As much as some practitioners – and sometimes I feel the same – would like to say that meditation is only good for spiritual development – liberation -, evidence mounts that it does lots of good things for us.
It may even make you smarter. And help you avoid senile dementia.
Just this morning I’m reading about a 2011 study that shows meditators may increase the volume of the gray matter in the hippocamus. Published by Sara Lazar in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, the study recommends 30 to 40 minutes of meditation daily.
The study is mentioned in an article in a popular magazine (Real Simple) which claims that meditation, as well as several other activities like eating Omega-3, drinking lots of coffee, walking, and learning languages will increase your “brain power” as well as keep the brain healthy and functioning longer into old age. I don’t know what happens if you do all five.
I’m sure these studies on meditation are valid, as the traditional sources of meditation have always said that it’s “good for you” in various ways. But keep in mind that these traditional teachers and texts also warn against making that your reason for meditating.
Trungpa says, “We are not particularly seeking enlightenment or the simple experience of tranquillity — we are trying to get over our deception.” A major part of his teaching was on how to avoid the pitfalls of “spiritual materialism” – practicing for self-improvement, self-aggrandizement. The Zen tradition advises to sit ‘without gaining ideas.’
Zen master Yasutani warned against seeking ‘spiritual visions’. “Don’t squander your energy in the foolish pursuit of the inconsequential,” he said. Ignore them; keep sitting. Perhaps good advice for us who are sometime lost in this flurry of scientific evaluation of meditation.
I think what we in this modern, scientific environment need to realize is that all these various claims for the efficacy of meditation are perhaps true and perhaps desirable, but possibly only attainable if one is not entering into the practice with the goal of self-improvement.
Which certainly fits with the notion that the basic intention in our practice is to lose the illusion, the deception, of self.
A meditation practice fairly entered into – at least in the Buddhist tradition – is aimed at experiencing the truth of existence, the essence of things, because this experience of truth will make one able to function effectively, harmlessly, and compassionately in the world.
Any benefit that flows to one’s own life is considered a side effect.