Reclaiming Buddha's Meditation, Modified for the Modern Indian

05/19/2015 02:55 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2016

"The house of miseries is built with bricks of attachment. Take away the bricks and the house will crumble." After his long meditation under the banyan tree in Gaya, Siddhartha Gautama opened his eyes and spoke these words with a joyful smile. They contained the gist of his philosophical and psychological discovery. They contained the answer leading to permanent release from the inevitable "Dukkha" contained in each and every one's life : non-attachment, freedom from attachment, or desperate craving for pleasure and aversion to pain. He discovered that one of the most effective ways to achieve effortless non-attachment is Vipassana: his own style of meditation. Siddhartha Gautama came to be known as the Buddha - the awakened. He expounded this attained wisdom in logically organized lists and laws, solidifying the origin of 'Buddhism' in India twenty five hundred years ago.

Buddhism flourished not only in India, but all over South and South East Asia because of the simplicity of Buddha's profound teachings. So great was his influence that the Bhagwat Gita, the most celebrated Hindu religious scripture, made non-attachment its focal point. Eventually, post-Buddha ritualized Buddhism became integrated with newly invigorated Hinduism under Adi Shankaracharya's leadership. As a result, the practice of Buddhism became redundant for most Hindus. After the 12th century Mongol invasion and destruction of great centers of Buddhist learnings like Nalanda University, Buddhism became leaderless and soon all but vanished from its birthplace.

"He was the sanest philosopher the world ever saw", Swami Vivekananda spoke of Buddha. His original teachings and ideas were likely radical in his own time, but they surprisingly fit our modern democratic world view and psychologically based thinking. Remarkably, he was not persecuted; on the contrary, he lived a revered life, and was largely accepted by the Hindu culture of the time. A firm believer of equality, he treated untouchables and kings with the same respect and attention. He believed in evidence-based knowledge as opposed to merely faith-based evidence. He told his disciples not to believe in his teachings simply because he was the teacher, but to experience them, test them, and check their utility for themselves. He thought of himself as a teacher, not as God or God's messenger. He emphasized building a supportive community in the form of "Sangha" and serving others. In doing so, he offered a way to deal with "Depressive Disorders" by avoiding isolation and by taking attention away from oneself to turn towards the pain of others. He talked about how our psyche creates stories and delusions around our experiences and how to train our minds to see things "the way they are". In doing so, he addressed treating "Anxiety Disorders" by examining our extreme fears about the future, and learning ways to mitigate them.

Twenty five hundred years after Buddha's birth, his genius is receiving worldwide recognition again, this time as a secular, scientifically tested psychological tool for creating a sense of well-being. After he was exiled from Tibet in 1959, His Holiness the Dalai Lama co-founded the Mind and Life Institute in Massachusetts, employing Western Scientific methods to test the benefits proclaimed by ancient Buddhist practices. Tremendous advances in neuroscience research methodologies created an explosion of research on Vipassana Meditation (translated into English as Mindfulness Meditation or Insight Meditation), showing that the practice of Mindfulness Meditation not only induces positive change in behavior, but also changes brain structure. In the late seventies, young folks from the West who had immersed themselves in Buddhist retreats for years brought back what they had learned from India to the United States. Today, Mindfulness Meditation is the most researched psychological tool in the West, proving beneficial in reducing stress, fears, anxieties, as well as helping to increase focus, cognitive capabilities, human relatedness, empathy, problem solving insights, and a general sense of well-being.

It is time to complete the circle and bring Mindfulness Meditation back to India, albeit not necessarily in its original form. We need to reclaim this tradition to suit the needs and demands of modern India.

WHY?

Ambitious and stressed out modern Indians need tools to avoid burnout. However, they are skeptical of religious practices based on blind faith. Although they are naturally inclined towards spirituality, they also trust secular scientific framework and evidence-based methods. Their innate understanding of the non-attachment principle underlying Mindfulness Meditations makes them perfect candidates for Mindfulness Meditation based methods.

However, stress reduction is the most obvious reason for bringing the recent developments in Mindfulness Meditations back to India. New research studies show some exciting results that are deeply relevant towards the demands of today's lifestyle.

1) Powerful 'Third Eye': By practicing Mindfulness Meditations on a regular basis, the mid-pre-frontal cortex in the brain is supposed to increase in thickness. This area of the brain is right behind the mid-forehead, which, in Indian culture, is called the 'Third Eye', a seat of unusual sensing power. Functions associated with this area of the brain amazingly coincide with what we would associate with the awakening of the 'Third eye'. Will-power to stick to difficult tasks, ability to sense our own and other people's feelings, faster recovery from destructive emotions, and faster separation of reality and stories woven by minds are just a few of the qualities observed in long-term mindfulness meditators. The awakened 'third eye' is prepared to face the global world with confidence.

2) Innovative Thinking: Today's globalized and technologically driven world requires creative and innovative solutions to problems to be able to compete. India has slipped in its ranking for Global Innovation Index by ten places from 2013 to 2014. The general consensus is that Indians are smart but they are not innovative thinkers. Many think that our educational system and the hierarchically driven culture are the root of this problem. There is a new-found awareness and drive to move in the direction of free and innovative thinking, motivated by a desire to emulate global success stories as a result of "out of the box" thinking. However, there needs to be a basic structural change in the way we look at problems and their solutions.

Recent studies have shown that certain types of Mindfulness Meditations foster innovative thinking (known as Divergent Thinking). In this style of thinking, we develop the ability to come up with several creative ways to solve a problem. In addition, the meditation practice fosters the wisdom that allows us to discern which solution is most beneficial to adapt. This ability to be flexible and open to ideas is extremely useful, not only for global competition but also for personal life situations.

Long term meditators report that 'insights' simply fall into their lap - the 'aha moment' -- allowing them to solve problems. Steve Jobs, an example of one of the global success stories mentioned above, is a modern hero to today's Indian professionals. Steve Jobs supposedly, attributes his discovery of iPhone to his mindfulness meditation practice.

3) Wealth with a Peace of Mind: The new Indian is blatantly materialistic. In our current socio-political environment, it is not possible to run a successful business without resorting to uncomfortable practices. There are ways to deal with such 'discomforts' in the Buddhist wisdom. One way to deal with discomfort is to clearly distinguish 'greed' from the 'right to earn a good living', determining what is absolutely required for running a business and when the line is crossed for more power or more money. The idea of "giving while earning" and "service to others" is part of the meditation community building. Mindfulness Meditation practice is known to increase empathy and compassion for other living beings. This could encourage businesses, for example, to make their purpose to make lives better rather than to maximize profit.

HOW?

1) Vipassana, especially in the form of secular Mindfulness Meditation practice, can fit right in with any lifestyle or faith you might already possess.

2) If you want to learn about mindfulness, you can find teachers, online tutorials, and eventually graduate to residential retreats.

3) There is no need to practice like a monk with intense monastic practice in order to gain the type of benefits described above. Guruji Goenka came back to India in the 1970s from Bramhadesh, with the specific intention of bringing Buddhism back to India. He started excellent Vipassana residential retreats and made them popular in India. Although these retreats can be life changing, their rigor and length may turn some away, especially busy professionals. In addition, one may not be psychologically ready for immersion in a residential retreat. As shown by studies done at Harvard, a much smaller amount of meditation practice can also result in significant changes of the brain structure. Although the minimum necessary amount of daily practice is not yet established, most meditation teachers will tell their students to start at whatever amount they can spend. Start with 2 minutes, anytime, anywhere. Be good to at least one person every day. Let it become a lifestyle, not a burdensome project.

4) It helps to be part of a group in order for the meditation practice to keep going. Accountability to the group creates motivation, and provides a ground for empathy-building.

Let us reclaim Buddha's wisdom -- bring back mindfulness meditation as a secular spiritual tool to increase well-being. Above all, while doing so, do it with non-attachment, not desperation!