ON MEDITATION: Take Out the Guesswork ?
Daily meditation, like we did years ago up in the forest temple in Udon Thani under the mindful presence of Ajahn Bua, has become a more central part of my day. Keep the mind clear. Keep the body clean. Sweep the walkway to the door. Tame the monkey mind. Useful lessons for these times. In the temple we ate once a day before noon. We did not read or listen to music. Or speak. Our pandemic self-isolation here was not that severe. There were, however, some days when we shook our heads, too tired to make sense of it to ask anything other than who has seen the wine opener?
I read about a meditation aid recently. It’s an electronic headband with blue-tooth connectivity to an app that displays how well you meditate. Everyone has an app for something. With this one a head band monitors the electrical activity of your brain and feeds that back through the app as a soundscape that ranges in degrees of volume and tone, depending on how calm your mind is. The calmer, the gentler the audio feedback. The app processes this information, and you are promised graphs and charts of your brain activity for you to study. With practice, relaxed brain states can be achieved because you are able to get there with the benefit of knowing exactly when and how you achieve this state through the app’s real time neurofeedback.
“Take the guess work out of meditation !” That was the sales tag line. It sounds like an interesting carnival trick. Were the headband not so costly, I’d order it just to see if it works. But having practised meditation techniques since I was seventeen, I wonder about such a device. I’m not sure if the point of meditation is to achieve an electronically measurable state of relaxed brain activity spun back at you as soothing sounds.
I thought meditation was about the cultivation of compassion. The practice of practice. The understanding of suffering. The taming of desire. Calm brain waves are a function of these things but in themselves don’t improve your existential condition. You could have the calmest brain waves in the world and be dead inside, oblivious to suffering and incapable of compassion. It's easy to picture Hitler or Trump or any of history’s great crazy people putting the headband on first thing in the morning, achieving perfectly calm brain waves as they have learned to do from their neurofeedback app and then continue calmly into the day spreading mayhem as madmen are wont to do.
“Take the guesswork out of meditation” sounds off to me. What’s to guess? The only “wrong” way to meditate is probably to want evil as an outcome, to manifest thoughts of harm and chaos. Calm brainwaves like the headband promises to help achieve, are at best the means to enter into a contemplative state from which to examine your life.
There’s enough science around that says you can achieve calmed brain waves and with the help of technology like the headband you might learn how to achieve this state faster. Because that’s what we all want, faster. And yes, most certainly, you will be able to measure the electromagnetic signals to confirm you have achieved calmness. So what?
Gadgetry and science don’t get you there. “There” being the mindfulness that follows insight, understanding, compassion and gratitude. A calm mind clears the way to let you contemplate these things like precious gemstones and with effort examine the condition of your own inner spiritual state. Polish it up. Improve your conduct. A calm mind gives you access to space between your ears where you might be able to reach a higher understanding of what it means and what it takes to become a better and ultimately enlightened being. There is no talk of that with this meditation head band. There’s no scent of spirituality or meaning. It’s just interesting tech.
I guess there’s a demand for it because the headband is on the market. People want to calm down and de-stress. What's missing is meaning. Calm without meaning, without something spiritual to fill the emptiness is pointless and possibly dangerous. Picture the calm psychopath. Spirituality and meaning are a more difficult business. They’re part of a journey that demands rigorous contemplation and persistent effort. A calm mind is surely a desired state but a calm mind without purpose, without spiritual content is a zombie.
I’ll continue to sit and meditate the old way learned over the years. I don’t want to take the guess work out of it.