For many, the word meditation conjures up an image of mystery and the unknown. I would like to demystify it for anyone and everyone – in fact, I like to think of myself as the Meditation Maven. Simply put, it’s a way to find our way back to ourselves. For me, it’s the ultimate means of getting in touch with my whole, sexy self. If we are looking to live our lives more fully, we have to be able to show up for them.
Ask anyone what they think or know about meditation and usually, they will mention something mysterious about it. My goal is to demystify meditation for the masses. Anyone can meditate and it can be done in nearly any position at any time. In fact, after developing a practice, nearly everything becomes a meditation or could be.
While there are probably different styles that would all fall under the heading of meditation, I generally teach and practice Insight or Mindful or Vipassana meditation. These are all basically the same and generally believed to be the technique Gautama the Buddha taught over 2500 years ago. For me, this is a very straightforward way to meditate with absolutely no religious connotation. It should be noted that Buddha would probably not have approved of Buddhism. He was adamant that what he taught was a universal “way of living” and that it was compatible with any traditions or rituals.
Why meditate? I see it as a way to develop a steady, resilient core that allows us strength in any situation. Like the bamboo tree, we learn to be flexible yet steadfast. When we are building our physical core in order to have a healthy body we learn to repeat certain exercises and also to balance rest with activity. In the same way, our minds can be trained and we need to respect their need to recuperate and be restored, too. If we ran until we could run no further due to exhaustion it would be normal for us to rest, either by lying down or at least, sitting down and we would not move until we felt able again. It is the same with our minds. We work them all day long, sometimes putting them through grueling exercises and often not allowing for any rest. Then, we wonder why we don’t feel as sharp, why our minds seem to be out of control, racing around yet not being effectual. We become forgetful, can’t seem to reason well, and so on. Our minds need to rest up and recover just like our bodies.
At this point, you may be asking yourself why you can’t simply sleep at night or take a nap and rest your mind. The simple answer is that, of course, you can. If a person could get enough, good-quality sleep, they could probably function quite well. Unfortunately, many people have trouble in that area and sometimes it’s because they simply can’t quiet the mind enough.
Meditation helps us instill discipline into our mental ability. Without it, we are like the untrained puppy – jumping on the furniture, misbehaving, acting out, and trying to figure out what’s right and wrong – metaphorically speaking. Most people tell me that they can’t meditate because their mind jumps around all over the place. We usually call this monkey mind. It swings from idea to idea, never really staying very long in one place, easily distracted, and constantly chattering. This is the nature of the mind without guidance.
If we chastise ourselves for this unruly thinking it is the same as scolding or even beating an animal into submission. While the critter may seem to “behave”, there will be great resentment and a sense of waiting to rebel. So in meditation, we need to come to it with love, courage, and deep compassion for ourselves. Rather than saying to oneself when catching the mind off on a tangent, “Oh, I can’t do this. I’m a failure. My stupid mind/thoughts are all over the place AGAIN,” I recommend first realizing that you have actually noticed that your mind is wandering. This is the introduction to awareness. Then, I find that a helpful phrase is, “Isn’t that interesting”. It implies neither good nor bad and sets us on a less judgmental course.
So, meditation can help quiet the mind AND there are some other bonuses. These can be explained through a brief course in brainwaves (measurable brain activity) – Brainwaves 101:
- Beta brainwaves (fast moving) are associated with active, awake awareness. If we get involved in too much beta-thinking it can be exhausting and it may contribute to increased muscle tension and blood pressure.
- Alpha brainwaves show up during resting time and the beginning of sleep cycles. They are slower than betas.
- Delta brainwaves have the slowest frequency and appear in our deep, dreamless sleep.
- Theta brainwaves are slower than alpha but a little faster than delta. They are present when a person is in a deeply relaxed state, yet the mind is alert. Theta waves are usually linked with a positive mental state.
- Finally, there are Gamma brainwaves that are fastest of all, generally weak and hard to see on an EEG and considered an indicator of intensely focused thought.
During meditation there is a combination of alpha and theta brainwaves. What this means is that while the meditator becomes relaxed and the metabolic rate slows down along with the heart and respiration rates, the mind actually stays awake and alert. The experience is one of calm awareness, which is quite different from “monkey mind”. And where do the gamma brainwaves fit in? Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin has been conducting studies for the past several years where Tibetan monks have had their brainwaves measured during meditation. Not only do the alpha and theta waves show up, but also gamma waves are prevalent. Additionally, a synchronicity between right and left brain waves is apparent which strays from the usual way that right and left brain wave patterns rise and fall independently of each other. Simply put, meditation lowers the body’s energy demand, helps induce a feeling of relaxation, and promotes clear thinking.
The Buddha taught that much of our suffering was caused by cravings and aversions. These are the stories we keep going in our minds – how much we like or dislike something, someone, someplace. When we reach a space where we feel equanimity we are able to simply be with what is. Does this mean that we become zombie-like? Not at all. In fact, when we are really able to be present much of the time, we feel very deeply. This is another important part of meditation. Staying in the moment. This is where we do our authentic living. We have become accustomed to going over the past again and again. Or, we are trying to figure out the future. Both of these are futile exercises leaving us frustrated or worse. The practice of meditation brings us into the present, which is manageable.
How do we meditate? Very simply, actually, yet not so easily. We learn how to be in the moment by connecting with our breathing and sensations in our bodies.
I usually start clients with a body scan. So many people have lost touch with their bodies. This exercise usually takes at least 20 minutes and can last almost an hour. Beginning with either the feet or head, a person is guided through the body and encouraged to feel each part, noticing any sensations or lack of, along the way. It is sometimes the first opportunity a person has to realize how challenging it might be to stay in the present moment and as they notice that they may also experience frustration. This can be a wonderful thing because they might also get to observe where in their body the frustration manifests itself – for example, a feeling in the pit of the stomach, tightness in the chest, etc.
When we move to focusing on the breath I have people watch their breathing, without judging whether it’s too fast, slow, deep, or shallow. Then, we take some deliberately controlled breaths in and out, and finally move on to simply connecting with the breath by focusing on it and noticing when we have become distracted. The idea is not to block out everything else, but to eventually feel like we are in choiceless awareness. We are awake, alert, and we do not allow our minds to take us on elaborate stories and fantasies. Instead of practicing letting go, we work on letting things be.
With practice, we develop the ability to drop down into our centeredness with ease and grace and we develop a practice through practice.
Below is a list of some of my favorite books, in no particular order. While I love them, I usually need to remind myself that this is not an academic exercise. With meditation, I am well aware that I teach what I need to learn or at least, constantly reinforce.
Present Moment, Wonderful Moment by Thich Nhat Hanh
The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh
The Art of Living, Vipassana Meditation by S.N.Goenka
The Art of Meditation by Joel S. Goldsmith
Going on Being by Mark Epstein, MD
Mindfulness in Plain English by Venerable Henepola Gunaratana
Meditation for Busy People by Dawn Groves
Meditation Made Easy by Lorin Roche
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle