Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

How a Consistent and Stable Meditation Practice Leads to Altered Traits

Photo by Mitchell Joyce |

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:

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.