08/12/2013 02:45 pm ET | Updated Oct 12, 2013

Meditation: Natural or Unnatural?

As far as we know, life began on Earth 4 billion years ago. As the aeons passed, plants and animals evolved, usually according to the Darwinian principle of "survival of the fittest," which ensured that only the strongest, fastest, best adapted, wiliest, smartest creatures survived and reproduced. Unimaginable millennia of evolution subsequently yielded a dazzling array of life forms, all struggling to survive, competing and cooperating, each with instincts embedded within them, driving them, in Tennyson's words, "to strive, to seek, and not to yield."

And yet, this situation sucks. Human beings are impelled, by these billions of years of evolution, to be dissatisfied with what we have, to want more, to over-perceive threats and act on them, to ignore what we mistakenly think is unimportant, to build and make love and achieve and flee danger -- only to recognize, sooner or later, that we can never win the battle. On the grand scale, we will all die, and lose much of what we love along the way. Yet even in our mundane lives, we lose the battle every day -- often in ways less tragic than comic. The damn webpage won't load, the mortgage has to be paid, the boss is a jerk, I'm a jerk -- every day, the God-or-evolution-given instinct to "want it all" butts up against a reality that rarely provides it. Life on earth is hard-wired for kvetching.

This is the core of the contemplative life: The completely natural state of affairs is one in which human beings cause suffering for themselves and others. And it's entirely natural; it comes about not because we're evil, or because Eve ate an apple in God's garden, but because we are animals living on this planet, and we have evolved to want what we can't get, and to run away from things we don't like.

Fortunately, the instincts to fight, flee, and have sex are not the only faculties in the mind. And so, for thousands of years, people in various religious, philosophical, artistic, and other traditions have cultivated other qualities, among them capacities for wisdom, empathy, letting go, relaxation, concentration, compassion, awareness -- not to mention justice, gratitude, love, and a sense of wonder. In some religious traditions, such capacities are labeled "good," whereas the tendencies toward greed, hatred, and delusion are labeled "evil." Some traditions even posit a whole cosmology in which the two are at war with each other, or in which some are accretions atop a pure layer beneath. But I prefer the simpler, more naturalistic approach. Human beings have the inclination to be selfish and greedy because that inclination serves organisms well. Luckily for the planet, we have other inclinations, too.

Some 2,500 years ago, a renegade Indian prince proposed that it is possible to unlearn the basic human tendencies toward wanting the pleasant, hating the unpleasant, and ignoring the neutral, and in so doing to suffer less, grow wiser, and act more compassionately. Unlike most of his peers, he did not say that bad behavior will be punished by God or other supernatural forces -- only that wanting it all will tend to make you unhappy. Such is the core of the Buddha's "four noble truths": that suffering exists; that clinging, craving desire is its cause; that it is possible to end suffering; and that there is a systematic, step-by-step, empirically verifiable process for doing so, known as the Eightfold Path.

Quickly, this dharma, this teaching, this way, became what its founder claimed it wasn't: an ideology, even a religion. Subsequent teachers said the path is too difficult, so we must pray to semi-divine beings and hope that they will help us. Or it's only for some people and not for the rest of us. And so on.

But let's stay for a moment with that basic evolutionary problem: that we are hard-wired for attitudes and behaviors that make us unhappy. What is to be done? Yes, we could distract ourselves with as much fun and stuff and intoxication as possible, so that we avoid as much unpleasantness as we can. Or we could believe some stories about why suffering is justified, or how it's temporary, or how it will be rewarded in some way after we die. We could draw consolation from philosophy, or relationships, or creativity -- all of these have been tried by hundreds of millions of people, and if they work for you, that's great.

But there's a particularly interesting answer to this problem, which is to change the mind -- to change the brain. We now know that by installing new software -- new habits, new ways of thinking -- you can change the hardware. This isn't magic, or even mysticism. It's exercise.

The Buddha did not understand the brain scientifically, but he did understand the mind experientially. It is possible, he found, to upgrade your mind through the practice of meditation, just as today you might upgrade your biceps by doing curls at the gym. For example, by focusing the attention on a fixed object, the mind is gathered together -- "concentrated" -- and calmed. It builds greater capacity to control itself, to not wander off or chase the impulses that naturally arise. These are some of the functions of meditation -- of the practice of mental development. And it is entirely naturalistic -- although at the same time, it's also highly unnatural, in that it tugs against billions of years of evolution.

So, of course, is happiness.

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