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Award-winning psychiatrist on meditation

By Parthiv N. Parekh Email By Parthiv N. Parekh
December 2009
Award-winning psychiatrist on meditation It is something that has been prescribed in the Vedas—the fount of all major spiritual traditions of the East, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Zen. Today, from West coast hippies to non-denominational spiritual teachers of every background to cutting-edge mental researchers, all are talking about it: MEDITATION.

It is at once deceptively simple, and yet endlessly mysterious. If the scriptures and the realized Masters of these traditions are to be believed, it can be a doorway to the highest?and everything en route: clarity and conviction, mental and physical well-being, peace, harmony, enduring happiness, and more.

And yet, who amongst its practitioners have not questioned it—at least at times? Month after month, year after year, sitting away in a daily practice of meditation is bound to raise questions: Why am I doing this seemingly meaningless practice? What is it doing to me? Is it doing anything at all? Am I just wasting away precious time each day? Despite meditation’s solid credentials in a 5000-year-old lineage, the logical mind struggles with it: What if it is a fantasy? A psychic trip? A delusion? Sure there are ancient and contemporary examples of people who swear by the transformative power of meditation, but unless one experiences it for oneself, a certain amount of doubt is natural.

And so when modern science—particularly the science of the mind—validates meditation it serves as a huge endorsement to today’s seekers. Now, one just doesn’t have to go by faith alone; neural connections in the brain have been mapped and studied extensively, and they all point to what the ancients have said for ages: that there is a transcendental reality beyond the confines of the mind. What’s more, when an award-winning psychiatrist like Dr. Paul R. Fleischman is one of the many from the scientific establishment that not only concede such a transcendental reality but also commit their lives to pursuing it and teaching about it, it comes as boost of comfort and confidence to meditators.

Dr. Paul R. Fleischman trained in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, where he also served as Chief Resident. He was in the private practice of psychiatry in Amherst, Massachusetts, for over thirty years. In 1993, Dr. Fleischman became the fifth American Psychiatrist to be honored by the American Psychiatric Association with the Oskar Pfister Award for being an “...outstanding contributor to the humanistic and spiritual side of psychiatric and medical issues.”

He is currently retired from clinical practice, and has dedicated himself to the teaching of Vipassana meditation, which he learnt in India from his teacher, S. N. Goenka. He is also the author of Karma and Chaos, Spiritual Aspects of Psychiatric Practice and several other books related to psychotherapy and spirituality.

Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was rediscovered by Gautama Buddha more than 2500 years ago and was taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills; that is, as an art of living. This non-sectarian technique aims for the total eradication of mental impurities and the resultant highest happiness of full liberation. Healing, not merely the curing of diseases, but the essential healing of human suffering, is its purpose.

While in Atlanta for a lecture titled, “The Scientific World View and Vipassana Meditation,” at Emory University, Dr. Fleischman took the time to talk to Khabar.

What are some recent scientific discoveries that validate ancient spiritual worldviews such as the concept of maya, which suggest that creation is a cosmic illusion?

There is some correspondence, but not an exact correspondence. There is a lot of overlap between maya, which would be an Indian, scripturally derived concept, and anatta, which is the Pali term, meaning that there is no self. Though the terms have a metaphysical difference, they agree at least that our personal self, which we think of as very important, is not so important. When we look around the world, we see this sometimes sad, sometimes terrifying, sometimes pathetic way that most human activities are organized around reinforcing the small self, and creating divisiveness over that. So both of those concepts, maya and anatta, offer avenues out of the very troubled existence that human beings have created for themselves, and both of them have very strong validation in modern science. I would say those ideas that were elaborated in India 2,000 or 3,000 years ago are very compatible with modern science, which reveals the world as vast, ancient, dynamic and not centered around our personal dramas.

So the suggestion of quantum physics that matter does not exist, is that in line with the concept of maya?

Well, I wouldn’t accept the statement that says matter doesn’t exist. I would say matter is one phase of ultimate reality. So, for example, ice, water, vapor, they all exist but don’t have a final, ultimate existence. Einstein, in 1905, showed energy and matter are different components of each other, or are different phases of each other, and that there has to be something else as the ultimate thing of which they are phases. And this is compatible with the concept of maya, though not an exact proof of it.

Are there are differences between Vipassana meditation and other meditations like TM and shoonya? And can these co-exist in one person’s practice?

The only meditation I actually know about is Vipassana so I can’t fairly comment on other practices. One thing we should be intelligent enough and confident enough to do, is to stop dividing, comparing, competing among the different meditations. We should recognize the kinship with people who are attracted to meditation. We may not be like brothers and sisters, because there are some differences, but we are like cousins. We should avoid fomenting all these comparative questions.

However, a person should make a choice about which meditation they use; because there I would shift from the analogy of cousins, and say that meditation is somewhat like marriage. In American culture, it is perfectly okay to go out with different people. If you are a young adult you go out with this person, that person, but after sometime you settle down with one person. So, in a certain phase a person should try different meditations and see which one is good for them, and then “marry” that meditation so that it can deepen and grow within them. So I wouldn’t encourage somebody to have multiple practices.

Is Vipassana meditation about physical and mental well-being, or is there more to it? Is Enlightenment or Self-Realization a goal as well?

Definitely! Meditation leads beyond life. So the whole material, or even psychological and emotional realms, are not the totality of what Vipassana aims towards. However, once we get towards terms like “Enlightenment” and “Liberation” we begin to run into competitive attitudes that say: my Enlightenment is different than yours! There is a beautiful phrase in my all-time favorite book, The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. The crux of this beautiful masterpiece on religion is that religion is the zone of the “More.” That is why we end up on the spiritual path—for something More. We don’t have to define it better than that. So yes, Vipassana is not just about health or well-being, it is about something More.

So if there is “More” and if that is something that can’t be defined, how is a meditator to know that he is not in some delusional state?

I strongly believe that one needs a teacher, exactly for the reason you are describing. I would not be on the path of Vipassana Meditation at all if it weren’t for my Teacher, Mr. S. N. Goenka. Unguided meditation does have the capacity to mislead some people, and particularly the self-important person who feels: “I don’t need a teacher because I am so fabulous myself.” Such persons can mislead themselves. One should be following a discipline, one should have a teacher with whom one can check in, and one should have a way of communicating one’s experiences so that they are sorted through with the help of a more experienced meditator. One should also have a supportive community of friends.

Under those circumstances, is there is a point where a meditator reaches a certain zenith? Is there a clear demarcation that he’s arrived or that he has awakened?

If you follow the teachings of the Buddha, for example, the height which you can reach is a world-conquering spiritual experience that for 2,500 years is remembered and referred to by hundreds of millions of people. That’s pretty high. Most of us can’t expect to (aim) that high! So, then, to peg it down a little: the teaching of Goenkaji, which I found very beautiful, is that there are really just two things you are looking for—increased personal harmony, and deepened contribution to other human beings. Isn’t this really what you are looking for? Increasing harmony, calm, and peace in your own heart? Realistically we all get annoyed, and have troubles and problems, but increasing harmony isn’t hard. And the second goal is increasing compassion and contribution to other human beings. Those are the two criteria. The goal of meditation is not to produce an inner state of self-satisfaction or of self-referential excitement. Meditation has nothing to do with some subjective self-assessment about how fantastic you are. Meditation has to do with what you really feel moment by moment, day by day, and whether you are really making a contribution; not just a mundane contribution, but a contribution to the hearts of other living beings.

A meditator consumed in a personal quest seems so cut off from grave issues such as increasing partisan acrimony or healthcare reform. We don’t see too many meditators at the forefront of such issues of our times, but we do see a lot of self-serving politicians in the trenches. How can meditators make a direct and perceptible impact on the reality of our times if they are far outnumbered by shrill interests?

Gandhi is a paradigm of a person who put those two (meditative way of life and political involvement) together. But as much as I revere Gandhi he is a man of historical moment. I don’t think people (can) go around imitating Gandhi. We have to imitate ourselves. We have to be relevant for our time and place. But he is an example who shows that a person can be politically active and yet be a holy man. Currently we meditators are a very minute minority in this country. But we have, in both biology and physics, the concept of a critical mass: something is invisible and insignificant, and then it grows tenfold, and it is still invisible and insignificant. But eventually it hits a “critical mass” when it suddenly explodes into catalytic significance. I think we have to get to a critical mass. That is why I hope that more people will practice meditation, and that different schools of meditation would not divide and criticize other schools.

Does the Vipassana tradition have recommendations on lifestyle, diet, alcohol, hatha yoga, etc?

Yes, absolutely. Vipassana, the teaching handed down from Goenkaji, and actually handed down from the Buddha, says no alcohol, no stimulants, no tobacco, and fidelity in human relationships, etc. There is no exact diet that goes with Vipassana, but since Vipassana is a somatic awareness meditation, one should cultivate a diet that is compatible with one’s personal being. We are all slightly different. So you can eat that thing but it makes me sick but I can eat this. But specifically, Vipassana meditators are usually vegetarians out of compassion. In terms of hatha yoga, many Vipassana meditators practice it as a form of health, but it is not part of our tradition.

When people are struggling with willpower issues—addictions and cravings—pop gurus have said people won’t change until they are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” But the meditative approach that you recommended yesterday at your lecture was simply to observe whatever it is you are struggling with—in a neutral way without reacting. Can this actually help with seemingly impossible addictions?

Well, as a psychiatrist I often dealt with alcoholism. Alcoholism is a greatly underestimated problem in America. In the treatment of alcoholism there is a phrase: “You don’t change until you bottom out.” That sounds very similar to “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” We have to remember, however, that while Vipassana has probably helped many alcoholics, Vipassana, is not a treatment for disease. It is a spiritual path. So the idea of, “bottoming out,” is not a rule of Vipassana. Vipassana is not a matter of augmenting internal power struggles. It is a matter of locating, and living by, a psychological middle path, which is based upon neutral, non-judgmental, awareness and equanimity. This middle path can be actualized from the gratification that it intrinsically produces. So as a meditator finds growing freedom from compulsion, impulsiveness, desperation, and an inability to regulate themselves, that growing freedom is extremely gratifying, and leads you to a cycle of positive reinforcement. But a compulsive struggle for self-control is not freedom. So asceticism is not a form of freedom. Asceticism is a forceful attempt to control one’s impulses out of fear of oneself. So the middle path, where one is self-observant, not compulsively, but also not subject to impulse, is an extremely gratifying state.

Of all the questions you have fielded at your public talks, which one stands out that you would like to answer?

Well, yesterday, I had one I liked. The question was, “Since you are so interested in science, since you refer to physics and biology, you sound like a determinist—someone who believes cause and effect rules the world. Yet, at the same time, you are talking about spiritual freedom and the freedom to choose. How can you choose, if in fact you are determined by physical forces, biological forces, psychological forces, sociological forces and cultural forces?”

So this question is about the apparent disjunction between freedom and determinism. That’s a very, very important question, and one that has been kicking around the world, as far as we know, for about 3000 years. I can hardly say I have the definitive answer. But I do feel, again, twentieth century science has facilitated the removal of that false dichotomy, and I believe it was understood as a false dichotomy in ancient India as well.

The teachings of ancient Indian meditation, such as Vipassana, heavily emphasized the causal connections in material things. One has to master one’s material nature, and understand its essence, or one’s mind cannot be free. The Buddha said that insight into cause and effect is essential for wisdom! People say the meaning of the Buddha is the “Enlightened” one, or the “Awakened” one, but the real meaning of the Buddha is one who understands all cause and effect. All cause and effect—that’s a pretty tall order. So ancient Indian tradition and Vipassana seem to have coded inside them a determinist type of thinking that is very compatible with twentieth century Western science.

Except that spiritual life is meaningless if everything is determined! So there is a gap that is implicit in ancient Indian thinking, and in twentieth century science. In the nervous system, a synapse (gap) is the point of choice where deterministic progression of neural transmission stops, and where choice or option can be found within the nervous system. In the psychology of Vipassana neutral awareness of sensations with equanimity also creates such a point of choice. The neutral observing mind is like a calm and open void, where free will can enter and shift deterministic pathways.

Furthermore, as the nervous system matures through meditation, the mind develops something that modern science calls “top-down causality.” Top-down causality is the opposite of reductionistic determinism. It means that maturing systems gain the capacity to change themselves, even gain the capacity to change the causes that caused them to mature.

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