The life changing power of meditation
To be alive is to be in a stream of experiences. How each experience is processed, depends on one’s state of mind. Do we have any control over the way we process experiences? In other words, do we have any control over our state of mind? Please don’t jump to a quick yes or no answer, because there is a lot to this simple question. If the answer was a simple yes, each and everyone would be a highly productive, highly creative, successful person. There won’t be any irrational fears, or any harmful addictions, but that’s not the reality.
The mind tends to work through known habitual paths. These are similar to the pathways that form in the countryside, they form over time by repeated travelling, over and over it. New and more efficient pathways can form, like when a bridge is built, or some block along the way is removed. This requires a new level of awareness, a conscious effort. So we can either go on our daily activities on the set path, or take a pause and understand the path and the terrain. We can take the effort to form a new trail.
Like those trails on the country side, there are many ingrained thought patterns. Some of these are harmful negative patterns, while some are beneficial, and some may be self-serving but harmful to others.
Lets look into some examples to understand this. Take a painful experience, say your supervisor scolds you at work. Usually these types of experiences are processed with the negative pathways. The associated thoughts from this experience builds up during the day. You workup a stressful state of mind. You seek a quick fix, may be you will get drunk in the evening. Have arguments with your family, which drives you to drink even more. Those feelings and impulses that you suppressed during the day is let out on people in your care. You neglect food, or you may be take consolation by indulging in too much food. Next morning you wake up grumpy and depressed. This leads to further lapses at work. So this vicious cycle continues. The more days this happens the stronger this habit pattern becomes. This is an example of the vicious cycle of negative behavioural and thought pattern.
Lets take an example of positive virtuous cycle. A child performs well in say music, or some sports. The parents and others praise the child. Now the child like this activity even more, and practice it more. Next time he performs even better. And the virtuous cycle continues. As you can see, these patterns are cyclical and self reinforcing. We have so many of these driving our every thought and activity and we’re not even conscious of why we think or act the way we do. Our very personality is build out of hundreds and thousands of these mind patterns. We might get attached to certain patterns and those becomes one’s identify. We say “that’s who I am”.
When one is busy traversing these habitual activities, we’re not aware of the causes that are driving them. Like those trails on the country side, if we take a break, and get up on a high place, a vantage point, and have a look at the path, we can immediately see better paths, and new destinations.
Meditation works just like this. You take a break from your habitual activities. Go to a vantage point away from your regular mind activities. You become aware of your thoughts, patterns of behaviour, feelings and so on. You begin to understand that these are not what you really are. These mind patterns are only like programs on a computer, you can delete , update or install those programs that are driving you.
The key to breaking out of these mind patterns, is increased awareness of one’s internal processes. This increased awareness is exactly what meditation enables.
The vicious and virtuous cycles of mind patterns.
What forms the virtuous cycle? How can we avoid the vicious cycle?
Rather then reinventing the wheel, let me draw from a few of the first and fundamental teachings of Buddha. I’m attempting to treat this as a simple teaching, the truth of which, anyone can verify if one makes a sincere effort. In our context, please don’t treat these teachings as any esoteric, or mysterious revelations. Some of them are so self-evident, others can be verified by sincere examination.
The four noble truths.
Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Noble_Truths
- Everyone has experiences of suffering.
- There are causes for suffering.
- It’s possible to prevent suffering.
- There is a path to stop the suffering.
It is simple enough to understand that everyone will have experiences of pain, feeling hurt, and so on.
These experiences are also accompanied by psychological suffering. In fact the physical pain may last only a short time, but the psychological suffering may go on for a long time. Just as there are causes for physical illness, there are causes for suffering as well. That’s not to imply that it’s caused by one’s intentional mistakes or sins. It’s just saying that there is causality to suffering, just like any phenomena, just like anything else, this happens according to the laws of nature. Understanding the cause of suffering helps to prevent it. While it may not be possible to prevent the experiences of pain or hurt, its possible to prevent the psychological suffering. Buddha has also given a path to prevent suffering which is the next teaching.
The Noble eight fold path
This teaching holds the essence of the virtuous cycle of mind patterns that was described earlier.
Its easy enough to understand, that ignorance and wrong attitudes, leads to harmful thoughts, which in turn leads to harmful actions that end in suffering, suffering for oneself and others.
So the eight fold path consists of the following :
Pertaining to attitude
1. Right view
2. Right intention
Pertaining to behaviour
3. Right speech
4. Right action
5. Right livelihood
Pertaining to practice
6. Right effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right concentration
The 10 impediments.
In the previous section, we’ve seen what will help you to prevent suffering. The following are things that will lead to vicious cycle of suffering.
- Belief and attachment to identity
- Doubt or uncertainty about the path
- Attachment to rites and rituals
- Sensual desire
- Ill will
- Lust for material possessions
- Greed for spiritual attainments
I’ll try to elaborate each of these points in subsequent posts.
Below is a TED talk video about similar thing.