Historically, meditation was not meant to improve our health, relax us, or enhance work success. Although these are the kinds of appeal that has made meditation ubiquitous today, over the centuries such benefits were incidental, unnoted side effects. The true contemplative goal has always been altered traits, the beneficial changes in qualities of being during daily life that result from sustained practice.

The strongest signs of these qualities were found in a group of yogis who were studied at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This raises a crucial question in understanding how contemplative practice works: those yogis all practice within a spiritual tradition, in the “deep” mode of full-time practice exemplified by monks, nuns, and yogis in Asian cultures. Yet most of us in today’s world prefer our practice easy (and brief)—a pragmatic approach that tends to borrow what works in the short-term for immediate benefits, such as stress relief, and leave behind the rest, such as the de-emphasis of the self.

And quite a lot has been left behind as the world’s rich contemplative traditions morphed into user-friendly forms.

Some important components of contemplative practice are not meditation per se. Meditation represents just one part of a range of means—for instance, following a strict code of self-discipline—that helps increase self-awareness, gain insights into the subtleties of consciousness, and, ultimately, achieve a lasting transformation of being. These daunting goals require lifelong dedication.

The yogis all practiced in a Tibetan tradition that holds the ideal that eventually people everywhere can be freed from suffering of all sorts—and that the meditator sets out toward this enormous task through mind training. Part of this yogic mindset involves developing more equanimity toward our own emotional world, as well as the conviction that meditation and related practices can produce lasting transformation: altered traits.

While some of those who follow the “deep” path in the West may themselves hold such convictions, others who train in those same methods do so on a path to renewal—a kind of inner vacation—rather than to follow for a lifelong calling. (Motivations can, however, change with progress, so what brought someone to meditation may not be the same goal that keeps them going.)

The sense of a life mission centered on practice numbers among those elements so often left behind in Asia, but that may matter greatly. Among others that might, in fact, be crucial for cultivating altered traits:

  • An ethical stance, a set of moral guidelines that facilitate the inner changes on the path. Many traditions urge such an inner compass, lest any abilities developed be used for personal gain.

  • Altruistic intention, where the practitioner invokes the strong motivation to practice for the benefit all others, not just oneself.

  • Grounded faith, the mindset that a particular path has value and will lead you to the transformation you seek. Some texts warn against blind faith and urge students to do what we call today “due diligence” in finding a teacher.

  • Personalized guidance, a knowledgeable teacher who coaches you on the path, giving you the advice you need to go the next step.

  • Devotion, a deep appreciation for all the people, principles, and such that make practice possible. Devotion can also be to the qualities of a divine figure, a teacher, or the teacher’s altered traits or quality of mind.

  • Community, a supportive circle of friends on the path who are themselves dedicated to practice.

  • A supportive culture, traditional Asian cultures have long recognized the value of people who devote their life to transforming themselves to embody virtues of attention, patience, compassion, and so on. Those who work and have families willingly support those who dedicate themselves to deep practice by giving the money, feeding them, and otherwise making life easier. This is often not the case in modern societies.

  • Potential for altered traits, the very idea that these practices can lead to a liberation from our ordinary mind states—not self-improvement—has always framed these practices, fostering respect or reverence for the path and those on it.

From Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson © 2017. Printed with permission of Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

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