but the cake on its plate has meaning,
even when love is endangered and nothing matters.
For my mother, health; for my sister, bereft,
wholeness. But why is desire suffering?
Because want leaves a world in tatters?
How else but in tatters should a world be?
A columned porch set high above a lake.
Here, take my money. A loved face in agony,
the spirit gone. Here, use my rags of love.

Molly Peacock Why I am not a Buddhist