Once I asked a friend what meditation was. He said, “I can't tell you I have to show you” and offered to teach me. Afraid I told him, “No I just want to know what it is.”
He said, “It's easy just close your eyes and watch your breath.” I followed his instructions and to my surprise I immediately relaxed and felt a sense of timelessness. To my dismay I realized I'd felt this peace before while watching the ocean, sitting next to a creek or walking in the woods. I'd meditated without realizing it.
To learn more about meditation and yoga I visited a Yoga Retreat on Paradise Island in the Bahamas in the early 80s. After a couple of days I'd had enough and went to Nassau to book a ferry to another island. It was then I noticed a change in myself. For the first time, I didn't feel uptight in a city. Before, the traffic, noise and crowds would make me tense. I knew the peace I felt was a carry-over of the yoga and meditation. I couldn't wait to get back to the retreat. I ended up staying eight days. The experience made me see and feel everything more deeply. The trees seemed greener and the sky bluer.
Theres a lot of research and information on meditation and mindfulness out now. Andy Puddicombe said in “Get Some Headspace: How Mindfulness Can Change Your Life in Ten Minutes a Day” meditation isn't about becoming a different person. It's about training in awareness, and understanding how and why we think and feel the way we do.
He was drawn to meditation in his early 20s because he felt his mind was permanently switched on, going round and round like a washing machine. In addition to his 'busy head' he felt as though he was always drifting into unnecessary worry, frustration and sadness.
He says he prefers the word 'headspace' because it describes the underlying sense of peace and contentment no matter what emotion might be at play. He says mindfulness is the ability to be present, meditation is the best way to learn the skill, and 'headspace' is the outcome. Mindfulness is about developing a gentle curiosity: watching, noticing and observing what's happening in every aspect of our life. It's about finding a sense of ease with ourselves right now and choosing how we see life and how we communicate and relate with others. It's cultivating kindness, compassion and appreciation towards ourselves and others and developing greater dedication, balance, equanimity, acceptance, presence and composure.
Andy's metaphors for the mind are helpful. He says the underlying essence of our mind is like a clear blue sky. When the mind is busy with thoughts and feelings the sky is temporarily obscured by “clouds.” The blue sky is the headspace. It's always there. Meditation is not about keeping all the clouds at bay. It's more about watching the clouds roll by. It's not trying or doing it's just being. It's resting the mind. Another image is a still clear pool of water. If we throw a pebble in the water it creates a ripple on the surface and it takes awhile for the water to settle. The pool reflects the surface of our minds. If we throw many pebbles in the water it stirs up the bottom, there's no clarity, and it's impossible to see anything at all.
Andy says meditating just ten minutes a day increases productivity, clarity and focus, reduces stress and anxiety, and helps with weight loss, improves sleep and personal relationships.
The mindfulness meditation research shows there is increased blood flow and physical changes in the part of the brain that helps to control emotions and behavior. Studies show mindfulness training can be an effective treatment for addictions and eating disorders, enhance peak performance in stressful circumstances, halve the time it takes to get to sleep, improve cognitive skills and alertness, activate parts of the brain related to happiness, reduce the intensity of negative emotions, anxiety and the harmful effects of stress. Mindfulness lowers blood pressure and heart rate and increases oxygen consumption.
I also found meditation to be a powerful spiritual discipline. It's teaching me to become more humble, empty and receptive. When I ignore the running commentary of my thoughts I am not so quick to categorize, judge and condemn. To put my thoughts and feelings aside is none other than the statement: “Not my will but Thy will, O Lord.” As a friend put it, prayer is talking and meditation is listening; and to know God we need both.
Colin Thubron said in his memoir “To a Mountain in Tibet” that pilgrims go through great hardship as they circle Mt. Kailas. Many of the devout pilgrims repeatedly murmured the mantra Om mani padme hum like deep breathing. The mantra is also chipped into black rocks with the words standing out in weathered relief. Some pilgrims murmur their Om mani padme hum like an urgent pulse as the beads tremble through their fingers.
Touched by the pilgrims reverence and dedication to the mantra I researched its meaning. It means “I pray for the purification of my heart and mind.” I loved that. OM means salutation or prayer, MANI the diamond in the mind or consciousness, PADME the lotus of love in the heart, HUM the purification of the heart and mind.
I now use Om mani padme hum as my manta. Synchronizing my breath with each word brings me greater peace. I also enjoy singing the mantra when I hike.
I read only certain words qualify as a mantra as it connects us with the sacred. It acts like a boat that floats through our thoughts. It steers itself – to God.
Repeating the mantra over and over dislodges our attachment to other thoughts, until they are like the birds that glide by. While thinking or repeating the mantra our activities like driving, walking, talking are still taken care of. Over time we begin to offer our thoughts, doubts and discomforts and pain as a sacrifice to the mantra. We can coordinate the mantra with our breath or our steps as we walk. We can also remember the mantra while counting beads. If our mind wanders the activity of the hand touching the bead reminds us of the mantra. As we practice the mantra our mind will begin to calm. Each time our mind wanders it brings the mantra back.
I also found Jon Kabat-Zinn's book “Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment--and Your Life” helpful. He says we are born with the amazing capacities of awareness, thinking and feeling. Awareness is the container that can hold thoughts and emotions without being caught up in them. However, for most of us awareness is sorely under developed. Mindfulness reminds us that our internal narrative is often based on fabricated thoughts. While our narrative contains truth we are more than our story. Our lives are simply bigger than thought. We ultimately don't know who is doing the talking in our head. We're something more mysterious. Like Walt Whitman said, in “Song of Myself:” “I am large! I contain multitudes!” Jon says it's actually true . We are like universes. We are boundless.
He says meditation is not about navel-gazing, giving up functioning, motivation, getting things done or engaging passionately in the world. Meditation is a way of letting all the things we care about come out of being. It's more than doing because it's informed by knowing our own mind.
With practice over time mindfulness begins to function as our “default setting.” We come back to it instinctively when we lose our emotional balance. Without trying to change anything the discipline of mindfulness brings a spaciousness and clarity of awareness. With the cultivation of mindfulness life becomes a meditation practice and teacher. Whatever happens in the moment is simply the curriculum of that moment. Each moment is an opportunity to experience genuine joy, equanimity and peace. When we bring gentleness and kindness to the process we begin to be at peace with things the way they are without changing anything.
Jon says mindfulness develops attention, discernment, clear seeing and the wisdom to not get caught up in misperceptions and misapprehensions. Pure being is not a special state because what we are experiencing in this moment is already special and extraordinary. Pain is inevitable but the suffering that accompanies it is optional. How we choose to be in relationship to pain makes a difference. Mindfulness is not a technique but a way of being.
I did formal meditation for 20 years and then stopped. Now that I'm meditating again I wonder why. I'd forgotten the clarity and peace it brings. I'm grateful to all the new meditation teachers who inspired me to start meditating again.