Even though I no longer follow an organized system of meditation (for over thirty years I was a member of an India-based group, Radha Soami Satsang Beas), I still enjoy meditating every day.
Sometimes I follow my breath. Sometimes I repeat a simple mantra of one or two syllables.
Since I practice Tai Chi and resonate with Taoism, the words "wu chi" appeal to me. It's the readiness posture in Tai Chi, an embrace of empty fullness. And it's the core of the Wu Project that I've been blogging about.
I also like to listen to a mantra in my mind when I'm doing everyday stuff -- driving around, exercising, walking the dog. Falling asleep at night is another favorite mantra repetition time.
Way back in my meditating experience I realized that life often, if not usually, goes along better with less thinking.
This isn't a unique insight, of course. Most athletes, dancers, and musicians are familiar with being "in the flow," a state where doing happens naturally and almost effortlessly, little or no conscious intention required.
Religiously-oriented meditators, of whom I used to be one, consider that stilling the mind through a mantra or some other means produces a let go and let God sort of state. Meaning, when we stop trying to control our thoughts and actions, a divine power is better able to fill our consciousness and guide us.
Well, maybe. But neuroscience has a much more believable interpretation of why less thinking frequently results in better doing: my conscious intention is the last to know what I'm about to do.
"Neuroscience vs. philosophy: taking aim at free will" is a good overview of how brain research is casting doubt on our subjective feeling that we can consciously freely decide whether to do this, or that.
As humans, we like to think that our decisions are under our conscious control — that we have free will. Philosophers have debated that concept for centuries, and now Haynes and other experimental neuroscientists are raising a new challenge. They argue that consciousness of a decision may be a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on a person's actions. According to this logic, they say, free will is an illusion. "We feel we choose, but we don't," says Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London.
You may have thought you decided whether to have tea or coffee this morning, for example, but the decision may have been made long before you were aware of it. For Haynes, this is unsettling. "I'll be very honest, I find it very difficult to deal with this," he says. "How can I call a will 'mine' if I don't even know when it occurred and what it has decided to do?"
The science isn't settled. But meditation, both the sitting and everyday life kind, offers me (or anybody else) a way to conduct some free will personal experiments.
What happens when I don't try to make anything happen? Do happenings still occur even when I'm doing as little as possible? Will desires, intentions, and such continue to arise even when I'm not consciously trying to make this happen?
It sure seems to me that, in line with what the neuroscientific experiments have found, something wordless and unconscious within my psyche first propels me in a certain direction. Only after that force does its thing do I consciously think, "I should get out of bed," "It's time to have lunch," or whatever.
I seem to be explaining to myself what already has been decided. An old friend used to call this justifying our karma, which is pretty close to what modern neuroscience is finding, albeit absent any supernatural connotations.
So I don't feel any need to surrender myself to a divine higher power when I meditate. The higher power which is guiding me is right inside my head: the hidden brain.