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.