Where Meditation Is Controversial

Anyone who knows me knows that I am in favour of meditation. I think it’s wonderful. Is it for everyone? Maybe, maybe not – but this is low hanging fruit for the human race. If most people invested a little bit more into the practice, the results would more than pay for the time.

Not everyone agrees that meditation is worthwhile, though.

There are people who think it doesn’t do anything.

(The science is emphatically against them on this one.)

Then there are those who see it as a bad thing.

(Again, science wants to give them a stern talking to.)

No communities demonstrate the range better than the Abrahamic faiths.

Most people in these religions get it. A lot of them use ‘prayer’ and ‘meditation’ interchangeably, and so they should. Both involve closing your eyes to the world and opening your mind to something greater.

Deep prayer has excellent odds of putting you in a meditative trance. If something outside of yourself wanted to reach you, doing that while you’re in this state is the best way. You’re more likely to hear and act on new ideas.

On the other hand, there are quite a few readers accusing me of blasphemy right now.

There are people – religious or not – who think meditation weakens your mental health. They say that exploring your mind invites savage behaviour, psychosis and nervous breakdowns.

Or demons.

It’s a strange idea and I think I know where it comes from.

One root of this belief is good old-fashioned racism. In the height of the ‘yellow peril’ days, Eastern religions were considered devil worship.

We’ve come a long way since then. Asian culture used to be as exotic as you could find. Now, it’s becoming more familiar and mainstream each day.

But some ideas linger.

It isn’t all xenophobia, though.

I also blame Freud.

Freud viewed the subconscious as a dark, evil, hostile place. It was a mental realm of suppressed violence, depravity and barbarism.

There’s a reason why I don’t use his word for it. The unconscious mind is more than our animal impulses. It houses our instincts and intuitions. It’s where our visions of our greatest selves live. This part of you guides you to what you want and shields you from harm.

How Freud thought that everything good came from the conscious mind is beyond me.

But he had enough good ideas to influence modern psychology. Part of his legacy is tainting anything that brings unconscious material into your awareness.

Meditation brings you in touch with your angels. It teaches you how to overcome your demons. That’s what prayer does for you, which is no coincidence. Both practices are, at their heart, the same.

And both practices work best in a community. Surrounding yourself with likeminded people enriches what you do.

You Are a Limitless Frontier

Exploration captivates the human psyche. There’s something noble about wandering off into uncharted, untamed land. Many people would risk their lives to be the first to see a new island, a new planet, a new sun in the sky.

Our ancestors were explorers. The ones who preferred to stay put limited themselves to what they had. Their cousins with wanderlust inherited the rest of the Earth.

There’s that saying about how we’re born too late to explore the Earth and too soon to explore the galaxy.

I wonder if that’s true. The Earth still has uncharted territories. Even if we map the surface, that leaves the ocean floor. And under the surface, too.

Also, who says that we won’t get to see the galaxy? Maybe we’re the first folk to live forever. Maybe cheap faster-than-light travel is a decade away.

In any case, it doesn’t matter. If you have the urge to explore, then you have options.

The first is to find some corner of the world that’s new to you. It’s still exploration, even if others have seen it before.

The second is to turn your horizon-hungry eyes inwards. You have a rich, unexplored universe floating between your ears.

You might think you know what goes on inside your mind. I promise that there’s always more to explore.

If the surface of the Earth (including oceans) represented your mind, how much of that is what you already consciously experience?

Is it about a hemisphere?

A continent?

A country?

Maybe a city?

Well, I had fun finding some numbers. If we take the research of a scientist called Nørretranders, we get some interesting comparisons.

If a map of the Earth is our mind, then our consciousness is about:

  • 6% the size of Belgium,
  • one and a half times the size of Sydney,
  • five times the size of the Isle of Wight,
  • half the size of Yosemite National Park.

(Assuming my calculations are correct. I was working with some strange numbers here.)

And that’s very generous in favour of consciousness. Modern research casts doubt on Nørretranders’ numbers – what you’re aware of is probably only a fraction of that. But let’s take it as a given.

Imagine having an entire planet to explore, but only spending time in one large city. You could live a full life there. There’s enough for you to grow up, work, study, learn, fall in and out of love, and go on wild adventures in this city.

Then imagine if you left.

What if you chartered a plane and just left. You took off to chase the horizon, only returning when you wanted to.

No one could ever see it all. You might find a favourite shoreline and spend your time exploring that, or you could always be on the move. Either way, you’d never run out of things to learn.

This world inside of you is vast. Like the Earth, it’s finite but beyond any human’s lifetime. And, like the Earth, it holds treasures beyond what the first explorers could imagine.

How hard is it to leave the city?

It’s easier with a crew.

If you want to explore the wilderness, then surround yourself with fellow explorers. And if you join us in the next week or so, you’ll receive some goodies to prepare you for the journey.

Mundane Magic and Scientific Sorcery

Neurons do something strange when starved of oxygen. First, they start firing randomly. Then they start to shut down. If they don’t receive precious oh-two soon, they start to die.

This sequence is, of course, an oversimplification. You’ll find counter examples all over the place.

Even so, this sequence explains a lot.

When certain parts of the brain (the temporal lobe and a few others) start misfiring, you receive a flood of memories. This can vary from an unusual montage of random events to full-blown hallucinations.

When the whole brain starts firing randomly, that’s a seizure. But when parts of it spark off for no reason, it can create predictable effects. For example, in the occipital lobe, this can lead to seeing a spinning vortex of light. It’s dark around the edges, probably because peripheral vision shuts down first.

Even your sense of balance can do weird things. The misfires followed by a shutdown can create the sense that every direction is the same.

And if the left brain weakens first (or the right brain starts misfiring more intensely), then you receive an incredible sense of peace, knowledge and connection to the universe. Even as your consciousness fades.

When conditions are right, you get a sense of floating, hallucinations, your life flashing before your eyes and the ‘light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel’ effect.

And there you have it: a plausible, mundane explanation for near death experiences.

Is this model accurate?

I don’t know.

It’s probably missing a few details.

But, if it’s in the right direction, it explains one of the most spiritual experiences people have without assuming that humans have souls. This works, even if we are no more than squishy meat computers.

Don’t think I’m doing this because I’m a cruel, mirthless stereotype of a rationalist. The moral is not that, having explained it, the experience is meaningless.

No – the moral is that our brains are incredible.

If you want to experience any of those effects, you don’t need to almost die on a surgeon’s table. The brain can create any of those experiences at any time.

Sure, it requires a lot of mind training to reach that point. And, yes, some are easier to achieve than others are.

But I’ve achieved most of them. I’ve had a few out-of-body experiences, most of them accidental. There were times when it felt like I floated around the room or down the street. I’ve talked to dead people (and fictitious people).

And I’ve felt the sublime joy that comes from being connected to the universe.

You don’t need a soul, spirit, aura or any kind of disembodied energy shadow to do this. Your unconscious mind has incredible powers. As a child, you learn to suppress these experiences. It’s a part of growing up and seeing what’s real as opposed to what’s “just” in your head.

Things in your head still have value, though. Every invention once existed as only a hallucination. Every metre of social progress was once a dream.

Your choice in life is not between embracing religion and living a dull, materialistic existence. There is magic in the mundane and sorcery in the science. Even bound by the laws of physics, the universe is amazing.

Think Meditation Is Torture? You Might Be Right

If you’re unlucky enough to be an Iranian dissident, you probably know about white torture. Also known as sensory deprivation, it’s a nasty piece of work.

You don’t have to cause pain to break someone. All you need are blacked out goggles, noise cancelling headphones and time. Lots of time.

The brain is excellent at extrapolating meaning from snippets of data. A few dimples on bright red flesh makes you think “strawberry”. Two dots and a curve look like a happy face. A brief odour conjures memories, emotions and actions.

But when there’s no data to find meaning in…

Well, that part of you is still active. It still looks for the meaning in data that isn’t there.

Your brain craves novelty, interaction and stimulus. Strip that away and it’s like turning the brain against itself.

You don’t get used to it. Time only makes it worse.

I wouldn’t wish it in my worst enemy, assuming I had one.

I would recommend it as a meditation technique though.

In small doses, sensory deprivation is a valuable tool for probing your psyche. It’s calming to be away from all that noise and distraction. What makes it pleasant, as opposed to torture, is that you can walk away from it. Stimulation and deprivation in a continual cycle.

You can experience this by renting a flotation tank for an hour or so. You float in a saline solution, with no sound and nothing to see. It’s incredibly centering.

If you want to try it on your own, all you need is an eye mask, headphones and some white noise. YouTube has plenty of tracks.

Set aside some time, close off the world and go inside.

What this does is interesting. I mentioned your brain’s instinct is to extract meaning from small signals. I also mentioned that this keeps happening, even when during sensory deprivation.

The experience is just like dreaming. Random images flash before your eyes. Your brain does the best it can with what few signals arrive. Is that a squirrel or a fireplace? What colour is that… bicycle?

But as soon as it has an image, it discards it and tries something else.

I was surprised by how quick and intense these hallucinations were. I think it only took a few minutes before it immersed me completely. Then again, it’s hard to measure time in this state.

This might be one of the easiest meditation techniques, but I don’t recommend it for beginners. After all, you’re playing with fire here. It’s safe enough for most people – having said that, knowing how to control your experience helps.

I see why people use white noise to fall asleep though. Once I started dreaming, it was hard to stay awake.

There are so many meditation techniques, philosophies and approaches out there.

If there’s more than you can find in a lifetime, then it helps to have friends who can help narrow it down.

There’s a Secret to Getting Yourself to Meditate

As a meditation teacher, I’ve heard countless students share their excuses for why they didn’t meditate in the past week. They wanted to. They know it would be good for them. They just didn’t do it. At least, not consistently.

Something always seems to get in the way: they need more sleep, the dog needs to be walked, the kids are up, they had to work late or had an early meeting, they felt too anxious, worried, or irritable… Meditation just didn’t seem as important as other things they had to do. Yet, all those things they did didn’t give them the peace of mind they desired.

Of course, meditation is about changing your relationship with all the events, worries, and anxieties in your life. It’s a daily ritual-like eating, sleeping, and brushing your teeth-that creates a more relaxed, healthy, meaningful, and intentional way of living. It’s a powerful practice to realize the deep peace of mind we all desire. So, what’s the secret to moving from excuses to practice?

The answer is: you’ve got to have a strong “Why?”

Where do you find your Why?

The answer may surprise you.

The Secret is Body Awareness

Your body is not just a mechanical vehicle for carrying out all the activities in your life. It is a highly-sensitive bio-feedback system.

Your body can tell you what is good for you to eat and how much, when you need to rest, when you need to relax and have fun, when you need to get up and move, and when you need to be alone, have contact with others, be in nature, and spend time in meditation. It connects you to when, why, and how much to do anything. If you’re paying attention.

In our context, it connects you to WHY you might want to meditate in the first place. At least it has the potential to do this-if you pay attention. Yet, how often do you pause and really pay attention to your body’s signals? How often do you stop to sense what it is telling you?

Why aren’t you doing this?

First off, we have a culture that encourages just the opposite. We are encouraged to focus outwardly rather than inwardly. We are encouraged to do as much as possible. We are encouraged to gather as many products and as much wealth, data, and sensory input from the external environment as we possibly can.

We are encouraged to react quickly and are discouraged from taking time for well-considered and deeply felt responses. We are conditioned to quick reactions and sound bites on news and social media. We are impatient with anything that takes time. We go, go, go, until we are too exhausted to continue.

Do you feel this exhaustion?

Yet, are you worried about what might happen if you stop? Are you worried you’ll fall behind and be left out? At a certain point, you may decide you just don’t want to live this way anymore. When you reach this point-or preferably long before that-take a moment to pay attention inside. Notice what all this thinking, doing, worry, accumulation, and stimulation is doing to you.

Is there another option?

Meditation Creates a New Way of Being

Meditation interrupts nonstop thinking and doing and gives your body a chance to relax deeply-something you may not even get to do in a restless sleep. Consciously relaxing, as you do in meditation, unwinds tension accumulated beneath your awareness in the past 24 hours as well as in the years of your life up to this point. It slowly dissolves the reactive mental-emotional patterns that drive you on the hamster wheel of nonstop activity. It quiets your mental chatter.

Now, when you first start to meditate, you may not notice this relaxing, quieting, and calming effect. You may become even more aware of how busy your mind is, how conflicting your emotions are, and how tense your body is. If you have mistreated your body through over-stress for a long period of time, initial moments of Body Awareness in meditation might not feel so great.

Or, you may feel little to nothing at all. All that thinking, doing, and pushing yourself to do things you feel you “have to” or “should” do may have cut you off from how you feel. You may have lost touch with your vital sensations and feelings. You may just feel bored without external stimulation keeping you distracted.

Yet, discomfort, boredom, or numbness, when you face them honestly, directly, gently, and without judgment, as you do in meditation, can alert you to just how much you need to activate another way of being.

If you heed this signal and take time to sit, breathe, and mindfully notice what’s happening inside-the layers of stress will begin to unwind and your vital senses will reawaken. As you unwind, Body Awareness may tell you just how exhausted you are from the way you are going about your life.

As you pay close attention to what your body has to say, you might find that all those things you’ve been chasing after may not be as important as they seemed. You may discover you don’t want to live on the human hamster wheel of incessant activity, worry, and anxiety any longer. You may be inspired to make new choices that reflect your soul’s deeper desires.

Meditation beckons you to a more relaxed, healthy, meaningful, and intentional way of living-and your body will tell you just how important this is-if you pay attention.