The Human Mind Isn’t What it Used to Be
That’s why I think it’s problematic in many cases to use the same techniques in the year 2016 that were developed to use on monks living in a monastery 2,500 years ago. And I suspect that’s why “classic” forms of meditation don’t appeal to many people who try them.
This is the difference between a modern person who sits at a desk 8-10 hours a day, and eats factory-made calories at sea level and a person who spends a lot of the time outdoors, highly physically active at 8,000 feet above sea level, eating nothing but all-natural food.
I’m not talking just about the human brain. The brain and the mind are separate things. That’s why we have two different words for them; they aren’t synonyms.
The human brain – most physiologists and neurologists would tell us – has changed very little if at all in over the past 2,000 to 3,000 years since we’ve had Buddhism and other contemplative practices.
This blog is probably not a good place for going into the nuances evolutionary neurology. Certainly we don’t have access to the pure human brain – absent of human culture – in a meditative state. Perhaps if we could compare a typical 30 year-old computer programer to a 30 year-old raised exclusively by a tribe of gorillas in the African bush and having lived all his life there, we might come close to a clean experiment. But such a “human” has never been known to exist.
The blog also isn’t the place to spend too much time pondering the “nature of the mind” which philosophers and psychologists have been speculating about for several millennia as well. Here’s a simple-enough working definition of the human mind: It’s the brain plus about 100,000 years of human culture, including of course human language, art, music, geography, physics, history, mathematics, etc.
And let’s not forget the influence of religions and spiritual rituals in the surrounding “milieu” of the brain. By the time the average adult human brain turns itself to attempt a bit a of meditation, it has been continuously surrounded in a world of sounds, symbols, ideas and beliefs for 25, 35 years or many more.
Of course how a human thinks and feels is a function of all she or he has experienced and been taught to experience before. What humans have been experiencing over the past 150 years or so is nothing short of a radical transformation. If we imagine the kind of live most people were living 2,500 in the lands now known as northern India, where Buddhist meditative practice first arose and compare them to living conditions in for example Chicago, Illinois in 2016, pardon the pun, but the mind boggles.
Here a just a few of the key differences, which go some ways to explain why the modern mind needs to develop different ways of meditating than those the Buddha taught:
Life was lived primarily outdoors, surrounded constantly by fresh, clean air
Sleeping patterns coincided with 8 to 12 hours of complete darkness; including much more sleeping during winter months than now.
– Movement while was nearly constant, with even basic activities such as food gathering, washing, defecating requiring effort
– Entertainment took the form of talking face-to-face, dancing, and focused listening to story telling
– To further belabor Point 4: People had to listen carefully all day long; their sit-quietly-and-listen “muscles” were highly developed
– One’s position at rest was often lying on the hard ground or sitting in a squat
– Food was gathered and hunted extremely close to its original source and usually eaten at its freshest state
– A nearly every day part of life was walking in the woods in intimate contact with trees, leaves, grass, soil, etc.
– A constant awareness of births, deaths, sicknesses and the finitude of life
When one sat down to meditate 2,500 years ago, all that above was the starting point – in many cases a healthy body, well nourished and surrounded by a clean environment.
Here a just a few of the aggravating factors that the modern mind has to contend with:
– Pre-conceptual and intrauterine environments that may have included numerous neuro toxins / environmental contaminants
– A loud external world with constant sounds of radio and television, emergency sirens
– Access to in-depth, up-to-date information about almost everything
– Constant, highly compelling interruptions while working
– Instant supplies of entertainment, highly stimulating games, pornography etc.
– Daily work loads that are 3 to 6 hours longer than in ancestral hunter-gather societies
– Highly sweet, synthetic foods that rush energy to the brain and then create energy crashes 30 to 90 minutes later
– Low amounts of natural essential fatty acids from fresh oily fish and pasture-raised animals
– Factory-produced and plastic-packaged food lower or absent entirely of live beneficial bacteria
– A sense that with the right medical interventions death can be prevented and controlled
More on this later. But this is hopefully a start for those thinking how to reach the kind of pure states of contemplation with their modern minds. Spoiler Alert: Sitting quietly under a tree probably isn’t sufficient in and of itself to cultivate the modern meditative mind.
Topics: The modern mind, meditation, current life stresses, contemporary mindfulness, modern mindfulness, updating Buddhist practices