A couple of months ago I saw that Princeton University was offering a free course online called Buddhism and Modern Psychology. Intrigued, I checked it out. The overall objective of the course was to investigate the impact of meditation on the mind – definitely something right up my alley.
Over the past year and a half, I have been spending a lot of time meditating. It was really difficult at first, but soon, as I learned to relax and how to allow myself to just be in the moment, it started to get easier. With all the changes and challenges that were going on in my life, taking the time to just sit still and be silent was a relief.
Curious about the impact of meditation on the brain, I signed up for the course, and I’m so glad I did.
The 6-week course was taught by Dr. Richard Wright. It was delivered via online lectures. We had to complete an essay for our midterm and one for our final. The lectures and forum discussions were really interesting, not just because of the details that were given but also because of the different perspectives other students were sharing. I knew how my personal experience with meditation (and reason behind it) was, but getting to hear what others thought of the practice and the impact (or lack thereof) had on them was really fascinating.
The course sought to investigate questions such as:
- Why do people suffer?
- Why do we feel anxiety?
- Why do people behave unkindly sometimes
- Can we change the way the mind works, particularly through meditation?
I was intrigued by the claim that suffering is a pervasive part of life and that it is the desire to cling on to things (ideas/people) that do not last that perpetuates this suffering.
It was strange to see this claim stated so plainly. We are addicted to suffering.
Why do we do things that we know are bad for us or may not be helpful? Why do we eat foods that are unhealthy? Why do we keep in touch with people who you know do not support our positive growth? Why do we cling on to things even though we know that the pleasure we will receive from them will eventually fade?
Part of the reason was linked to studies looking at dopamine spikes that occur even with the anticipation of pleasure. That euphoric feeling is so addictive and enticing that we tend to ignore the potential negative effects (lethargy after overeating, disappointment after an unreturned text message, anxiety over clutter after a shopping spree).
There were many arguments and links made related to natural selection and evolutionary psychology, but I’ll skip all that and get to the bottom line.
Our minds are conditioned to be busy. The default mode of our mind is to get distracted; it is to fill every second with a thought instead of allowing our mind to rest and just be blank.
It takes focused practice to try to quieten the mind – and that is where meditation comes in. With meditation you focus on the present moment. You try to keep your mind clear. You remove the suffering that is attached to the constant stream of thoughts that enter your mind. For me, those thoughts are usually:
- making lists of things to do (which is unnecessary thought because at that very moment I will not be tackling any of them)
- replaying negative conversations or stressful situations that have affected me in some way (again, unnecessary because there is nothing I can do about them in that moment)
- predicting what might happen in the (near or distant) future (one more unnecessary practice because I fill my head with assumptions that may or may not become true and therefore exciting or upsetting me for no reason)
Now to go back to the question of why. Why do we do this? If I know something is bad for me or unhelpful, why do I engage in the thought or act anyway? Am I addicted to suffering?
It did help me to learn through the course that I am definitely not alone in this struggle nor is it uncommon or unnatural. In fact, the natural condition is for humans to overthink, to grow attached to people and things, and to set our own standards, boundaries, and guidelines according to the way we choose to interpret a situation.
Even though that may be the natural condition, it does not mean that you cannot create a new condition for yourself – one of calmness, stillness, and peace. That’s what you get from regular meditation practice. The trick is to keep at it until it becomes your new natural state.
There were so many more things I learned through the course.
I have personally benefitted a lot from my regular meditation practice. The research presented in this course along with the lectures given gave me a bit more insight as to how and why meditation