Meditation Is More Than Stress Relief: The Transformational Path
In a recent post, I mentioned that I’ve tried to reframe sheltering-in-place during the Covid-19 crisis as a retreat. This has worked pretty well. I’ve made progress in my “mental fitness” during this time, so I’ve decided to go into a few blog posts about it, which this post will kick off.
Meditation is great for relieving stress and other health effects, as I reviewed here. But if you practice it and other disciplines that go along with it consistently, its benefits go beyond that. We know there are some healthful aspects of physical fitness, but if you put in the astonishing amount of dedication elite athletes put in, you can totally transform yourself physically. There is a mental analogy to this. The more you put into it, the more you get out.
Many people, myself included, believe that we can aspire to becoming a better version of ourselves: kinder, calmer, more compassionate, etc. There are specific techniques to do this, and if you follow them consistently, they form a “path” to follow. This is often referred to a spiritual path, but “spiritual” can have connotations, like the occult or wearing exotic robes and burning incense, that can turn some people off, so I prefer to call it transformational.
I’ve been following such a path since 1992, as I’ll describe in a bit. All the world’s religions have some concept of a higher self [1,2]. But this higher self, or better version of yourself, can also be interpreted psychologically and through neuroscience. For example, if you can calm down your amygdala a bit and improve the activity of your prefrontal cortex, you can overreact less and think things through more. Also, as I recently described, we can change our brains by using willpower. By working at it diligently, we can train our brains and get better at it.
This allows us to live less compulsively, as in being more able to enjoy eating healthy food but easily stop when we’ve had enough. Beyond that, it helps us to live from our highest ideals, being more loving, kinder, compassionate, less hostile and selfish.
Practicing transformational techniques does not require joining a monastery or ashram or living in a cave in the Himalayas, but can be done as part of regular life. This introduction is for motivation. Subsequent posts will go into the details of how to do it.
I was raised as a Catholic in the pre-Vatican II era, including attending first and second grade in Catholic school. My exposure to religion was pretty negative, with a picture of a stern, judgemental God. The purpose of being good, and following the ten commandments, was to assure going to the good place instead of the bad when I died. I was not exposed to the notion that ethical behavior might actually make me a happier person now I rejected this belief system upon reaching adulthood, but didn’t replace it with anything else because I was too busy making my way in life. This happened around the time I left West Point.
I’ve mentioned previously that I attended West Point for plebe year in 1970. That had been a childhood dream. I had an Uncle I admired that was a career Army officer, and his son was a historian who regaled me with stories of heroic deeds of my ancestors. 1970 was unfortunately not a good time to be there, it was the height of the Vietnam war and morale was not great, so it was a pretty cynical place. I was disillusioned by the end of the first year (plebe year) and left. I at least can take pride that I didn’t leave because I couldn’t hack it, because plebe year is the toughest. But this ended up being a bad idea psychologically. It was pointed out to us, while I was there, that one of the purposes of plebe year is to break you down, so they can then build you back up as a future leader. Having left at that point, I had been through the breaking down part, but not the building back up part.
So I went home with the dreams of my youth unfulfilled. I questioned a lot of my earlier beliefs at that time, which fit in well with the counterculture attitude prevalent in society at the time. Fortunately I had my then girlfriend, Karen to provide an anchor or I may have run off to a hippie commune or something. I was also an angry young man, tending to overreact. Things that perhaps should have annoyed me made me lose my temper. I don’t know how Karen hung with me during that period. But with her help I made it through school and graduated as a civil engineer. My temper still reared its ugly head occasionally. Thank goodness I was never physically abusive, but I would yell when I “lost it”.
Around this time I had the first of a few spontaneous “transcendent” experiences I’ve had. It was my first time hiking in the mountains for fun. I had done plenty of hiking at West Point with full a pack and an m14 rifle, but not for fun. I was on a trip with some college friends to hike up Slide mountain, the highest in the Catskills of New York at 4190 feet. I wasn’t in the greatest of shape at the time so it was a long slog. We got to the top, where we would camp for the night, just as the sun was going down. I could see a beautiful panorama. This took my breath away, but also temporarily took my thoughts away. I felt incredibly at peace and at one with all I saw. So a little before John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain high” came out, I guess I had a Catskill mountain high. I didn’t know what to make of the experience, it did not occur to me there might be techniques for cultivating feeling this way. But I think it planted a seed of loving nature and I always seek to have some sort of blissful peak experience when I’m doing athletic adventures. Trail runners call it “looking for the pixie dust”. You can’t force it, I’ve found, but you can encourage the conditions that allow it. I’ve had a few of these experiences since, always in beautiful settings: like seeing an incredible view of the milky way at high elevation in Colorado, or watching the sunset over the ocean in Pacific Grove.
I now took my first full time job, working for a civil engineering consulting firm in Camp Hill (central Penssylvania). I liked it for the first few months, it was exciting to be using engineering concepts, and techniques I’d learned in school, for something useful (designing water treatment plants). But when we started our second project I realized it was pretty similar to the first. I wasn’t learning much new. I could see a future of this stretched out in front of me, and it seemed pretty dull, so I was depressed.
This was around the time that transcendental meditation (TM) was at its peak of popularity. The Beatles had been to visit Maharishi in India, and TM had been highlighted on the cover of Time magazine. It was being touted for scientifically proven benefits, which appealed to me. So Karen and I signed up for a course that lasted several nights and learned TM. We practiced it pretty diligently for the first few months (twice a day, 20 minutes), and it helped. The technique (explained in the next post under mantra meditation) was effortless. The ceaseless chatter in my mind just naturally calmed, at least for short stretches, and I felt at peace. Yes it did relieve stress. But in my case it had a more profound effect. It practically cured my temper. I won’t say I never raised my voice since, but it took much more provocation, I no longer “flew off the handle at the drop of a hat”. This was a pretty solid example that meditation can actually make a dramatic change in your personality. I later learned of the work of Dr. Herbert Benson (author of The Relaxation Response) and realized the benefits could have come from various meditation techniques, they were not limited to TM.
Around this time we moved to northern California where I continued to work as a Civil engineer, this time on sewage treatment plants. That didn’t always work out well at dinner parties. “So, what do you do for a living?”. But the work done nationwide on quality of sewage treatment in that era improved water quality considerably, which I was glad to be a part of. Nevertheless, the actual work was still pretty dull for me. Fortunately I was able to get into grad school at Stanford, and got a fellowship so I could afford it.
That was huge for me, I now went through several years of profound learning, and afterwards I never had a dull job. I was always working on cutting edge things and continued to learn. Meditation had been long forgotten by this point, because I didn’t feel I needed it. But while my temper remained calmed down, life was still not perfect. Any job has some tedium, even an interesting one. And there are always personality issues with neighbors, coworkers etc. But life was still pretty good.
My first job was with the the US National Bureau of Standards in Boulder, Colorado (now National Institute of Science and Technology). The work was great, and so were my co-workers, and Boulder was beautiful. If we had moved straight from New Jersey or Pennsylvania to Colorado, I think Karen and I would still live there. Unfortunately we’d been spoiled by the northern California weather and after 3 years we moved back. This time I got work at IBM research in south San Jose.
After three years I quit my job at IBM research to do a start up. That was a much more stressful environment because of all the pressure we were under, and it also involved a nasty commute. This came to a head a few years later during the buildup to a big new software release where I really felt the spotlight was on me. I was using running to control my stress, but got injured so I couldn’t do that for awhile. I got so stressed out I didn’t sleep much for about 3 weeks, and ended up having a breakdown and spent a few days in a hospital. Wake up call, big time!
After this I went to a therapist for a while. It came out that part of me regretted having quit West Point, and part of me wished I had never gone at all. I was 39, and here I was deciding one way or another I’d ruined my life with a mistake I made as a teenager. We worked through this, and I felt ready to move on. But I figured there had to be a better way to live and something was missing.
Discovering the Transformational Path and the Perennial Philosophy
That was when I blundered into Eknath Easwaran’s book Conquest of Mind . There was an interesting serendipity in that particular book being the one the bookstore had: I was still pretty skeptical of religion at the time, and could have been easily turned off. It turned out that of all his books, Conquest of Mind was based mostly on Buddhist teachings, and had the subtitle “Take charge of your thoughts and reshape your life through meditation”. The emphasis was very practical, but introduced me to what I now call the transformational path. I had always been into amateur athletics in one form or another as a hobby, and Easwaran made the analogy of how hard someone would train to go to the Olympics, and said if you put that kind of effort into meditation and what he called allied disciplines, you could dramatically change your life for the better. I was hooked. This book had an appendix with a brief description of his transformational program, which I followed diligently.
After a couple of months, I read his book Meditation which gave more detail about his style of meditation and the other disciplines, as well as showing that these teachings could be found in the core of all the world’s religions or could be interpreted psychologically,. By now I was more prepared to consider that idea. Of especial interest to me was how this related to Christianity. He described the lives and writings of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Theresa of Avila, and others. Now why was I never told about them in Catholic school as a kid?
This was my introduction to the concept of the perennial philosophy: this is a concept dating back at least to the renaissance in the west, and further in Asia, that “all religions, underneath seeming differences, point to the same Truth”. Human beings have a false self, referred to as the “ego” or “small self” which is basically the combination of our instinctive behaviors and our untrained minds. Through transformational practice we can transcend this, and discover our true nature, which is one with ultimate reality. This reality is referred to in most religions by terms like cosmic consciousness, God, or in Native American wisdom as “the Great Spirit”.
In Buddhism, however, it is often not specified. Teachers will just say “go and see for yourself”. But our true nature is described in terms like “pure unconditioned awareness” . This is why Buddhism is more accessible to skeptics and amenable to scientific inquiry, because it does not require belief in something which might be thought of as “supernatural” . Of course, this all made me wonder if the spontaneous peak experiences I’d had were some sort of glimpse into my true nature (or a glimpse of ultimate reality), and eager to try techniques to make that type of experience more accessible.
I read books by various other authors at the time, from various traditions, including The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, and books on Insight Meditation and Centering Prayer, coming away convinced that there are many valid approaches but with common elements.
That all started around 1992, and I have been following the path ever since, with varying degrees of diligence. The same is true for my physical training, it ebbs and flows, but I never let it go to less than about 30 minutes a day, while other times I may get more enthused and train for a marathon, a century bike ride, or equivalent. With self-transformation, I keep meditation up at least 30 minutes a day, and sometimes do more, and I vary in how well I follow the other elements. I also try to be mindful, one of the elements, as often as I remember to.
The result of 28 years of doing this? I haven’t reached enlightenment or Nirvana, but I’m a lot calmer. I don’t sweat the small stuff very much anymore. It feels like I’m in more control, like there is a slight buffer of time between stimulus and response. It’s nice to be able to catch myself and not overreact. I’m not always perfect at it, but a lot better than I used to be. And during meditation I often get glimpses of the feeling of “oneness” I mentioned, that previously only came spontaneously in peak experiences.
Some other benefits:
- Calming your inner voice, the one that’s always commenting/interpreting/criticising, etc. In the book No, Self, No Problem, Dr. Chris Niebauer discusses the crucial importance of getting control of this inner voice from the perspective of neuroscience and psychology.
- Behaving more inline with your highest ideals. Reading inspirational books, or going to church or temple may motivate us to be better people. But even if you believe in the golden rule, being kinder, more courageous, etc, it is easier said than done. because our behaviour is often more of a conditioned response than rational. I’ve found that meditation and similar disciplines can help.
As I mentioned, I’ve taken my practice up another notch during the Covid19 shutdown. And I’m starting to notice a difference. I mentioned previously how working on being more unconditionally loving towards my shelter-mate has benefitted us both. My meditation is going a bit deeper, I seem to be more mindful during the day, and able to make better decisions and act less compulsively, especially with my eating habits.
And what of my beliefs now, someone who started out pretty skeptical? What is this oneness? It’s possible it’s just some phenomenon in my brain, like my logical left brain has calmed down and my more holistic right brain has taken over. But it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like something more. It definitely doesn’t feel like some stern judgemental old guy on a throne in the clouds. It’s more like connecting with an unconditionally loving spirit or intelligence. Maybe this is what Native American’s mean by “the Great Spirit that moves through all things”. But I’m not trying to convert anybody. Go and see for yourself. For me, the journey on the transformational path to “go and see” is its own reward. It gives life meaning, helps me to better be of service, and makes me happier.
For those who think all of this might be useful, I’ll discuss the elements of self-transformation in my next post.
Easwaran, Eknath, Conquest of Mind, Nilgiri Press, 2019.
Richard, Matthieu, Singer, Rolf, Beyond the Self: Conversations between Buddhism and Neuroscience, MIT Press, 2017.
Batchelor, Stephen, Buddhism without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, Riverhead Books, 1998.