John Horgan has some observations on meditation.
Journalist Robert Wright, an old friend who has recently gotten into meditation, wrote in The Atlantic in 2013 that more experienced meditators “seem much less emotion-driven, much less wrapped up in themselves, and much less judgmental than, say, I am.” He suggests that if more of us meditated, we might get along better.
I have two words to say to that. Sam Harris.
I rest my case.
I suspect that meditation is as morally neutral as reading or jogging. If you meditate to become nicer—perhaps by thinking “Be nice” rather than “Be happy”–meditation might make you nicer. But meditation can make some people meaner, or rather, help them behave meanly without feeling bad about it.
So it’s a good way to reduce cognitive dissonance while still being a shit.
Some meditation teachers claim or strongly imply that they have achieved a state of profound, permanent bliss called enlightenment—also known as satori, samadhi, nirvana, liberation, awakening, cosmic consciousness. These teachers claim that they can help students become enlightened, too.
Anyone familiar with the alternative spirituality scene knows that some prominent teachers, or gurus, have behaved more like sociopaths than saints. They include Chogyam Trungpa, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Shoko Asahara, Da Free John and many more. Google them for details.
For my 2003 book Rational Mysticism, I interviewed men who claimed—or implied—that they had meditated their way to enlightenment. They struck me as being narcissistic rather than wise and saintly. See, for example, my profile of guru Andrew Cohen.
I think a lot of men confuse the two. (Women probably would too if they could, but all the sexist jokes make it impossible.) (I’m joking; relax.)
Matthieu Ricard trained as a biologist in France before becoming a Buddhist monk. He has been described as “the happiest man in the world,” after Richard Davidson reported that Ricard displayed high levels of neural activity associated with well-being. (Ricard, Davidson and Antoine Lutz co-authored the above-cited Scientific American article.)
Ricard is probably a great guy, but I’ve been down on him since reading science writer Stephen Hall’s 2010 book Wisdom. Hall admiringly describes Ricard coming from Nepal, where he “spent tens of thousands of hours training himself to be compassionate,” to New York, where he taught meditation to “financiers.”
First: Isn’t there something weirdly contradictory about meditating on compassion to achieve personal peace of mind? If you are truly compassionate, shouldn’t you spend more time actually helping others? Second: Financiers? Come on.
Well wait, maybe it’s worked. Maybe the financiers actually have become more compassionate.
No, of course you’re right; I don’t know what I was thinking.
Some meditators insist that their primary goal is neither niceness nor happiness but knowledge. Meditation supposedly helps you understand the nature of the self, mind, reality. Spiritual author Ken Wilber compares meditation to a microscope or telescope that helps you “see your Buddha nature.”
The problem is that different meditators “discover” different truths. Some find confirmation of their belief in God, the soul, reincarnation, extrasensory perception and other supernatural phenomena. Others find confirmation of their materialism and atheism.
So if I’m going to do that I’d rather just go for a walk.