“Depression is a common illness worldwide, with an estimated 350 million people affected.” ~ World Health Organization Fact Sheet, April 2016
Over the years, studies have been conducted over benefits of meditation and how it works. Most often cited benefits are related to the areas of stress management, self control and concentration. There is an article in Forbes by Alice Walton (2015), which neatly summarized various distinct researches on how meditation affects our brain. There listed a few interesting conclusions from the studies. Meditation was said to help preserve the aging brain, has effects rival antidepressants for depression, decrease volume of brain cells known to be responsible for fear, anxiety and stress, can help with addiction, and it helps kids in school.
These well meaning publications benefit many by raising their awareness and interests in the practice. But as wisely concluded in the article, meditation is not panacea.
This is an important statement for two main reasons.
One of the reasons being, meditation is a long journey. It is not something that we practice overnight and then it washes all our stresses away. In the world where people expect everything to be straight forward and instant, this can be disappointing. Then, all the appealing benefits are not the utmost outcome of meditation. While it is a simple practice, how it works is never that straight forward.
It is perhaps acceptable to assume that most people relate the word meditate to an image of someone sitting crossed legged with eyes closed in deep concentration. This image is often used to represent peace and calm. So much so that recently I was informed of a newly open premium resort and spa with cozy meditation room as part of the facility. There was a person sitting crossed legged depicted in their communication materials. In other words, peace and calm equals meditation equals sitting cross legged.
Meanwhile, the same practice has also been introduced into corporations as an aid to perform your duties more efficiently with less stress, perhaps your key to success. Busy and ambitious corporate world, peace and relaxing calm of resort and spa, seemingly rather on one end to another of a spectrum, both claim to practice and benefit from meditation. Can it be so? Yes, perhaps. Maybe not.
The thing is, meditation has become a word very loosely applied everywhere. The meditation practice a hermit does in the Himalayan mountains can be very much different from the short session offered in a cozy set up with soft comfortable cushion, soothing smell of incense and calming music in the background. The well intended spirit of bringing the practice into daily life, or the so-called “off the cushion” practice, has turned almost literally everything into meditation. While it truly is, and we shall talk a bit more on this some other time, the idea can be a little confusing.
So what IS meditation? One of the most amusing questions that not only a few people ask when I told them I just returned from one week meditation retreat (or that I practice Yoga) is – “SO, you can levitate?” What and how exactly I was expected to respond is still a mystery to me. Maybe I should seriously confirm so and see what happens.
“I have been a seeker and I still am, but I stopped asking the books and the stars. I started listening to the teaching of my Soul.” ~ Rumi
This is how I would define meditation, regardless of the actual actions that are referred to as meditation; the art of listening to ourselves, to the incessant chatter in our heads, drowning waves of emotions and somewhere some time, the peaceful silence within. Being able to listen to ourselves is a useful skill, from which we would understand what is happening within this existence we casually refer to as ourselves.
“Meditation is putting aside altogether everything that man has conceived of himself and the world.” ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti
In listening to myself, I discovered that everything I see, I see it through frames. These frames were planted in our minds through our ability to perceive and remember. All our previous experiences, habits and norms imposed on us, all these forms solid frames. Trouble is, more often than not, the lenses were either distorted or unclean so we do not see things the way they are. And that includes the way we see others and ourselves. How often do we take ourselves as the wrecked person inside our heads, which we relentlessly try to get rid of? Are we really all that noise in our heads? Or are we really the exterior that we see, nurture and entertain all the time? What about the idea that we are neither?
“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.” ~ Bell Hooks
Habits are usually acted upon without us being aware that we are doing it. It becomes natural and it has become natural for us to distract ourselves all the time. Our gadgets and other electronic devices certainly play a big part in this habit. What happen when we disconnect ourselves from everything and everyone to simply be with ourselves? We start listening to the voices within and learn to be in peace with it. This is the first step in alleviating ourselves from the subtle constant unease of wanting to be anywhere but here, to be with anyone else but oneself. We learn to be content and cease looking outwards to escape from our very selves, from whatever is at any given moment.
There is a saying that I really like:
“You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.” ~ old Zen saying
Seriously, 20 minutes? Surely, in the beginning it can be very challenging to this mind to sit still with something as boring as breaths. A widely used term to describe this restless nature of mind is ‘monkey mind’, indicating how the mind incessantly jumps from one thing to another, all the time. An old friend of mine prefers to see it as puppies instead of monkey. With no particular reasons, I am with him. It is easier to see the mind as restless puppies (than monkey), which just need a bit of watching until they get tired and then decide to rest.
That is exactly why the Zen saying proposed an hour if we are too busy. The busier we are, the more excited the mind become, the more restless the puppies are. It would take longer for the mind to finally give it a rest and begin to settle into the moment. As the mind settles, perhaps, we would stumble into something grander than the mundane, something unknown to this busy limited mind. Otherwise, it is a beautiful practice nonetheless.
A pleasant walk, a journey home….
The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away
We sit together, the mountain and I,
Until only the mountain remains.
~ Li Po