Nutritional Versus Medicinal Meditations

I find it useful to make a distinction between “nutritional” meditations, analogous to good food, and “medicinal” meditations, that are like drugs, designed to kill something.

In general, all the ancient and classic meditation techniques are very well designed. They are extremely skillful. What has been lost, apparently, is the knowledge of which technique goes for which kind of person.

What is a medicine?

In general, a medication is a toxic substance that taken in the appropriate dosage, when absolutely needed, does more good than harm. Weighing the harm versus benefic ratio is the job of a doctor. In the monastic traditions, a great deal of emphasis has been given to killing passion and also killing the desire to live. This is appropriate medicine for a monk, and they meditate in that spirit. Their meditations are toxic, but it is appropriate medicine if you think that life itself is a disease, and that the will to live is also a disease, and desires – because they mean that you want to live – are manifestations of the basic disease.

Buddha's 84,000 Techniques

Buddha was a meditation genius, just inventing one technique after the other. He said that he gave 84,000 different techniques for the different kinds of people. (also, take a look at this report, The One Gate to 84,000 Dharmas, from a Buddhist convention). An example of a "nutritional" meditation Buddha gave can be found in the Anapanasati Sutta,

"He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to rapture, and to breathe out sensitive to rapture.
He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to pleasure, and to breathe out sensitive to pleasure.
He trains himself to breathe in sensitive to mental processes, and to breathe out sensitive to mental processes."

Here the tone of attention is nutritious, nurturing. These teachings direct attention to be sensitive to rapture and pleasure. You are taking delight in simply existing. Your body, nervous system, and your senses can set their own parameters.

A few paragraphs later, the meditation takes a medicinal turn –

"He trains himself to breathe in focusing on dispassion [literally, fading],
and to breathe out focusing on dispassion.
He trains himself to breathe in focusing on cessation, and to breathe out focusing on cessation.
He trains himself to breathe in focusing on relinquishment, and to breathe out focusing on relinquishment."

Notice: fading, dispassion, cessation, relinquishment. These beautiful-sounding words are all about giving up and dying. The focus here is on turning down the dial on passion, and encouraging the dissolving, fading, flatness. It is suggested that you encourage fading away, dissolving, giving up.

If that was a drug, what would it be?
This meditation is more like anesthesiology – designed to suppress life, break the connection, break the will to live.

Besides an anasthetic, it might function as a tranquilizer, or a mild psychiatric drug which flattens affect so that the person feels no passion and thus no disturbance.

“Monks, any desire-passion with regard to the eye is a defilement of the mind. Any desire-passion with regard to the ear... the nose... the tongue... the body... the intellect is a defilement of the mind. When, with regard to these six bases, the defilements of awareness are abandoned, then the mind is inclined to renunciation. The mind fostered by renunciation feels malleable for the direct knowing of those qualities worth realizing." - Buddha

Meditation is gentle, and the fading, cessation effects will occur gradually, as if you were putting a small amount of a medication in your drinking water each day.

Obviously, killing passion is appropriate for monks. But it is a bit surprising, given how insightful Buddhism often is, that they do not make the distinction of which medicine or toxin goes for which type of person.

Meditation is not just thinking – you are changing your body chemistry in powerful ways. When you meditate, the body spontaneously goes into a state of rest deeper than deep sleep. In five minutes, your oxygen consumption drops 12 to 18%, according to 35 years of research at Harvard Medical School. If you meditate every day for several years with an attitude that leans toward flattening passion, it will happen.

If you work for a living, this might be problematic because it will undermine your motivation and energy. After meditating, you might feel tranquil and have no desire at all to do anything.

In the Kayagata Sati Sutta, Buddha suggests:
"Furthermore, quite withdrawn from sensual pleasures . . .
And furthermore, with the stilling of directed thought and evaluation . . .

These are medicinal attitudes. If you hold them for only a few minutes a day, the effect will probably be minimal. But if you let them carry over into your waking state, over time the effect could be profound.

Examples of this are meditations that are designed to weaken the connection between desire and action, perception and emotion, and create detachment. The word, "detachment" has been repeated so many times that it has come to have the sound of something good and useful. But being "quite withdrawn from sensual pleasures" is only useful as part of your overall balance in life. For most householders, detachment is simply a mild death, a devitalization and a lack of passion and enthusiasm.

Examples of life-hating, toxic and medicinal meditations are those in which you attempt to:

- make your mind blank
- slow down your thoughts
- calm down
- decrease or kill your desires and passion
- block emotions
- create devotion and subservience
- reduce your ego

Many meditations have medicinal qualities, because they were designed for people living in religious communities, who have taken vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. So they use meditation as a way to kill off, reduce, blot out, or control some aspect of your life energies. If you think about what a monk needs, you realize, of course, he needs to kill out his desires, destroy his ego, become submissive to his superiors, and create an aloof, cold, distant relationship with the outer world. Ask yourself, "Who was Buddha speaking to?" Usually he was speaking to a group of monks, shaping teachings to suit their needs.