Essay #9: Is Meditation the Answer?

Virtually all spiritual paths focused on meditation as the way to expand our consciousness toward higher awareness culminating with enlightenment itself.  Patanjali’s Eight-Fold Path of Raja Yoga often formed the basis of the spiritual path, and every level of these teachings specifically pertains to meditation.  For example, the reason for the first level consisting of the five yamas described in the previous essay is because our mind is not considered fit for meditation until we learn how to behave ethically.  So strongly was meditation tied to the 20th century approach to wisdom that it would have been heresy to even question whether or not meditation is essential to spiritual development.  This notion of meditation being the key to everything else also entered mainstream culture through popular teachers like Deepak Chopra and influential talk show hosts like Oprah Winfrey, who would repeat what the gurus said, “You need to meditate, and the more the better.”

Naturally, most of us tend to be better at talking about the need for meditation than at actually doing it.  Actually doing meditation well for a long period of time on a regular basis is not for the faint of heart.  It is seriously challenging, and that’s why relatively few people have the dedicated long-term experience to speak firsthand about the role of meditation in pursuing wisdom.  In the 20th century we had a closed loop of information about the need for meditation: The gurus said it was the road to enlightenment; disciples, popularizers, and talk show hosts repeated that we need to meditate, usually without having the necessary firsthand experience; and the rest of us were not in a position to question whether this was true.  For the 21st century pursuit of wisdom it’s vital to dispel the myths around meditation and fairly assess its value.

Because of all the talk about meditation in the latter part of the 20th century, it has now been widely studied scientifically.  For example, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg has completed extensive research into meditation and written several books about his findings, which clearly show that meditation can positively affect our brain health in ways that may enhance emotional, mental, and physical well-being.  However, more revealing may be Dr. Newberg’s results showing that an optimistic attitude, meaningful conversations, and aerobic exercise each do a better job of positively affecting our brain health than meditation, along with the jaw-dropping result that meditation is only slightly better than yawning—that’s right, yawning—at contributing to brain health (see How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman).

For 24 years I meditated three to four hours per day, with longer weekly meditations.  That’s approximately 35,000 hours or four entire years’ worth of meditation.  What can I report about the value and results of meditation for me personally?  Without question meditation increased my ability to concentrate, helped me to relax and maintain calmness throughout the day, and contributed to the taming of my mind away from its natural unruly tendency toward internal chatter.  Meditation may have also slightly enhanced my creative insight and intuition.  On the less favorable side of the balance sheet, meditation definitely made me more self-absorbed, more passive, and less interested in human relationships or other healthy human pursuits.

My practice of meditation also brought the inner perceptions of so-called mystical experiences or “higher states of consciousness,” some of which may have had the positive effect of increasing my capacity to feel compassion for others.  However, there’s no way to fully validate the actual subjective experience of altered states of consciousness in meditation, and the result of some of these experiences can as easily be detrimental as beneficial.  I observed in a majority of my fellow meditators something that I had to contend with myself: these subjective experiences can easily create a false sense of spiritual superiority or specialness.  This malady reveals itself when yet another meditator decides that he or she is now enlightened.  In addition, I knew several meditators who were inspired by their subjective experiences in meditation to make rash life-altering decisions they would later regret.  For example, one meditator abruptly quit an excellent job that he had worked toward for years because he was certain from the inner guidance of meditation that a wonderful business opportunity was about to be presented to him, and it never happened.

My older brother followed the same spiritual path as I did, and he spent even more time meditating.  After a few years of this extensive meditation, he received mystical experiences that convinced him he was special and able to live without eating.  This, he was told in his experience of the so-called higher awareness of meditation, was his ticket to enlightenment and his example to the world.  He died of self-starvation in the prime of his life at the age of 34.  Reality is sometimes a hard teacher regarding our subjective experiences in meditation.

Another result of meditation that I experienced was something many consider to be a higher state of consciousness, bliss.  One of the meditation techniques I practiced was intended to bestow “the bliss of union with God.”  After years of growing more proficient in this technique, one day during practice I rocketed into ecstasy and stayed there for eight months.  No matter what I did, I constantly felt indescribable bliss.  I couldn’t sleep; instead I would just lie down for a few hours each night and continue to experience bliss.  I did not care at all about what happened in daily life; I was completely fulfilled by and focused on ecstasy every moment of every day…until eight months later when this experience stopped just as abruptly and unexpectedly as it began.

I then felt a constant pain in my forehead, could no longer do that particular technique because it made the pain unbearable, and could think of nothing except what I had lost.  For at least a year I was in a continuous state of depression and would have done almost anything to get back my previous experience of bliss.  Several years would pass before I fully got over it and could enjoy life again.  The parallels to drug addiction almost don’t need to be stated.  I’m certain that this technique had altered my brain chemistry, as occurs with the euphoria of drug use.  Just as drug addiction can easily destroy a healthy life, I lost all interest in any of the normal pursuits of life because the bliss was so captivating.  Also like drug addiction, with the loss of euphoria came withdrawal symptoms, and I wanted nothing more than to return to that state of bliss.

The technique that caused this experience originated in India, which has a cultural heritage of “God-intoxicated saints,” some of whom lose the ability of normal human functioning because of being “blissed out” all the time.  Some even need to be fed and cared for by their disciples.  One of India’s prominent 20th century gurus, Meher Baba, made it an emphasis of his life’s work to seek out these masts, as he called them—which literally means “intoxicated”—and help them learn to function as normal humans again.  I was saved from ruining my life during those eight months of ecstasy only because I tend to be a creature of habit, doing pretty much the same thing at the same time each day, so I was able to continue functioning by sheer force of habit, but I cared about nothing except ecstasy.  Obviously, this was a detrimental result of meditation, albeit an unusual one in America where this technique is not widely known and where people tend to be better at talking about meditation than at actually doing it.

Based on my personal experience, my observation of other serious meditators, and the scientific evidence discussed above, I would respond to the question “Is meditation the answer to the pursuit of wisdom?” with a resounding no!  Rather, the unfounded notion that meditation is the royal road to higher awareness culminating with enlightenment was what enabled the 20th century gurus to be perceived as superior to the rest of us: They were special and enlightened because they had done the superhuman work of attaining exalted states of consciousness through meditation, and the rest of us mere mortals had not.  I wish to dispel this myth and report with the conviction of experience that meditation is not the magic bullet it was portrayed to be in the 20th century.  On the contrary, excessive meditation can have detrimental effects, and while extensive meditation will definitely bring altered states of consciousness, these experiences can in some cases be delusional and even dangerous.

This is precisely why I very quickly left the path of so-called mind expanding drugs in my youth, as mentioned in the third essay: because those altered states of consciousness can be delusional and dangerous.  But whereas only a couple of experiments with a mind-altering substance were enough for me to realize this, I needed 24 years of dedicated meditation practice in order to arrive at this same conclusion.  Higher states of consciousness may indeed be real, and I like to believe that humanity as a whole will evolve in this direction and that we will individually evolve in this direction after death, but for now any practice that alters our consciousness may be as capable of leading us into delusional states as it is into higher states.

However, one intention of this essay is to fairly assess the tangible everyday benefits of meditation, and fairness requires the conclusion that in moderation meditation can be helpful, with as little as five to 10 minutes a day sufficing for the modestly beneficial results mentioned toward the beginning of this essay.  What may be essential in the pursuit of wisdom instead of meditation is the regular habit of quiet time for contemplation, introspection, reflection, and possibly journaling, with meditation being an optional part of that quiet time.  Based on Dr. Newberg’s research, other practices that are more beneficial than meditation—and carry none of the risks—include regular aerobic exercise, meaningful connections with others, and a deliberate attitude of optimism.

The next essay describes what I’ve found to be a more helpful practice than meditation in pursuing wisdom.

© 2015 Gary Stogsdill