Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Promoting the benefits of meditation

Although Western researchers have been studying the benefits of meditation for more than 50 years, three people in particular have helped popularize the practice by demonstrating how it can cause measurable improvement in a broad range of health concerns.
  • Herbert Benson and the Relaxation Response: A cardiologist and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, Benson pioneered the field of mind-body medicine with the publication of his bestseller The Relaxation Response in 1975. Based on his study of TM practitioners, the book identifies a natural reflex mechanism that can be triggered by 20 minutes of daily meditation practice involving a quiet environment, repetition of a sound or phrase, a receptive attitude, and a comfortable sitting position — a kind of generic TM! Once initiated, this reflex apparently induces relaxation, reduces stress, and counteracts the fight-or-flight response. In subsequent studies, Benson found that the Relaxation Response had a beneficial effect on hypertension, headaches, heart disease, alcohol consumption, anxiety, and PMS.
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: Since 1979, when he established the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues have trained thousands of patients with a variety of health problems in the fundamentals of Buddhist mindfulness meditation and mindful hatha yoga. Outcome studies indicate that the eight-week program, which involves formal classes, home-study, and a one-day meditation workshop, helps participants reduce the stress that contributes to their illness and teaches them how to extend the benefits of mindfulness into every area of their lives. Featured in the PBS series Healing and the Mind with Bill Moyers, Kabat-Zinn’s program has been duplicated in clinics, schools, and workplaces across the country.
  • Dean Ornish and the Opening Your Heart Program: In a landmark study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Ornish, who is a physician and the director of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute, showed that patients can actually reverse their heart disease through fundamental lifestyle changes, without the use of surgery or cholesterol-lowering drugs. Although his program also emphasizes the health benefits of a low-fat diet, exercise, and hatha yoga, Ornish teaches that the key to healing the heart lies in opening the heart — and that meditation is a crucial component in this process because it helps to free us from our habitual patterns of stress and emotional reactivity.

Tuning in to your body

Like Mr. Duffy in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, most of us “live a short distance” from our bodies. The following meditation, which has counterparts in yoga and Buddhism, helps reestablish contact with the body by drawing attention gently from one part to another. Because it cultivates awareness and also relaxes the muscles and internal organs, it makes a great preamble to more formal meditation practice. Allow at least 20 minutes to complete.
  1. Lie on your back on a comfortable surface —but not too comfortable unless you plan to fall asleep.
  2. Take a few moments to feel your body as a whole, including the places where it contacts the surface of the bed or floor.
  3. Bring your attention to your toes. Allow yourself to feel any and all sensations in this area. If you don’t feel anything, just feel “not feeling anything.” As you breathe, imagine that you’re breathing into and out of your toes. (If this feels weird or uncomfortable, just breathe in your usual way.)
  4. When you’re done with your toes, move on to your soles, heels, the tops of your feet, and your ankles in turn, feeling each part in the same way that you felt your toes. Take your time. The point of this exercise is not to achieve anything, not even relaxation, but to be as fully present as possible wherever you are.
  5. Gradually move up your body, staying at least three or four breaths with each part. Follow this approximate order: lower legs, knees, thighs, hips, pelvis, lower abdomen, lower back, solar plexus, upper back, chest, shoulders. Now focus on the fingers, hands, and arms on both sides, and then on the neck and throat, chin, jaws, face, back of the head, and top of the head. By the time you reach the top of your head, you may feel as though the boundaries between you and the rest of the world have become more fluid — or have melted away entirely. At the same time, you may feel silent and still — free of your usual restlessness or agitation.
  6. Rest there for a few moments; then gradually bring your attention back to your body as a whole.
  7. Wiggle your toes, move your fingers, open your eyes, rock from side to side, and gently sit up.
  8. Take a few moments to stretch and reacquaint yourself with the world around you before standing up and going about your day.

The mind-body benefits of meditation

Although the earliest scientific studies of meditation date back to the 1930s and 1940s, research into the psychophysiological effects of meditation took off in the 1970s, fueled by a burgeoning interest in Transcendental Meditation ™, Zen, and other Eastern meditation techniques. Since then, more than 1,000 studies have been published in English. In the book The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation (first published in 1988 and revised and updated in 1997), Michael Murphy and coauthor Steven Donovan sifted through these studies and synthesized the data.

Murphy, author of the best-seller Golf in the Kingdom, has pioneered the exploration of human potential since he co-founded Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, in 1962. (Esalen is generally acknowledged as the birthplace of the human potential movement.) Donovan, former president and CEO of Esalen, directed the Institute’s Study of Exceptional Functioning. Based on the results of the studies they surveyed, Murphy and Donovan came up with the following mind-body benefits of meditation.

Physiological benefits:
  • Decreased heart rate during quiet meditation
  • Lower blood pressure in normal and moderately hypertensive individuals
  • Quicker recovery from stress
  • Increase in alpha rhythms (slow, high-amplitude brain waves that correlate with relaxation)
  • Enhanced synchronization (that is, simultaneous operation) of the right and left hemispheres of the brain (which positively correlates with creativity)
  • Reduced cholesterol levels
  • Decreased consumption of energy and need for oxygen
  • Deeper, slower breathing
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Reduction in the intensity of pain
Psychological benefits:
  • More happiness and peace of mind
  • Less emotional reactivity; fewer intense negative emotions and dramatic mood swings
  • Increased empathy
  • Enhanced creativity and self-actualization
  • Heightened perceptual clarity and sensitivity
  • Reductions in both acute and chronic anxiety
  • Complement to psychotherapy and other approaches in the treatment of addiction

Friday, February 22, 2008

Advanced technology for the mind and heart

Traditionally, the Western world has emphasized external achievement, and the East has valued inner development. The great scientific and technological advances of the past 500 years originated in the West, while yogis and roshis in the monasteries and ashrams of Asia were cultivating the inner arts of meditation.

Now the currents of East and West and North and South have joined and are intermingling to form an emerging global culture and economy. As a result, we can apply the inner “technology” perfected in the East to balance the excesses of the rapid technological innovations perfected in the West!

Like master computer programmers, the great meditation masters throughout history developed the capacity to program their bodies, minds, and hearts to experience highly refined states of being. While we in the West were charting the heavens and initiating the Industrial Revolution, they were chalking up some pretty remarkable accomplishments of their own:
  • Penetrating insights into the nature of the mind and the process by which it creates and perpetuates suffering and stress
  • Deep states of ecstatic absorption in which the meditator is completely immersed in union with the Divine
  • The wisdom to discriminate between relative reality and the sacred dimension of being
  • Unshakable inner peace that external circumstances can’t disturb
  • The cultivation of positive, beneficial, life-affirming mind-states, such as patience, love, kindness, equanimity, joy, and — especially — compassion for the suffering of others
  • The ability to control bodily functions that are usually considered involuntary, such as heart rate, body temperature, and metabolism
  • The capacity to mobilize and move vital energy through the different centers and channels of the body for the sake of healing and personal transformation
  • Special psychic powers, such as clairvoyance (the ability to perceive matters beyond the range of ordinary perception) and telekinesis (the ability to move objects at a distance without touching them)
Of course, the great meditators of the past used these qualities to seek liberation from suffering, either by withdrawing from the world into a more exalted reality or by achieving penetrating insights into the nature of existence. Yet the meditation technology they developed — which has become widely available in the West in the past few decades — can be used by the rest of us in ordinary, everyday ways to yield some extraordinary benefits.

How to Survive the 21st Century — with Meditation

Now for the good news! As I mention earlier in this chapter, meditation offers a time-honored antidote to fragmentation, alienation, isolation, stress — even stress-related illnesses and depression. Although it won’t solve the external problems of your life, it does help you develop inner resilience, balance, and strength to roll with the punches and come up with creative solutions.

To get a sense of how meditation works, imagine for a moment that your body and mind are a complex computer. Instead of being programmed to experience inner peace, harmony, equanimity, and joy, you’ve been programmed to respond to life’s inevitable ups and downs with stress, anxiety, and dissatisfaction. But you have the power to change your programming.

By putting aside all other activities, sitting quietly, and attuning yourself to the present moment for 10 or 15 minutes each day, you’re developing a whole new set of habitual responses and programming yourself to experience more positive emotions and mind-statesOf course, if you find it distasteful to think of yourself as a computer, you can picture life as an ocean, with the constant ups and downs you experience as the waves that churn and roil on the water’s surface. When you meditate, you dive beneath the surface to a quiet place where the water is calmer and more consistent.

Whatever your favorite metaphor, the point is that meditation provides a way of transforming stress and suffering into equanimity and ease. In this section, you get to see how meditators have been reaping the remarkable benefits of meditation for millennia — and how you can, too!

Four popular “solutions” that don’t really work

Before I leave the litany of postmodern woes and suggest some solutions that actually work, I’d like to offer a quick look at a few popular approaches to handling stress and uncertainty that create more problems than they solve:
  • Addiction: By distracting people from their pain, encouraging them to set aside their usual concerns and preoccupations, and altering brain chemistry, addictions mimic some of the benefits of meditation. Unfortunately, addictions also tend to fixate the mind on an addictive substance or activity — drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, and so on — making it even more difficult for people to be open to the wonders of the moment or to connect with a deeper dimension of being. Besides, most addictions involve a self-destructive lifestyle that ultimately intensifies the problems the addict was attempting to escape.
  • Fundamentalism: By advocating simple, one-dimensional answers to complex problems, offering a sense of meaning and belonging, and repudiating many of the apparent evils of postmodern life, fundamentalism — be it religious or political — provides a refuge from ambiguity and alienation. Alas, fundamentalists divide the world into black and white, good and bad, us and them, which only fuels the fires of alienation, conflict, and stress in the world at large.
  • Entertainment: When you feel lonely or alienated, just turn on the tube or head to your local multiplex and take in the latest offering. That will calm your anxiety or soothe your pain — or will it? In addition to providing entertainment, the media seemingly create community by connecting us with other people and the events around us. But you can’t have a heart-to-heart conversation with a TV celebrity or hug your favorite movie star. Besides, the media (intentionally or not) manipulate your emotions, fill your mind with the ideas and images of the popular culture, and focus your attention outside yourself — rather than give you the opportunity to find out what you really think, feel, and know.
  • Consumerism: This bogus solution to life’s ills teaches that wanting and having more is the answer — more food, more possessions, more vacations, more of every perk that plastic can buy. As you may have noticed, however, the thrill fades fast, and you’re quickly planning your next purchase — or struggling to figure out how to pay the credit-card bill that arrives like clockwork at the end of the month. Need I say more?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Accepting things the way they are

In the Zen tradition, they tell the story of a poor farmer who lost his only horse. His friends and neighbors bemoaned his plight, but he seemed unperturbed. “We’ll see,” he said with an enigmatic smile.

Several days later, his horse returned with a pack of five wild stallions that had joined it along the way. His neighbors rejoiced in his good fortune, but he did not appear to be excited. “We’ll see,” he said again.

The following week, while attempting to ride and tame one of the stallions, his beloved, only son fell and broke his leg. The ever-solicitous neighbors were beside themselves with grief, but the farmer, though he comforted and cared for the boy, did not seem to be concerned about the future. “We’ll see,” he mused.

At the end of the month, the local warlord arrived in the farmer’s village to conscript all the healthy young men to fight in the latest campaign. But the farmer’s son . . . well, you can imagine the rest of the story.

In case you hadn’t noticed, life’s a roller-coaster ride, and you can’t control the ups and downs. If you want to hold on to your lunch — and your sanity — you need to learn how to maintain your peace of mind.

How to deal with the postmodern predicament?

Of course, it’s news to no one that circumstances change constantly — certainly pundits and sages have purveyed this truth for ages. But at no time in history has change been as pervasive and relentless — or affected our lives so deeply — as during the past 10 or 15 years. Watching the evening news or reading a paper, we’re flooded with statistics and images of violence, famine, and disease; environmental depredation; and economic instability; all depicting a world that seems to be coming increasingly unstitched.

On a more personal level, you may have lost your job because of corporate downsizing, ended a relationship because your lover was shipped off to another state, been a victim of a violent crime, or lost a bundle in a volatile market. Perhaps you spend your spare time figuring out how to stay one step ahead in a competitive work environment. Or you may simply lie awake each night worrying about when the tidal wave of change will finally reach you and sweep you away. Does any of this sound familiar?

Sociologists call this period the postmodern era, when constant change is becoming a way of life and time-honored values and truths are being rapidly dismantled. How do you navigate your way through life when you no longer know what’s true and you’re not even sure how to find out? Do you search for it on the Web or somehow glean it from the latest pronouncements of media soothsayers and corporate CEOs?

Despite the unarguable advantages of all the electronic gadgets that have become indispensable since the 1980s, you may have noticed that the faster you communicate, the less you really connect with others in a rich and meaningful way. A cartoon reprinted in Newsweek sums it up well: Entitled “A ’90s Vacation,” it shows a family on a beach, each person using his or her own personal electronic device: Mom’s on the phone, Dad’s on the Internet, one child is picking up a fax, another is responding to his beeper, a third is checking her voicemail — and they’re all oblivious to one another!

Such relentless change exacts a steep emotional and spiritual price, which we tend to deny in our collective attempt to accentuate the positive and deny the negative. Here are a few of the negative side effects of life in the postmodern age:
  • Anxiety and stress: When the ground starts shifting beneath your feet, your first reaction as you attempt to regain your stability may be anxiety or fear. This gut-level response has been programmed into our genes by millions of years of living on the edge. These days, unfortunately, the tremors never stop, and small fears accumulate and congeal into ongoing tension and stress. Your body may feel perpetually braced against the next onslaught of difficulties and responsibilities — which makes it virtually impossible to relax and enjoy life fully. By relaxing your body and reducing stress, meditation can provide a much-needed antidote.
  • Fragmentation: Most Americans once lived, shopped, worked, raised their kids, and spent their leisure time in the same community. They encountered the same faces every day, worked the same job for a lifetime, stayed married to the same person, and watched their children raise their own children just down the block. Now we often shuttle our kids off to school or daycare and commute long distances to work, while checking our messages on the cellphone. On the way home, we may stop by the mall, and we may spend our evenings surfing the Net. We change jobs and partners more frequently than ever, and when our children grow up, they often move to another state — or another country! Although we may not be able to stay the tide of fragmentation, we can use meditation to connect us with a deeper wholeness that external circumstances can’t disturb.
  • Alienation: When our lives appear to be made up of disconnected puzzle pieces that don’t fit together, no wonder we wind up feeling completely stressed out. Despite the statistics that herald prosperous times, many people work at marginal jobs that pay the bills but fail to connect them to a deeper sense of value or purpose. According to an article in American Demographics magazine, more people are flocking to small towns in an attempt to recapture a sense of community, and fewer and fewer are voting in each election, apparently because they believe that they have little power to change things. Never before, it seems, have human beings felt so alienated, not only from their work and their government, but also from others, themselves, and their own essential being — and most of us don’t have the skills or the know-how to reconnect! By bridging the chasm that separates us from ourselves, meditation can help to heal our alienation from others and the world at large.
  • Loneliness and isolation: With people moving from place to place more frequently and families fragmenting and scattering across the globe, you’re less and less likely to have regular contact with the people you know and love — and even if you do, you may be too busy to relate in a mutually fulfilling way. Recently, I heard a radio ad arguing that since family dinners are clearly a thing of the past, why not purchase Family Net — a separate cellphone for mom, dad, and the kids — so that the family can keep in touch! Again, you may not be able to stem the forces that keep us apart. But you can use meditation to turn every moment together into “quality time.”
  • Depression: When people feel lonely, alienated, stressed out, and disconnected from a deeper source of meaning and purpose, it’s no wonder that some end up feeling depressed. In a nation where Prozac is a household word, millions of people take mood-altering chemicals each day to keep from feeling the pain of postmodern life. Meditation can connect you with your own inner source of contentment and joy that naturally dispels the clouds of depression.
  • Stress-related illness: From tension headaches and acid indigestion to heart disease and cancer, the steady rise in stress-related illness reflects our collective inability to cope with the instability and fragmentation of our times — and fuels a billion-dollar healthcare industry that at times only masks the deeper problems of fear, stress, and disorientation. As numerous scientific studies have shown, the regular practice of meditation can actually reverse the onslaught of many stress-related ailments.

What to do when things keep falling apart?

Because it runs counter to everything you’ve ever been taught, you may have a difficult time accepting the basic spiritual truth that you and I have only limited control over the events in our lives. After all, isn’t the point of life to go out and “just do it,” as the Nike ads urge? Well, yes, you need to follow your dreams and live your truth; that’s a crucial part of the equation.

But when life turns around and slaps you in the face, as it sometimes does, how do you respond? (Look at the Olympic skiers who spend years in training only to have their hopes for a medal wiped out in an instant by bad weather or a patch of ice!) Or when it levels you completely and deprives you of everything you’ve gained, including your confidence and your hard-won self-esteem, where do you go for succor and support?

How do you deal with the pain and confusion? What inner resources do you draw upon to guide you through this frightening and unknown terrain? Consider the following story. One day a woman came to see the Buddha (the great spiritual teacher who lived several thousand years ago in India) with her dead child in her arms. Grief-stricken, she had wandered from place to place, asking people for medicine to restore him to life. As a last resort, she asked the Buddha if he could help her. “Yes,” he said, “but you must first bring me some mustard seed from a house in which there has never been a death.”

Filled with hope, the woman went from door to door inquiring, but no one could help her. Every house she entered had witnessed its share of deaths. By the time she reached the end of the village, she had awakened to the realization that sickness and death are inevitable. After burying her son, she returned to the Buddha for spiritual instruction. “Only one law in the universe never changes,” he explained, “that all things change and all things are impermanent.” Hearing this, the woman became a disciple and eventually, it is said, attained enlightenment.

Of course, life offers far more than sickness and death; it also presents us with moments of extraordinary love, beauty, wonder, and joy. But like the woman in the story, we in the West — and the United States especially —tend to deny the dark side of life. We relegate our old and dying to nursing homes, ignore our homeless, restrict our impoverished minorities to ghettoes, and confine our mentally ill and developmentally challenged to hospitals and asylums, while plastering our billboards and magazines with the smiling faces of youth and prosperity.

The fact is, life is a rich and perplexing interplay of light and dark, success and failure, youth and age, pleasure and pain — and, yes, life and death. Circumstances change constantly, apparently falling apart one moment, only to come together the next. As the contemporary Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki puts it, everything is constantly “losing its balance against a background of perfect balance.”

The key to your peace of mind lies not in your circumstances, but in how you respond to them. As the Buddhists say, suffering is wanting what you don’t have and not wanting what you do have, while happiness is precisely the opposite: enjoying what you have and not hungering for what you don’t have. This concept doesn’t mean that you must give up your values, dreams, and aspirations — only that you need to balance them with the ability to accept things as they are.

Meditation gives you an opportunity to cultivate acceptance by teaching you to reserve judgment and to open to each experience without trying to change or get rid of it. Then, when the going gets rough, you can make use of this quality to ease your ruffled feathers and maintain your peace of mind.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The myth of the perfect life

Many people suffer because they compare their lives to some idealized image of how life is supposed to be. Cobbled together from childhood conditioning, media messages, and personal desires, this image lurks in the shadows and becomes the standard to which every success or failure, every circumstance or turn of events, is compared and judged. Take a moment to check out yours.

Perhaps you’ve spent your life struggling to build the American dream — two kids, house in the suburbs, brilliant career, what Zorba the Greek called the “full catastrophe.” After all, that’s what your parents had (or didn’t have), and you decided that you owed it to them and to yourself to succeed. Only now you’re juggling two jobs to save the money for a down payment, the marriage is falling apart, and you feel guilty because you don’t have enough time to spend with the kids.

Or maybe you believe that ultimate happiness would come your way if you could only achieve the perfect figure (or physique). The problem is, diets don’t work, you can’t make yourself adhere to exercise regimens, and every time you look in the mirror, you feel like passing out. Or perhaps your idea of earthly nirvana is the perfect relationship. Unfortunately, you’re approaching 40, you still haven’t met Mr. or Ms. Right, and you scour the personals while secretly fearing that you must have some horrible social disease. Whatever your version of the perfect life — perfect vacations, perfect sex, perfect health, even perfect peace of mind or total freedom from all tension and stress — you pay a high price for holding such high expectations.

When life fails to live up to those expectations, as it inevitably does, you end up suffering and blaming yourself. (Take it from me — I’ve fallen into this trap myself again and again!) If only you had made more money, spent more time at home, been a better lover, gone back to school, lost those extra pounds . . . the list is endless. No matter how you slice it, you just don’t measure up. Or perhaps you’re among the elite few who manage to get everything you want. The problem is, you eventually find yourself becoming bored and wanting more — or you spend every spare moment struggling to protect or control what you have.

The great meditative traditions have a more humane message to impart. They teach that the ideal earthly life is a myth. As an old Christian saying puts it, “Man proposes, God disposes.” Or, in the words of a popular joke, “If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.” These traditions remind us that far more powerful forces are at work in the universe than you and I. You can envision and intend and strive and attempt to control all you want — and ultimately even achieve some modicum of success. But the truth is, in the long run, you and I have only the most limited control over the circumstances of our lives.

How Life Drives You — to Meditate

Although you may be reluctant to admit it, at least publicly, life doesn’t always live up to your expectations. As a result, you suffer — from stress, disappointment, fear, anger, outrage, hurt, or any of a number of other unpleasant emotions. Meditation teaches you how to relate to difficult circumstances and the tensions and emotions they evoke with balance, equanimity, and compassion. But before I describe the positive solutions that meditation has to offer —and rest assured, there are plenty — I’d like to take you on a whirlwind tour of the problems they’re intended to solve.

Why Meditate?

If you’re like me, you want to know what you’re going to get for your time and energy before you commit to an activity. I mean, why pump the StairMaster for an hour or puff and grunt through an aerobics class if you can’t expect to slim down, beef up, and increase your stamina? Or why put aside an evening each week to attend a gourmet cooking class if you’re not going to end up making dynamite fettuccine or duck a l’orange? The same is true for meditation.

Why spend 10 or 15 or even 20 minutes of your hard-earned free time each day following your breath or repeating the same phrase again and again when you could be jogging, spacing out in front of the tube, or surfing the Net? Because of the innumerable benefits, that’s why! But before delving into these benefits, this section explores some of the problems that meditation can help resolve. You know the old expression “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? Well, the reality is that many of us find that our lives are “broke” in some pretty significant ways. After all, you bought this book for a reason or two. Now it’s time to find out what some of those reasons may be.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Fruit eating exercise

For this in-the-moment exercise, imagine that you’ve just arrived from another planet and have never experienced an orange before.
  1. Place an orange on a plate and close your eyes.
  2. Set aside all thoughts and preconceptions, open your eyes, and see the fruit as though for the first time. Notice the shape, the size, the color, the texture.
  3. As you begin to peel the orange, notice how it feels in your fingers, the contrast between the flesh and the peel, the weight of the fruit in your hand.
  4. Slowly raise a piece of the orange to your lips and pause a moment before eating. Notice how it smells before you begin.
  5. Open your mouth, bite down, and feel the texture of its soft flesh and the first rush of juice into your mouth.
  6. Continue to bite and chew the orange, remaining aware of the play of sensations from moment to moment.
Imagining that this may be the first and last orange you will ever eat, let each moment be fresh and new and complete in itself. Notice how this experience of eating an orange differs from your usual way of eating a piece of fruit.

Activities that are not meditation

Now that you have an overview of the meditative journey, take a look at some paths that superficially resemble meditation but lead you in an altogether different direction.
Of course, every activity can become a meditation if you do it with awareness or concentration. For example, you can wash the dishes or drive the car or talk on the phone meditatively.

But certain activities become confused with meditation in the popular imagination, whereas they may have a totally different intent. Some people claim that reading the newspaper or watching their favorite sitcom qualifies as meditation — well, who am I to judge?

Here are some ersatz meditations that certainly have their place in the repertory of leisure pursuits but don’t generally offer the benefits of meditation:
  • Thinking: In the West, the term meditation has frequently been used to refer to a kind of focused reflection on a particular theme, as when you say, “I’m going to meditate on this problem for a while.” Although higherorder contemplation or inquiry plays a part in some meditation techniques, it bears little resemblance to the often tortured, conflicted process that usually passes for thinking. Besides, thinking tires you out, whereas meditation refreshes you and perks you up.
  • Daydreaming: Daydreaming and fantasy offer their own unique pleasures and rewards, including occasional problem-solving and a momentary escape from difficult or tedious circumstances. But rather than leaving you feeling more spacious and more connected with being, as meditation does, daydreaming often embroils you more actively in the drama of your life.
  • Spacing out: Sometimes spacing out involves a momentary gap in the unbroken stream of thoughts and feelings that flood your awareness, a kind of empty space in which nothing seems to be happening except being itself. Such genuine “spacing out” lies at the heart of meditation and can be deliberately cultivated and extended. Alas, most spacing out is just another form of daydreaming!
  • Repeating affirmations: This common new-age practice — a contemporary version of what used to be called positive thinking — purports to provide an antidote to your negative beliefs by replacing them with positive alternatives. Generally, however, the negativity is so deeply rooted that the affirmations merely skim the surface like froth on the ocean and never really penetrate to the depths, where your core beliefs reside.
  • Self-hypnosis: By progressively relaxing your body and imagining a safe, protected place, you can lull yourself into an open, suggestible state known as a light trance. Here you can rehearse upcoming performances, rerun past events to get a more positive outcome, and reprogram your brain using affirmations. Although self-hypnosis differs from mindfulness meditation — the primary approach taught in this blog, emphasizing ongoing attention to the present moment
  • Praying: Ordinary or petitionary prayer, which calls on God for help or asks for something, can be performed meditatively but has little in common with meditation as I’ve been describing it. However, contemplative prayer, also known as orison (the yearning of the soul for union with the Divine) is actually a form of concentrated contemplation whose focus is God.
  • Sleeping: Refreshing though it may be, sleep is not meditation — unless you happen to be an expert yogi who meditates in your sleep. Research shows that the brain waves generated during sleep are significantly different from those generated during meditation. Of course, meditators often find themselves falling asleep — and then, as one of my teachers used to say, sleep well!

Mindfulness: Meditation as a way of life

Although I provide a variety of different techniques for your enjoyment and exploration, this blog offers as its primary approach what the Buddhists call mindfulness — ongoing attention to whatever arises moment to moment. Based on my years of experience and training, I’ve found that mindfulness, which blends concentration and receptive awareness, is one of the simplest techniques for beginners to learn and also one of the most readily adaptable to the busy schedules most of us face. After all, if you’re like me, you’re primarily concerned with living a more harmonious, loving, stress-free life, not lifting off into some disembodied spiritual realm divorced from the people and places you love.

In fact, the beauty, belonging, and love you seek are available right here and now — you only need to clear your mind and open your eyes, which is precisely what the practice of mindfulness is intended to teach! When you pay attention to your experience from moment to moment, you keep waking up from the daydreams and worries your mind fabricates and returning to the clarity, precision, and simplicity of the present, where life actually takes place. The great thing about mindfulness is that you don’t have to limit your practice to certain places and times — you can practice waking up and paying attention wherever you happen to be, at any time of the day or night.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Troubleshooting the meditation challenges

As your meditation practice deepens and evolves, you may find yourself encountering unexpected challenges that you don’t quite know how to handle. Here again, the mountain metaphor comes in handy. Say you’re halfway up the trail and you hit a patch of icy terrain, or boulders block your path, or a thunderstorm sends you scurrying for cover. What do you do now? Do you pull out your special equipment and consult pre-established guidelines for dealing with the difficulties? Or do you just have to improvise as best you can?

The good news is that people have been climbing this mountain for thousands of years, and they’ve crafted tools and fashioned maps for traversing the terrain as smoothly and painlessly as possible.

For example, if powerful emotions like anger, fear, sadness, or grief sweep through your meditation and make it difficult for you to stay present, you can draw on techniques for loosening their grip. Or if you encounter some of the common obstacles and roadside distractions on the path of meditation, such as sleepiness, restlessness, rapture, or doubt, you can count on time-honored methods for moving beyond them so you can continue on your way.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Designing your own practice

When you begin to develop and direct your awareness in meditation, you’re faced with the challenge of putting all the pieces together into an integrated practice that’s uniquely suited to your needs. For example, you may find yourself drawn to forms of meditation that emphasize focused concentration and have only minimal interest in the more open, allowing quality of receptive awareness. Or you may cherish the peace and relaxation you experience when you simply sit quietly without any effort or focus, not even the effort to be aware. Or you may have a specific purpose for meditating, such as healing an illness or resolving a disturbing psychological issue, and only feel drawn to approaches that help you meet your goals.

The key is to experiment with different forms of meditation and trust your intuition to tell you which ones are best suited for you at this particular point on your journey up the mountain. Inevitably, yin and yang tend to balance each other out; that is, you may start out with intense concentration and end up with more relaxed, receptive awareness — or begin in a more receptive mode and gradually discover the virtues of focus.

The journey of meditation has its own lessons to teach, and no matter what your intentions may be, you’ll generally end up encountering those lessons that you were destined to learn. Of course, if you intend to maintain your practice from week to week and month to month, which is the only way to reap the benefits of meditation, you’ll probably need to draw on some of those time-honored qualities that every sustained enterprise requires: motivation, discipline, and commitment.

Though they’ve gotten a bad rap in Western culture, where people generally expect to have their needs met right now, if not sooner, these qualities are actually not difficult to cultivate and in fact arise naturally when you’re engaged in and — dare I say it — passionate about what you’re doing.

Making Meditation Your Own

Developing and directing your awareness may be the foundation of effective meditation — but like any good foundation, it’s only the beginning. The next step is to build your house brick by brick, meditation session by meditation session, discovering what works for you and what doesn’t, until your practice is grounded and stable. Or, to harken back to the journey metaphor, awareness is the muscle that propels you up the mountain. But you need to choose your route, find your pace, and navigate the obstacles that get in your way. In other words, you need to fashion and maintain your own practice and troubleshoot the difficulties that arise.