My first serious exposure to meditation came when I went to Tom Brown Jr’s Tracker School’s Philosophy 1 course in New Jersey. It was an introduction to Shamanic meditation as practiced by the Apache Indians. The course was in the middle of the school year, so it was necessary for me to apply for a leave of absence in order to attend. To my surprise, not only did I get the leave of absence, but got it with pay and with an offer for the Board to subsidize my expenses. The Superintendant of school at the time was a rather enlightened individual who had spent a few years in a Zen school in Japan and there therefore had a very positive attitude towards meditation. He hoped that I would be able to apply what I learned in the classroom, -a hope that contrasted sharply with that prevalent just a few years later when a few parents who felt that any sort of meditation was anti-Christian tried to block my use of it in the classroom. Along with his approval he sent to me copies of several studies which originated from O.I.S.I.E. citing the importance of meditation and the development of an inner life in mental health and the development of self esteem. The studies also examined the absence of suicidal thoughts and tendencies in adolescents who had that inner sense developed through meditation. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to locate references to these studies or I would include them here, but I definitely received and read them many years ago.
I have always thought that there are people who have a sense of introspection and others who have a blind spot when it comes to examining inwards. Some people go through their lives without any sense of self examination or desire for self improvement. Others understand introspection and strive for personal improvement. This is particularly evident as a distinction in adolescents and teens. It is often, but not always, associated with the jump from the pre-rational to the rational state. I remember very clearly going through a “waking up” process at about age 15 which led to a long period of self discovery. It eventually led to my passion for reading books about psychology. Many of my friends at the time also made this leap to rationality, and it was usually accompanied by a sense of introspection.
On occasion, rationality and introspection do not go hand in hand. In those cases you usually find one of two things. Either the rationality devoid of introspection is a very cold form of rationality, calculating and non-empathic, often spilling over to rationalization, or you get the Peter Pan syndrome, where the rationality is trying to break through but is being denied and repressed.
Those adolescents suffering from Peter Pan syndrome, where rationality is attempting to emerge but is meeting resistance from an individual who does not want to face the consequences of maturity, can’t afford too much introspection. As one boy tweeted recently, “Thinking ruins everything.” Introspection becomes uncomfortable because it triggers emerging rationality, which is exactly what a person in this situation doesn’t want. Or it triggers those feedback loops of rationalization which are really just emotional.
Meditation, on the other hand, is perhaps the best way to encourage introspection. It involves exclusive direction of attention inwards, not particularly in a rational manner. As a result it can create a measure of introspection and a development of inward awareness without necessarily triggering rational thought. It can be used by pre-rational individuals, whether they be children, teens or even adults, to create an inner world and attention that later can be more comfortable co-inhabited by rationality. Or it can be a way for those in the Peter Pan situation to face introspection without the threat of rationality. It should be noted, however, that the Peter Pan individuals will still be resistant to meditation if starting it at this juncture of their lives because they “just won’t see the point”. It will be lumped in with the other forms of anti-rational rebellion that often includes education, reading and a common sense attitude to things like drugs and alcohol. It is, however, worth a try, especially if it can be engaged before this rebellious nature gets a strong foothold.
In general, when successfully engaged, meditation is the perfect vehicle for encouraging the development of an inward attention and sense of introspection. These qualities have been shown to be a positive influence in developing self esteem and rational thought most of the time. On the occasions where this introspection is coupled with depression and self consciousness it is often because the other balancing and grounding elements of meditation have not been activated by meditation. These are the non-rational components and benefits of meditation that have to do with harmony and internal stability. Meditation makes room for rational introspection, but that’s not what it’s about. In fact it can do a lot to prevent over-rationalization. It is as much about the clutter that it subtracts from the mind as it is about the room it makes for rational, conscious thought.