Meditation has truly transformed my life in recent years. But, in sharing this revelation with friends, it rapidly became apparent how misinformed Western culture is. The most noticeable being a visceral reaction, as if I’d joined a religious cult which worships some weird God or moved to a hippy community with a fresh pair of Birkenstocks. Neither could be further from the truth (especially as I will never wear sandals!), so allow me to clarify while questioning what could possibly be more valuable, normal and natural than trying to understand your own mind?
The most common misnotion is that meditation is some on/off switch you flip to go into a deep trance or make your mind go completely blank. You are catapulted into a nirvana state, free of thought and worry with total peace and inner calm. Sounds good, right? While meditation can undoubtedly lead to deep relaxation and quieting of the mind, the goal is not to eliminate all thought and push everything away. This can lead to repression and/or suppression of thoughts, feelings and emotions which can actually cause harm. Meditation is not about blocking things out but, rather, a state of mind that channels a different relationship to your thoughts. It’s a way of being that allows you to observe your active mind with the ability to be aware of the endless stream flowing in your head. You remove yourself from the waterfall of thoughts, now with the ability to observe those very thoughts but not be immersed in them. This is incredibly powerful, as you soon discover you are not your thoughts and have the ability to manage and control what affects you. This profound shift literally changed my life.
Working within this framework, the definition of a “good” or “bad” meditation practice shifts. We would all love to enter a profound state of relaxation every time, but often we find our mind agitated, anxious, impatient, angry, frustrated or just bored in order to achieve bliss. But by embracing all these mood states – in the present moment – it can offer a rich opportunity for insight and growth into understanding our minds. We become aware of how easily we can get wound up and caught in these emotions which color our capacity to see clearly. If we can simply observe our thoughts, with purposeful awareness, and not cling or attach to them, we discover we are not prisoners of them. We no longer are held hostage of expectations, concepts and desires and over time we learn to recognize they pass thru our minds like lazy clouds in a vast blue sky. Most vanish as quickly as they emerge, evaporating into thin air. But it’s usually the thoughts with toxic elements that we grab onto and stubbornly refuse to let go such as anger, envy, fear, anxiety, rage – these are the destructive dark clouds that we find ourselves embroiled in as we dwell on them so intensely that we get into mental states of trouble.
With consistent practice, the mind gradually quiets and calms as we observe in awareness all the action floating by without attachment. We no longer immerse ourselves in these downward spirals of negative feelings and emotions. Yes, they may still exist but they don’t have that emotional intensity and this allows the transition from thinking, solving and doing to simply a way of being because you are no longer caught up in all the frenzy stirring in your mind – no longer reconciling the challenges of yesterday or obsessing about the events of tomorrow. Meditation offers blissful inner peace when one has the mindful power to observe that yesterday has passed and tomorrow has not arrived. All that tension and stress goes, you decompress and…just…be.
Meditation also flies in the face of our goal-oriented society where we are wired to achieve results. We demand action, a start and a finish line with a measurable way to gauge progress. The paradox of meditation is that it’s not about winning or getting a gold medal – in fact, you’re not competing against anyone, not even yourself. Nor are you trying to get anywhere else – where you are and as you are is how you want to be. Nike says Just do it but meditation says Just be. Everything within you will resist this initially, but as you develop and refine your mind and its capacity for seeing and knowing, this newfound awareness will allow you to step aside from the rat race of thoughts whirling in your mind and observe the activity with vivid clarity. By getting out of your own way, you begin to recognize patterns and habits that constantly stream in your head and caused dis-ease in your life. They now pass by like a soft breeze, leaving a stillness with amazing tranquility.
Lastly, many view meditation as a passive, do nothing, perhaps even lazy, discipline – like a day at the beach or magical cure for insomnia that will lull you to sleep. After all, how hard can it be to sit in lotus position gazing nowhere? But the reality is it requires mental energy as you need to be in an alert and proactive state as you harness and channel the cascade of thoughts in new ways. Mind and body must sync up (one seamless whole) so you need to assume a dignified posture as you delve into your inner architecture to sustain mental freshness. This is precisely why yoga positions can complement your meditation practice as it requires an active effort to manage your body signals, aches and pains while taming the mind to stay present in the moment.
Meditation requires no equipment, tools or special clothing – just purpose, intent and proper attitude to channel what is already within you. My hope is this may open your mind (no pun intended) to give it a try… Birkenstocks optional.