Buddhism shows that meditation helps people live happier lives.
Most serious meditators don’t feel an urgent need for scientific validation of their practices – the benefits they experience are their own justification. But for casual meditators and scientific skeptics of religion, a clear explanation of the evolutionary reasons our brains might benefit from meditation could inspire a more serious engagement with the practice.
Humans are anxious and prone to overestimate the pleasure we’ll get from things like sex and food and status. We’re also given to petty tribalism and over-hasty judgments of others, and we chronically exaggerate our own importance and efficacy. As long as we remain locked in the delusions that natural selection engineered, suffering will define the human experience. We will continue to chase fleeting pleasures that leave us unsatisfied.
Intensive meditation reports more meaningful transformations, from less anger to less pain.
Some of the most striking evidence of meditation is an experience with an acutely painful toothache. Normally drinking a glass of water caused extreme pain in the tooth. After meditating for half an hour, this person took an enormous sip of water and instead of pain, there was only a throbbing sensation that was not unpleasant.
While there is plenty of debate on the effectiveness of meditation, there are good philosophical reasons to believe that some of these perceived changes in the brain actually correspond with meditation.
But the question of meditation making one a better persona has not been answered. Just because we’ve achieved some degree of tranquility through meditation or otherwise, does not mean we live better lives.
Would it be impossible to mindfully enjoy pornography and violent video games? What about a life spent in the mindful pursuit of wealth and status? What are the ethics of retreating to a state of unruffled tranquility as the public sphere implodes and the environment is ravaged?
That meditation is a useful and powerful technique for alleviating human suffering is clear. But to what ultimate end is it such an effective means? Seekers after truth will need to keep searching.