The happiest man in the world and the art of meditation

Today I will write about a part of last times lecture again. Firstly, I have to stress how much I enjoy this lecture, I wish university could always be that enriching and fascinating. So this week, we had a short discussion again about this video.

Photo Credit: OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images

Photo Credit: OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI/AFP/Getty Images


Maybe you know Matthieu Ricard already, maybe you don’t. He works together with universitys to shed some scientific light on the matter of meditation and its influences on the brain. Here’s a short article about him, the happiest man in the world 😉

So Ricard opens his talk by saying that an altruistic society is not a luxury but a necessity. By changing the individual the society can change, we can experience a cultural shift. Is that true?  Don’t we feel too powerless to induce a cultural shift? Our professor compared it to the big world problems, the crises and wars everywhere. What is one person going to do about it? Or even ten or hundred or thousand? Aren’t there forces in the world that we simply can not change? How can we evaluate if meditating people even make society better?

Ricard however compares this to a spiderweb, if you pull a string on one end, the whole thing is going to crush. He refers to the interdependence between everything. The interconnection between individual change and society change. I think we can all relate to a daily example: If you meet a very happy person who smiles at you, you automatically feel better and the same is true in the other direction if you encounter a grumpy, angry person, somehow we tend to absorb feelings around us. It also takes practice to shield ourselves from those outer influences, which improves with meditation.

Changing society one meditation a time

Continuing he states that people don’t think it’s necessary to meditate for several reasons, most of them prejudices and misunderstandings. So why bother meditating? He refers to an article in the Nature journal, which says that we learn more from interacting with each other and it’s simply not necessary to do something artificial like meditation. But then, a lot of things we do aren’t necessary, playing an instrument, riding a bike etc. You need to put time and effort in it. Culture itself is not nature, is not natural. We simply don’t question what we learned, what we have been told is normal and cultural. And just as you need to train your body for riding a bike or achieving athletic goals you need to train your mind to achieve peace of mind, loving kindness, resilience and emotional balance. Just as it doesn’t simply happen to be able to run a marathon or to be able to play a Chopin nocturne, peace of mind doesn’t just happen. You have to practise. Talking about the necessity of meditation: I recently read a book about Baltasar Gracián, a spanish writer, teacher and Jesuit from the 17th century. In this book it is advised to take 15 minutes a day, preferably one time at noon and then before going to bed, to think through the day and observe how you acted, where you reacted differently than you wanted etc. inspired by religious exercises of the Jesuits. This action was called something like “inner cleaning”. The author knows about the problems of our oh-so-busy-times and then he said: You know there is some cleaning you do every day and you probably don’t even think about it, you just do it because you know if you don’t you will be in great pain? Brushing your teeth. So why don’t we treat our mind and our personality the same way? Won’t we be or aren’t we in pain if we never clean our mind?

Usually negative experienced feelings like jealousy, anger, hate are human, but are they intrinsic? Are those feelings something that form us? Something that IS us? The contemplative approach to this, referring to Ricard and many other meditation schools, is to be aware of it. Also in my personal experience, this simple but huge step makes a big difference: To realise, that you actually CAN step back and WATCH these feelings is a proof that you are NOT your feelings. I think this is what Ricard wants to say with the comparison of the glass of water and the poison or medicine in it. When drinking it, it’s still water but the poison will harm us. When drinking medicine, it’s still water and the water won’t heal us, but the medicine. It’s as if we just are the backing material for whatever we feel. Cognition and consciousness just allow us to perceive these things and in meditation we can change the way we experience feelings instead of being the slave of all our thoughts.

Meditation and its challenges

So when you sit down to meditate, you start noticing how your thought rush from here to there without end. Ricard says: “[…] they become aware of the extent of the catastrophe.” I wouldn’t express it that extreme, cause i think it’s just human to have this endless thought- rollercoaster. And to somebody who has never played the piano before and then trys to play Chopin and fails, you wouldn’t say that he becomes aware of the catastrophe of his non-ability to play an instrument.  If you don’t try, you don’t know. If you don’t know, you can’t practice, right? So i think it’s good to notice our thoughts and not judge it as a catastrophe. Thinking, alright, so this is what’s going on up there all day while I’m not paying attention.

Ricard continues when you tell people it’s about controlling the mind, some react repelling to it. Saying they don’t want to control the mind, they want to be free. And then one of the biggest questions of humankind comes up: What is freedom? Is freedom to do whatever my mind wants? Is it me who wants that? Am I my mind?  Concerning the erratic and sateless nature of the mind, it really makes us slaves if we don’t control it. Control is needed sometimes in order to establish real freedom. Ricards comparison of the sailor is a lovely picture in my opinion. If you want to be “free” and just do whatever comes to your mind you just let your boat drift to wherever the wind blows. But doesn’t setting the sail and steering the boat only lead you to your goal?

The rewards of meditation

Then he talks about meditation techniques, a topic on which i want to write more at a later point. He finishes his talk with the claim, that when you have this increased confidence and less vulnerability you will be more open and fearless and this is going to lead to a state of mind like “no matter what I’m going to be fine”. This statement was heavily criticised by our professor as being very naive. He said that bad things happen and you can’t just ignore that. A statement like the one above can only be made if you have had a happy and loving childhood or if you experienced a lot of love in your life because the universe is neutral and doesn’t care if you are fine or not. The universe doesn’t conspire to make good or bad things happen, it just is. I agree with that but I think in a way this is too shortsighted. What Ricard meant, in my view, was that your perception towards bad things changes with the practice of meditation. Things happen and things don’t last. This “fine” is not some happy-hippie-fine but a calm confidence I think.

We vastly underestimate the power of transformation of our mind, he says. In my point of view this is also due to the fact that it is nothing we can see, only experience and we are living in such a visual society where we have exciting pictures and moving ads everywhere that seeing nothing outwards, doesn’t seem like an admirable goal. The paradox is that this, for our physical eyes invisible change, is the most admirable goal for the mind and therefore your personality.

What do you think about this topic? Has Ricard crossed your way before? What do you think about him?

PS: I also found this TED talk with him in which he describes the state of happiness, how to achieve it and also shows some of the scientific results from lifelong meditators.

Thank you for reading this. Comments, constructive criticism and suggestions are always welcome 🙂

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  • Reply
    27/03/2014 at 22:37

    I always love reading your blog posts! Very cool 🙂

    • Reply
      27/03/2014 at 22:54

      awww! i feel honoured to hear that from you 🙂 and btw you are my first comment <3

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