Saturday, February 9, 2008

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!

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