Saturday, January 29, 2011

Zazen and Brain Physiology

From time to time, my friend Paul sends me articles that speak to actual physiological changes taking place in the brains of people who meditate. Follow this link to one of these articles. The sample size is tiny so not sure this study proves much, but I'm certainly not surprised by what they found.

I have no idea whether what I do while sitting in zazen is 'mindful meditation' (or what that term even means). The part of the article that initially struck me was this quote from the lead researcher: “Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day.”

I wonder what 'practitioners' this researcher spoke to, because her statement suggests very little understanding about what meditation is all about. I think it's a common misconception that meditation (or 'sitting in zazen' for us Zen folk) is about finding 'inner peace' or relaxing. New Age mystics have kind of hijacked the practice of meditation from Zen Buddhism and turned it into a substitute for Valium or ritualized it so it's little more than window-dressing. Zen meditation is not about finding inner peace. According to Zen philosophy, every one of us already has inner peace. Inner peace is not something you have to search for; it's something you have to learn to stop running away from.

Similarly, relaxation is not the goal of sitting in zazen. While meditating definitely leads to a calming of the mind, this is just an ancillary - albeit a very positive - benefit. The goal of Zen, and therefore of Zen meditation, is to discipline the mind, to focus it, to rid it of clutter, to gain control over it. Far from trying to relax (a contradiction in terms if ever there was one), Zen meditation is about attaining an acute alertness. It's an alertness that is completely in the moment, focused, and serene. You are never sleepy or dreamy or zoned out while sitting in zazen. On the contrary, you are alert, sitting with erect posture, fully awake and conscious, and completely in control.

This alert but relaxed state is called samadhi. By learning how to go into samadhi, we're able to learn how to control our minds and by extension how to relate effectively to the world. This control and discipline is not harsh, rigid, or austere; it's a control that comes from simply being aware of ourselves, focused, and undistracted. It's carrying the sense of ourselves we find during samadhi into our everyday lives. When we can achieve this, it's extremely powerful because it enhances patience, clarity, focus, endurance, and prevents us from being derailed by people, situations, and emotions that are not relevant.

Attaining samadhi on a regular basis leads to all those positive things people often mistake as being the point of meditation: happiness, reduced stress, and a sense of relaxation. However, if you try to attain those benefits through meditation without learning to discipline your mind, you will find the benefits short-lived and lost within hours.

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