Recently I saw the Premiere of the new Showtime series, Billions, featuring two multi-dimensional characters: Chuck Rhoades, a super integritous* US attorney and Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod, a billionaire hedge fund tycoon, squaring off for combat. It’s a fun show for sure, but I’m wondering, was I the only one who noticed themboth meditating?
Rhoades, the good guy, was the first to go all zen on screen. He even had a neat little meditation phone app bring him out of it.
Then, just as I was thinking how cool that was I spotted bad boy ‘Axe’ hitting the mantras as well. His posture was lousy and he broke his meditation to answer a call, but what do you expect from an evil tycoon?
Now I know what you’re thinking. Were they really meditating, or were they just pretending? It’s hard to know with actors. After all, pretending is their job. But they do sometimes go to great lengths to look authentic. Didn’t I read that Leonardo Di Caprio ate a live bear to get in character for Revenant?** And he got an Oscar nomination for that, so now everybody’s doing it. Not eating live bears, silly. I mean they’re doing actual stuff they’re supposed to be pretending to do so that it will look like they’re actually doing it, which they actually are.
Anyway, the takeaway would seem to be, ‘gosh, the fact that both of the main characters in this big new TV show meditate in the premiere episode sure demonstrates how mainstream meditation has become.’
That is remarkable, but it is not really news if you’ve been following this trend. The more nuanced point is what struck me: ‘Bad guys meditate too!’
That’s right. You can meditate and still be evil. There are precedents. Think about all those Zen Buddhist samurai warriors meditating like crazy before charging off and slicing one another into little bits, all whilst remaining calm and poised for the cameras.
Power Tends to Corrupt
This echoes the concern voiced by a number of prominent Buddhists and yogis about the way mindfulness and meditation are being re-packaged for the corporate market. Some feel that by secularizing meditation and distilling it from its traditional spiritual and moral context we may be risking turning mere ruthless bosses into Sith Lords.
But is this a real thing? I mean, samurai slicing went out of fashion a while ago and even I understand that the Jedi world is fictional. Can meditation really be used to hone your mind into an amoral weapon?
In a way, yes. Red light-sabers may not be real, but meditation really does sharpen your mind, rendering you more focused, creative, strong willed and effective. Since meditation magnifies your mental powers you’d do well to remember that power has a bad rep. for corrupting mortals. The weapons of the 21st Century samurai may be balance sheets and board-room majorities, but if you imagine that the battles going on out there are not real, you’ve been watching too many Disney movies.
Restoring Balance to The Force
So how does this actually work? Meditation is a concentration exercise in which you focus your attention on one thing or idea, such as the breath, or a mantra, or you adopt the perspective of the witness, and simply observe your thoughts without judgement.
The main reason meditation is so popular in the corporate world is because of the brain research proving its benefits in terms of stress management and improved emotional intelligence. Neuroscience tells us that through the forging of new neural pathways, whatever you focus your attention on during meditation leaves an impression on your brain. If you keep returning to that one idea repeatedly in your daily practice, that idea gradually becomes the default and influences your future thinking. Hence the outcome of your meditation is largely determined bywhat you choose to focus on.
“As you think, so you become.” – yoga proverb
This is one of the key principles that lends meditation its power. You are re-structuring your brain, one thought at a time. Which adds huge significance to the question, ‘when you are concentrating in meditation, what exactly are you thinking about?’
Some of the most popular meditation techniques in the West have practitioners concentrate on the breathe, or on being in the present moment. This has many benefits, and leads to reduced stress and increased self awareness, and is an important element of most meditation systems.
But another key technique, sadly neglected in some meditation systems, has the practitioner focus on feelings of love and compassion. I teach a form of spiritual meditation, using a mantra to help the practitioner identify with their inner source of love. This exercise tends to develop love and compassion. Repeated practice makes this stick. Then these qualities become your default mode.
Please note: This practice will very likely interfere with your career path if you are an aspiring Sith Lord. In fact, that is the general idea.
The ancient yoga tradition of Tantra Yoga includes both of the above techniques. Training ourselves to concentrate and remain in the present brings emotional balance and mental stillness. Cultivating love and compassion develops our benevolent side, frustrating any takeover attempts by our dark side and restoring balance to the force: an ideal Jedi training regimen.
Putting the Love Back
So now you know something that many people don’t i.e. different meditation techniques have different effects. This has been noted by researchers and is consistent with traditional meditation theory. Since meditation involves concentration, and concentration on a single idea changes your brain structure, the outcome of your practice very much depends upon your choice of focus. If you concentrate on love, you become more loving. If your objective is to develop power, that desire begins to dominate your personality. That is why the wisdom traditions of yoga, Buddhism and Taoism, wherein meditation evolved, emphasize the ethical context of the practice, and warn against the dark side of the ego.
A while ago I was discussing exactly this point with a psychologist who’d been meditating daily for forty years. Looking a little rueful he summed up our conversation thus:
“Gosh. The meditation I do is kind of like your practice, only with the love taken out.”
I couldn’t have put it more clearly myself.
Meditation is not just a mental exercise that can make us better at what we do. It is intended to help us evolve into better people who choose to do better things. It is not supposed to be an amoral exercise.
Nor is life.
* No, I do not think ‘integritous’ is a real word, but I couldn’t resist. I first heard it used to introduce a smarmy direct sales super star and could barely contain myself. So cringeworthy I want to eat it!
** OK, Leonardo Di Caprio didn’t really eat a live bear. I’m sure he would never do that. But I heard he bit into a chunk of raw meat to get into the mood for the part, so what I said is only mostly a lie.