Tuesday, September 15, 2015

What meditation can and cannot do for you

Here we go again…another blog about some vague strategy to calm down, relax and live better.  But should we be dismissing meditation so easily?  Is meditation just for the ‘enlightened’?

Well actually meditation comes in various formats. 

Simple mindfulness, or full attention to your present actions, is something we all practice from time to time.  Mindfulness is one step along the journey and meditative practices can help to increase our focus and our ability to contribute to the present.  

Take it one step at a time.  Note how carefully you carry out everyday chores, how fully you can listen to the next person who talks to you and learn to give each the time and attention it deserves. We all know the value of an action completed carefully rather than haphazardly. We all appreciate  people who know how to listen fully and with genuine interest– it is nothing new to anyone of us. The charm of mindfulness is that you can practice it anywhere and anytime, even while having a shower...

In the words of Tich Nath Hahn “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.’’

Later stages of meditation aim at creating a different type of consciousness, an awareness of our interconnectedness with all beings. 

Meditation can also be used to examine a problem, to follow it as it travels through our consciousness and creates blockages, to identify where we at fault if at all, what can be solved and what needs to be accepted.

As you evolve in your practice you may want to incorporate prayer into your practice.  They are used to ask for protection, to draw positive energy to a difficult issue and as a tool to keep the mind focused. What prayers you use depends on your religious convictions.  And if you have none there is still a lot of potential in meditating on nothingness – feel free to explore it.

I am one of those who believe that meditation should be taught in schools.  We all know the benefits:  a better ability to modulate stress, increased self-confidence, clarity in thought and improved focusing ability.  Meditators appear to be more energised, with lower anxiety levels which lead to better rest. Overall meditation promotes tolerance of the little (or big) annoyances   that life – being what it is - inevitably throws at us. 

But why is the state of ‘presence’ so elusive?  Why is it so hard to sit still? We all know the scenario – the minute we decide to sit, be silent and meditate, a myriad of thoughts start to crowd our mental landscape.  Our brain suddenly becomes as crowded as the shelves of a convenience store.  Our attention wanders off to what we want to do, what we think we should be doing, what we think we should have done in the past or some other random fancy thought.  How then to curb the tsunami of thoughts and restore rest and balance to our overworked mind?

 Start slow.  A couple of minutes a day will be enough initially.  It is useless to push yourself into a no-comfort zone until you are truly primed and are familiar with what your mind can withstand.

 Stick to routine, however short. Picking the same time and space to meditate every day will help the mind to adjust a little faster.  We are after all creatures of habit.

  Learn to attend to yourself.  Get in touch with how you are feeling and listen carefully.  It may not be the right time – then postpone your session to another quieter time.  If you are hungry, thirsty or rushed, treat yourself with gentleness and give yourself what you need before attempting meditation. Trust yourself on what you need.   Later on your mind will settle down and collect itself more easily. 

 Your breath is your metronome.  You have heard this said a million times.  Follow your breath.  It will guide into relaxation and through the landscape of your mind.  When your attention wanders off simply put your awareness on your next breath and stay with it for a few moments.

 Don’t expect your mind to present you with a bed or roses.  True meditation is challenging.  That’s why you have to work at it gradually.  Meditation will bring up issues from the past.  It will open up the proverbial can of worms.  But it will also show you ways to release these pent up memories and patterns which may often manifest as physical tensions or unconscious behaviours. 

 You are not a guru.  Shy away from claims or beliefs that meditation can make you more popular, powerful or superior to others in some way.  Be aware that is just a common stumbling block to those who embark on the quiet self-reflective path of meditation.  We all like to feel special and we are all prey to vanity.  Well… meditation is not about being special.  It is about living as well as we can, as respectfully as we can, as smartly as we can (here I need to make a distinction between ‘smart’ and ‘cunning’.  If it is not ethical, then it is not truly intelligent). 

‘’...a son or daughter of good family who studies the Dharma ...should not study with the aim of boasting, debating, or arguing, but only to attain liberation. Studying in this way, with intelligence, he or she will have little pain or exhaustion.’’

 You are not a follower.  Meditation is a personal and intimate practice.  If you decide to practice in a group make sure you are in the company of people whom you can trust and feel safe with.  A good and experienced teacher can give you worthwhile guidance. But no one needs to dictate what you think or be pushy about how you practice (unless you’re a Zen Bhuddist monk!  But that’s a different ball game…). Ultimately your meditation practice has to suit you individually

Meditation is not about living on cloud nine isolated from all that brings us pain.  Meditation is a tool for self-knowledge. It is about embracing life as it is and acting honourably, practically and compassionately.

Interested in meditation?  Here are some links to get you started.  

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