Is Meditation an Escape or Fundamental to Change?

A final endnote in last week’s reflection brought me down an unexpected path this week. I had wondered whether humans could move out of their swarm state—possibly neurochemically induced as locusts’ behaviors are—through exercises to modulate their neurobiochemistry. In other words, can we meditate our way out of this crisis?

I ask that question because over the past few months, as I’ve taken to meditating more, I’ve also come across a couple of sharp critiques of meditation—both of which hit really close to home.

The first comes from Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan’s graphic novel As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial, which came up in one of the Gaian book club discussions (and so I read it). There’s a page early on where a bearded guy explains to a fox that all these external problems are “a result of what’s going on within ourselves.” He then argues, “Meditation is key. The infinite source of all reality will solve the Earth’s dilemma.” And he invites the fox to meditate with him. The scene then pans out and it turns out he’s meditating on a stump in a forest that’s actively being clearcut.

From As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial, by Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan

Of course that begs the question, why isn’t this meditator and all meditators taking action? Jensen openly advocates for dismantling industrial civilization by any means necessary, including violence, but even if that’s a step too far for most, there are many ways—here are 198—to strike, protest, and take other forms of non-violent actions, many of which are safe and legal. Meditation is, unsurprisingly, not on that list.

Second, looking for something funny, my wife and I started watching a stand-up comic, Marc Meron. At one point, he devotes a few lines to laughing at people who wonder how Trump got elected. And then says: ask yourself, what were you doing during the Obama years? ‘I did a lot of yoga. Worked on myself. And now my core is really tight,’ was the pretend response he gave, all while, as he notes, conservatives spent the past 30 years taking over local and state governments.

So can meditation (or preparatory exercises like yoga)—when it becomes our focal point—distract us from activism? Undermine our commitment to social change? Can an expanded reality, a compassion for those causing harm absolve us from taking action? Possibly. Though my instinctive response is to refer back to Joanna Macy’s excellent triumvirate of actions: resisting the bad, building the new, and cultivating healthy spiritual practices to sustain—and create additional space for—the first two. In that context, meditation can be very valuable, assuming it doesn’t crowd out the other two.

I think that the meditation I’ve done this past year (which is my first year of meditating) has not displaced activism but, if anything, has come more at the expense of unsustainable consumer behaviors. Meditation and karate—which I find fills a similar role as yoga (preparatory or, itself, a type of active meditation)—have replaced watching things, or playing games with my son as much, if not more than, doing work.* Plus, as it has expanded my consciousness, meditation has started to make me more open to taking action. I find myself pushing beyond my comfort zone more: with fasting, with silence, with asking myself how should I help, rather than closing myself off to invitations to help.

But I think most important is that regular periods of meditation—15 minutes three times a day is my goal, though right now it’s more like 15 minutes in the morning and a random spattering of other meditative moments depending on the day—help to keep more of one’s life in Sacred Time, rather than in “Profane” Time (or mundane/mindless-consumer time).

Staying in Sacred Time

It’s not just in the moment of meditation where one can inhabit sacred time. But those moments of compassion and connection experienced then can carry over at least briefly or fleetingly into daily activity. When drawing in a loved one’s suffering, several times I’ve found myself trying to help or check-in with that individual afterward. When doing a gratitude meditation, I’ve reached out and expressed thanks to a friend. As I’ve sat and observed nature, I’ve found myself connecting more closely with the life around me. As I’ve lived a few moments as a tree, I now find myself valuing, and loving trees that much more, reinforcing the feeling that I must ask their permission when I take even their littlest twigs for tea.

Of course, meditation has also helped in other ways, increasing my stillness to a small degree, modulating my temper (slightly), but I’ve only been at it for maybe a hundred hours, not the 10,000 that monks have achieved. Perhaps my mind will change even more over the years to come.

The research certainly seems to suggest so. In the past decade, scientists have put Buddhist monks into functional MRI machines and have discovered surprising things. Long-term meditators react less to negative images. They react less to positive images as well—which even novice meditators experience.

Meditation also increases compassion, as clever studies have revealed. But also, more amazingly, it reduces the pain experienced witnessing suffering, but not social affiliation with that person. In other words, meditation heightens compassion while also reducing the “compassion fatigue” that so many suffer from when exposed to too much suffering (imagine health workers during COVID).

But most interesting to me: psychologist and neuroscientist Zoran Josipovic has found that Buddhist monks can focus internally and externally at same time. Most humans (and by humans I mean consumer-culture humans that are the baseline subjects for fMRI machine studies) focus either internally or externally at any one moment. You’re either thinking about what’s for lunch or you’re watching a movie, reading an article, or checking out a nice-looking car/person/dog/bird (depending on one’s interests and conditioning). Josipovic argues that this dual processing may be what “leads the monks to experience a harmonious feeling of oneness with their environment.”** And more so, perhaps monks’ brains point to how human brains should be wired, how they once used to be wired when we were an integral part of the environment, rather than in self-exile.

Is Oneness Actually our Natural Brain State?

From these readings, a hypothesis forms: this dual-processing capability is actually the natural state of the mind. I see a case to be made that Indigenous people (not genetically-speaking, but those raised from birth in cultures that have been living for generations in true connection with the land they inhabit) would have similar brain patterns to Buddhist monks.***

As Matthieu Ricard, a molecular biologist and Buddhist monk, explains, the opposite of the meditative brain state is “rumination”—over-focus on one’s own thoughts. And as he notes, “constant rumination is one of the main symptoms of depression.” Our obsessive focus on the past and future (whether regret or longing, anxiety or expectation) drives us out of the moment; versus meditation, which draws us to exist only in the moment.

Today’s world leads us to constantly inhabit either the past or the future. “Why did I write that email? How am I going to finish that project? Oh I forgot to start dinner. ‘Ding!’ who texted me? Where’d I put my phone? When should I….” Never present. Of course it’s worse now in our world of instant and infinite tech distractions. But does it have to be this way?

Instead imagine a lifeway in which one completely depends on the environment to survive and thrive: daily cycles like game and fish patterns, monthly cycles like the moon and tides, seasonal weather patterns and cycles—from foods ripening to animal migrations to maple sap runs. There is a full immersion in both the environment and the physically-embodied daily activities that depend on this environment, from foraging and food processing to hunting and hide tanning—especially in a context where there are predators or other natural dangers (like snakes or poisonous spiders) present.

Now I’m not trying to romanticize the Indigenous, or non-swarm, life-stage of humanity—though there is a strong argument to be made that this is the only sustainable niche humanity has ever filled (or could ever fill). But for the majority of readers, returning to this way of life is never going to happen (at least voluntarily) so what relevant lessons can be gleaned from this inquiry?

Is there an attainable state where we can experience external and internal worlds simultaneously—and with it, as Dr. Josipovic argues, a deeper connection or oneness with the world—with Gaia? Is that relegated only to enlightened monks? Or can others experience this? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has certainly explored this question through his research in ‘flow’: the loss of self to full absorption in a task—but that can be as readily experienced through playing video games as it can be meditating, and as the former is more fun than the latter (as the $135 billion in annual sales reveals), most have taken that unsustainable route to ‘self-enlightenment’.

But what about in day-to-day activities? Could cooking, gardening, and cleaning integrate flow—or even a meditative state—better? Could mantras be added when chopping carrots: to remind us that this life came from the Earth? That we’re part of the Earth and it nourishes us? So that we can reciprocate and heal the Earth? Can we recapture an internal/external unification during even simple daily chores?

“I am one with this zucchini. I am one with this zucchini. Ouch, my finger!”

I don’t know. Certainly, we can try that; and spend more time being fully present in nature; and meditate more utilizing this well-proven tool of deepening our connection. And we can start cultivating ancient skills, identifying a few plants, learning to forage them, observing them and their habitat over the seasons, and caring for them by removing damaged branches, cutting off a choking vine, or selectively weeding around that plant. Building a symbiotic relationship with another species (not a pet which is most likely as disconnected from natural cycles as you) could also be a good exercise in deepening connection and experiencing oneness.

Truthfully, I’m grasping at straws. I rarely, if ever, feel any sense of oneness. Too many years living in a house, too many years allowing my brain to constantly think about everything instead of just being present. But I do feel a difference between today and a year ago, and imagine that this will continue to improve as I go from 100 hours of meditation experience to 1,000 to 10,000.****

So perhaps meditation is not a distraction but a way to mobilize action, and as importantly a way to recondition our brains, in a way that rehabilitates our connection to and relationship with Gaia.

*And walking meditation has displaced mindless hikes through the woods. Instead of racing along a trail with the goal of finishing a loop, I may walk a quarter as far but be more fully present in the forest, mindfully part of and observing the land.

**And depending on the symbolic reference point, that environment might be the universe, God, God’s creation, the world, or Gaia. Underlying philosophies matter in defining what that oneness connects a person with is perceived as.

***The statement that culture affects brain function is not controversial, but well-supported in the scientific literature, such as western individualism vs. collectivist Asian cultures leading to different foci of processing—e.g. more unit-based vs. holistic/contextually-based. And while I was not able to find any fMRI research on Indigenous peoples, this dual-processing set point certainly seems defensible.

****Which at current rates of meditating will take me until I’m 144!

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