All of us know the difference between reading and studying. While we usually read for the joy that the printed word brings us, we study to acquire knowledge. This is not as straightforward as it seems, because knowledge is truly appropriated into us only when it strikes a responsive chord and finds a purpose within us that is higher than the mere acquisition of data. As one famous aphorism says, “What you learn is of interest to your teacher, what you know is of interest to yourself, but the knowledge you put to use is of interest to all humankind. Knowledge unharnessed is idle vanity and an affront to the gods.”It is, indeed, silence that holds the key to the attainment of knowledge. To remain physically silent is no great hardship to most of us; but, to attain silence in the metaphysical sense calls for something more than merely refraining from making a noise. It means the absolute stilling of all thought processes in our wakeful state. Sleep is a fascinating analogy to this kind of silence; as we all know, nature stills the mind to sense impressions periodically, by putting us to sleep.
Silence, therefore, is as central to our well-being as sleep.
Meditation is one big step to achieve silence. It provides us with the power to turn our mind inwards upon the self; to hold it as still as a serene lake. Yes, when you first embark on it, there will be difficulties: little thought-ripples encroach upon your stillness. But, when you have fortitude, you will conquer their hold on your mind, because you will soon find the ‘sounds’ of soundlessness within.
Neuroscientists suggest that meditation strengthens the brain by reinforcing the connections between brain cells. A recent study showed that people who meditate exhibit higher levels of gyrification — the ‘folding’ of the cerebral cortex as a result of growth, which, in turn, could allow the brain to process information in a jiffy. Other studies have shown that meditation causes the brain to undergo physical changes — most of which are beneficial, including decreased sensitivity to pain. It is also evidenced that long-term meditation is associated with increased grey matter density in the brain stem. Research has also compared the brains of meditators with non-meditators. The structural differences observed point out certain benefits — improved cognitive, emotional, and immune responses and positive effects on breathing and heart rate (cardio-respiratory control).
The most excellent mode to meditate is to contemplate upon the universal mind, in any which way you may understand it. The next step is visualization: to visualize a power at work, and realize that the energy of the universe is a warm, co-operative energy. Try to, thereafter, understand the laws of the cosmos too. For this state to evolve, you must, of course, be open — just as you would be accessible to the laws of computer hardware in order to be a good computer engineer.
There’s yet another statement of belief you could use. Think of meditation as the means by which you plug into the currents through which the Absolute transmits creative vibrations. This leads you to the conclusion, naturally enough, that the laws of the Absolute always function in the same way; that they allow us to attain our fullest flawlessness, once we understand them and flow with them.
Now, don’t you apply the brakes. Imagine the cuddle of the natural law, and rebuild the play of creation. Once you realize that the soul can unshackle itself from the forces that bind it down, you have a new standpoint on life. You’d reside upon the higher intelligence, or the spiritual mind that now awakens. It will tell you that your being is more enduring than that of the ancient mountains, or the distant stars — that your present self is just as transcendent.It tells you too that you have often misinterpreted your vague longing for a different life and tried to gratify it by seeking material and sensual diversions. The inference? Always remember that you are a spiritual being, and that you own the various phases of your mind, in the same way that a plumber owns his tools. As one scholar put it, “Meditate upon the fact that you inherit the creative ability of the Divine Creator, and that the flowering of this ability will settle your every problem; it cannot flower in the arid land of fear and disharmony, because it requires the fertility of glad, confident expectation.”
According to a paper published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, it was proposed that training in mindfulness meditation enhances control over how the brain processes and filters our sensations and memories. Training in mindfulness techniques, as the paper observes, begins by focusing attention on breathing patterns and the body´s sensory input. The study avers that it is this repeated ‘localized’ focus on sensory input that enhances control over the portion of the brain where sensations from various body parts are received. The paper also purports that training in mindfulness allows meditators to control what body sensations they pay attention to and ‘tune out’ inputs related to pain and discomfort.
According to yet another body of research, there is an underlying neurophysiological mechanism that directly links the actual practice of mindful awareness of breath and body sensations to the kinds of cognitive and emotional benefits that mindfulness confers. In one study, magnetoencephalography (MEG) brain imaging technology was used to map brain waves, called alpha rhythms, associated with sensory input. The ability to regulate alpha rhythms, as the study reports, was more pronounced in subjects with standardized mindfulness training.
This leads us to the credo of meditative practice in day-to-day life — that meditation is not a search, but a quest to be ‘yourself.’ It is also not about seeking revelation, but a steady spiritual practice that transforms the intellectual acceptance of knowledge into an inner certainty of wisdom. This is primarily because knowledge is useful, yet it is not all-encompassing and should not be fashioned into a gizmo for supremacy.
The whole idea also leads us to moral dilemmas, which not only delineate our own lives but affect the lives of the people around us. It goes without saying that moral decisions are always knotty, complex and demanding; they involve risk and the possibility of discomfort, even when we are convinced that we have conducted ourselves in an honest manner. Power, after all, may come from the cask of cannon, but integrity does not surface from a manual.
Moral dilemmas, even at their most private level, possess a social or environmental character. Our moral values may urge us to comply with cultural norms; sometimes, they oblige us to defy them. No amount of futuristic change can obscure this basic problem of moral choice, because our moral life always addresses itself to the challenges of everyday life, the particular decisions we make and stand by, or from which we lapse.
More than ever before, we are today flooded with urgent moral questions — and, like our society, we are in conflict with ourselves. Yet, in the shade of this exigency, there is also hope. This points to another reality too — that we are tearing ourselves apart. As scholars Colin Greer and Herbert Kohl argue in their powerful anthology, The Plain Truth of Things, “We are blaming each other at great cost to our sense of community.” “At the same time,” they aver, “we feel quite uncertain how and who must take the first steps out of the quagmire of self-interest and suffering which we seem to be floundering in.”
It is ironic that the complexity of contemporary life does not yield itself to one-dimensional, prescribed solutions beloved of movies and soap operas. It confronts the moral reason and imagination with new challenges. Is there, then, a way of coping with them? Perhaps, yes. We should begin by taking a journey into the past, and consult the ancient traditions of wisdom — the Upanishads, the Gnostic scriptures etc., — that offer us the highest standards to sustain and also guide us. It is not easy, though. We have to make convincing, sincere efforts to bring such truths into our lives through the particulars of our time and our circumstances, rather than through some illusory idiom that is ephemeral.
The point is simple, because most of us work under the illusion that a simple return to the certainties of tradition will deliver us from disquiet. The big point is: tradition is not stagnant, it grows and changes, and so must we with it. This is where imagination and meditation play a crucial role. To paraphrase Greer and Kohl, again, “The ideas we conjure can free or imprison us (and) also define who we are, and what kind of society we live in.”
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This article was first published in Financial Chronicle.
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