Here is something that really confused me about Buddhism.
Buddhism says we’re all inherently good.
So if this is the case, why is so hard for us to feel good? To do good? To see good?
I’ll be the first to admit I go negative pretty quick. Waiting in line at the Starbucks when I have only a few minutes to get to my gate and catch my flight – UGH. A chronically late employee – SERIOUSLY? I finally get to the head of the check-out line and the cashier chooses now to change out the cash drawer – SHOOT ME NOW.
But here is the thing.
These responses actually feel awful. And they’re the definition of unproductive. In this negative state of mind I don’t solve problems, think creatively or communicate well.
So if these feelings aren’t productive, and we are all good on the inside, why is our default negativity?
Because research shows that we are more likely to make choices based on the need to avoid negative experiences as opposed to our need to seek out positive experiences. Basically, the negative experiences have a much greater impact than positive experiences.
This ingrained tendency to respond to the negative is probably a result of evolution. We needed to respond to the negative quickly – it was what enabled us to survive as hunters & gatherers. The negative response activates our fight-or-flight response and we needed that to outrun the bears when we lived in the woods eating berries.
I would say our exposure to stress is just as great today, but in a different package. Even though we have supermarkets filled with produce and we only visit bears at the zoo, we are constantly bombarded with unnatural stimuli. Messages, lighting, noise, pollution, traffic, inefficient communication, negative energy, did I mention messaging? And we suffer as a result.
Our bodies respond to stress by turning on the fight-or-flight mechanisms regardless of the stimuli. Our bodies and minds don’t logically distinguish between being chased by a bear and a stressful interaction with a loved one, a tight deadline at work or a violent movie. The biological reactions are the same in all of these scenarios – and the result is reverting to our reptilian brain. The reptilian brain is thought to be the first area to develop our evolutionary past. The reptile brain is composed of the brain stem and the cerebellum and is responsible for those behaviors necessary for survival – direct stimulus response, fight or flight response, competition, aggression and domination.
What is important to note here is that the reptilian brain is designed for instinctive responses and has no capacity for judgement, rational or incorporating future consequences. Thinking, problem solving and consideration do not happen in the reptilian brain.
The reptilian brain is our protector, not our thinker.
But here is the problem: stress activates our reptilian brain, drowning out our rational brain.
Meditation is the practice of calming the mind. By practicing meditation, we actually tap into other areas of the brain, specifically slower brain wavelengths as opposed to resorting to our reptilian brain. These slower brain wavelengths give us the opportunity to process before reacting. We’re actually creating space in our thoughts. Meditation allows us to practice ‘pausing’ our thoughts which gives us more space to choose our response. It gives us more space to tap into and utilize our more advanced brain areas as opposed to immediately turning on the fight-or-flight response.
This is one of the reasons why meditation has been shown to be effective in addressing chronic stress, addiction and depression.
These different areas of the brain also allow us to be more self aware, which makes sense because we are more aware of our thoughts and inner currents. Self awareness is one of the driving forces behind emotional intelligence which is what has piqued the interest of the professional world. It’s this benefit of mediation that sparked Google’s mindfulness training Search Inside Yourself.
So this is why we need meditation. We are bombarded by stimuli, some healthy but most not so healthy which cause us stress and suffering. Our primary predator is no longer the bear, but the bear’s effects are still prevalent.
Even though we are inherently good according buddha (and so many other religions), we still need meditation because of our evolutionary tendencies. Meditation can be a key anecdote to our busy, stressful lives.
And this is why we need meditation.
Meditate & be well.