Meditation is more than an ascetic self-delusion

The neurological benefits translate not just to “flow” experiences, but a “flow” lifestyle

deep meditation open mind

Written by Faizan Ahmed Arif, SFU Student

Meditation is for people who were born in monasteries or small villages; it is for the Eastern philosophers. Essentially, it is for people who have way too much time on their hands. They cross their legs, close their eyes, and somehow, supposedly, become mythically wise.

The popular perception of meditation, which confines it to the lives of monks and ascetics, is the perception that kept me from actually trying this practice for many years. I would say to myself, “I don’t want to transcend life; I want to live it well!”

Compelled partly by the recommendations of public intellectuals that I admire, like author and neuroscientist Sam Harris, and partly by the fact that some of my mind’s bad habits, like chronic worrying and an unhealthy perfectionism and orderliness, had gotten out of hand, I finally decided to try this ancient practice on for size in February 2017. It may have been the best decision I’ve ever made.

Recall a time when you were completely focused on what you were doing, like playing a sport or writing a paper. The task became all that mattered. Time sped up, your energy rose, and you were less attached to the output of your effort, focusing instead on the intrinsic experience the process was providing.

Renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls these “flow” experiences. Through meditation, one can permanently abide in such a state. Even walking to class could become one of the most ecstatic experiences of your life once you develop the level of attention that makes day-to-day life truly stimulating.

A few months after I had started to meditate daily, I sat down to have dinner. I’m prone to overeating, and as I neared the end of my first serving, I started to fantasize how good the next serving would be. Usually, I would indulge in this fantasy to the point of eating more than I could easily digest.

This time, however, this urge passed without compelling me to eat more. I realized that meditation wasn’t just making me more aware of what was happening around me; it was teaching me an exceptional level of awareness of my own body. Once I attained that awareness of my base urges, they became as impersonal and irrelevant as a passing car.

You do not have to rely on my self-reported subjective experiences to convince yourself to meditate. Learning to pay careful attention to the present moment comes about through measurable neurophysiological changes. A study done at Harvard, which subjected participants to an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation, described by The Harvard Gazette as “[focusing] on nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings, and state of mind,” found that it shrunk the grey matter in the parts of the brain related to stress and increased it in parts of the brain related to self-awareness and compassion.

The “flow” experiences I referred to earlier involve reduced activity in the brain’s midline regions, which are referred to as the “default mode network.” When you’re not focused on anything, these regions are highly active. During meditation, these regions are silent, because you are paying attention to your breath and being vigilant about distraction. Interestingly, over time and with practice, these regions get less and less active even when you’re not meditating.

I speak from experience when I say that you start to pay more and more attention to just sensory phenomenon: sounds, tastes, sights, and feelings. You’ll see that boredom actually does not feel boring when you try to see how it feels, and that the sound of a moving bus might be the most soothing melody in the world.

“Flow” is no longer reserved exclusively for stressful or difficult situations. It is your default state. The result? Black coffee starts to taste as good as hot chocolate.

Before you spill your bitter brew over the newspaper in sheer disbelief, let me assure you that all these experiences are available to you — at a price. After all, these things are impossible to realize without actual daily practice.

Start with 10 minutes a day. Over time, you may get the urge to raise it to 20 minutes, or even more, simply because the practice becomes more and more pleasurable as you learn the intricacies of it. Even if you keep it at 10, however, I feel no hesitation saying it is enough.

As you go about your day today, notice the parts of it when you are waiting for something to happen, like your bus arriving. Each time you identify such a part, ask yourself: “What would this feel like if this was the most ecstatic experience of my life?” Whatever you imagine the answer to be, the reality could be even better, and meditation can help you realize it.