Chimeras of the mind and meditation
Meditation (mostly of Buddhist origin) is the new cure-all, drawing to its edifying <g data-gr-id="46">navel</g> a legion of adherents, from criminals, politicians, and corporate executives to doctors, patients, activists, schoolchildren and sportspersons, not to forget millions of blighted middle-class souls. So we nod in approval when Manish Sisodia, Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister, says he wants to make Vipassana compulsory in schools.
A multi-million dollar industry, it even has the blessings of science. Over 1,300 studies vouch for its ability to reboot the mental universe in ways that can vaporize obstinate demons such as anxiety, depression, aggression, inattention, and insomnia. In some cases, a newly-washed mind may even aid the body in overcoming afflictions such as cancer, psoriasis, and infirmities of the heart. It is claimed this ancient calisthenics of the mind puts you in touch with your Buddha self, thereby making you happier and more compassionate.
Indeed, such is its branding that one might be forgiven for believing that meditation is a pure angel without any dark side. However, a recent book, The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You, takes on this naïve view by claiming that the benefits of meditation are much hyped and that it may not be good for everyone. British psychologists Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm, authors of the book, argue that the media tends to exaggerate meditation’s goodness while ignoring its adverse effects or failures. For instance, the media chose to ignore a recent Oxford University study that found patients suffering from recurrent depression were as likely to lapse into depression, regardless of whether they practiced meditation therapies or not. They argue that meditation exercises, in their original formulation, were not supposed to cure depression or make people happy. In fact, the motives were dangerously subversive: to peel the mind-onion to the last layer in order to expose nothingness at the core.
They cite Buddhist texts to explain how a mind thus detached is capable of committing <g data-gr-id="42">amoral</g> acts such as killing fellow human beings in cold blood. Samurais, Ninjas, and Kamikaze bombers exemplify this view.
So what’s the truth about meditation? Does it create a happy, compassionate and more moral being? Or is it a double-edged sword that is equally likely to expose the dark underbelly of one’s soul?
This confusion begs a more fundamental question: what is anyone who takes up meditation seeking? Is it the key to enlightenment? Is it deliverance from suffering? Is it freedom from undesirable feelings of greed, hatred, and doubt? Is it to become a tabula rasa so as to rewrite one’s self? Or is it just to experience a cosmic feeling?
As they say, to each her own. But for Martine Batchelor, a French teacher of Buddhist meditation techniques, the aim of meditation, as enunciated by the great Buddha, is to “embrace suffering, understand its root causes and try to either dissolve them or to work with them in a creative way…” so as to fashion an ethics of the self and its relation with the world.
However, meditation today, divorced as it is from its Buddhist and Hindu roots, has been reduced to a market commodity that can be customized to the needs of different clients. Picture top hedge-fund managers (many of whom were complicit in the 2008 financial collapse) meditating before making a killing on the Wall Street (some even call themselves corporate samurais and ninjas!). As Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Buddhist monk presciently put it, “Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.”
Whether we like it or not, meditation in its various forms today is a caricature of its ancient vintage. One may try them but, as the authors caution, it is not a panacea and not for everyone. Beware of its dark side. DOWN TO EARTH