Using Meditation to Survive the 21st Century

By Stephan Bodian

Meditation can help you survive the 21st century. Meditation offers a time-honored antidote to fragmentation, alienation, isolation, stress — even stress-related illnesses and depression. Although it won’t solve the external problems of your life, it does help you develop inner resilience, balance, and strength to roll with the punches and come up with creative solutions.

To get a sense of how meditation works, imagine for a moment that your body and mind are a complex computer. Instead of being programmed to experience inner peace, harmony, equanimity, and joy, you’ve been programmed to respond to life’s inevitable ups and downs with stress, anxiety, and dissatisfaction. But you have the power to change your programming.

By putting aside all other activities, sitting quietly, and attuning yourself to the present moment for a minimum of 10 or 15 minutes each day, you’re developing a whole new set of habitual responses and programming yourself to experience more positive emotions and mind-states. In fact, a growing body of research indicates that meditation alters the brain for the better in significant ways.

Of course, if you find it distasteful to think of yourself as a computer, you can picture life as an ocean, with the constant ups and downs you experience as the waves that churn and roil on the water’s surface. When you meditate, you dive beneath the surface to a quiet place where the water is calmer and more consistent.

Whatever your favorite metaphor, the point is that meditation provides a way of transforming stress and suffering into equanimity and ease. Here, you get to see how meditators have been reaping the remarkable benefits of meditation for millennia — and how you can, too!

Advanced technology for the mind and heart

Traditionally, the Western world has emphasized external achievement, and the East has valued inner development. The great scientific and technological advances of the past 500 years originated in the West, while yogis and roshis in the monasteries and ashrams of Asia were cultivating the inner arts of meditation.

Now the currents of East and West and North and South have joined and are intermingling to form an emerging global culture and economy. As a result, you can apply the inner “technology” perfected in the East to balance the excesses of the rapid technological innovations perfected in the West!

Like master computer programmers, the great meditation masters throughout history developed the capacity to program their bodies, minds, and hearts to experience highly refined states of being. While those in the West were charting the heavens and initiating the Industrial Revolution, they were chalking up some pretty remarkable accomplishments of their own:

  • Penetrating insights into the nature of the mind and the process by which it creates and perpetuates suffering and stress
  • Deep states of ecstatic absorption in which the meditator is completely immersed in union with the Divine
  • The wisdom to discriminate between relative reality and the sacred dimension of being
  • Unshakable inner peace that external circumstances can’t disturb
  • The cultivation of positive, beneficial, life-affirming mind-states, such as patience, love, kindness, equanimity, joy, and — especially — compassion for the suffering of others
  • The ability to control bodily functions that are usually considered involuntary, such as heart rate, body temperature, and metabolism
  • The capacity to mobilize and move vital energy through the different centers and channels of the body for the sake of healing and personal transformation
  • Special psychic powers, such as clairvoyance (the ability to perceive matters beyond the range of ordinary perception) and telekinesis (the ability to move objects at a distance without touching them)

Of course, the great meditators of the past used these qualities to seek liberation from suffering, either by withdrawing from the world into a more exalted reality or by achieving penetrating insights into the nature of existence. Yet the meditation technology they developed — which has become widely available in the West in the past few decades — can be used by the rest of the world in ordinary, everyday ways to yield some extraordinary benefits.

The mind-body benefits of meditation

Although the earliest scientific studies of meditation date back to the 1930s and 1940s, research into the psychophysiological effects of meditation took off in the 1970s, fueled by a burgeoning interest in Transcendental Meditation (TM), Zen, Vipassana, and other Eastern meditation techniques. Since then, thousands of studies have been published, with an exponential increase in research in the past 10 to 15 years as brain-imaging technology has become increasingly sophisticated. For now, here is a brief synopsis of the most significant benefits of meditation:

Physiological benefits:

  • Decreased heart rate
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Quicker recovery from stress
  • Decrease in beta (brainwaves associated with thinking) and increase in alpha, delta, and gamma (brainwaves associated with deep relaxation and higher mental activity)
  • Enhanced synchronization (that is, simultaneous operation) of the right and left hemispheres of the brain (which positively correlates with creativity)
  • Fewer heart attacks and strokes
  • Increased longevity
  • Reduced cholesterol levels
  • Decreased consumption of energy and need for oxygen
  • Deeper, slower breathing
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Reduction in the intensity of pain

Psychological benefits:

  • More happiness and peace of mind
  • Greater enjoyment of the present moment
  • Less emotional reactivity; fewer intense negative emotions and dramatic mood swings
  • More loving, harmonious relationships
  • Increased empathy
  • Enhanced creativity and self-actualization
  • Heightened perceptual clarity and sensitivity
  • Reductions in both acute and chronic anxiety
  • Complement to psychotherapy and other approaches in the treatment of addiction