Meditation – The Single Most Important Skill Needed Today: Dr. Shyam Bhat (Transcript)

Dr Shyam Bhat at TEDxLavelleRoad

Full text of meditation expert Dr. Shyam Bhat’s talk: Meditation – The Single Most Important Skill Needed Today at TEDxLavelleRoad conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Meditation – The Single Most Important Skill Needed Today by Dr. Shyam Bhat


Dr. Shyam Bhat- Psychiatrist, Integrative Medicine specialist, and writer

Over the last 15 years as a psychiatrist, I’ve used meditation in my practice to treat depression, anxiety, stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, and also medical conditions like hypertension, migraines, eczema, asthma, and a lot more.

And over the next 14 minutes or so, I’d like to share my thoughts about meditation, about why meditation is probably the single most important skill we can learn in today’s world. About how it helps our brain and also a brief demonstration of the practice.

So we’ve talked a lot about technology and there’s absolutely no doubt that we have done amazing things because as human beings, we have the most highly developed brain on this planet.

The crown jewel of evolution is our brain. And because of that we can create things, we can create technology, we have shaped and reshaped this planet. We can examine the smallest atom and sort of contemplate and actually go into space and everything in between.

But look at the statistics and you’ll realize that despite all these advances; despite all the technological and scientific advances, we have never been more miserable as a species.

A recent survey came out in America and it said that 13% of Americans take antidepressants. And this was before the Trump election, OK.

But India has no better, guys. Look at the statistics in our country now. We have at least 150,000 – 180,000 people who unfortunately kill themselves every year because of suicide in this country. And many of them ages between 15 and 29.

In the recent survey, they found that at least 40% of people living in corporate India; who work in corporate India have stress, anxiety, and depression.

You just have to examine our society- road rage, homicide, violent crime, divorce, isolation, loneliness, it’s all happening in this country.

Why is that? Why is it that we are able to advance so much, do so much with this brain and yet we suffer so badly?

Could the reason be that the source of our development and our progress is also the source of our pain and our suffering? 

Because if you examine our brain, that’s unique. We have a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is more advanced, more developed than any other species. And it is that part of the brain that allows me to communicate with you, to produce an idea in the brain that becomes then basically vibrations that travel in the air and then interpret it as sound by your brain.

And then you hear the idea and then you of course you interpret the idea. It’s pretty remarkable what this brain is capable of.

It’s because of this brain that we are not subject to the whims and fancies of the natural environment that we can pause, we can think, we can contemplate the future. This brain is a virtual reality machine. You can actually contemplate multiple realities and decide what you want to do in your life and that’s how as a species we’ve been able to do so much better than any other species.

We are on top of the food chain, not because we are the strongest, we’re the fastest, but because of this unbelievable brain.

And yet it’s because of this brain that right now, even though you are here, your minds may be elsewhere. Some of you are listening, but many of you are thinking, I could watch a better show on YouTube.

It’s endless, this comparison… the brain is always saying: What’s happening here? What could it be like? This brain is saying, who am I? What is my story and what is happening to me now? Does it fit in with my story or do I want something different to happen?

It is this part of the brain that compares your life and causes your dissatisfaction. You get a great job, for a while it’s nice and then not so good. You want something more. You want a promotion, you get married and well, you know how it happens.

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So very, very difficult brain, ladies and gentlemen.

And the funny thing about this brain is that it’s not interested in your happiness. It’s not interested in your fulfillment. It’s only interested in your survival and you feeling significant.

This part of the brain gives you awareness and it makes us know that we are born and we are here for a limited time and that we are going to die. It’s such a remarkable, almost terrible predicament for us as human beings, isn’t it?

Because no other animal species is subject to that kind of awareness. Every other animal is in the present moment. If there was a dog here right now, it’d either be listening to me or it would leave. There’s no, it wouldn’t pretend to listen. That’s something, only you are capable of.

But it gets worse. Deep down in your brain there is a part of the brain called the amygdala. And this has been evolved over millions of years and we share this with all mammals. It’s what keeps us alive.

In fact, there are conditions, diseases where the amygdala, which is deep within your brain, there are diseases where that part of the brain gets atrophied. It dies out. And when the amygdala goes away, there’s absolutely no fear.

And would it be nice to have no fear, absolutely no fear? Not really, terrible situation. A lady who had this disease, she would just walk out in the middle of the night in the most terrible neighborhood. A person held her up once at gunpoint and she just looked at him. She knew she was supposed to be scared but she could feel no fear at all. I think the robber got scared just looking at this lady.

So fear is important. It keeps us alive. It lets us know when we are under threat and when we must protect ourselves.

Now if an animal is threatened, what do they do? They either fight or they run away, but the animal will only respond to threat to its physical self. If you threaten an animal it means you’re threatening its physical self.

But this same part of the brain in human beings has taken on a whole different form. Because now it’s not your physical self alone that you are trying to guard because fortunately most of us are safe, physically.

What the amygdala is doing for all of us now, it is protecting our identity, our emotional self. So if your boss looks at you funny, the amygdala sparks off. You feel threat, you feel fear, you feel upset.

If your girlfriend doesn’t return your call, you look happy. I don’t know why, but maybe not a threat for you, totally.

Ladies and gentlemen, we live in the world of beliefs, not in reality. For right now, you are not just hearing these words. You’re not just seeing me, you’re not just here, but you’re also in the world, in your head. And that world in your head is what you’re trying to preserve more than as much as your physical self.

We are the only species that will kill for our beliefs and die for our beliefs. Just a thought, just in our mind and yet we will die. We will kill for that belief because this is what is important to us. This is what we are striving for.

Whatever I want, I have conjured up an image in my mind and when life doesn’t go according to plan, it changes what’s happening here. I get upset because I want to hold onto that.

Somebody talked about; Vasu Dixit talked about the river. And indeed life is a basically like a river. Moments are going by, it’s just flowing all the time. And life is going by, it doesn’t really care about your story or my story or your story, it’s just happening.

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But what do we do?

Because we have a narrative, we take this river and we try to block it. We try to compartmentalize it. It’s like taking the river and saying, no, I don’t want this river to flow at all. I want it to stop for me. I want this to happen the way I want it to.

And so when a good thing happens, we are happy and, but we want to cling on to that good thing. We’re scared of losing it. And when a bad thing happens, we want to run away from it. And so we are never here in this moment experiencing life as it is.

What we’re experiencing is our wishes, our dreams, our hopes, our fears. We are always going to the past, to the future, defending our beliefs. It’s an insane way to live and it’s the way we’re all living. And this world, the world that has been created by this very brain only makes the situation worse.

You look at social media for instance, it has… it makes us believe that the external is more important than the internal. It makes us believe that how you look, how much you have, what you look like is more important than how you really feel.

There are many instances on Facebook actually of people who are smiling, who look happy, who look amazingly, ecstatic even. And a few days later they kill themselves.

And sometimes people are not even aware of how they feel because they are so invested in the external.

If I ask you right now, ‘how are you’, what would you say?

You’d say, ‘fine’. You would answer that immediately. We do that all the time. It’s the most profound question that we ask each other every day: ‘How are you?’

But you don’t really want to hear your friend’s answer, right, and your friend doesn’t want to hear your real answer. And in fact, chances are that you really haven’t had the time to really take a moment and really feel what you’re feeling internally.

And so what is meditation?                      

Meditation is a way of gaining control over this unbelievably complex brain. And nobody taught us this in school. In school, all they did was fed us information into this brain. They gave us information that we stuffed into this brain, but at no point did they tell us how to use this brain.

It would be like getting an amazingly sharp instrument, one that can cut and dissect and actually does, that’s what the mind does, and we do not know how to use it. In fact, we don’t even know that it’s an instrument that should be under control.

Imagine if I had a knife and I didn’t know it was under my control. Every now and then it would stab me. It would hurt me and I would think, Oh my God, life is really, really painful. Unaware that it is my own mind that is inflicting pain on me.

And so meditation means to understand that this mind, this sharp, this amazing instrument should be under my control because if I don’t learn to use the mind, the mind will use me. 

And so ladies and gentlemen, meditation is absolutely the right way to take control of your brain and there’s plenty of evidence that it does just that. It balances the prefrontal cortex, reduces the activity of the amygdala, and balances the left and the right hemisphere.

It improves the immune system. There are plenty of studies examining that. It decreases blood pressure. There are even studies that say that it decreases the expression of genes that are turned on in cancer. So this potentially could even decrease the risk of cancer.

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And above all, meditation gives you insight about yourself, about who you really are, what you really desire, and how you can manage these desires, so that you don’t live a life of constant stress. It allows you to use your brain to plan and think about past and future when you have to, but gives you the power to pause, to notice what is happening, to find that stillness.

And when you find and connect with that stillness, then you can carry that wherever you go, like the eye of a storm, like the center of a cyclone.

Now, there are many, many techniques of meditation and I have about three minutes to demonstrate a technique, so I’m going to do that.

We are going to witness the breath in this technique. Because breathing is the only function, the only bodily function that is both under your conscious as well as unconscious control.

So the same part of the brain that manages your blood pressure, your heart rate, your digestive system, also manages your breathing, which is why you don’t have to fortunately… we don’t have to think about our breathing.

But you will notice that the breath is linked to your emotion, right? When you’re stressed, your breath gets a little tight. When you’re relaxed, your breath is nice and easy. When you’re angry, it’s sharp and shallow.

So your breath is connected to the unconscious part of the brain, the part of the brain that is determining your sense of mood, your sense of self, your emotions.

Now breathing gives us the opportunity to connect with that unconscious part of the brain. So in this practice, as we witness the breath, you’re going to be using your conscious brain to watch and witness your breath. Which means you’re using your conscious brain to witness the workings of your unconscious mind. Isn’t that incredible? I think it is.

And let’s try it out. So I invite you to take a deep breath, breathe in through your nose and breathe out through your month.

Go ahead and make a sighing sound as you breathe out. Loud enough that the person next to you can hear that.

Now just allow your breathing to return to its natural rhythms. It’s breathing through your nose again.

Gently close your eyes. And bring your attention to all the sounds around you.

Now there are so many sounds, and it’s interesting because there is the sound and then there is the interpretation of the sound.

What do you want to do is let go of the interpretation of the sound and really pay attention to the sound itself, to the tonality, the texture of the sound

So even my voice now you can almost ignore the meanings of the words and just notice the tonality of the sound. As if you have no idea what these words mean or what any of these sounds mean.

Now turn your attention to your breath. And just notice and observe how your body’s moving with each breath. You don’t try to breathe. Don’t initiate the breath. Don’t hold onto your breath.

Just notice as your body breathes in, your abdomen goes upwards and outwards. And as your body breathes out, your abdomen falls, relaxes. Just rest your mind on that movement of the abdomen. Experience those sensations, that’s it.

And bring your attention back to all the sounds around you, and slowly and gently open your eyes.

I hope you are feeling more relaxed. Please make this a part of your life. That way you can master your mind, master your brain, and live a life of happiness and peace.

Thank you.


Resources for Further Reading:

How Meditation Changed My Life: Mamata Venkat (Full Transcript)

Light Watkins: Debunking the 5 Most Common Meditation Myths (Transcript)

Meditation: Change Your Mind, Change Your Life by Bodhin Kjolhede (Transcript)

How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains by Sara Lazar (Transcript)


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