What is Meditation?
In The West
We in the West are used to treating everyday unhappiness with psychotherapy. Most forms of psychotherapy, however, merely alleviate neurotic suffering but do not address everyday unhappiness. The meditation practices in the ancient, Indo-Tibetan wisdom traditions, such as Bon and Buddhism, pick up where successful therapy leaves off, providing a means of cultivating the positive states of mind and discovering a true happiness, not just absence of unhappiness.
The text below provides an introduction to Dan Brown’s approach to teaching the Indo-Tibetan wisdom traditions. If you’d like to experience directly Dan Brown’s approach to teaching and meditation.
The Indo-Tibetan traditions of Bon and Buddhism from the beginning emphasized the importance of liberation from suffering. The emphasis is exemplified by the Buddhist doctrine of the Four Noble Truths, according to which every aspect of life is characterized by some form of suffering. The goal of spiritual development through Buddhist meditation is to eradicate suffering by attacking its root cause.
The Root Causes of Suffering
Here, “suffering” does not refer so much to the suffering we often think of here in the West: of scraping our knee or breaking a bone – of some type of pain. In the Indo-Tibetan traditions, there is a different understanding of the nature of what causes our pain; that nearly all of it is self-inflicted. In Pali, the native language of Buddha Shakyamuni, the original language of his teachings, the word typically translated as "suffering" is dukkha, which could also be rendered as "reactivity." For, as we experience events unfolding in our stream of consciousness moment-by-moment, the ordinary mind reacts based on ingrained habits. If the event is experienced as pleasant, the mind habitually gravitates toward the event, and we experience the anxiety, fear and anticipation of loss of the pleasant feeling, thus creating suffering from our fear of losing the pleasant feeling. If it is experienced as unpleasant, the mind pushes it away, and experiences much more suffering due to strong feelings of anger, disgust, etc. In Buddhism, these automatic reactive tendencies are referred to as clinging and aversion, and lapses in the continuity of awareness are called non-awareness, or ignorance.
Together these "three poisons" mark every moment of ordinary experience. They are habitual. They obscure the mind's natural condition from us and in so doing become the fundamental cause of everyday unhappiness. In other words, the Indo-Tibetan traditions define everyday unhappiness in terms of a habitual dysfunction in the way we process our experience. Seen in this way, it can be identified and corrected, and the root of everyday unhappiness can be eradicated.
Disciplined meditation practice leads to a series of changes in consciousness that result in a transformation known as awakening. In early Buddhism, awakening meant the eradication of the mind's reactive tendency and its lapses in awareness. Such awakening does not change the content of our experience. Instead, whatever event we experience is experienced with full awareness and without any reactivity whatsoever. All life experiences – positive and negative – are embraced equally, with complete and continuous awareness, so that the quality of everyday experience is greatly enriched, moment-by-moment.
In Bon, and in the later Mahayana Buddhist perspective, the practitioner strives to awaken the minds of every sentient being. In this lofty perspective, individual meditative experience can access a fundamental level of consciousness common to all minds, a consciousness, at the very subtle level, that is the very mind of a realized buddha.
Bon and Mahayana meditative practice toward awakening is, in essence, awakening for all sentient beings. For when the individual attains awakening, the experience, through dependent origination, subtly affects all beings. Thus, for these traditions, awakening is both liberation and also a manifestation of omniscience – the awakened wisdom of a buddha. The awakened mind of a buddha manifests as infinite wisdom and inexhaustible compassion. All our positive qualities of mind are manifest, the quintessence of our human potential.
This inherent wisdom – our buddha-nature – is the mind’s natural condition. However, our mistaken conceptions and negative emotions created through past actions defile the mind’s inherent purity and obscures our buddha-nature. Awakening is inherent in our experience, if we can only recognize it. In Bon and Buddhist traditions, “awakening” refers to the boundless ocean of lucid, awakened awareness/love that is always right here as the core of our fundamental nature. But we rarely recognize this, because it becomes clouded over by layers and layers of seemingly solid structures of mind, like thought, emotion, sense of self and time. It is like when, on a rainy, cloudy day, we don’t see the sun. When the clouds begin to clear, we say, “the sun came out”, but in actuality, the sun is always shining; we just couldn’t see it because it was clouded over. Likewise, the radiant nature of our Mind is always right here. Always shining forth. It is only from the perspective of clouded mind that we don’t see that.
Traditions of Meditation
There are many ways to meditate in the various traditions of the world. Within the Indo-Tibetan traditions, the foundations for all practice are found in two main types of meditation: Concentration (Sanskrit: samatha; Tibetan: zhi nas, pronounced “shee-nay”) and Special Insight (Sanskrit: vipasyana; Tibetan: lhag mthong, pronounced “la-tong”. The Tibetan translates as "seeing beyond".) Concentration stabilizes the mind, allowing for the ability to stay focused on the awareness of further meditations and thus deepen the understanding; through special insight meditation, one realizes the mind’s essential nature. The meditation methods of the Indo-Tibetan Essence traditions of Mahamudra “Great Seal”) and Dzogchen (“Great Perfection”) are also taught by Dan Brown.
The following is an excerpt from one of Dan Brown’s articles, “Mastery of the Mind East and West: Excellence in Being and Doing and Everyday Happiness”. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2009:
H.H. The Dalai Lama states, “I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. . . .Happiness is achieved through training the mind” (Riverbead Books. New York, NY. pp. 13–14). His description of training the mind begins with the cultivation of positive states and the elimination of negative states (p. 41), and then proceeds to formal concentration and insight meditation in order to rediscover the “innate state of happiness.” The doctrine of Buddha nature presumes that the fundamental nature of the mind is awakened, loving, and happy, but that negative emotional states and the elaboration of thinking serve to obscure seeing the mind’s real nature (p. 53).
Stages of Meditation
Training the mind in Buddhism is traditionally conceived in three broad stages: (1) Preliminary practices, (2) Concentration Training, and (3) Insight Training. It is also customary to divide concentration training into two substages, concentration with support, and concentration without support, and also to divide the insight training into ordinary and extraordinary insight training. The successful outcome of mastering all the stages is a fully awakened mind. Awakening implies a fundamental and relatively stable transformation of consciousness resulting in: continuous and full awareness every moment; the eradication of moment-by- moment reactivity to immediate experience, and ultimately the eradication of negative emotional states; and an on-going backdrop to experience of well-being and happiness.
Levels of Mind
According to Buddhist psychology there are a number of levels of mind: (1) the coarse level pertains to mental content, such as perceptual patterns, specific emotional states, and elaborated thought content; (2) the subtle level pertains to unelaborated mind-moments, prior to their construction into elaborated thought content or perceptual patterns (unelaborated mind-moments in Buddhism are comparable to subliminal perception in Western psychology); (3) the very subtle level, or storehouse consciousness, wherein all events are said to occur simultaneously in an interconnected way, as virtual events or “propensities” prior to their manifestation in the ordinary temporal stream of consciousness; (4) the awakened level; (5) All-at-once level free of all negative states and wherein all positive states flourish; and 6) Enlightened level of a buddha.
A highly skilled meditator is able to skillfully shift between each level of mind with the ease of shifting gears in a car. The awakened meditator no longer needs to shift between levels of mind because awakening means opening all four levels of mind simultaneously and continuously–sort of like a quadraphonic sound system. The stages of practice and their correlation with levels of mind are summarized in Table 2.
The preliminary practices address the problem of ordinary consciousness. Preliminary practices deal with: 1) motivation to make spiritual practice a priority in everyday life; 2) eradication of interfering negative states of mind; 3) cultivation potentiating positive states of mind 4) instilling the view of the lineage that will guide practice toward awakening. According to Buddhist psychology ordinary consciousness is characterized from the mind-perspective by the inability of the mind to stay even for short periods on what the intended focus is, high distractibility, and frequent lapses in awareness, and from the event-perspective by increasingly elaborated and complex mental content (mostly thought) that we get lost in, and a fundamental disorganization of the unfolding content of experience. The Buddhist view of the dysfunction of ordinary consciousness is not essentially different to that described by a pioneer in Western introspectionist psychology, William James, who described “the buzzing blooming confusion” of the ordinary mind.
According to Buddhist psychology the habitual tendencies of the ordinary mind are such that largely negative emotional states-of-mind unfold in ordinary experience along with a strong tendency toward scattering and disorganization. These negative states greatly interfere both with the overall goal of meditation practice, with everyday happiness, as well as with the method to achieve it, namely meditation. The preliminary practices are a wide range of motivational, attitudinal, cognitive, behavioral, and visualization practices which are designed to “build the vessel,” i.e., to transform the habitual unfolding of predominately negative states into positive states of mind so that formal meditation practice will proceed without interference. Without these preliminary practices the inexperienced meditator is likely to recreate all of the habitual negative states of ordinary consciousness in everyday life during formal meditation practice.
Formal concentration meditation is designed to train the mind to stay on the intended concentration object. From the mind perspective, the goal is for the meditator to direct the mind toward the intended concentration object and then to repeatedly place the mind on the object whenever it wanders off, until the mind “stays.” Skill in concentration meditation means staying continuously on the intended object of concentration for a longer and longer duration over time, as well as staying completely (not partially) on the intended object at any given moment in time. From the event perspective, training the mind to stay continuously on its intended object transforms unfolding experience, first in that events come forth in a more slow and organized manner, and second, that awareness opens up or shifts to deeper levels of mind beyond the coarse level (defined in terms of elaborated mental content like thoughts and perceptions). From the event perspective deep concentration is said to leave the mind in an “unelaborated state,” wherein the meditator becomes aware of a “hundred thousand mind moments in the blink of an eye” while resisting the tendency to allow these mind-moments to become.
The Tibetan compound, zhi gnas, captures the goals of concentration training. The term zhi ba means “to become calm” because, from the event-perspective, the unfolding contents of consciousness become calmer and more organized. The term gnas ba means “to stay” because, from the mind-perspective, the mind stays continuously and completely on the intended object of concentration. Overall, concentration is said to make the mind “serviceable” because the skilled concentrator is able to keep his or her mind on whatever is intended for as long is needed, without any distraction elsewhere.
The goal of the ordinary insight meditations is insight into emptiness. Western developmental psychology has articulated the stages in the development of a psychological sense of self in the infant. From a Buddhist perspective, the epistemological mistake that the Western self psychological literature makes is to forget that the psychological sense of self is merely a construction of mind, and through forgetting this, to reify the self as if it were something substantial and/or self-existent. Emptiness meditations are designed to see this sense of self as a “mere construction” of mind, empty of any substantial or self-existing nature, and while the “construction” of a psychological sense of self may be useful as a point of orientation in everyday reality, ultimately it is merely a useful convention. The ordinary emptiness meditation focuses on three kinds of conventional constructions of mind: the construction of a sense of self, reality-construction, and the construction of ordinary temporal experience (called emptiness of self, emptiness of phenomena, and the emptiness of the three times, respectively). The goal of emptiness meditation is to negate the habitual tendency to view these constructions of mind as substantial or self-existent so as to affirm pure awareness as the perspective of mind as it reflects whatever events seem to arise as luminous and insubstantial.
Through the repeated practice of emptiness meditations whatever seems to arise in the mind arises as automatically empty. During the extraordinary emptiness meditations whatever events seem to occur arise as self illumination of awareness to itself, as if a vast ocean of awareness were viewing its own waves. Even the strategies that direct the meditation, any tendency to conceptualize the state of consciousness, and the idea of individual consciousness itself, are also seen as merely waves, empty of substance. Experience with this very subtle level of mind allows for the direct realization of the natural condition of the mind, no longer obscured by coarse-level elaborated thought content or emotional states, and so experience at this level of mind increases the probability of awakening the mind to its real nature.
Awakening the Mind
“Always-right-here” is a vast ocean of awakened awareness/love, like the sun that never stops shining. However, it is impossible to view the radiance of the always-shining sun when it is covered by clouds. Emptiness meditation is a way of seeing through the clouds of the ordinary mind in order to directly experience awakened mind shining forth. Certain types of precious crossing-over instructions – non-meditation instructions in Great Seal (Mahamudra) and thoroughly cutting through instructions in Great Completion (Dzogs Chen) – help the practitioner recognize awakened mind under the right conditions of practice.
The Science of Meditation
When the Society for Neuroscience asked Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama (the leader of Tibetan Buddhism), to address its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in 2005, a few hundred members among the nearly 35,000 or so attending the meeting petitioned to have the invitation rescinded. A religious leader, they felt, had no place at a scientific meeting. But this particular leader turned out to have a provocative and ultimately productive question to pose to the gathering. “What relation,” he asked, “could there be between Buddhism, an ancient Indian philosophical and spiritual tradition, and modern science?”
The Dalai Lama, putting action before rhetoric, had already started trying to find answers to his own question. Back in the 1980s, he had sparked a dialogue about science and Buddhism, which led to the creation of the Mind & Life Institute, dedicated to studying contemplative science. In 2000 he brought new focus to this endeavor: he launched the subdiscipline of “contemplative neuroscience” by inviting scientists to study the brain activity of expert Buddhist meditators—defined as having more than 10,000 hours of practice.
The evidence amassed from this research has begun to show that meditation can rewire brain circuits to produce salutary effects not just on the mind and the brain but on the entire body.
For nearly 15 years more than 100 monastics and lay practitioners of Buddhism and a large number of beginning meditators have participated in scientific experiments at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and at least 19 other universities. The article you are reading, in fact, is the product of a collaboration between two neuroscientists and a Buddhist monk who originally trained as a cell biologist.
A comparison of the brain scans of meditators with tens of thousands of hours of practice with those of neophytes and nonmeditators has started to explain why this set of techniques for training the mind holds great potential for supplying cognitive and emotional benefits. The goals of meditation, in fact, overlap with many of the objectives of clinical psychology, psychiatry, preventive medicine and education. As suggested by the growing compendium of research, meditation may be effective in treating depression and chronic pain and in cultivating a sense of overall well-being.
The discovery of meditation's benefits coincides with recent neuroscientific findings showing that the adult brain can still be deeply transformed through experience. These studies show that when we learn how to juggle or play a musical instrument, the brain undergoes changes through a process called neuroplasticity. A brain region that controls the movement of a violinist's fingers becomes progressively larger with mastery of the instrument. A similar process appears to happen when we meditate. Nothing changes in the surrounding environment, but the meditator regulates mental states to achieve a form of inner enrichment, an experience that affects brain functioning and its physical structure. The evidence amassed from this research has begun to show that meditation can rewire brain circuits to produce salutary effects not just on the mind and the brain but on the entire body. (from “Neuroscience Reveals the Secrets of Meditation’s Benefits”, Oct 14, 2014 edition of Scientific American, Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz and Richard J. Davidson )
Brain Activity and Meditation
The medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices have been found to be relatively deactivated during meditation (experienced meditators using concentration, lovingkindness and choiceless awareness meditation). In addition experienced meditators were found to have stronger coupling between the posterior cingulate, dorsal anterior cingulate, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices both when meditating and when not meditating.
Another study (of Tibetan Buddhist, QiGong, Sahaja Yoga, Ananda Marga Yoga and Zen meditators) found reduced functional interdependence between brain regions in meditation.
During meditation a modest increase in slow alpha or theta wave EEG activity has been observed. Perception Studies have shown that meditation has both short-term and long-term effects on various perceptual faculties. In 1984 a study showed that meditators have a significantly lower detection threshold for light stimuli of short duration. In 2000 a study of the perception of visual illusions by zen masters, novice meditators, and non-meditators showed statistically significant effects found for the Poggendorff Illusion but not for the Müller-Lyer Illusion. The zen masters experienced a statistically significant reduction in initial illusion (measured as error in millimeters) and a lower decrement in illusion for subsequent trials. Tloczynski has described the theory of mechanism behind the changes in perception that accompany mindfulness meditation thus: "A person who meditates consequently perceives objects more as directly experienced stimuli and less as concepts… With the removal or minimization of cognitive stimuli and generally increasing awareness, meditation can therefore influence both the quality (accuracy) and quantity (detection) of perception." Brown also points to this as a possible explanation of the phenomenon: "[the higher rate of detection of single light flashes] involves quieting some of the higher mental processes which normally obstruct the perception of subtle events."[this quote needs a citation] In other words, the practice may temporarily or permanently alter some of the top-down processing involved in filtering subtle events usually deemed noise by the perceptual filters.
Kaul et al. found that sleep duration in long-term experienced meditators was lower than in non-meditators and general population norms, with no apparent decrements in vigilance.
Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind-Body Medical Institute, which is affiliated with Harvard University and several Boston hospitals, reports that meditation induces a host of biochemical and physical changes in the body collectively referred to as the "relaxation response". The relaxation response includes changes in metabolism, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and brain chemistry. Benson and his team have also done clinical studies at Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayan Mountains. Benson wrote The Relaxation Response to document the benefits of meditation, which in 1975 were not yet widely known.
According to a March 2006 article in Psychological Bulletin, EEG activity begins to slow as a result of the practice of meditation. The human nervous system is composed of a parasympathetic system, which works to regulate heart rate, breathing and other involuntary motor functions, and a sympathetic system, which arouses the body, preparing it for vigorous activity. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has written, "It is thought that some types of meditation might work by reducing activity in the sympathetic nervous system and increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system,"[this quote needs a citation] or equivalently, that meditation produces a reduction in arousal and increase in relaxation.
A study of GPs attending a meditation workshop found subsequent falls in their Kessler Psychological Distress Scale - 10 (K10) readings.
Western Therapeutic Use
and Mindfulness-based stress reduction
Meditation has entered the mainstream of health care as a method of stress and pain reduction. As a method of stress reduction, meditation has been used in hospitals in cases of chronic or terminal illness to reduce complications associated with increased stress that include depressed immune systems. There is growing agreement in the medical community that mental factors such as stress significantly contribute to a lack of physical health, and there is a growing movement in mainstream science to fund research in this area. There are now several mainstream health care programs which aid those, both sick and healthy, in promoting their inner well-being, especially mindfulness-based programs such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
Mindfulness meditation, mindfulness of the breath, and related techniques, are intended to train attention for the sake of provoking insight. A wider, more flexible attention span makes it easier to be aware of a situation, easier to be objective in emotionally or morally difficult situations, and easier to achieve a state of responsive, creative awareness or "flow".
Slowing Aging Process
Some research were conducted to understand the malleable determinants of cellular aging, which is critical to understanding human longevity. The researchers concluded saying "We have reviewed data linking stress arousal and oxidative stress to telomere shortness. Meditative practices appear to improve the endocrine balance toward positive arousal (high DHEA, lower cortisol) and decrease oxidative stress. Thus, meditation practices may promote mitotic cell longevity both through decreasing stress hormones and oxidative stress and increasing hormones that may protect the telomere.