Meditation: the biochemical flaw

Meditation and biochemistry

What used to be a subject strictly reserved to sages and mystics of the East, has now become a favourite media headline. With the growth in popularity of meditation, it is inevitable that people with little or no experience of it, suddenly become experts dispensing advices and recommendations.

The Western approach has stripped meditation of any religious or spiritual connotation and presents it as a discipline which is useful to reduce stress and improve general wellbeing, backed by a significant body of scientific evidence. This is certainly positive; it is interesting to have objective data supporting what meditators have discovered down the ages from subjective experience. Even the name meditation has been basically replaced by mindfulness, as it seems to be more neutral and more palatable to the Western lay audience.

However, I think that this approach leaves room for some fundamental misunderstanding. I believe that the confusion arises because people who are not enlightened, think they understand what meditation is. Just because the latest cutting edge technology can measure what happens in the brain during meditation, it does not mean that the science of mysticism developed over millennia is revealed. Applying scientific criteria to subjective experiences in the effort to offer objective data is a tricky business. The scientific paradigm inevitably disregards whatever does not fit with its parameters. If something cannot be measured, it does not exist or it is considered insignificant.

To me one the biggest flaws is the western approach to meditation, is the idea that meditation is basically the result of neurochemical activity in the brain. Modern machinery can track the brain activity during meditation. This is fascinating but it can lead to simplistic and erroneous conclusions. The basic misunderstanding here is viewing meditation through the lenses of materialistic determinism. Observing the brain’s behaviour during meditation it has been noted that certain brain waves are active, and certain parts of the brain are turned on or off; hence it is logical to conclude that if scientists can manipulate the brain activity mimicking the meditator brain’s behaviour, it is possible to achieve the same results. Following this argument, I would not be surprised if very soon, pills for achieving enlightenment in two weeks will be available in the market. 

We should bear in mind that scientific research on meditation is in its infancy. Studies started just few decades ago. There is so much more to discover compared to what has been observed so far.

If you are really interested in meditation, I personally suggest to follow a path rooted in a spiritual tradition founded by an Enlightened Master. If you can find a Master in the body who resonates with you, that is even better. Alternatively choose a tradition which is alive and vibrant. I am personally immensely fortunate to have come across Osho. Even though Osho is not in the physical form, his energy is very much available and his teachings are accessible in their original form, without interpolations or manipulations.

Whatever path you choose, remember that meditation is not just the result of some chemical changes in your brain. I would argue that those changes are a by-product of meditation. In this sense meditation is like love. Is love the results of oxytocin running through your veins or rather the “love hormones” are released because you fell in love? Love is a mystery, perhaps the biggest mystery in life. And meditation belongs to same category of mysterious phenomena. Perhaps love and meditation will never be understood or explained, they can only be experienced.

So I certainly encourage you to meditate and appreciate all the work scientists are doing in revealing the benefits of meditation. However, do not be misled to believe that meditation is a chemical affair. It is much more than that. Meditation belongs to the realm of No-Mind, hence by definition it cannot be grasped by the mind.