Meditation lies at the heart of the spiritual quest, and as a scientist and a meditator, I have come to appreciate the scientific basis of this technique. Here is how I analyze meditation in terms of the modern scientific method.
The fundamental tenet of spirituality is that the entire universe is a manifestation of a fundamental reality—call it spirit if you like—that is non-physical, fully conscious, beyond birth and death and space and time, and one without a second. Of all the techniques which comprise the spiritual path, I have personally found meditation to be the most effective. Meditation lies at the heart of the spiritual quest, and as a scientist and a meditator, I have come to appreciate the scientific basis of this technique.
Meditation can be analyzed in terms of the modern scientific method, in which a scientist performs an experiment, records the observations, and draws conclusions based on those observations. The scientific method is a rigorous, empirical system for arriving at the validity or non-validity of a hypothesis. As Francis Bacon, one of the founders of the scientific method, put it, science begins with “doubts” and ends in “certainty.” In other words, the scientist postulates a description of an aspect of nature and, based on experimental results, verifies or refutes its validity.
Here I would like to examine meditation using a textbook description of the scientific technique, consisting of four elements: apparatus, method, observations, and conclusions.
Apparatus: All you need is your body and the ability to sit and close your eyes.
Method: There are a great number of meditation techniques. Here I am going to describe the method which I have practiced for more than 40 years.
Sit in a comfortable position. Someone recently asked me about using the traditional hand mudra where the index finger touches the tip of the thumb. My reply was that if you feel comfortable using it, then by all means do so. In my own case, I meditated for decades with my legs crossed in a half-lotus position, but a couple of years ago my left knee began to act up, and my physiotherapist told me that I should no longer cross my legs. So now I meditate with my legs straight or sitting in a chair. My point is that your meditation posture is not of great importance. The main thing is to be in a comfortable, easy position.
Once you are seated, close your eyes and begin to watch. You will notice that thoughts continually enter your mind and then disappear. This is completely natural. After all, the function of the mind is to produce thoughts—a person on average has about seventy thousand thoughts per day. Now that your eyes are closed, you are more aware of these thoughts. In teaching meditation over the years, the main difficulty that I have heard from people is that they cannot control their thoughts and so are unable to meditate. But the truth is that thoughts are not a hindrance in meditation. Thoughts in general cannot be controlled, but the activity or non-activity of your mind is in no way an obstacle.
The key element is to watch the thoughts which flow through your mind. In doing so, put your attention on the Knower who is knowing these thoughts. This Knower, which can also be called the observer, watcher, witness, or self, dispassionately watches the thoughts but is not affected by them. Being free from the influence of the thoughts, the Knower is free to accept those which are pleasing or positive and not accept those which are not pleasant or negative. The Knower is there whether thoughts are present or not. By putting your attention on the Knower, which simply means watching the flow of thoughts in the mind, you are observing the mind from an “outside” or “elevated” perspective.
In the beginning, it may not be easy to focus on the Knower, since learning to focus attention and relax is a skill. But, as with any skill, your ability to focus and relax will improve with practice, and from your very first meditation, you will benefit.
My preferred technique is mantra meditation. The Sanskrit word mantra means mind release or liberation of the mind. It is a short phrase which you repeat inwardly. The use of mantra essentially frees the mind from its usual conditioning which says you are a bound, merely physical human being and allows you to expand your understanding of who you are. There are innumerable mantras. The one I prefer is Amaram Hum Madhuram Hum, which means “I am immortal, I am blissful.” In meditation, you can repeat the mantra inside and focus your attention on the Knower. Then just watch. At times you may realize that your mind has wandered to another thought. When this happens, gently bring your attention back to the repetition of the mantra.
If you prefer, instead of using a mantra, you can use the same technique to attend to the inhalations and exhalations of your breath. The important thing is to focus on the Knower.
As you meditate, there may be times when you are completely thought-free. When this happens, you are experiencing your pristine, essential being without any outside interference. This being is the immortal, blissful, eternal entity whose realization is the goal of meditation.
Meditate for as long as you feel comfortable, and when you are ready to finish your session, gently open your eyes and return to your daily life with renewed energy, ease, and alertness.
Observations: My personal observation is that in meditation I am able to focus inwardly on the Knower which is observing the thoughts in my mind. Since the Knower is uninvolved in the thoughts, I am able to observe them dispassionately and not be affected by them. This ability to watch my thoughts continues when I am not meditating. Meditation has brought me, among other benefits, greater peace of mind, the ability to interact with the world with more ease and greater efficiency, and a broader understanding of and greater empathy with those around me.
Conclusions: The practice of meditation is highly beneficial. The ultimate goal of meditation is enlightenment or realization of the Self, but this is a difficult and lofty goal. However, along the path, you will experience multiple benefits. What you acquire through its practice is a personal matter which you will discover for yourself. The EOC Institute lists 141 benefits of meditation under the categories of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. If you try the experiment of meditation for yourself, you will see how it affects you, your life, and those around you.
According to the website mindfulnessbox.com, 275 million people the world over practice meditation. This confirms that it is both effective and beneficial.
Photo courtesy mindful.org