Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh defines meditation as “stopping, calming, and looking deeply.” Spiritual traditions the world over offer us a variety of methods for doing exactly that.

Thich Nhat Hanh in Paris, October 22, 2006. Photo by bodhi47 on Flickr.

I find it useful to use scientific language when talking about meditation today.  I like to remind people that we all have three brains—our reptilian brain which is about 440 million years old; our mammalian brain which is about 220 million years old; and our neo-cortex or intellectual/creative brain which is very new and around 250,000 years old.  I see meditation as primarily a way to calm the reptilian brain, that oldest of our brains. 

Now the reptilian brain is not a bad thing—we need it to survive, it supports our action and reaction, breathing and sexuality and much more.  But being so old, it can also want to dominate; so it needs taming.

I also think there is some connection between the reptilian brain and testosterone because so many men, indeed patriarchy itself, seem overly committed to the reptilian brain which is essentially, “I win, you lose.”  When you wrestle with a crocodile usually only one of you wins.

Why do I believe meditation tames the reptilian brain? Because reptiles are not real good at bonding, but they are very good at solitude–they love to lie in the sun alone.  That makes them monks! (The word ‘monk’ comes from monos or being alone or in solitude.)  So to meditate is to pet the crocodile inside you and say, ‘nice crocodile, nice crocodile, calm down.  Be still.’

When the reptilian brain is calmed, the mammalian brain—which is our capacity for compassion (the word for compassion in both Hebrew and Arabic comes from the word for womb)—has space to breathe and assert itself.  Compassion is in short supply because our reptilian brains are overly active.  Power-over games, building empires, extracting from the earth without giving back are reptilian brain excesses.

This short four minute video describes the process of practicing mindfulness, and the chain of events that happens in our brain as we practice. Video by Juliet Adams.

Our creative and intellectual brains have to decouple some from our reptilian brains and recouple more with our compassionate brains.  Then we—and our species—will be better citizens to each other and ourselves on this planet.

Meditation and contemplation assist us in this de-coupling and re-coupling.

Emptying or kenosis is part of meditation which is a deep letting go. Humans can let go of an infinite amount of things–we are capable of vast emptying.  We can empty the mind of bad memories and anxious thoughts and even thoughts altogether.  Contemplative practices assist in such efforts to empty. 

A moving meditation in the Japanese Kyūdō tradition of Zen archery by Sensei Suzuki. From Hanoi Kyodo: “Archery in a way that emphasizes mental beauty, must be conducted with all sincerity and courtesy so that through a shot, you will show the heart and beauty of harmony.”

Sufi poet Hafiz writes about how warriors (as opposed to mere soldiers) tame the beasts in their past so that the night’s hoofs can no longer break the jeweled vision in the heart [and] open every closet in the future and evict all the mind’s ghosts who have the bad habit of barfing everywhere. 

To live in the now, one must at times let the past and future go.


Adapted from Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths, pp.189, 416.

Banner Image: Sunset contemplation. Photo by Dingzeyu Li on Unsplash

Look at your three brains; be grateful for each; ask how they can all serve the Earth and the communities we live in more fully.  And joyfully.   And cooperatively.

One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths

Matthew Fox calls on all the world traditions for their wisdom and their inspiration in a work that is far more than a list of theological position papers but a new way to pray—to meditate in a global spiritual context on the wisdom all our traditions share. Fox chooses 18 themes that are foundational to any spirituality and demonstrates how all the world spiritual traditions offer wisdom about each.“Reading One River, Many Wells is like entering the rich silence of a masterfully directed retreat. As you read this text, you reflect, you pray, you embrace Divinity. Truly no words can fully express my respect and awe for this magnificent contribution to contemporary spirituality.” –Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit

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1 thought on “Contemplation and Meditation, continued”

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    This is a wonderful way of describing meditation. “Thank God for Evolution” by Michael Dowd goes into the different parts of the brain in detail.

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