By Parthiv N Parekh
Dr Paul R Fleischman, now a meditation teacher, shares some valuable insights on this deceptively simple but revolutionary practice, from the vantage point of one who has studied the mind
The enigma of meditation is that it is at once deceptively simple, and yet endlessly mysterious. Add to it the aura of 5,000 years of lineage it enjoys, as a staple of most eastern religions, and you can see why everyone is talking about it – from West-coast hippies, to non-denominational spiritual teachers of every background, to cutting edge mental researchers.
Yet, who amongst its practitioners have not questioned it – at times? Month after month, year after year, sitting in a daily practice of meditation is bound to raise questions. Why am I doing this seemingly meaningless practice? What is it doing to me?
Therefore, when modern science, particularly the science of the mind validates meditation, it can serve as a confidence builder for meditators. It helps when an award-winning psychiatrist like Dr Paul R Fleischman is seen dedicating his life to teaching meditation.
Dr Fleischman trained in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, where he also served as Chief Resident. He practised psychiatry in Amherst, Massachusetts, for over 30 years. In 1993, he became the fifth American psychiatrist to be honoured by the American Psychiatric Association with the Oskar Pfister Award for being “ …an outstanding contributor to the humanistic and spiritual side of psychiatric and medical issues.”
He has retired from clinical practice, and dedicated himself to the teaching of vipassana meditation, which he learnt in India from his teacher, S N Goenka. He is also the author of Karma and Chaos, Spiritual Aspects of Psychiatric Practice and several other books related to psychotherapy and spirituality.
While in Atlanta for a lecture titled, “The Scientific World View and Vipassana Meditation,” at Emory University, Dr. Fleischman took the time for this interview.
Are there differences between Vipassana meditation and other meditations like TM and shoonya? Can these co-exist in one person’s practice?
The only meditation I actually know about is Vipassana, so I cannot fairly comment on other practices. One thing we should be intelligent enough and confident enough to do, is to stop dividing, comparing, competing among the different ways of meditations. We should recognise the kinship with people who are attracted to meditation. We may not be like brothers and sisters, because there are some differences, but we are like cousins. We should avoid fomenting all these comparative questions.
However, people should choose the meditation practice they use. In a certain phase a person should try different meditations and see which one is good for them, and then ‘marry’ that meditation so that it can deepen and grow within them. Therefore, I would not encourage somebody to have multiple practices.
Is meditation only for physical and mental well-being, or is there more to it? Is a transcendental element referred to in spiritual circles as enlightenment or self-realisation a goal as well?
Definitely. Meditation leads beyond life. Therefore, the whole material or psychological and emotional realms are not all that meditation aims at. However, once we get towards terms like enlightenment and liberation we begin to run into competitive attitudes that say, ‘my enlightenment is different from yours!’ There is a beautiful phrase in my all-time favourite book, The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. The crux of this beautiful masterpiece on religion is that religion is the zone of the ‘more.’ That is why we end up on the spiritual path – for something more. We do not have to define it better than that. So yes, Vipassana is not just about health or well-being, it is about something more.
If there is more and if that is something that cannot be defined, how is a meditator to know that he is not in some delusional state?
I strongly believe that one needs a teacher, for the same reason. I would not be on the path of Vipassana meditation at all if it were not for my teacher, S N Goenka. Unguided meditation does have the capacity to mislead some people, and particularly the self-important person who feels, “I don’t need a teacher because I am so fabulous myself.” Such persons can mislead themselves. One should be following a discipline, one should have a teacher with whom one can check in, and one should have a way of communicating one’s experiences so that they are sorted through with the help of a more experienced meditator. One should also have a supportive community of friends.
Under those circumstances, is there a point where a meditator reaches a certain zenith? Is there a clear demarcation that he has arrived or that he has awakened?
If you follow the teachings of the Buddha, for example, the height, which you can reach, is a world-conquering spiritual experience that for 2,500 years is remembered and referred to by hundreds of millions of people. That is high. Most of us cannot expect to (aim) that high! So, then, to peg it down a little, Goenkaji says that there are just two things you are looking for: increased personal harmony, and deepened contribution to other human beings. Isn’t this really, what you are looking for? Increasing harmony, calm, and peace in your own heart? Realistically we all get annoyed, and have troubles and problems, but increasing harmony isn’t hard. The second goal is increasing compassion and contribution to other human beings. Those are the two criteria. The goal of meditation is not to produce an inner state of self-satisfaction or of self-referential excitement. Meditation has nothing to do with some subjective self-assessment of how fantastic you are. Meditation is related to what you really feel moment-by-moment, day by day, and whether you are really making a contribution; not just a mundane contribution, but also a contribution to the hearts of other living beings.
How can meditators make a direct and perceptible impact on the reality of our times?
Gandhiji is a paradigm of a person who put those two (meditative way of life and political involvement) together. Nevertheless, as much as I revere him he is a man of historical moment. I don’t think people can go around imitating Gandhiji. We have to imitate ourselves. We have to be relevant for our time and place. He is an example of a person who shows that he can be politically active and yet be a holy man. Currently we meditators are a minuscule minority in this country. However, we have, in both biology and physics, the concept of a critical mass, something is invisible and insignificant, and then it grows tenfold, and it is still invisible and insignificant. Eventually it hits a ‘critical mass’ when it suddenly explodes into catalytic significance. I think we have to get to a critical mass. That is why I hope that more people will practice meditation, and that different schools of meditation would not divide and criticise other schools.
When it comes to willpower issues like addictions and cravings, pop gurus have said people won’t change until they are ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired.’ The meditative approach that you recommend is simply to observe whatever it is you are struggling with, in a neutral way without reacting. Can this actually help with seemingly impossible addictions?
As a psychiatrist, I often dealt with alcoholism. Alcoholism is a greatly underestimated problem in America. In the treatment of alcoholism, there is a phrase, “You don’t change until you bottom out.” That sounds very similar to ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired.’ We have to remember, however, that while meditation has probably helped many alcoholics, meditation, at least in the Vipassana tradition, is not a treatment for disease. It is a spiritual path. So the idea of, ‘bottoming out,’ is not a rule of meditation. Meditation is not a matter of augmenting internal power struggles. It is a matter of locating, and living by, a psychological middle path, which is based upon neutral, non-judgmental awareness and equanimity. This middle path can be actualised from the gratification that it intrinsically produces. So as a meditator finds growing freedom from compulsion, impulsiveness, desperation, and an inability to regulate themselves, that growing freedom is extremely gratifying, and leads you to a cycle of positive reinforcement. However, a compulsive struggle for self-control is not freedom. Therefore, asceticism is not a form of freedom. Asceticism is a forceful attempt to control one’s impulses out of fear of oneself. Therefore, the middle path, where one is self-observant, not compulsively, but also not subject to impulse, is an extremely gratifying state.
Of all the questions you have fielded at your public talks, which one stands out that you would like to answer?
Well, yesterday, I had one I liked. The question was, “Since you are so interested in science, since you refer to physics and biology, you sound like a determinist – someone who believes cause and effect rules the world. Yet, at the same time, you are talking about spiritual freedom and the freedom to choose. How can you choose, if in fact you are determined by physical forces, biological forces, psychological forces, sociological forces and cultural forces?”
This question is about the apparent disjunction between freedom and determinism. That’s a very important question, and one that has been kicking around the world, as far as we know, for about 3,000 years. I can hardly say I have the definitive answer. However, I do feel, again, twentieth century science has facilitated the removal of that false dichotomy, and I believe it was understood as a false dichotomy in ancient India as well.
The teachings of ancient Indian meditation, such as Vipassana, heavily emphasised the causal connections in material things. One has to master one’s material nature, and understand its essence, or one’s mind cannot be free. The Buddha said that insight into cause and effect is essential for wisdom! People say the meaning of the Buddha is the enlightened one, or the awakened one, but the real meaning of the Buddha is one who understands all cause and effect. All cause and effect – that is a tall order. So ancient Indian tradition and Vipassana seem to have coded inside them a determinist type of thinking that is very compatible with twentieth century Western science.
Except that spiritual life is meaningless if everything is determined! Therefore, a gap is implicit in ancient Indian thinking, and in twentieth century science. In the nervous system, a synapse (gap) is the point of choice where deterministic progression of neural transmission stops, and where choice or option can be found within the nervous system. In the psychology of Vipassana, neutral awareness of sensations with equanimity also creates such a point of choice. The neutral observing mind is like a calm and open void, where free will can enter and shift deterministic pathways.
Furthermore, as the nervous system matures through meditation, the mind develops something that modern science calls ‘top-down causality.’ Top-down causality is the opposite of reductionistic determinism. It means that maturing systems gain the capacity to change themselves, even gain the capacity to change the causes that caused them to mature.
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