It is indisputable that Meditation, if done consistently, can strengthen your ability to stay calm in stressful situations. It can potentially increase your ability to focus longer on the subject of interest and has also been reported to have positive effects on our immune systems.
What is not clear though, is how does one adequately teach this practice to a large group of people in an urban city? Traditionally, people have taken so called “retreats” to effectively learn this practice. Going to a retreat usually means letting go of all the comforts of modern lifestyle by severing all connections to it. You leave your job (if you have any), friends, family and all your beloved tech toys for a time ranging anywhere between ten days to six months. There are exceptions of course as some people foray into this adventure for more than a year or two.
But can we expect the 21st century worker to completely detach from her social life - especially with an immense pressure to be constantly available online - for a long stretch of time? Or do we continue farming meditation centers in distractive urban environments for people who want to improve their mental health without sacrificing any of the social comforts?
Its true that prospective monks very conveniently (and somewhat ironically) abandon the game-theoretical world to try and find peace in a world full of ‘suffering’. Suffering in this context does not imply the usual suspects like poverty or crime. Most of the Buddhist teachings consider constant arrival of cursory thoughts and the brains’ default conduct to cling to pleasant emotions and evade the unpleasant ones, as part of suffering. Meditation’s selling point is that with constant practice, its not only possible to get out of this vicious cycle of seeking pleasure and avoiding displeasure, but its also possible to peek into the true nature of one’s consciousness. For the former claim, there are numerous positive anectodes but more interestingly, recent fMRI research corroborates those anectodes. For the latter, there isn’t really any objective way to know what is being perceived or felt subjectively, so the personal stories is only what we have. In order to achieve both of these goals, to be monks usually depart from the modern society. To experience both of the promised outcomes of this practice, it seems mandatory to go on a retreat leaving all hedonistic pleasures behind. But is it really absolutely necessary?
Training in solitude, without frequent interactions with humans that are busy executing game theoretical strategies should be better suited to take the most out of this practice. The more you reduce transactional meetings with humans, less the number of related thoughts that arise in your brain, in turn making you better focus at the practice. But there seems to be a paradox here. If one of the main selling points of indulging in this practice is that it makes you calmer in your outlook and increases empathy towards others, isn’t it better to expose oneself with the challenging situations of urban environment instead of going to an environment where you won’t really get to use the skills anyway? Yes, once people return from these retreats, they do try to apply these skills but since there isn’t frequent feedback during the training, its impossible to know whether the retreat is helping or not. That’s why introducting practice of meditation in urban settings by creating meditation centers is an important experiment that needs to be tested.
One needs to be careful though since occurrences like these can also happen in these centers. The article discusses the proliferation of meditation centers all over UK and how the incorrect marketing of Meditation as a magic pill to all personal problems can lead to dangerous outcomes. As it highlights, instead of just observing the thoughts without preference or attachment of any kind, the practitioner takes the opposite route and starts associating oneself with their thoughts even more:
“While mindfulness meditation doesn’t change people’s experience, things can feel worse before they feel better,” she said. “As awareness increases, your sensitivity to experiences increases. If someone is feeling vulnerable or is not well supported, it can be quite daunting. It can bring up grief and all kinds of emotions, which need to be capably held by an experienced and suitably trained teacher.”
Like with any niche practice, there is a lack of teachers with experience and knowledge in this practice. Advertising it without focusing on training “teachers” in these centers can lead to similar outcomes we already see with our depressing education systems.
I was browsing the meditation subreddit when I came across the following story and an important comment from the person sharing it :
A lay person went to the Zen master Bankei and said “some time ago I asked you how to deal with wayward thoughts and you advised me that I should just let thoughts arise and cease as they will. Since then, though I’ve taken your advice to heart, I’ve found it difficult to allow my thoughts to arise and cease like this.” The master said “the reason you’re having trouble is that you think there’s some special way to let your thoughts just arise and cease as they will”.
So don’t get wrapped up in doing it “correctly” or “incorrectly” and don’t worry about amounting to something. Just sit in the midst of your unfolding life, right in the middle of it. You have nothing you need to attain, nothing you need to get rid of.
So we need teachers who can tackle such confusions in their students’ minds and calmly deal with situations where some end up feeling depressed. People with anxiety cure themselves better by constantly engaging in entertaining distractions and a practice that asks them to peek into their own minds can backfire. Moreover, teachers need to understand and clearly communicate to their students upfront that Meditation is deceptively simple but it can be incredibly boring and for some even physically painful.
A similar concern is that many corporations in Western countries have taken special interest in mindfulness because they think of it as a useful tool for their employees to tackle with stress and unproductiveness associated with work. But the purpose of meditation isn’t to calmly accept whatever bullshit is thrown at us by our bosses and keep churning stupid work without regret. As Loy and Purser argue, this refashioning of meditation as a safety valve for employees can have exactly the opposite effect of what mindfulness was originally intended for:
The result is an atomized and highly privatized version of mindfulness practice, which is easily coopted and confined to what Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, in their book Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, describe as an “accommodationist” orientation. Mindfulness training has wide appeal because it has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals.
They also quote Bhikkhu Bodhi:
Bhikkhu Bodhi, an outspoken western Buddhist monk, has warned: “absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.” Unfortunately, a more ethical and socially responsible view of mindfulness is now seen by many practitioners as a tangential concern, or as an unnecessary politicizing of one’s personal journey of self-transformation.
Another challenge that isn’t talked about enough, is to find a good balance between the meditative states and the states where you let your mind wander. A study showed that the group practicing mindfulness meditation scored lower in tests of implicit learning than less mindful folks. Implicit learning is of the kind that happens unconsciously when we try to acquire new skills or habits. If there is some substance to this study, its not a stretch to claim that mindfulness meditation can on average lead to less creativity. This could be especially important to consider if we are planning to regularly teach this practice to kids. Being mostly in the present moment isn’t really going to trigger out of the box thinking.
There are some caveats that need addressing before spoon feeding this sudden meditation enthusiasm everywhere. We cannot let another useful tool go to waste by teaching to use it in incorrect and possibly dangerous ways.