I think that it is a great failing of many religious traditions that the focus is on the outward results of an inner experience. Success or failure of achieving these results is often used to measure how spiritual, faithful, religious or close to god a person is; or worse, used to determine one’s eternal reward or punishment.
So much time is spent talking about the outer results and so little time is spent teaching people how to achieve these inner states.
Meditation is used by every major religious tradition and by many non-religious traditions to help people experience these spiritual inner states. From these inner states, people more naturally engage in the outer expressions.
The Christian tradition refers to these outer expressions as the fruit of the spirit. Meditation creates the neurological environment that makes these expressions possible in a real, experiential way. Otherwise, a mere external demonstration of these qualities becomes jumping through spiritual hoops or just going through the motions.
The fruit of the spirit is joy, peace, patience (or forbearance), goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Let’s look at each of these qualities and see how meditation helps to create the conditions necessary to experience this.
Meditation creates joy in several ways. The human brain has a negative bias; the negative centers are more active than the positive centers. This creates a negative theme to the unconscious, ongoing dialog that we all experience. Meditation helps to activate the positive centers (located in the left prefrontal cortex), thus allowing more opportunity for joy.
The nature of this unconscious dialog impacts the brain chemistry. In other words, it muddies the lens we use to observe and interact with our external world. Meditation helps to create a clearer lens. As we sit in meditation we have an opportunity to see the content of this mental chatter both on and off the cushion. We cannot change our outlooks and responses until we learn to see them.
Meditation helps to still the chatter, making us more mindful of the infinite opportunities for happiness that surround us in every moment; the smile of a stranger, the bird’s song, our own deep breath that relaxes and brings us back into the present.
In much the same way that meditation creates the environment for joy, it creates the environment for peace. In addition to quieting the agitating chatter, meditation helps us activate our natural calming mechanism. As we consciously engage in our breathing, we reinforce parasympathetic activation of the nervous system. In other words, our deep exhalation naturally calms and relaxes the body and mind.
Meditation also allows us the opportunity to sit with situations and emotions that cause us anger, fear and pain. All too often, our reaction to such emotions is to run from them or ignore them. In meditation we learn to sit with them. This allows us to calm the agitated mind/body state and come to a deeper place of stillness in the face of our struggles. In this still, deep place we find refuge, peace, understanding and compassion for ourselves and others.
Anyone who has ever sat in meditation knows that patience is not the first thing you experience. More likely the initial response to sitting meditation is agitation. We are not used to sitting and being. We are used to doing. In meditation we sit through the agitation and the boredom. We sit through the cravings and the pushing away. And through the sitting we begin to understand the transient nature of all things. We learn to say “…and this.”
Sitting deactivates the impulses to react unconsciously and creates in us the necessary mind/body state to stay.
KINDNESS AND GOODNESS
There is a form of meditation called metta meditation. It is also known as loving-kindness or compassion meditation. In this practice we visualize many different people. People who love us. People we love. Ourselves. People who are difficult for us. Strangers. And ultimately, all sentient beings. Through this meditation we begin to experience our connection to others. This practice strengthens centers in the brain that deal with compassion and that help us feel connected to others. It helps to calm the amygdala which is associated with our alarm systems and strong negative emotions. It increases empathy and compassion and decreases bias against groups of people “who are not like us”. All of this creates the neurological prerequisite for kindness and goodness.
Faithfulness, or trust, is created as meditation helps us to react less and observe more. We become comfortable with the transient nature of life and in trusting the process. We become clearer on which path to take and more comfortable in the times when answers are not clear.
As we become calmer and less reactive we allow ourselves the opportunity to experience the transient nature of craving: craving for food or drugs; longing for lives, experiences, relationships we do not have; the deeply uncomfortable states of short-term cravings, demanding satisfaction that often harms us in the long-term. We learn that this craving, this desire to act, will pass. We learn that to act on these cravings only strengthens the habit of them and that learning to wait diminishes them. We create the neurological calm that is needed for sustainable self-control.
Meditation is not a religion. It is a practice. Regardless of your spiritual (or non-spiritual) orientation, meditation is a practice that changes both transient brain states and more lasting brains traits in a positive way. It helps us feel more peace and joy, more connected to one another and gives us more choice and efficacy. It is a practice that creates healing.