Not every Batman writer seems to know the specifics of meditation – there’s a lot of hand-waving about ‘mastering the body and mind’ in the early issues – but more than one comic has Batman sitting cross-legged or thinking back to the mental training he’s undergone with mysterious monks of…wherever.
References? Okay: in Batman RIP, it’s mentioned that Batman has mastered thogal (sometimes written tögal) meditation, a Tibetan practice which he uses to experience death, spending 49 days shut in a Nepali cave to overcome his last vestiges of fear. In a flashback sequence during Court Of Owls, he masters Tummo meditation during a nine-month sojourn to the Himalayas, actually managing to melt the ice he’s full-lotusing on while he sits near-naked in sub-zero temperatures.
In Venom he manages to put his brain in the ‘theta’ state, enabling him to stay perfectly relaxed (and rested) while staying alert, and in a muuuch earlier comic, the Yakuza’s most deadly assassin teaches him to unify his mind and body to heal himself. Yes, really.
Spoiler alert: some of this stuff isn’t real. But what is, and how much of it actually works?
Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that a huge amount of successful athletes and thought leaders meditate. Arnold Schwarzenegger does it, alongside Rickson Gracie, Arianna Huffington, Russell Simmons and LeBron James and about six hundred others that I’m not going to waste your time by listing.
Meditation, notes 4-Hour Body author Tim Ferriss, ‘is a ‘meta-skill’ that improves everything else. You’re starting your day by practicing focus when it doesn’t matter, so that you can focus better later when it does matter (negotiation, max deadlift attempt, conversation with a loved one).’
It’s also, according to practitioners, a way to de-stress, and also to calmly observe your thoughts (and thought patterns) without getting overwhelmed by them. There’s some evidence that it can modulate pain, improve cognitive function, and – yes – actually produce changes in grey matter density in areas of the brain related to learning, memory and emotional regulation. According to research conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Zen meditators were able to weaken the mental processes that produce pain by altering the connectivity of the two brain regions associated with it. Even if that was all it did (no self-healing bullet-wounds or fearlessness required) it would still be worth doing. So, how does it work?
Basics first. In real life, most forms of meditation can be roughly broken down into what Buddhists call Vipassana and Samatha. Vipassana (rough translation: ‘insight’) is the one that has more similarities to what Batman seems to do, since it focuses on maintaining a clear awareness of exactly what’s happening as it happens. Samatha (‘concentration’ or ‘tranquility’, depending on who you listen to) is about focusing on one item – a prayer, a candle flame, a religious image, a Bat-symbol or whatever. Vipassana is the older of the practices, and more all-encompassing – the general idea is to begin with paying full attention to everything in your surroundings, and eventually graduate to seeing the truth of impermanence and selflessness. Modern ‘mindfulness’, with its focus on being fully engaged with the present moment, has its roots in Vipassana, and Transcendental Meditation, which is mantra-based, has similarities with Samatha. Which would Batman do? Well, there’s actually some overlap between both: Samatha can be done first, for instance, to calm the mind and strengthen concentration in order to prepare for Vipassana. The former is more calming, the thinking goes, but the latter is about developing clear insights. Batman would probably do both.
What about the more esoteric stuff? Well, to start with the thogal meditation: it’s not really supposed to be about tasting death. Traditionally, it’s a Dzokchen practice where the practitioner allows their pure nature to shine forth in the form of luminous Buddha images. ‘Rather than being intentionally visualized,’ notes author Geoffrey Barstow. ‘These forms appear spontaneously to a practitioner’s visual consciousness…it is a practice for revealing the pure, radiant nature of everything someone experiences, with death being just one experience among many.’ Tögal, explains Barstow, is a practice concerned with experiencing primordial purity in the present moment, not brooding about your death. Pretty cool, but maybe not Batman’s jam.
Then there’s Tummo, or ‘inner fire.’ This one’s Tibetan again, and, yes, there’s some evidence that you can use it to make fairly-dramatic changes to your body temperature – though that isn’t its main purpose. Wim ‘The Iceman’ Hof uses a variation of Tummo – including frequent exposure, meditation and breathing techniques designed to oxygenate his cells – to withstand extreme cold, and some tests have seen experts use it to heat wet sheets thrown over their shoulders. Could you use it to melt ice in the nude, or (say) survive being abandoned in any icy cave? Current research is inconclusive, but Batman might learn it just to be on the safe side.
So how would Batman meditate? Probably every day. Even in a packed schedule, he has plenty of time for the 5-10 minutes most practitioners agree is the minimum for getting results, and he’d probably get it back in improved focus and clarity elsewhere. He’d probably use a combination of Vipassana and Samatha, concentration and mindfulness, possibly tackling both in one day via breathing or a mantra followed by awareness exercises. He might also use technology to enhance his experience, engaging in neurofeedback to regulate his brain waves – but that’s a subject for another post. Could he heal himself, melt ice, or lose his fear of death? Maybe not, but he’s pretty good at that stuff anyway.
What next? The basic version of Vipassana is simple enough: sit comfortably with your spine erect, either in chair or cross-legged on a cushion, and take a few deep breaths, gradually becoming aware of the sensation of breathing and bringing your mind back to it every time it wanders.
Of course, as author Sam Harris notes, that’s a bit like saying that walking a tightrope is as simple as putting one foot in front of the other – it’s a bit more complicated than that, and it takes loads of practice. To help, Harris has recorded his own guided mindfulness meditation – or, alternatively, you could try out apps like HeadSpace or Calm, which have a variety of both styles. If you want to try mantra-based meditation without spending money on a TM course, you can sit silently and repeat a two syllable word – no, not ‘Bat-man’ – for 10-20 minutes first thing in the morning. According to Ferriss and others, seven days is probably the minimum investment to see results. It’s not long…to become a bit more like Batman.