At the end of a beautiful yin yoga class the other day, our teacher asked us to perhaps reflect on how our practice - a practice of meditation in shapes and stillness and movement - makes us better people. How has our meditation practice influenced who we are in the world? How does it shape our lives? How has meditating changed who we are? As I breathed into this thought, letting the breath soften each part of my being, I wondered if meditation has made me a 'better person'.
Can we become the lotus, or are we just destined to stay in the mud?
The jury is out on this question - some studies have suggested that meditation does nothing to increase empathy and compassion, especially in more modern mindfulness style practices which are secular in their approach. We might practice loving kindness mantra or intention in our meditations, but when we are out in the world we simply return to our ordinary selves, looking after number one. We still shout at people who cut us off in traffic, get angry at our partners, rage at our colleagues behind closed doors. If we're NOT meditating, then we are just assholes again, basically. Studies have supported the idea that meditation did not reduce aggression or prejudice or improve a person’s social connectedness1. Those looking at these studies found inherent bias in the authors of the papers - if they were a teacher/meditator, then the results were skewed positive.
“Every struggle is like mud - there are always some lotus seeds waiting to sprout.”
― Amit Ray
This gives lie to the Dalai Lama's proposition that if 'every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.'. Many see this as too simplistic, and if we place our faith in the studies that suggest meditation doesn't make you a better person, then his words are utter idealistic bollocks.
When you’re young, you’re always worrying what other people are thinking about you. When you reach middle age, you no longer care what other people think of you.
And when you’re old, you realise, everyone was just thinking about themselves all along. - a common philosophical wisdom
What do I think about this?
I think the studies are inclusive at best. The media doesn't help by decrying that meditation doesn't make you a better person 'after all', because it creates a narrative of meditation being an empty pursuit and absolutely not the remedy prescribed to those who suffer stress, anxiety, anger problems, trauma and so on. Yet this is the reason many of us turn to this practice, and turn around years later and say 'thank goodness I did'
Such terribly inconclusive studies that suggest meditation doesn't improve us after all counter the view of every meditator I have spoken to. Every meditator believes that it has not only created space for their own self to heal, but giving them a sense of purpose and increased their compassion and understanding of others. Is such anecdotal evidence to be discounted with one study splashed over the Daily Mirror, of all things, in easy to digest bullet points that ridicule a practice that has endured for hundreds of years because of it's powerful and effective ability to create peace in people's lives?
I also wonder about the effectiveness of a self practice without the guidance of a teacher. Whist secular mindful practices give us space to reflect, process and calm the nervous system, a more moral guidance that might be provided by, say, Buddhism, enables us to digest and learn from the philosophical wisdoms that are more likely to make us 'better people' than merely focussing on the 'inbreath' and 'outbreath'. And no, reading platitudes on Instagram accounts by yoga gurus doing backflips in bikinis on beaches does not count. By seeking a teacher, or at least reading texts that enable us to really, really understand the bigger picture of a meditative practice, we become better people because we learn all the layers of conditioning that make us react in ways that harm us and others are not our true selves at all - our true self is love. And when we learn that, that's when the magic starts to happen.
I wonder not if I am a better person right now because I've meditated today, but whether this life long practice is bringing me closer to my true self, the divine light within. I wonder if I had have not meditated ever, would I have ever understand the workings of my brain, the biochemical processes that drive our choices and reactions? Would I have given myself chance to think, to reflect, to peel away all the onion layers that were stopping me truly inhabiting this existence in a more joyful way? Would I be so desperately embroiled in ruminating thoughts believing they were real, rather than just passing clouds? Personally, the answer is no, I wouldn't have. I would have been a mess. And when you're a mess, you're not a good person. You're just not. You put up barriers between you and a more free, beautiful existence that connects to others and the entire natural world and the stars above and the knowledge that you are them, and they are you, and because of this, you must have compassion for all things.
“On the path of self-realization, there is no one big awakening, but many along the way of varying degrees: some small, some big; and each one of them is like the lotus flower, which grows out of muddy waters.” ― Ora Nadrich
I think about our willingness, too. IF we aren't really considering about what it means to be a better person, a better version of ourselves, aside from wanting to rid ourselves personally of the things that affect us, such as grief or stress, we aren't ever going to progress. We might have temporary fixes from temporary states, like little 'meditation band-aids', but no real progress toward the illumination of our true self underneath all the sludge. No mud, no lotus is a cliche, but it's one of my favorite sayings - you gotta be willing to wallow around in that mud, trudge through it, before you really blossom. Yes, it's hard work. Yes, you go backwards, often. Sometimes you settle in to your meditation nest and your mind is whirring and sensations of anger, indifference, grief, frustration arise, and they arise for days, weeks, months. Years. And then one day - the unfurling petals, the sunlight. Once the mind opens, it cannot go back.
“If you feel lost, disappointed, hesitant, or weak, return to yourself, to who you are, here and now and when you get there, you will discover yourself, like a lotus flower in full bloom, even in a muddy pond, beautiful and strong.” - ― Masaru Emoto
Meditation or mindfulness practices are not quick fixes. They don't make us better people over night. It takes work, and years of suffering, and willingness to face all that mud. But in the long run, it does make you a better person - it has to, and I don't need a study to know that. I just need to look back on who I was before I started this journey to know that I'm a much happier person for practicing meditation than before it, and a much better person too.
I don't need a study. I just need the mud.
Are you interested in connecting with others who meditate? 'Mindful Life' has been created in the @naturalmedicine Discord channel for that purpose, and we are beginning to gather like minded folk who can help support each other on their journeys. Working with the #mindfulmonday hashtag begun with @tryskele, and embracing the passion and enthusiasm of experienced Buddhist meditator @bewithbreath, we're creating a space to learn and grow - to rise from the mud together. We'd love for you to join us. Link here or read the introduction post for Mindful Life here
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