Sunday, August 30, 2009

Meditation and TV: From the couch to the cushion

I have to confess that I’m one of those reactionary people who cheer every time they see the bumper sticker “Kill your TV.” Here’s why. Not only does television inundate you with disturbing images you wouldn’t otherwise have to endure — images of conflict, cruelty, seduction, exploitation, and outright violence that leave a deep and lasting impression — but TV also dulls your mind by habituating it to nonstop stimulation. With your mind accustomed to being flooded with images and sounds, you find it more difficult to enjoy the ordinary moments of everyday life or to register subtler levels of experience — the kind you’re trying to access in meditation.
Studies have also shown that tube-time inhibits the natural, age-appropriate development and integration of the various lobes of the brain. Children who grow up on lots of TV are generally less imaginative, more restless, more aggressive, and more easily bored than those who don’t. Did you ever wonder why so many teenagers hang around shopping malls looking listless and brain-dead? Television may be the answer.
Needless to say, you’re doing yourself a favor when you substitute an hour on the meditation cushion for an hour on the couch. You’re more likely to find what you’re looking for — relaxation, happiness, joy, peace of mind. And you’ll come away more refreshed and more open to new experiences, both inner and outer. But like most addictions, a TV fixation can be hard to kick. Start out slowly, say, by giving up a few hours each week and substituting some other activity that you find genuinely nurturing or fulfilling — going for a walk, talking with a friend, spending quality time with your family. Of course, you may not want to give up your favorite sitcom, the Sunday game, or the evening news — but then, who knows?

What to Eat and Drink before You Meditate?

Big meals can make you drowsy, especially when they’re high in carbohydrates, so eat lightly if at all before you sit. Or wait at least one hour after a major repast. You might even consider following the traditional Zen guideline to eat until you’re two-thirds full, instead of bursting at the seams — it may not be bad for your waistline, either.
As for drinking (and smoking), here are a few suggestions: I do know seasoned meditators who like to down a cup of cappuccino before they sit, and at least one Zen master who made it a habit of meditating first thing in the morning after drinking too much sake the night before. But as a general rule, abstaining from mind-altering substances (for example, coffee, alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and other recreational drugs) before meditating is best. As your practice grows and you observe the benefits of being present and focused, rather than zoned out or drugged up, you may naturally diminish your intake. In fact, you may discover that meditation makes you more sensitive to your state of mind and provides a natural high that renders these substances unnecessary or obsolete. And if your primary motivation for meditating is to reduce stress or enhance your health, you may consider abstaining entirely from your substance of choice. Believe it or not, indulging only adds to the burden of stress you’re already experiencing.

20 minutes to an hour

The longer you sit, the more time you’ll have between preliminaries and endings to settle into a focused and relaxed state of mind. If you have the motivation and can carve out the time, by all means devote 20 minutes, 40 minutes, or an hour to meditation each day. You’ll notice the difference — and you’ll understand why most meditation teachers recommend sitting this long at a stretch. Perhaps it’s the human attention span — look at the proverbial 50-minute hour of psychotherapy or the optimal length for most TV shows. Keeping your practice steady and regular is better than splurging one day and abstaining for the rest of the week.