Do you find it disturbing when you hear someone nearly bragging about feeling exhausted and stressed out? And then realize he/she is the twentieth person you’ve heard talk like that just recently. And then realize that you empathize with them all, because you are in the same boat. We boast of our ability to multi-task. We try to out-do the other person’s list of to-dos. We carry our mini-computers, otherwise known as “smart phones”, and respond instantly to whatever chimes or chirps it makes, even at dinner with loved ones, while walking with our kids, while working out. We say “yes” to every request for fear of being labeled ‘weak’ or ‘can’t-handle-it’. Because it’s all so important.
I’m sure you’ve heard of mindfulness meditation by now. It’s a big thing, one more thing for your already too long task list, to fit into your day, to buy new clothes for, to seek out a guru, and don’t forget the cushion. It’s the thing to end your stress, calm your mind, settle the WWIII going on at home, help you get a good night’s rest. Or is it?
What is meditation? Meditation is a practice of training or focusing the mind in order to be present with Now, with what is before you in this moment. It brings clarity to an unfocused mind that jumps from thought to thought constantly – what is often called ‘monkey mind’. While meditation may be a hot topic currently, it has been practiced for centuries by many cultures and religions, and in various ways. Mindfulness meditation or “mindfulness” as a practice is really the same as plain old meditation, but maybe a more acceptable term for those who associate meditation with a specific religion. Mindfulness is the label popularized in the West by a program started by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, where patients with severe medical problems learned to meditate to help alleviate some of those problems. It’s not just for those with stress or health problems, but is good for anyone looking for self-improvement.
One does not have to identify with a religion or movement to practice meditation. Benefits of a regular practice include more calmness, better clarity, reduced anxiety and stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and more compassion and awareness of self and those around you. It takes time to build up a good practice and reap the benefits of it, and of course not everyone experiences meditation in the same way. But those who stick with it definitely find it worthwhile. Much research is being done to study and measure actual impacts of meditation on various physical and mental health issues.
There are many methods of meditation, and since I am not a trained instructor in the art of meditation but only a novice practitioner, I will not elaborate on those. Suffice to say no special equipment, clothing, or education is necessary. A dedicated time in a quiet space is all one really needs. There are many books, classes, audio programs, and online programs that help people learn to meditate, and much information on the web about what it is and is not. Some guides will strongly recommend you begin with a qualified teacher and other guides tell you to jump right in. I have read many books and online articles on how to meditate and listened to several guided meditations, but always return to the method I initially learned. It’s a simple practice – I start my day with 20-30 minutes to sit and follow my breath, not trying to not think but keeping focus on my breathing, in and out. I like mornings as that is when I am least interrupted or disturbed by activity or noise. Did I mention that I am a novice? Yes, my monkey mind is far from tamed but I do feel progress in being able to focus on what is right in front of me.
One caution I will state: if you are someone with deep emotional or mental disturbances, I absolutely recommend working with a trained instructor who can guide you, as sometimes looking deep within oneself can stir up deep memories that are painful or frightening.
Some of the books I have read and will suggest are those by Pema Chodron (How To Meditate), Jon Kabat-Zinn (Wherever You Go, There You Are), and Thich Nhat Hanh. Wikipedia has good entries about ‘meditation’ and about ‘mindfulness’. As well, the web has thousands of entries on the subject, some with detailed instructions, some with guided meditations. Explore for yourself, and give meditation a try. You may find it is just what you need!