Ricard is a long-time Buddhist. He’s participated in scientific studies concerning the neurological correlates of meditation. I suspect that the subject he’s talking about is himself.
He says that the startle response is one of the body’s most primitive reflexes. It responds to activity in the brain stem and is usually not subject to voluntary control. “The stronger a person’s flinch, the more he is inclined to experience negative emotions.”
The researchers hooked up the Buddhist meditator to equipment that would measure his reactions. Ricard says, “The experimenters opted for the maximal threshold of human tolerance—a very powerful detonation, equivalent to a gunshot going off beside the ear.”
The subject was told that within five minutes he’d hear a loud explosion. He was asked to try to neutralize it. Hundreds of other people had taken this test. Nobody had ever been able to stop the startle response. Not even police sharpshooters.
But the meditator could. He’d been practicing two types of meditation: single-pointed concentration and open presence. The best effect, he found, came with open presence meditation. He said:
In that state I was not actively trying to control the startle, but the detonation seemed weaker, as if I were hearing it at a distance. In the distracted state, the explosion suddenly brings you back to the present moment and causes you to jump out of surprise. But while in open presence you are resting in the present moment and the bang simply occurs and causes only a little disturbance, like a bird crossing the sky.
It seems, Ricard concludes, that the meditator’s body registered all the effects of the detonation, but it had no emotional impact on his mind.
The meditator’s performance suggests remarkable emotional equanimity—precisely the same kind of equanimity that the ancient texts describe as one of the fruits of meditative practice.
Well, this is my mind of spirituality. Measurable. Discernable. Practical. Instead of pie-in-the-sky you’ll-be-rewarded-when-you-die religiosity, the best forms of meditative practice deliver results here and now.
Which is where and when, the concluding page of my well-thumbed “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones” tells me, we should be looking for whatever the hell it is we’re all searching for.
What is Zen? Try if you wish. But Zen comes of itself. True Zen shows in everyday living, consciousness in action. More than any limited awareness, it opens every inner door to our infinite nature.
Instantly mind frees. How it frees! False Zen wracks brains as a fiction concocted by priests and salesmen to peddle their own wares.
Look at it this way, inside out and outside in: consciousness everywhere, inclusive, through you. Then you can’t help living humbly, in wonder.
“What is Zen?”
One answer: Inayat Khan tells a Hindu story of a fish who went to a queen fish and asked, “I have always heard about the sea, but what is this sea? Where is it?”
The queen fish explained: “You live, move, and have your being in the sea. The sea is within you and without you, and you are made of sea, and you will end in sea. The sea surrounds you as your own being.”
Suppose I should leave the empty space as that. Or, rather, as That. But there’s always another answer, after another answer.
Today I came across a “Lost” poem by a fellow Salem, Oregon blogger. Burton says that he’s a cynical, sarcastic Presbyterian. Also, a non-traditional know-it-all who questions authority.
I’d say he has some Zen in him too. Nice poem, Burton.
For those who want to diminish the startle in their lives, here’s Ricard’s description of open presence meditation.
Open presence is a clear, open, vast, and alert state of mind, free from mental constructs. It is not actively focused on anything, yet it is not distracted. The mind simply remains at ease, perfectly present in a state of pure awareness. When thoughts intrude, the meditator does not attempt to interfere with them, but allows the thoughts to vanish naturally.