More on Meditation
Meditation can be silent or guided. There are many Bright Lights who explain and teach meditation. We recommend Jon Kabat Zinn or Tara Brach including her How to Meditate pdf. If you already have a mature practice, want to sit on your own silently or with someone else’s guidance that works too.
Here are answers to common questions about meditation from Jon Kabat Zinn, based on my own experience and videos from Susan Piver who teaches meditation and founded the Open Heart Project.
What is meditation?
Meditation is substituting another object of attention for the habitually haphazardly roaming mind. Simply focus on something like your breath instead of the continual cascade of thoughts, commentary and judgements that take up your attention. Instead attention is placed on a sound, object or your breath. When your attention wanders, you notice the distraction, let it go and bring your attention back to your object of attention such as a sound, an object or image, or your breath. That moment of awareness, when you notice that your attention has moved away from your breath, is the heart of the practice.
The three steps in meditation are 1) placing your attention on your breath (object of attention), 2) allowing thoughts to be as they are and 3) when you notice being absorbed in thought, let go and start again. Forgive yourself early and often! Laughing at yourself encouraged!
What are some misconceptions about meditation?
You have to stop thinking? Not at all! Quite the opposite. Your mind is welcome to the party just as it is. What’s interesting is what happens when you learn to just observe your thoughts like the sky watching the clouds. Not reacting but relaxing instead. By just watching – your interior landscape (awareness!) expands, which leads to discoveries like you are more than you think.
Meditation is a form of self-help / self-improvement? No it’s much more than that. First by accepting the form the moment takes – you accept things including yourself just as they are. Meditation is about acceptance of what is – not forcing any particular outcome. Meditation helps us discover who we are – not dictate how to be. Not a life hack, escape or shortcut but quite the opposite – a path to discovering your true nature.
What are the benefits of meditation?
- Activates the parasympathetic (rest & digest!) part of your nervous system that nurtures and balances your well-being
- Decreases the amount of stress related cortisol produced
- Reduces your respiration and heart rate
- Reduces your metabolic rate of expending energy
- Increases blood flow in your brain
- Increases activity in the left pre-frontal cortex of your brain (observed in happier people)
- Strengthens your immune system
How do I know if I’m doing it right? (From Falling Awake – Jon Kabat Zinn)
- If you are resting in awareness you are doing it right, no matter what you are experiencing, whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral
- If you are bored and aware of it, you are doing it right
- If you are frightened, confused or depressed and you are aware of it, you are doing it right
- If your thoughts never shut down and there is an awareness of that in the present moment, and you can, even for a moment be the knowing rather than being carried away in the agitation, then you are doing it right
- If you are indeed carried away by the agitation and the proliferations and fabrications and cascading of the thinking mind and there is an awareness of that, and you can be that knowing in that moment, then you are doing it right
- In fact, as long as you are being kind to yourself and not forcing anything, there is nothing that you could do or that could happen to you that cannot be a worthy part of the practice, if you are aware of it and can give yourself over to trusting and resting in awareness itself rather than be caught up perpetually in the turmoil, the agitation, the clinging, the wanting, and the rejecting of whatever is arising.
There’s a part of me that doubts this is worthwhile?
Of course! Our habitual selves strongly resist the movement to slow down and become a witness to our constant stream of thoughts and emotions. There’s another inner part of us that gets stronger and clearer when we learn to inhabit the space between our thoughts. Doubts are just thoughts. If you let them go like the clouds moving through the sky they’ll move on and disappear. You could say the stronger the doubts the more progress you’re making!
What are common obstacles to practicing meditation? (From Falling Awake – Jon Kabat Zinn)
- Not wanting to
- The body can be squeamish, fidgety, seemingly inconsolably uncomfortable…
- You might easily run into impatience agitation impatience agitation…
- Sensual desire or greed
- Ill will or aversion
- Sloth and torpor
- Restlessness, worry and remorse
- Idealizing your practice setting impossible standards making it into an act of will / aggression with little or no self-compassion and no sense of humor
How does a meditation practice impact my life?
A meditation practice helps you like yourself more, soften to who you are and develop true confidence by accepting, embracing and knowing yourself – the courage to be who you are.
The three continuous steps of meditating create precision, openness and magic!
Placing your attention on your breath cultivates precision, the ability to focus and pay attention. Precision is mindfulness – the ability to place attention on the object of your choosing and hold it there. Meditation helps you see, think, speak, and decide more clearly.
Allowing thoughts to be as they are creating space for true wisdom and insight to emerge. You soften, your heart opens, and you feel more. Openness is a gesture of great bravery! Opening to the realm of possibility which by definition is not full of thought. True wisdom, love, insight, creativity and innovation are not things that can be built – but things that arrive when you create space, cultivate attention and become more receptive to see new things.
When you notice being absorbed in thought and let go you become more attuned to the magic of what’s happening now. Opinions, hopes and fears dissolve. You inhabit the vibrancy and magic of your own life unfolding now. Your creative expression and the life you experience comes out of the wisdom, insight and love you are.
This section consists of direct quotes from Jon Kabat-Zinn speaking about meditation. These quotes talk about the opportunity and benefits meditation offers to help heal ourselves. My favorite quote is the last one, ‘I learned that I am not my thoughts, and by extension I learned that I am not my pain or my suffering.’
These quotes are taken from Healing Emotions Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mindfulness, Emotions and Health edited by Daniel Goleman Chapter 6 Mindfulness as Medicine.
“Nowadays people know about meditation but they have a very incomplete view of it. We want to teach people that meditation is not making your mind blank, but instead is learning to see things as they are and to live with things as they are.”
“That chance is an opportunity to explore on a deep level how they might help themselves. They have sought help from other people in all sorts of places, but we ask, ‘Have you considered the inner resources, perhaps even the wisdom, that already exists in your body and mind? If you can uncover it and develop a way to use that energy, then perhaps, together with your doctors, you can move toward greater levels of health and healing.’ This is not curing, but healing. A cure just magically makes it all better somehow, but healing transforms both body and mind on a deep level. One sees differently and comes to terms with one’s illness.”
“My understanding is that meditation in a larger sense is really a way of being, an ability to generalize the quality of mindfulness. Rather than performing some kind of manipulation of one’s attention at certain times, you develop a continuity of awareness that allows all of your life to become an expression of your meditation practice.”
“I’d like to go very briefly now through some general results of the stress reduction program. If we take all people who were referred over a period of time with various pain problems, and we look at the number of different medical symptoms they report, there is a reduction of 25 percent in the number of symptoms over the eight weeks of the course. If we look at psychological symptoms, such as anger, anxiety, depression, and somatization, or imagining the body to be much worse than it is, we see a reduction of 32 percent in the number of symptoms over eight weeks. These people have had their pain problem for about eight years on the average, and have not previously been very successful at controlling their problem.”
“In follow-up studies of patients who took the meditation training, the number of symptoms remains low over the four years of the study, so there is some evidence that the improvement is maintained over time.” “Ninety-three percent say that four years later, they are still doing something that they learned in the program. Forty-five percent are continuing to practice the formal meditation daily for at least fifteen minutes at a time, at least three times a week. Four years have passed with no reinforcement.”
“Although we see big improvements, very often the most important thing people get out of the program was not what they came looking for. They find something deeper. When we ask what they found in the meditation training program, they mention two things. One I think is very funny: they say ‘the breathing.’ I ask, ‘What do you mean? You were breathing for many years before you began meditation.’ What they mean is they have a new-found awareness of the special quality of breath that relates to a greater sensitivity and awareness of their whole body. Along with the breath comes a sense of greater appreciation for the miracle of having a body, even if the body has a disability. Each breath, each moment, is a miracle, and when you begin to experience that directly, it vitalizes the quality of your life because you stop missing or running through so many of your moments. The other thing they say is, ‘I learned that I am not my thoughts, and by extension I learned that I am not my pain or my suffering.’”