Anyone out in cyberspace presently immersed in a meditation practice? Raise your hand. What about those who have tried numerous times and always seem to have it slip away. My hand is raised now. Why is it so difficult and more importantly why is it so valuable? Clearly this short piece will not answer these questions completely but here’s some thoughts on the subject.
We should meditate because of its health benefits. Really. It leads to a reduction is stress, in measurable stress hormone levels, it increases self-awareness, it reduces blood pressure and the fight or flight response on our cardiovascular system. It increases sense of serenity and reduces reactivity (how we respond when we get cut off while driving). It seems to promote an optimistic approach to life rivaling the benefits of antidepressants, it decreases the brain volume in the amygdala, the center of stress, anxiety and fear, increases the grey matter volume throughout the brain in older meditators versus older non-meditators. It may also open individuals up to spiritual experiences. Need more reasons?
So why is it so difficult to do? Probably for the reasons we need to do it. Our minds through culture and evolution are determined to think about a multitude of thoughts in as short a period of time as possible. Anyone who has tried meditation can attest to that. Try meditating for only ten minutes. Set an alarm and realize how inpatient we all are. We will often check the timer just to make sure it hasn’t stopped working. Only ten minutes seems like an eternity.
Known by a variety of terms including ‘monkey mind’ our thoughts leap from one to another like monkeys in a cage. We can understand why this occurs. Darwinian survival mechanisms promoted the ‘worriers’ over those who chilled out and just let it all happen. Which one of our ancestors could anticipate threats could escape or avoid them. This cognitive legacy can now hurt us as much as help us. Meditation endeavors to dampen that innate response of the mind.
Some of the confusions regarding meditation may relate to the variety of approaches. From mantra to mindfulness and a seemingly infinite variations of each, we can can caught in the middle ground of not know what to do. I have been there and clearly each approach has benefits and admirers. Mantra may be somewhat easier to begin with but I will return to the mindfulness approach. It relates simply to the present awareness of the breath. When thoughts intrude, as they inevitably will simply observe them and go back to the breath. Sounds easy but it isn’t. I like this approach because it leads to the Buddhist notion of the witness consciousness. We are NOT our thoughts or emotions but can become the witness of them. We can recognize that our higher self, the soul, observes the creation of our mind. This awareness can be profound in and of itself. Difficult to achieve. That’s why it is called a practice.
In an era where many are diligent in working out the body, let’s be equally committed to training our minds to function at their highest level.
Good luck and namaste. I know I’ll need it.