Buddha famously wrote “From the passions arise worry, and from worry arises fear. Away with the passions, and no fear, no worry”. In a society where most things are available at our fingertips, we believe that stress-relief should be equally accessible, and in our quest for a ‘relaxation quick-fix,’ we are increasingly turning to ancient meditative practices, in the mistaken belief that the answer lies there amongst the miniature Buddha statues and scented joss sticks.
A popular out-of-hours activity for young professionals, meditation and its various forms including yoga have spread far and fast: a government study revealed that more than 5 million people in the US alone adopted meditation as a regular practice during the five years between 2002 and 2007. And it’s not just the trend-conscious who are being touched by this meditative revolution: it’s being practiced everywhere from prisons to hospitals.
What’s so appealing about meditation? For the majority of meditators, the fundamental purpose is to dispel worry and stress. And indeed there is strong evidence to suggest that if carried out with a high level of understanding and patience, positive physiological and psychological eventualities can be achieved, ranging from improved concentration and general mood to lower blood pressure and heart rate. Nonetheless, there still resides confusion over the definition of meditation and the science behind it, rendering these supposed advantages inconclusive.
As with all practical activities (even the most seemingly passive) there are dangers to be wary of. Stemming from religious and spiritual roots, meditation was originally developed for those leading a monk or nun’s lifestyle: it was not introduced as a practice to dip in and out of as you please, and should therefore not be pursued indiscriminately or sporadically. Over-meditating can cause mental exhaustion, while for many individuals who are already prone to depression the experience can be too introspective and self-contemplating, leading to a worsening of the problem. Research into neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University found that if practiced in an uncontrolled manner, the large amounts of serotonin released during meditation can lead to a paradoxical relaxation-induced anxiety and panic attacks.
It is not just mental stability that can be affected detrimentally: studies show that long periods of meditation can result in memory loss and reduced ability to do simple mental arithmetic. Some might even argue that there is a worryingly narcissistic element to non-religious meditation: as Edward Abby put it: “My sole literary ambition is to write one good novel, then retire to my hut in the desert, assume the lotus position, compose my mind and senses, and sink into meditation, contemplating my novel”.
Most of us just don’t have the time at hand to perfect meditation and reap the rewards of it. Renowned Buddhist Monk and scholar Dhammananda warned “The practice of meditation has been abused by people. They want immediate and quick results, just as they expect quick returns for everything they do in daily life . . . the mind must be brought under control in slow degrees and one should not try to reach for the higher states without proper training. We have heard of over-enthusiastic young men and women literally going out of their minds because they adopted the wrong attitudes towards meditation”.
For the majority of secular “wholesomeness-seekers” who need something easy and enjoyable to wind down from the pressures of daily life, meditation is probably not the answer. Besides, would we really want to do away with passion? While such an attitude may provide solace during the hard times, it’s suitability amongst the thrills and excitement of modern society is questionable, as it can expel much of the fun from life and render you unaffected by events that cause the surge of adrenaline needed to excel in our competitive world. We are arguably better off turning to regular exercise, a hot bath or a good book to help us unwind.
Dhammananda talking about how to live without fear and worry…