What sparked your interest in meditation?
Over the years, I’ve met a number of Buddhists and talked to them about meditation. Also, my doctorate includes a strong area in personality theory and psychiatry. That, when combined with teaching philosophy, one can’t help but think about the relationship of human consciousness and how we live in this world, and that has driven me in my own studies of meditation.
What is meditation?
Meditation can stand for a lot of things. One of the quickest and easiest ways to understand it is that it’s just a way of letting your mind free from the preconditions it puts on itself before it experiences anything. The mind constantly puts labels and concepts on things, and that’s how we work. We’re always in the prison of our language, and meditation helps us get out of that prison. That’s what a Koan does, for example. Language is part of linear thinking and logic. It’s a rule-based system. But what a koan intends to do is not have you think so hard to get the answer, it’s intended for you to think so hard that your thinking stops—it gives up. At that moment you experience something that you couldn’t experience through thinking. The most famous koan is the sound of one hand clapping. Its purpose is for you to stop looking for the sound of one hand clapping. But we don’t have to get mystical; we can just say that meditation helps your mind clear itself.
How have you taught meditation to students?
One exercise I’ve done with classes is I will instruct students not to speak for three weeks in class. I tell them they can’t say a word, can’t answer questions, and can’t use body language. Now, for the first day or two in class, it’s a real frustration for the students. They get pissed off, get mad at me, etc. But by about the third day they discover that when you don’t have to respond to something you can listen a lot better. You’re no longer anticipating so your hearing become clearer. Mediation is like that; you’re turning the volume down on the stuff that usually goes on. And the analogy they always use for what usually goes on in your mind is a wild monkey on your back—it’s your mind jumping all over the place. It never stands still. When you turn it down or let it go, your mind gets clearer. That’s a pretty elementary thing, and helpful to anybody.
What is the science behind meditation?
There is a lot of work on that now. They’re beginning to see that, in experienced meditation practitioners, there are physiological changes in the body and especially the brain. In one study, they had a group of experienced practitioners, and a control group of people who didn’t know much about meditation. For both groups, they rang a bell every 30 seconds, and, by about the 15th minute, the people not experienced at meditation got so used to the bell that it was hardly noticeable to them. In the experienced practitioners, they found that every time the bell went off, the brain reacted as if the bell rang for the first time—It never got used to the bell, and experienced each ring as fresh. The point of this is that with good meditation you should be able to take each moment in your life as a fresh moment, not being bogged down with the baggage of the moment before or what you think is coming.
One of the current theories about time is that it is like an illusion in that our mind wants us to think time passes in order to explain change. But, in fact, it might well be that time doesn’t pass at all, that every moment is eternal by itself. Every moment that ever was, still is, but goes somewhere else. Each moment is unique and doesn’t evolve into the next. That’s a theory consistent with what we’re hearing about with mediation. That’s a Buddhist theory, and it’s now a physics theory, a part of quantum mechanics.
In what ways can students benefit from meditation?
If you do it wrong, it hurts. You get worse. And you will do it wrong if you say, “I’m going to relax, I’m going to relax.” If you do it right, however, it does help relieve stress. More importantly, you become more aware of the here and now. The more you’re in the moment, the less you get worried because what people get worried about is not the moment they’re in but the last moment and the next moment coming. In this particular moment they’re worrying but they’re not worrying about this moment they’re just in it worrying—they’re worrying about the next. The more you live in each moment, the less that baggage is putting stress on you. Even done simply it helps a lot.
Pull quote: Meditation is not so much of getting anything, as it is of letting go of something.