I probably don’t have to sell you on the idea that it’s a good thing to exercise periodically. But I imagine it would be a little more difficult to sell you on the idea that we need to work on our minds as often or more then our abs! Most of us have neglected working out the mind to the degree that we have become so obese we hardly recognize ourselves sometimes. Mindfulness meditation is a very practical method to get our minds back in shape. In fact it is one of the most essential practices to nearly every ancient spiritual tradition. Many have heard of meditation and are discovering the practice as a means to clear the brain chatter that is responsible for so much unnecessary bulk in our heads. In fact meditation even has powerful affects on chronic pain. A study done at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found meditating for one hour has a powerful effect on the brain for reducing perception of pain and deactivating areas of the brain that process pain. In study findings published 4/6/11 in the Journal of Neuroscience, meditation reduced pain intensity 40 percent, surpassing the effect of drugs like morphine! So what is mindfulness meditation?
My discovery of meditation was in Portland Oregon, in a Zen Buddhist Monastery I attended in order to learn the basics. I wasn’t interested in becoming a monk and shaving my head or wearing robes, but I was interested in studying my mind and I knew meditation was a prime tool to do that. Every week I would go, make a student sized donation to the wood box at the entrance and find a suitable cushion facing a wall among both monks and lay people. I would cross my legs and just sit watching my mind go through a variety of chatter, including some monstrous fantasies of super-human abilities that I imagined were probable skills if I “just kept this up.” As I sat, more and more extraneous thoughts began bubbling up to the surface of my conscience. It was pretty fascinating experiencing this part of myself. My mind is creating all these thoughts, yet I’m still able to watch them like a movie. Sometimes there’s more sometimes less. Every now and again it was completely silent. Little did I know, this was a basic, but profound discovery. Who is this “watcher” that is able to view all these thoughts that spontaneously arrive and depart? Where do these thoughts come from?
Mindfulness meditation was the discovery of Prince Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, in the sixth century B.C. who exclaimed that “life is suffering”, and sought to find a solution. He found that when you no longer try to hold on to what feels good, or work to avoid what feels bad, you end suffering by relating to it differently. This is similar to identifying stress in our life as being the “bad guy”, when in fact the “bad guy” is how you are relating to a stressor in a way that makes it feel painful. I am sure you have experienced when something unfavorable happens in a group of people and some take the experience really hard and others don’t. Different people relate differently to the exact same stressor, but people incorrectly identify the experience of the stressor as “stress”, so they say, “That stresses me out”. It is more correct to exclaim, “that experience caused me to identify resistance to an emotion I’m not entirely comfortable with.”
In the beginning meditation allows one to experience the difference between the “small you” that creates all the mental noise and the “bigger you” that has the ability to watch the noise. Through practice the “small you”, becomes more and more transparent, leaving a “big you” left to experience life as it is rather then being filtered and colored so severely by the knee jerk responses of “small you”. The small you is all the programming toward life, yourself and others, such as self-judgement, shame, guilt, fear and other coping mechanisms and neuroses that cloud our ability to see life as it really is from our “true self”, the “big you”. Meditation is learned while sitting on a cushion, but the practice is taken into everyday life into every moment and never actually ceases. When you are angry and you remember to observe the pure emotion of anger, it diminishes very quickly because you allow it to arrive and depart in its pure form, and not attach things to it.
You see, not only do we feel emotion, we have a tendency to have a hundred armed soldiers accompanying the emotion. For instance, a situation may allow us to feel anger, but it doesn’t stop there, we begin to let the mind run wild and begin thinking about why it is “that person’s’ fault I feel this way”, and if x,y, and z were different then a,b, and c would have been better, and on it goes. If you need a lesson in this, watch a small child, they are experts at feeling pure emotion without attachments. Something bad happens and they cry like a banshee, then the experience ends and they are happily playing again as if nothing ever happened. The older the child gets, the longer it takes to “recover” from the bad experience because as the psyche develops their “small you” starts attaching things to the experience and the emotion is held on to for a longer period of time. The experience of emotion must serve its purpose to bring your attention to something in your life that has caused resistance, but beyond that, it is to be released as suddenly as it arrives.
This is the practice of mindfulness meditation. Every single moment is an opportunity to practice this. Just like sitting meditation, if you find your mind has wondered, you bring it back to a quiet state. Moment to moment, day after day after day. So why should I devote time to this? Well, many reasons, but the most important is you end up finding a very true part of yourself, which is really what you are looking for all the time, you just may not realize it, or didn’t know where to look. As the Zen saying goes, “a person goes out looking for a donkey, riding a donkey.” What you are most earnestly looking for, you already have.