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According to some of the most recent government surveys, more than 15% of adults in the United States meditate regularly, and up to 40% have tried meditation at least once in their lives. With an estimated adult population in the U.S. of about 250 million adults, that amounts to more than 35 million regular practitioners of meditation in the land of the stars and stripes only!
Why do they bother? Because, to state it as succinctly as possible, it works. Or, to extrapolate further using the words of Stephen Bodian – licensed psychotherapist, teacher and practitioner of meditation for more than 40 years, and the bestselling author of “Meditation for Dummies” – because “the simple practice of sitting down and turning your attention inward can do wonders for your body and your mind.”
In essence, meditation is precisely that and its basics can be summed up in a single sentence: “just sit in a comfortable position, straighten your back, breathe deeply, and rest your attention on the coming and going of your breath.” However, the same holds true for poetry and painting, but there are still many people who prefer spending years learning the subtleties and depths of these arts to just playing around with words and paints – which, Bodian makes clear, can be fun and rewarding as well.
That’s why “Meditation for Dummies” – contrary to what its title says – is aimed at both amateurs and experienced meditators. As is our summary – on to it!
Even though its popularity in the West is quite a modern phenomenon, meditation dates back to our earliest ancestors. And no, we’re not talking about Buddha or the Indian yogis, but about the first wonder-eyed members of the homo sapiens species gazing at the starry sky or resting in silence around a communal fire.
If you want us to get more specific than that, allow us to move tens of millennia afterward and visit the tribal shamans in hunter-gatherer cultures, justly deemed by Bodian as “the first great meditators.” By focusing their minds through drumming or rhythmic chanting and dancing in simple, repetitive steps – sometimes using hallucinogenic plants as well – these men and women were the first to consciously seek and enter altered states of consciousness known as trances. Case in point: some of the earliest cave paintings (some of them dating back at least 15,000 years) depict figures lying on the ground in meditative absorption or shamans being transformed into wild animals.
It would take humanity about 10,000 years to structure these experiences into a comprehensive and transferable body of knowledge. As everybody knows, this happened in India, where priests first started focusing on their breath and practicing yoga in an attempt to start a communication with the divine and tread the path of blissful union.
It was out of this tradition that Buddhism sprung in the sixth century before Christ. At the heart of its “how-to-transcend-suffering” philosophy lay a new and more holistic type of meditation – now called mindfulness – founded on four tenets: awareness of the body, awareness of feelings, awareness of thoughts and mind-states, and awareness of the laws of experience (i.e., the relationships between what we think and what we experience).
In the centuries that followed, the early teachings of Buddhism evolved into two different Indian schools (the elitist Theravada and the more democratic Mahayana), before sweeping across South East Asia, Tibet, China and Japan where they endured even more changes to give birth to several new traditions, most notably Ch’an (Zen in Japanese) and Vajrayana Buddhism, which took the practice of meditation to new heights.
Vajrayana Buddhism (“the diamond way”) is a form of Buddhism that developed in Tibet out of the meeting between Indian Buddhism and the indigenous Tibetan religion called Bonpo. Its objective is to teach its practitioners through mindfulness meditation and other energy-related rituals borrowed from Indian tantra – not only to eliminate negative feelings but to transform them directly into wisdom and compassion.
On the other hand, Zen – a unique blend of Mahayana Buddhism and Chinese Taoism – emphasizes austerity and “direct, wordless transmission of the enlightened state from master to disciple – sometimes through behavior that, by ordinary standards, would be considered eccentric or even bizarre.”
It was Zen Buddhism that introduced the seemingly unsolvable puzzles called koans, the most famous one among them being “What is the sound of one hand?” Their objective is not for one to find a solution, but, through incessant contemplation, find awareness and meaning (dubbed satori by the Japanese).
From Japan, Zen made its way to the art halls of 19th century France, North America, and, by way of the Beat generation of the 1950s, set the stage for the recent explosion of interest in the discipline. And now, about seven millennia after Indian monks first discovered its benefits, you can find meditation everywhere: in the classroom, in the workplace, in the medicine schoolbooks. And that’s an exceptionally wonderful thing!
There’s probably no need to tell you why, is there? Even though the world has always tended to be chaotic and stressful, modern times have brought these developments to some new heights, resulting not only in billions of distraction-full and pleasure-free lives but also in the rise of crippling medical conditions, such as depression and anxiety disorders.
Over and over again, scientific studies have demonstrated that meditation is not only a great antidote to these stressful times, but is also an all-around helper, reducing both intangible psychological states – such as alienation and disconnection – and also very measurable health markers such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Also, it makes people more creative and more empathetic while helping them manage their stress and pain better. This, ultimately, means that people who meditate are not only healthier than those who don’t but also much happier and tend to lead more purposeful and balanced lives.
The main mechanism by which meditation achieves this is quite simple: it insists and strives to refocus your awareness from the “what-ifs” of your past and the “maybe-I-shoulds” of your future to the “here and now” of the present, the only place where your life is actually happening. There are many ways you can achieve this, but the best one is to turn your attention inward, because it is the outer world – the voices of your family and co-workers, the look in other people’s eyes, the latest news, the messages appearing on your computer screen – that seduces you out of your bliss.
Achieving this is not that difficult and can start with a simple relaxation technique, such as closing your eyes and imagining yourself taking a warm shower or suddenly being transported in a safe, protected, peaceful place.
The next step to extract yourself from the external world is to let go of your expectations and start concentrating on your realities, i.e., what’s happening inside your body daily. To do so, start counting your breaths slowly and vigilantly while sitting upright with your legs crossed. Allow them to delineate the limits of your awareness and knowledge for at least a quarter of an hour. There – you’ve already started meditating.
Calming yourself on a Tuesday night with the help of meditation is one thing, but being a regular practitioner of meditation is completely another. You see, meditation – just like many other things worth doing – is all about discipline: it makes much more sense to meditate every day for 5 minutes than meditating just one day for about half an hour. Quantitatively, the minutes spent meditating are the same, but qualitatively, the latter would make very little difference to the quality of one’s life.
If you want to improve the effect (and success) of your meditation practices, there are a few other things you should consider besides regularity. Some of these are:
Prepare your body for meditation in ten quick steps:
arrange your legs;
lengthen and straighten your spine;
rock your body from side to side like a pendulum;
rock your body from front to back;
tilt your pelvis slightly forward and soften your belly;
tuck your chin gently;
rest your tongue on the roof of your mouth and breathe through your nose, if possible;
rest your hands on your thighs or in your lap;
relax your body from head to toe, letting go as much as possible of any tension or discomfort; and
begin your meditation.
Create a sacred space. Even though meditating in nature is better than meditating at home, if you are like most people, the former is rarely an option. The good news is that meditation can be as relaxing at home – if you pick the right spot. It should be neither too dark nor too light, relatively quiet and away from traffic or anything that reminds you of work. You get bonus points if you adorn this place with “objects with special meaning and resonance for you” – which is Bodian definition of an altar!
Choose comfort over passion. Meditation – even if you’re part of a class – is not a fashion show, so don’t spend too much time thinking when it comes to your clothes. The only thing you need to remember is to keep your clothing loose and roomy and avoid constricting your breathing or your circulation in any way.
Eat lightly and drink even lighter. Big meals make us drowsy, and coffee makes us agitated. Stay away from them as much as you can – but especially during the hours before meditation. We’re not even going to mention other mind-altering substances: indulging them usually adds to the burden of stress which meditation strives to eliminate from your life.
Meditate whenever you like and as long as you want to. There are no special rules as to when and how long you should meditate: just like sex, it depends on one’s predilections, but, on almost any given day, it is far better to have at least some of it than none at all.
When you learn a new language, the ultimate goal is to one day be able to speak it fluently. When you learn how to play the guitar, the goal is to one day become a Hendrix or a Clapton. Interestingly enough, the goal of meditation is quite the opposite, that is to say, to forget everything you know and attain what Zen master Shunryu Suzuki refers to as a “beginner’s mind.”
“In the beginner’s mind,” Suzuki writes, “there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” A beginner’s mind is open to whatever arises, free from expectations, spacious and spontaneous, and primordially aware. In other words, it is the mind of a child, curious and infinite.
In the modern Western world, growing up basically means losing this beginner’s mind. Everything you’ve experienced, everything you’ve ever felt – positive or negative – sets a limit to your existence and your brain. That is why meditation is often difficult. Sometimes it gets even harder: these feelings turn into habitual practices, something Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield calls “insistent visitors.” In essence, they are the ghosts of your past. And just like ghosts, they are there because of some unfinished business.
Fortunately, meditation teachers have developed a sort of a proton pack, a set of techniques that can help you unravel your habitual patterns and allow you to become your personal ghostbuster:
Name your “tunes”. Identify the things that replay in your awareness while you’re trying to meditate or do something else.
Expand your awareness. These things may be just the tip of the iceberg: look deeper.
Feel your feelings. Think of the ghost-analogy: the persisting feelings endure because you’ve never allowed them to pass through you and leave.
Notice resistance and attachment. What you resist, persists – so don’t.
Find the wisdom. These habitual patterns have been with you for a long time: they certainly have something to teach you. See what it is.
Get to the heart of the matter. Stick your head into the demon’s mouth. If it’s too traumatic, don’t do it by yourself and ask for some help.
Infuse the stuck place with being. Find meaning in your negative habitual patterns by framing them within the wholeness and completeness of the existence.
The more you practice the above, the more skilled you’ll become in detecting negative patterns before you get stuck. Thus, you’ll grow to become freer and less reactive and, eventually, you’ll once again attain that beginner’s mind against whose beginlessness, patterns are, by definition, both alien and fleeting.
As explained in the introduction, “Meditation for Dummies” is something in between two extremes, functioning both as an introductory course for novices and a well-thought-out reminder for advanced meditators. And that’s quite wonderful, because (as many of the unfortunately-titled “for dummies” series of books do) it allows you to use it – with an emphasis on use – following your needs and intentions, as well as your passion and level of interest. Hopefully, we’ve achieved something similar with our summary.
Whatever you’re doing, stop doing it right now. Close your eyes, relax a bit, and start breathing slowly while counting your breaths. There. For a moment, you experienced the present in all its majesty. Felt good, didn’t it?
Stephen Bodian is an international meditation teacher, author, and psychotherapist specialized in stress management and positive psychology. He began practicing Zen in 1969 while still in college, was ordained a Zen monk in 1974, and... (Read more)
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