Human growth is a contradictory experience. We feel the boundaries of self expanding and the experience of humility growing at least as fast. Our humanity means we are the inheritors of strengths and weaknesses and some of the more embarrassing among those weaknesses is the tendency to overestimate our strengths. The explosion of psychological research since the 1960s has helpfully exposed many of our misapprehensions. Some of these need to be accounted for in our quest for psychological and spiritual growth. Take the bias of illusory superiority to which we are chronically prone: Far more people think of themselves as better than average drivers than is posible. There’s also the Dunning-Kruger effect, also known as the “sophomore” effect (sophomore = wise fool, hinting at the ego inflating effects of introductory knowledge).
Some specific examples? Well, meditation and its effect in enhancing day to day mindfulness is such a powerful aid to living happily that it is sometimes astonishing it is not a more common practice than it is. It is also typically a practice that is often non-practiced by its, ummm, adherents: “I don’t really need to meditate, I’m already quite/very/extremely mindful.” Or “I get as much relaxation out of a beer/glass of wine/cigarette as I do out of a half hour of meditation.”
I’m hoping that neuro-psychological investigation of the physical brain changes that arise from meditation will, however slowly, erode the mind-sets that support these sorts of. If one is thinking of meditation as enhancing an abstract and desirable quality like “mindfulness”, our normal tendency to see ourselves as illusorily superior can easily convince us that “I’m already quite mindful.” However, it is a melancholy truth that, as one grows in meditation practice, one becomes more and more aware of the gaps in mindfulness, past and present.
However, if we’re thinking of meditation which, by changing our brains’ structure and activity, enhances our ability to be mindful, that might help us decrease the very human perils of over estimation of our positive attributes. It’s much harder for me to think “oh, I’m quite fit” when I have physical evidence to the contrary or when I think honestly about the amount of exercise I have actual done to enhance my fitness. “I’m quite fit despite not exercising” doesn’t sound particularly convincing, even to myself.
An article by Alice G. Walton in Forbes magazine found here: Eat, Smoke, Meditate: Why Your Brain Cares How You Cope discusses the effect of regular meditation on the brain/mind’s tendency to uncontrolled chatter and particularly to chatter about our worries, obsessions and dissatisfactions, actual and imagined, and the effect of this on our general happiness/calmness. The chattery mental content is typical of the output of what’s known as the Default Mode Network (DMN) within the brain: thinking about self and circumstances.
“New research by Judson Brewer, MD, PhD and his group at Yale University has found that experienced meditators not only report less mind wandering during meditation, but actually have markedly decreased activity in their DMN. Earlier research had shown that meditators have less activity in regions governing thoughts about the self, like the medial prefrontal cortex: Brewer says that what’s likely going on in experienced meditators is that these “ ‘me’ centers of the brain are being deactivated.” So we spend less time thinking about ourselves and our problems. “
Brewer found also that meditators show this pattern of lower activation of DMN and “me” centres even while not meditating. This confirms the experience of those of us who have a regular practice that the mind does quieten over time and that unnecessary thinking, what Martine Batchelor calls “proliferation” which in turn generates unnecessary anxiety, declines with practice.”
Other research by Andy Newberg, MD shows that, unsurprisingly, areas of the brain involved in attention and concentration are activated and external awareness de-activated. So, combining the two findings, meditation seems to be a practice of going inward to get out of oneself.
The article also compares the effects of meditating with the effects of giving in to a craving as an attempt at self calming. While she uses the specific example of smoking, the second para below deals with the poor results obtained even by satisfying cravings healthily. The calming is only temporary and has no effect on our between treat mindset.
“Brewer uses the example of smoking to illustrate why addiction fuels negative thoughts rather than abates them. In addition to the pleasurable associations, smoking actually creates a negative feedback loop, where you are linking stress and craving with the oh-so-good act of smoking. So whenever you experience a negative emotion, craving returns and intensifies over time, so that you are actually even less happy than before. A cigarette may quiet the mind temporarily – during the act of smoking – but in between cigarettes is where things get bad, because craving creeps in. Though we’re using craving as the example, unhappiness, self-referential thoughts, or everyday
Substituting a carrot stick or other behavior for your actual craving (or other form of unhappiness) is a typical method of treatment, but it doesn’t often work, says Brewer, because the feedback loop is still there. Addressing the process itself with other methods (like meditation), which allow you to ride out the craving/unhappiness by attending to it and accepting it, and then letting it go, has been more successful, because it actually breaks the cycle rather than masks it.”
So, if you meditate….please meditate. Don’t let your unreliable minute-to-minute “I wants” distract you or convince you that that glass of wine is better for you or, essence of self deception, that you don’t really need it.