What is meditation?
We all hear about the benefits of meditation. I thought I would share my own lived experience practicing for several years.
Lets start with what the common myths regarding meditation are.
Meditation is concentration
Meditation is thought control
Meditation is to be done in a certain posture and for hours
Meditation running away from problems
Meditation is a religious practice
But is meditation any of the above? Nor really. If not, then what is it, why should we meditate and what are its benefits?
While growing up in India, I had a lot of anxiety and a preoccupation with thoughts about death. It became more intense into my twenties after my daughter was born. I did not have a name for it then. Postpartum depression maybe? Or just the enormity of having responsibility for a baby at 23 years? To cope, I read the few self-help books I could lay my hands on 30 years ago, and they all said “there is no greater fear than fear itself”. I could not understand what this meant then. All I knew was that my fear was a direct result of my thoughts. And this fear was interfering with my ability to be happy. I was always going from one moment of anxiety to another. I could not appreciate anything in my life and enjoy it. I was anxious what the next moment would bring and in that state I had breathlessness and palpitations, I was spiraling downwards and out of control because I was anxious about being anxious. A book, “Why fear?” by the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, offered me the panacea. I read there that I should observe my thoughts. Not try to shut them out. Not try to escape from them. Not try to dull the mind with medication such as anti-depressants or numb it with prayers, mantras and chants. I had been praying desperately and every-time I stopped, the anxiety would return with even greater vengeance. Desperate, I decided to heed his advice and to observe my thoughts. It was very hard to face my fear producing thoughts every minute. My throat became dry and I had unpleasant sensations throughout my body. But I persisted through it with tremendous discipline. It was the instinct to survive that kept me going. The need to keep suicidal thoughts at bay.
Slowly and miraculously over just a year, my anxiety producing thoughts began receding and my reaction to them did not include excruciatingly painful sensations. Not just that. I had mastered a technique and had an experiential understanding that I was not my thoughts. Without even knowing it I had begun to practice mindfulness. Many years later, I found out that this was the very essence of meditation.
As my mind became quieter I grew more interested in yoga and meditation and these became part of my daily routine. I moved to Canada in 1987 and experienced a lot of struggles as a newcomer. My practice helped me cope, and gave me the clarity of mind and confidence to complete law school and to pursue a professional career. But by 2004 I was looking to intensify my practice. That’s when I did my first 10 day meditation course observing noble silence. This had a transformative effect and I will get to that in a moment.
So coming back to mindfulness… If that is what meditation is, then what is it? Meditation is simply being in the present moment and observing everything as it is without interpretation. A recent study done by Harvard University found that on average, a human’s mind wanders 47% of the time. This amounts to half our waking lives. So if we are not present then where are we? We are thinking about the past or about the future. We are not focused on where we are and what we are engaged in at any given time? This means that we are attached to something that has happened or is about to happen. This attachment influences how we react to our present. We do not see the present for what it is and therefore do not react to life’s happenings with an open mind and heart and without judgement.
Let me give you an example. If I was worried about something that happened at work today and my husband asked me a simple question “did you remember to buy milk”? If I am lingering in the past I may snap back with “No I did not. Do you know what a terrible day I had at work? For a change you could have bought it etc”. This would have escalated the issue and resulted in an unwanted argument bringing him and me additional stress. If on the other hand, I was present, I would not be influenced by thoughts about the day’s events or interpret his question as being interrogatory, and would have just responded with a simple — “I did not. I forgot.”
So meditation is about living every moment present to our thoughts and to everyone around us without judgement. With attention to the present, we become intensely aware of our conditioned responses, in the form of our conduct, the changes to our breathing and our bodily sensations, as we encounter life’s situations.
So what are some of meditation’s benefits?
We all take care of our body, our clothes, our hair, our appearance. And yet we do not care enough for that part of us that helps us do everything. Our mind helps us learn, express emotions and manage every aspect of our lives. Every day we allow our mind to be bombarded with thoughts. Our cluttered mind inhibits us from thinking clearly and from solving problems in an open and honest way. Why? Thoughts give expression to our insecurities and selfish desires. These in turn trigger emotions that cloud our judgement and prevent us from seeing the impact of our behaviour on others, which in turn triggers their reaction to our conduct and so on. We are entangled in a vicious cycle.
When we meditate as a practice, besides living each moment mindfully, as in setting aside a few minutes to practice silence and observation we allow the agitation to settle so the mind is still and clear. We allow it to find some peace and quiet. Soon something miraculous begins to happen. We start breaking free of our conscious and unconscious habit patterns. Slowly, we respond to all experiences with equanimity. Since we no longer crave pleasure and avoid pain, we are much more spontaneous. Our decisions are more enlightened without the barrier and fog of our habit patterns dictated by our insecurities and desires. We have greater control over our mind and emotions. All this comes about because we recognize that we are not our egos and that our desires are temporal and will pass.
Meditation helps us cope with stress. However, that makes it sound like a cure for stress. But let us look at this another way? What would happen if we meditated for just 15 minutes every day? Take it from me, our experience of stress will be much less. With fewer thoughts we will not feel rushed. We will not feel a loss of control. We will have all the time to respond in a way that is not reactive. So meditation actually prevents stress. A daily yoga practice that is done mindfully will do the same. Ultimately though, meditation and its benefits are best experienced than explained.
Lastly, about twelve years ago I began to practice Vipassana. I was searching for a structured practice that would commit me to a routine and would offer me opportunities to reinvigorate myself every year. Briefly, Vipassana is meditation as practised by the Buddha that involves observing the breath and bodily sensations in complete silence. I had to go to a 10 day silent retreat to be initiated to it. Its impact on me has been dramatic. Following are three significant changes I have noticed in me.
First change, I react less
Reaction is when we respond without thinking — usually with emotion. When someone says something that is critical of us, we tend to take it personally and say something that is hurtful. For eg, when my daughter says “mom stop telling me how to live my life” I experience a sharp emotional pain which usually manifests as a physical reaction in the body. With Vipassana, I find that I am able to see the source of the pain as not being her, but as being my own reaction. The more I see that the more I am able to have an open and honest relationship with my daughter. So rather than act defensive and say “I am not” or “I am your mother I have every right”, I find myself staying curious and asking “Why do you think/say that? What would you have me do differently?”
Second change, I embrace change more easily
I do find change painful. But as I observe, without judgement, the painful sensations that any prospect of change produces, I also notice that it passes and that everything in life is in a constant state of flux. This makes me bounce back from painful sensations brought on by change much faster. I am more creative and welcoming of new opportunities. When I resist change, wanting to control how things turn out, I am limited, unimaginative, repeating habit patterns and causing myself and others pain.
Third change, I am authentic
We all create an image of who we are for the world and constantly try to live up to it. When I started to be present to my sensations through my practice, it became really important to remain true and authentic. So I stopped trying to do things just because they made me look good and instead began to do things because they were truthful, right and selfless rather than selfish.
When I gave a talk on the above topic at a temple, an eminent Sanskrit scholar who has translated several Upanishads (ancient Hindu teachings) and the Yogasutras asked me to ponder over who I had referred to as “I” throughout the talk. So to close the loop, all of the above changes are coming about with less and less identification of myself as the body, mind and ego and more as the witness that observes. This is a shift from a notion of doer-ship to one of recognizing my body as the instrument through which consciousness manifests and life happens. With my yoga and meditation practice, I have just scratched the surface and have already seen great changes in my life. All of you who meditate must have similar experiences. Please feel free to share them.
To find out more about Vipassana, please go to http://www.dhamma.org