In Arthur Evelyn Waugh’s novella, The Loved One, there is a cutting piece of commentary concerning a lady whose habit it is to bite her fingernails. The duty of responding (via letter) had fallen on Mr. Slump – a gloomy man who on good days required the chain smoking of cigarettes to palliate his throat, and on bad, tended to regurgitate things he never knew he had swallowed.
Mr. Slump asks his secretary: “Here’s another one from the woman who bites her nails. What did we advise last time?”
“Meditation on the Beautiful,” quips the secretary.
“Tell her to go on meditating.”
What on the surface may sound like a piercing comment might have more to it now, especially with the rising number of studies and researches published on meditation and how certain tools to shift our attention can physically rewire our neural connection. We know from brain scans that the phenomenon of neuroplasticity is real and tangible. That the structure of the brain responds to changes in behavior and through the uses of our attention seems obvious enough. But after having had my own recent dose of “meditation on the beautiful,” I hereby present a few observations that are pridominantly variations of the theme on the bullet-point ‘benefits’ of meditation. This I hope would provide greater depths of insight and motivation for you readers to cultivate this habit, at least couple of sessions a day.
When we meditate by purposefully directing our attention to an immediate sensation picked up by our senses (such as the breath, or sounds, or the physical feelings related to our current posture,) it not only reveals just how much we are engulfed in thoughts at any given point, but also makes the space in which those thoughts occur (our head) as another sense. Rather than to identify with the next given set of words, sounds or images that pop up in our head, we instead make them transitory objects of our experience. Such a process slowly effaces any notion of the self, and it has been argued that the construct of the self is responsible for a large part of our sufferings. When it thus withers away, stress, anxiety and ‘hurt feelings’ tend to regulate as well. Although our memories are trained to identify by association (good memories produce a feeling of optimism for similar situations and bad ones, a sense of fear and anxiety,) many (probably most) of our formative associations are grossly exaggerated and is not a proper representation of reality. My practice of the western import known as ‘mindfulness meditation’ has led to great softening of numerous terrible experiences, and almost to a point where they don’t affect me anymore! I just let them arise and pass by for what it is: thoughts that do not actually represent the reality at hand. And if I can practice it successfully (given how much my attention used to wander,) then there’s no reason for anyone else to follow suit as well.
Opening up to new experiences and withering away our prejudices is a huge part of achieving any growth as a human being as we go through life. If the cultivation of meditation forwards these qualities and our general sense of wellbeing, then it’s surely worth giving a shot. Even for that woman who bites her finger nails incessantly (and Evelyn Waugh might have unintentionally done her a favor.)
The corollary to this is that good experiences are moderated too. This prevents us from getting carried away by the drunk sensation we get from personal and professional success. Some people (especially artists) worry that this practice would take the edge away from their art: if they can’t replicate those strong feelings and sensations that led them to their intense creation to begin with, wouldn’t it be destructive to their careers? This concern has been answered by meditators in numerous ways before, and here’s my simple explanation: the quick answer is no. Meditation in fact opens us up and allows for new experiences that we may have been closed off to before. With greater practice, the onset of new ideas can enter like an orgasm. It has also been proven to improve concentration. In other moments, by getting the ego out of the way, we also let the contents of the art to breathe and speak. In short, our creations stop being a galley slave to our thoughts. There is a paradox lurking here: surely, whatever we create even after decades of meditation is still a product of our thoughts and actions? Yes, but meditation facilitates certain peak states of consciousness that makes one forget their sense of self. I’m sure most have had an activity where, they were so into it that they forgot about themselves. There is no mystery behind this peak state: it’s a state of mind achieved by a deep level of concentration on the task itself. And aren’t these peak states is what makes the dedication to an art (or any activity for that matter) so worthwhile? If meditation makes it such that the occurrences of these peak states increase in quantity, then the practice of it is most definitely worth the time required for cultivation.
And lastly, it increases our sense of happiness and wellbeing. Here’s a Ted talk that makes a persuasive case for living in the present moment. Highly learned people such as Sam Harris and Jon Kabat-Zinn have written books on the topic, extrapolating these same benefits and virtues from such a mundane and Mr. Obvious thought as ‘living in the present.’ Well, the good thing is that no trust needs be placed on my words, or anyone else’s for that matter. You can try it out through simple audio introductions such as Tara Brach’s excellent guided meditation series and perform the experiment in the laboratory of your mind. And once you taste the dividends, there’s no more need for validation.
Thus with these, and many other attractive qualities, I end my little tract of meditation. As Evelyn Waugh prescribed, please do meditate on the beautiful. It may not only cure nail biting, but can also fill every second of every minute of every hour with distance worth run.