In mindfulness, or shamatha, meditation, we are trying to achieve a mind that is stable and calm. What we begin to discover is that this calmness or harmony is a natural aspect of the mind. Through mindfulness practice we are just developing and strengthening it, and eventually we are able to remain peacefully in our mind without struggling. Our mind naturally feels content.
An important point is that when we are in a mindful state, there is still intelligence. It’s not as if we blank out. Sometimes people think that a person who is in deep meditation doesn’t know what’s going on—that it’s like being asleep. In fact, there are meditative states where you deny sense perceptions their function, but this is not the accomplishment of shamatha practice.
Well, it’s not quite a dragon that we’re concerned with – more like a lizard. Our evolutionary ancestor has left us an unwelcome gift. As the neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson has explained, our minds are “like Velcro for negative experiences and like Teflon for positive ones.” The most primitive areas of the brain – structures that pre-date later mammals and primates – are concerned above all else with matters of survival and the perception of threats. Any bad experience must be remembered to ensure that there is no repeat; in other words, once bitten, twice shy. The amygdala and hippocampus are primed to assign negative emotions to perceived threats and retain them, so that any future experience resembling them will be labeled the same way and evoke a similar response. And unfortunately, that primitive alarm system is still sounding off in us millions of years after it evolved.
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