Chimeras of the mind

Med­i­ta­tion in its var­i­ous forms to­day is not a panacea and not for ev­ery­one


MED­I­TA­TION (MOSTLY of Bud­dhist ori­gin) is the new cure-all, draw­ing to its ed­i­fy­ing navel 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 CM, 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 amoral 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?

To each her own, as they say. 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.


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