“The birds have vanished into the sky,
and now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and I,
until only the mountain remains.”
- from Endless River: Li Po and Tu Fu: A Friendship in Poetry
In this post, I will try to explain what meditation is, why its important (i.e. what problem it solves) and list the resources to take you further, if you are interested. To understand meditation and the need for it, we need to understand the difference between our physical body and mind.
We typically have control over most parts of our bodies, our arms, legs and so forth, and we use that control to our benefit. Rest, exercise, avoiding physical harm, earning a living, sports – its a rather long list. We take it for granted that if we reach out for the bowl of nuts nearby, our hands are going to make it and if we decide to walk over to the front door, we will get there. On the other hand, we have little or no control over our brains.
The thought experiment
A little experiment – when you have 10 minutes try this. Just take a sheet of paper and write down everything that crosses your mind, every little thought and emotion, don’t stop or slow down, just let your mind wander and write down the thoughts. I assure you it will be an interesting 10 minutes. At the end of this exercise, read through the writeup you have just created and you will be surprised…
90% of your thoughts are not goal directed, in fact not even relevant to your well being. Rather its usually the case that the mind thinks a jumble of thoughts and jumps from topic to topic. Your work, the lawn that needs mowing, have to buy milk, oh my God the report is due tomorrow, did I remember to close that window – a lot of random thoughts going on in the background and lots of mental “loops”.
Meditation is the art of slowly and deliberately gaining control, once again, over your mind.
When psychologists talk about 90% of the mind that is unused and when we read about and marvel at the genius of great achievers, we need to understand that there is no “hidden compartment” in the brain. There is no mass of gray matter hidden somewhere in our head that is untouched. Its all being used, just not effectively and just not with our permission and control! We don’t leave our car running every night in the garage, yet we run our minds ragged on a daily basis, with unproductive thoughts and emotions.
Rage, discontent, fear, greed, I am not putting down these emotions from a spiritual sense but from the scientific perspective of how our body and mind react to such intense emotions. When we approach a task with fear in the background, our heart races and the body tightens, any creative capacity we can bring to the task is crushed – thus we inevitably fail to complete the task as well as we could. When rage floods our body, we make unwise decisions and our body is literally broken down by the chemicals flooding through our body – observe the effect of rage on your body the next time you get the chance. Unfortunately, it is not just when we are faced with the situation that we react with these emotions, but our mind helpfully plays back movies later during the day to bring these emotions flooding back, Multiple times during the day – many many times.
The common sense reason to try meditation
Just imagine how far we can get from exerting more control and channeling your mental energies a bit more productively. Imagine the effect that a calm mind that is deliberate in its thought process and conserves as much energy as possible can have on our goals and relationships.
This, in a nutshell, is the common sense reason to try meditation. Don’t try meditation to attain alternate states of consciousness, don’t try it to tap into an inner fountain of joy, you don’t need to be a seeker of enlightenment. If all you get from meditation is a better awareness of how your mind works and some degree of control over its working, you will be ahead of 99% of the populace, who are still searching for the users manual. Add to this the natural stress relief and calm that comes into your life once you take up meditation, its a slam dunk.
Why aren’t we already in control?
Which brings us to the next question. Why aren’t we born with the means to control our mind and our thought process? The answer is, we are. Everyone is born with the capability to direct attention (concentration) and awareness (mindfulness) of the way the mind is working. We are probably the only specie who can think about thought, and thats all you need to direct the workings of your mind. So why aren’t we driving our minds like experts and instead fumbling around for the on/off switch?
The problem is like most things in the natural world, it takes time and effort to master the mind. Just like losing weight, growing wheat or the changing seasons. Nature operates with its own rhythm and cycles and we are very much a part of nature. Most significant things in life take time and effort. In fact it took time and effort as an infant for you to exert control over your body. In fact several years of full time effort, you just don’t remember it now! Also, you had good role models to lead you towards getting control over your physical body, unfortunately we are not surrounded by experts when it comes to the realm of the mind. Most of us make do with letting the brain do its thing and come round to processing our requests once in a while!
How meditation helps
Meditation helps by once again slowly and deliberately working to take control of your mind. When taking up any school or technique of meditation, the emphasis is usually on developing awareness of how the mind works, followed by gaining greater and greater control. Mindfulness meditation is a case in point, by something as simple as observing the breath and concentrating on its flow in and out, we gain concentration and eventually are able to clearly see the workings on the mind. This of course, is the first step in a long and eventful journey.
Meditation and spirituality
One reason why people shy away from meditation is its tight coupling, in our mind, with spirituality and religion. Meditation is linked to spirituality because, especially in the initial stages, it can be quite frustrating. We are talking about challenging the habits formed over years. So the initial stages of reclaiming control over your mind requires any number of tricks to keep us moving. Some of the more effective ones include oodles of belief in the method you are following, examples of people who have been-there-done-that (read gurus/masters), belief in a higher power on which we place our trust (read God) and several other crutches that come packaged, in many cases, as spirituality/religion.
If you are not a religious person, there are many secular forms of meditation available too. Explore mindfulness meditation for a start and see how you go. All I can add to this topic is to encourage you overcome any initial hesitation you have around trying this out and giving meditation a shot.
Some of the resources I have been inspired by and learned to trust are:
- Mindfulness meditation – this is rooted in Buddhism but is intensely analytic and clinical. The material and approach are very secular
- Sri Eknath Easwaran’s eight point program – this is a very spiritual approach but is rooted in wisdom literature from many religions, so it is religion-agnostic
- Paramahamsa Swami Nithyananda’s Life Bliss Foundation – the advaita school is the crown jewel of eastern philosophy, Swami Nithyananda is a master from this ancient tradition. A young enlightened master, his foundation’s entry level programs with an emphasis on active meditation techniques are very suitable for beginners
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Lao-tzu (604 BC – 531 BC), The Way of Lao-tzu