The Monk and The Bell.

Back in the 90’s, when I was researching stuff during the writing of my first book on meditation, ‘Happy to Burn’, I happened to find a fascinating article, (long since lost) which clarified the the purpose of meditation in a wonderful way.

As I remember, the article covered an experiment in which researchers connected a number of meditators up to brain scanning devices, the purpose being to see how the brain behaved to various stimuli during meditation. One of the meditators was an experienced meditator, a Tibetan monk, and the other meditators were relative novices.

What was most notable for me was, during the meditation, a large bell was struck – and the different reactions each of the meditators had to the shock they experienced, spoke eloquently about the efficacy of meditation practice.

With the novice meditators, the resulting readouts showed a sharp spike of brain activity as their initial reaction, followed by an extremely long tail of activity as they processed their reaction to the shock.

The monk however, had a different reaction. He experienced the same level of shock as the novice meditators – but there was no tail of activity. The needle spiked up, then instantly resumed its continuum of low level activity.

So why is this significant?

Well, one of the things I notice again and again in people’s speculation about the effect of meditation, is that in some way, it should insulate us against the friction of life – that meditators should no longer experience the raw edges of life like other people do – that meditation somehow creates a comfy oblivion to hide in.

But this is not so.

What the experiment I described indicates is, the monk experienced the same spike of shock as everybody else – but unlike them, he processed it almost instantaneously and let it go, so there was no after effect.

This was in stark contrast with the inexperienced meditators who, after the initial spike of shocked brain activity, remained lengthily disturbed – thinking and worrying about the why and wherefore of what they’d just experienced, while all the while having great trouble resuming equilibrium.

All of which illustrates the primary ability that meditation practice builds in the mind – that being, the ability to let go.

To let go of what, you might ask?

Well, of all the things that cause us the most anguish in our life, it is our extended reactions to the friction of life. We get angry about being angry. Sad about being sad. Depressed about being depressed. Anxious about being anxious. And in most cases, our reactions to the natural suffering that life brings, are more acute and damaging that the initial burst of suffering itself.

But meditation practice helps us build a habit of being able to let go.

To let go of pain. To let go of blame. To let go of anxiety. To accept and let go of any reaction that threatens to tie us up in knots after an unpleasant experience.

In the same way as the monk in my example, though the initial spike of our life experiences will often be sharp, we develop the ability to quickly let go of our reaction to it, with the effect of lessening the stress our mind and body have to deal with overall.


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