Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

Meditation and its Uses

It is an oversimplification to ask what purpose or use meditation has. Meditation is a generic tool, like physical exercise or some object like a car. What is the purpose of exercise? It could have many, depending on the person and their circumstances. It could be part of a means of losing weight, it could be for sports competition, it could be for rehabilitation after an accident or surgery, it could be for enhancing one's attractiveness, it could be preparation for having a baby, it could be to strengthen the cardiovascular system, and undoubtedly more. An even longer list might be made for the uses of a car. Meditation is no different.


Meditation is less well understood than physical exercise or nutrition or surgery or many other things that have to do with the body. Its primary effects are largely invisible, although the person who practices it may have some qualities that differ from the typical non-user of meditation. Consider vegetarianism. There may be some benefits to the vegetarian which are not visible. Perhaps their arteries are less built up with cholesterol. Perhaps their digestive system gets upset less often. Perhaps they have less weight that they would if they were omnivores. Perhaps they think more clearly or sleep better. None of these is immediately visible, and it would be hard to quantify these benefits, and hard to measure them. Meditation's benefits and uses might be even more obscure.


With vegetarianism, there is also a possible confusion with experienced benefits that might not exist. If a person reads about vegetarianism and becomes convinced they will feel better, after trying it, they may report they feel better. What they are reporting could easily be a placebo effect, as when a person takes a pill they think is a medicine, and then report their ailment is getting better because of it. The mind has much unexplored power to affect the body, and thinking that a pain is lessening because of a pain-relieving drug may result in the pain sensation being reduced, or the person thinking it is reduced, even if the drug is nothing more than an inert tablet. To measure pain with an instrument, there would have to be much scientific research done to define pain in a physical sense, and then devise some apparatus that could measure it. Both of these are difficult tasks. Choosing benefits that meditation has is a problem that is clouded with the same cloak. It is hard to define what those benefits are in any physically measurable way, and, depending on what they are, it might be even harder to see if meditation produces them.


This leaves a very unsatisfactory situation of either relying on advertisement of benefits by practitioners, or seeking anecdotal evidence from people trying it for a sufficiently long time. Let's take a different approach. Let's ask about how it is used and try to deduce some answer from that.


There are different categories of meditation. Some types involve simply sitting quietly, trying to think of nothing at all. When thoughts inevitably intrude, they are allowed to exist for a short time, and then attention is taken away from them, so nothingness returns to the mind. What does this do for someone? It allows him to build the power within his mind to dismiss distracting thoughts or all thoughts completely. Why is this a good thing?


If one has had experiences which cause unhappiness whenever they are remembered, having the ability to dismiss them almost instantly might allow such a person to live a happy life, or at least one free from grief. Perhaps this is something that would appeal to a person so afflicted, if they had developed the bad habit of concentrating on and remembering clearly the cause of their grief, some loss, some disappointment, some unachievable goal, some catastrophe.


Unfortunately, the brain does not feel sadness and grief just because of what one thinks about. There can easily be an unremembered loss which lies deep in the brain, and causes feelings of despondency just as if the person were frequently reliving the bad experiences. Thinking of nothingness keeps active recollection out of some particular parts of the brain, those that visualize or those that communicate or others, but the rest are not so easily controlled. Perhaps with enough experience with meditating on nothingness, or, as the practitioners put it, not thinking of anything at all, even nothingness, the brain would learn to suppress non-verbal, non-visual recollections of the past unpleasant event. Brain training is not understood well enough to have much predictive power and to say which, if any, recollections remain resistant to meditation.


While the anaeesthetic purposes of controlling one's thoughts might be a very crucial task for some people, there are more things than can be done with this power. Consider the example of an artist. If his mind is constantly interrupting itself with random musing, recollections, diversions, expectations, hopes, and so on, he cannot concentrate his full thinking power on the object of art he is creating. To sharpen this statement, we can say that if meditation can improve the ability to concentrate on the topic at hand, and pull all of the brain's thinking resouces into that task, then the art will necessarily be better and may come to fruition faster. The same goes for any task which requires concentration or focus. It could be solving some scientific mystery or competing a difficult invention. It could be on mastering the ability to reason logically and speak persuasively. It could be on appreciating the overview of a programming task and systematically accomplishing it. It could be managing some enterprise or creating a chef's new special disk. It could be diagnosing a medical affliction or a complex plumbing problem, or determing how to solve agricultural problems.


If meditation can help in improving one's concentration skills, it should be universally appreciated, but it is not. Is it because, for some reason, there is no way to tell if one's concentration skills improve, in other words, no metric, that it is not more commonly practiced? Meditation is not like a pill that one takes and then quickly notices the difference. Meditation is a skill that has to be learned and then practiced, and so there is no A versus B test possible. People are so different, one cannot compare person X who meditates with person Y who does not, as to their concetration skills. There are a million undisclosed and unmeasured variables which separate two people. We can only summarize and say that one potential benefit is, besides a relief from grief, an ability to concentrate better.


Another use of meditation in some Buddhist sects is to help oneself through a crisis. This is not exactly the same as seeking to control one's mind so it does not become buried in grief or self-doubt or despondency; nor is it to concentrate on something positive as an antidote. It is to cease thinking of the problem as unsolvable, and to concentrate, to the best of one's ability, on finding a way that it might be solved, either by one's own efforts, by those of others, or by some twist of fate that relieves a bad situation. This use partakes of the two others, but by putting the two together, makes something more than just the sum. It is about concentrating the mind on the most significant part of human intelligence: problem-solving.


It is not about problem solving in the general sense, as one might do in some academic exercise or in a test of one's skills. It is not about problems which are separated from human emotions, but only about ones which are deeply involved with these problems. It uses the first aspect of meditation, strengthening the mind to face and cope with the existence of the problem, together with the second aspect of meditation, improving one's ability to concentrate on some narrow aspect of the huge chaos that life presents to us, specifically on the aspects related to the problem being considered and treated. Problem-solving involves creative thinking about what possibilities exist that might relieve the problem. It also involves critical thinking, which evaluates these possibilities in the context of everything about them that might affect their ability to resolve the problem. Critical thinking is not logic, but more mental simulation of a situation, a dynamic situation, and doing the mental simulation various times with the possible solution possibilities, to see which one is more likely to work and which outcome of the problem-solving might result. Real problems do not usually just evaporate and disappear, they lead to outcomes which might be more or less desirable. Meditation for the purpose of problem-solving tries to determine these outcomes as well as possible, and then determine the steps needed to put the best of them in place.


Buddha himself may not have taught about problem-solving as a benefit of meditation, but certainly in the thousands of years that his teaching has been used, others have elaborated on it and added that tactic to the uses of it. Meditation is not problem-solving itself, but in the preparation of the mind, both by way of relief of grief and by way of improving focus, in order that problem-solving might occur.

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