Believing that you can’t meditate is kin to stating that you not creative. Both statements are wrong!
For meditation and creativity are present each day, every day, in the care we take in how we live.
Cutting an apple can be artistic and at the same time very meditative. Walking in a quiet place can lead to creative thought, as well as silencing the inner dialogue through meditation.
In this post I would like to explore why you might consider meditation if you are not already practicing, and how you might go about learning to meditate.
A broader definition of meditation
An excellent post on BeliefNet suggests that you use everyday happenings as an entrance into meditation: gardening, taking a warm bath, sitting quietly, resting after a workout. All of these can be meditative in nature.
They suggest that ordinary activities such as taking the moments spent waiting in line at the bank can be a time of conscious relaxation.
In fact, a noted Buddhist monk, Tich Na Hahn (see Walking Meditation ) suggests a ‘tail light meditation’ whereby you use the tail lights of the car ahead of you to focus your attention, while you wait in rush hour traffic on the local freeway.
Why is meditation helpful?
Our mind talks to itself. And sometimes it partakes in several conversations simultaneously. When we focus on one task such braking for a careless driver ahead of us, the mental streams converge into one river of attention. Then, as the moment passes, our mind returns to being a ‘drunken monkey,’ skittering here and there without purpose or pattern.
The key is intentionality. Through the discipline of meditation we can direct our attention at will, silencing the clamoring voices inside. Meditation helps us learn to focus, not only in emergency situations, but throughout our daily lives. This mental discipline heightens the ability to concentrate on the moment, to solve problems, to write with greater clarity, to bring all power of attention to the person standing next to us.
Meditation has many voices
Meditation has many valid ways of practice. When we first think of meditation we may be drawn to the religious significance. The Dalai Lama and Buddhist monks. Or perhaps the mystics of the Middle Ages, living in stone hermitages, talking to no one.
Such practice still exists. A powerful movie I recently viewed Into Great Silence/Le Grand Silence, winner at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, followed the practices at the Grande Chartreuse monastery for a year.
At first I was disturbed by the lack of dialogue and the slow pace of the film, but as I settled in to watch the film, a great sense of peace came over me. For several hours I settled deeper into a silence broken only by prayer, song, and natural rhythms of life in the monastery. I was sorry when it ended and wanted to rewind and begin again.
Meditation can also exist without any religious connotations at all. Herbert Benson in the The Relaxation Response, describes ways of entering practice that were cognitive behavioral: “Do this and you will feel better”. Millions did, and have!
Paying attention to the puppy mind
A new puppy can be entertaining as it darts here and there, yapping wildly, pouncing on a shadow or chasing a butterfly. But there is a good reason why obedience training does not start until four months or so, and then only for short periods of time with constant repetition. The undisciplined puppy is simply not ready before than.
Our minds are a little like that puppy. Without intentional training in mental discipline, it is very hard for us to concentrate on anything for a long period of time. Although we think we are focused totally, we aren’t! At the same time we are pondering the next step in the work project, our minds are also perseverating on the errands to run after work, the conversation we just had with our boss, rehearsing a comeback to the office bully.
And the same exact piece dialog will repeat itself, word for word. If we are majorly stressed about future anxieties—an unexpected bill to pay, a family member who is ill, the same thoughts will return over and over, like one of those ducks-on-a-string that children buy at the fair.
Although the media has made us aware of the war Vets with Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome, we all suffer from a form of stress trauma at many points in our lives. Anytime an event has a strong emotional anchor, usually negative, we will relive the happening over and over, without regard for time:
Childhood abuse can be relived at any time. A mugging, an auto accident, being fired at work, a historic tragedy such as 9/11 can produce an internal dialog in full living color. Stimulus and response may be triggered by an odd smell, a song fragment, or a tone of voice at any point in the future.
Don’t do as I do
Hearing all of the good things about meditation, several years ago I decided to give it a try. I’d already gotten Benson’s book and it wasn’t doing too much for me. But I still thought the idea had merit, so I signed up for a three-day meditation retreat at a local Center.
The activities were lead alternatively by a Buddhist monk dressed all in white and a Franciscan friar in brown. After brief introductions they announced that the rest of the weekend would be spent in total silence—even meals.
They led us into a room where black zafus, or meditation cushions, were set in a circle, waiting for us. For the next three days we meditated for hours at a time. Then at the sound of the gong we would get up, stretch, then do walking meditation in the gardens. Later, we’d have a silent meal, and then return to sit once more.
By the middle of the first morning my behind was numb and my mind was playing this steady litany of complaints. “I can’t believe you got us into this.” “I’m missing the Raiders’ game on TV.” “I’m hungry.” “I can’t feel my foot.” “That guy next to me is snoring. ” “I want to go h-o-m-e.” The last was wailed, I swear, by some five-year old lurking deep inside me.
When I tried to ignore the endless chatter it only cranked up in intensity and volume. I mentally shouted, “Shut up!” and there was a moment of surprised silence before the cacophony renewed its chorus. I was ready to quit by late afternoon, but social embarrassment and stubbornness kept me glued to the cushion. If everybody else could stay with it, I could, too.
It wasn’t until the middle of the second day that I was so tired that I just let go. I thought, I don’t really care anymore, I thought. Let’s just relax and do this thing.
For the first time, I started to breathe. And then I felt the fear which had hidden behind all the chatter. I had an absolute terror that if I let go I would cease to exist. That I would either dissolve into a universal Black Hole or run screaming from the room.
I did neither, of course, and over the course of the next few days, I learned that release could be incredibly relaxing. By exploring my inner thought process, I also eventually, learned to meditate.
There are easier ways to learn meditation
Because I was such a control nut, I had to bludgeon myself into submission before meditation would work for me. But there are much, much easier ways to do it.
The noted writing teacher James Moffett suggests that we all have our entry points into meditation: For the visual person it might be guided imagery. For those wanting to go even further, he suggests the use of a Yantra, or circular mandala, such as Jung designed, or such as the Navajo culture uses in Sand Paintings. There, the person fixates on a complex image and internalizes it to focus on with eyes closed.
Often the puppy mind can be diverted. As one friend phrased it, “give the dog a bone to worry with.” This entails giving the mind a point of focus. It can be visual, such as a candle flame, or verbal, such as a mantra, or single phrase repeated over and over. Thus the mind is occupied and not flitting here and there. Indeed, this can be the effect of repeating a religious phrase or using an object such as a Rosary. With repetition comes the settling into a deeper consciousness.
Sometimes it is just a matter of listening to the inner chatter without judgment. You remain sitting quietly, mentally observing the thoughts as they come floating by as leaves on a stream. The key is not to engage in the thoughts, just watching them pass by.
Gradually, over time, the stream becomes less cluttered, and then the current eventually stops, and the individual is left with what Ira Progoff in At a Journal Workshop> describes as the Clear Pool of the Unconscious.
Meditation as a way to tap into a deeper consciousness
James Moffitt has suggested that meditation may indeed be the mediating factor between inner speech and outer expression. He has described series of stages, whereby we go from outer: listening to verbal conversations, to inner: watching our inner dialog, to focused inner dialog, to complete inner silence. The cycle is then reversed, as the individual then returns to the outer world through external speech or writing.
Researchers have found that individuals who meditate on a regular basis have more original thoughts, are able to speak more cogently, and can write more fluently. Frequent meditators also develop the capacity to face the stressors of the world with more equanimity and peace.
Suggestions for practice
Meditation does not need to be long, but it needs to happen at regular intervals. Try these techniques to gradually ease into a regular practice.
- Set up 10 minutes to meditate at the beginning of your day, or after dinner in the evening, several times a week.
- Gradually lengthen this so that you may be meditating 20-30 minutes on a daily basis, if possible.
- You do not need special equipment such as a zafu cushion. Meditation can be done simply sitting in a chair.
- Close the door and leave all pets, children, and significant others on the other side. Tell them that you will be back, soon, ready to concentrate on the issues of the day.
- Set a timer if you like, and check to be sure it is running before you start.
- Focus on the breath, watching as it moves in and out.
- Sit quietly, observing your inner thoughts.
Knowing how to meditate can strengthen and calm you to face the challenges of today’s stressful world.