As a kid, I had a hard time learning to ride a bike. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t make it work. Eventually, after I had become resigned to never getting the knack, a neighbor named Elsa pressed me to try one more time. After watching me try, she said “I know what’s wrong.” and removed the training wheels from the bike. “Now try”, she said. Skeptical but willing, I climbed onto the bike and rode — up the block, down the block, no problem. We both hooted with delight as I took a victory lap. All along, the training wheels had been the obstacle. Thinking that the wheels were supposed to function like a tricycle, I had tried to keep at least one wheel on the ground at all times, which obviously prevented me from ever finding my balance. The training tool had fundamentally distorted my understanding of what I was supposed to be learning.
I worry that the same thing will happen when people try to learn meditation using neuroscience-based tools — biofeedback devices, brainwave training tools, and especially pharmaceuticals. In the case of bicycles and training wheels, I was the anomaly; most kids don’t encounter the confusion that I had. By contrast, with meditation I think theres a much higher risk of misunderstanding. First of all, the basic science of neruophysiology & meditation remains alarmingly incomplete and fraught with serious confusion, meaning that any of these tools that crop up are building on fuzzy science. Second, mind-training skills are more complicated to acquire than riding a bike, meaning that oversimplification of the learning process is a serious risk. Third, as a culture, we are much more adept at understanding & manipulating external, physical things like bicycles than we are at understanding or even scrutinizing our own minds.
Next time you see me shrug my shoulders at the topic of these new neuroscience-based meditation “tools”, think of a little freckled redheaded kid frustratedly trying and failing to ride a bike with one training wheel firmly planted on the ground.
Meditation isn’t just a skill that you can acquire and keep in your pocket, nor is it a state that you can cook up and then repeatedly return to. Meditation is an ongoing process or a way of relating with your mind, and all of the value of meditation comes from repeatedly working with your own mind through sustained effort & observation. This doesn’t mean that we will be unable to use neuroscience to craft tools that do truly help people to learn meditation, but it does mean that we should be very skeptical of each attempt and patient along the way.