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What is meditation? Why would a nice person like me want to do it?

Most of us are fully immersed in our stream of consciousness. More accurately, the "stream" of thoughts and feelings is like a whitewater river: everything comes so quickly that we're carried downstream by the current. We're so immersed it's hard to notice what's around us. Tumbling head over heels, consumed by our thoughts, seems normal and natural to us.

What if you could step out of the river for a moment and stand on the banks, quietly absorbed in the beauty of what's around you? To be sure, your stream of consciousness is still there, surging along. Periodically it sucks you back into the current, but for a moment now and then you discover you can be quiet and present with the world around you.

Meditation is one of the most effective things you can do to improve mental and physical health. It isn't for everybody, but for most, it's amazingly helpful and well worth the time it takes. There are dozens of different techniques drawn from every tradition, plus more that have no religious heritage. Here I'll discuss general concepts.

Meditation combines several core aspects or principles within a single activity. First, you set aside time to honor the sacred within you. (The simplest definition of the sacred is that which brings tears of joy.)

Second, you withdraw attention from normal mental chatter or "busybody mind" to focus on the sacrament of silence.

As you learn to be with yourself quietly, you gradually come into contact with a deeper, wiser, and more authentic sense of self. You find a new perspective on everyday problems that worry and annoy you -- they don't seem nearly so overwhelming. You'll discover a hidden wellspring of calm joy and aliveness that you'll learn over time to bring with you during the day. You'll come to cherish the moment, thrill to be alive at just this instant.

The experience we summon while meditating is not weird or alien. It's similar to runner's high or afterglow. It's like being moved to tears by great art or music.

We've stood in awe at the splendor of a gorgeous sunset at the beach or in the mountains. For a moment we're struck silent -- speechless -- at the majesty of a waterfall cascading slowly down a cliff, glistening in the sunlight, surrounded by the glory of nature.

Meditation/relaxation training can provide a very similar experience. It's quieter and more private, but it lasts longer. You are clear, open, and calm rather than euphoric. It depends solely upon you and your willingness to do the work. Like the waterfall, if you don't get out of the car and walk the half a mile to the stream, all you'll see is the parking lot.

Peak experiences like love, exercise, art and nature have a critical shortcoming: you need something outside yourself to be moved to silence. Thus, relying on external events to inspire you is a trap -- they occur too infrequently. It's like not getting a job because you're waiting for a rich uncle to die and leave an inheritance.

In meditation, you become the source of this inspiration. You learn how to create it at will. Later it becomes your foundation, the bedrock from where you come. You become a source for others.

We don't talk about it much in our culture, but becoming a source of inspiration for others is one definition of genuine maturity.

Third, meditation is often the best way to solve the "beauty and the beast" problem: our tendency to demonize those aspects of ourselves that contain much of our strength and wisdom. Sitting quietly, from time to time you become aware of moods, thoughts, emotions, and experiences you'd repressed. You have created a quiet, safe space to hang out with these denied corners of yourself. You begin to accept more of who you are. You let fall away those false, fear-based defenses you had wrongly believed define you. You become more intimate with and grateful for your present experience rather than trying to escape it.

Conventional wisdom says that only great romance can bring us into contact with our deepest capacity to love. In reality, once the stardust falls from our eyes, we realize our romantic partner is as limited and human as we. Disappointed, we discover we're right back where we started.

In meditation, you come to realize that your overwhelming loneliness is actually a deep longing for the genuine within yourself, your capacity to be fully alive, to be real and present in the moment. (Some would call this a longing for God or the divine.) No one else can give this to you; you have to find it within.

Much of life's despair arises from rejecting what is here and now, rather than embracing and moving within it. Rejecting present reality paradoxically keeps us stuck and paralyzed, because we close our eyes to how we actively maintain remaining stuck.

Core concepts

Meditation involves several key understandings that are counterintuitive but quite helpful to know about.

Location of awareness. First, the quality of our consciousness and our experience of the moment depend to a great extent upon where in our body we've situated our awareness.

For most people, what I've just said makes no sense at all. Let me explain.

People who frequently play vigorous sports may be the exception, but most of us center our awareness in our heads, usually eyes and forehead. The best example is those popular cartoons that depict adults as enormous heads with huge eyes on toddler-sized bodies. Another example is how conventional concepts of beauty highlight the eyes. If you imagine a beautiful woman fading away like a Cheshire cat, leaving only those alluring eyes, you'll find she'd be just as glamorous. (If not just the eyes, then eyes and hairdo.)

Keeping our awareness in our heads is one of the most important ways we maintain our conventional ego, the part of us that worries about our survival and whether we and the others around us are doing it right. Head-eye consciousness is the most rational part of ourselves, but also the most disconnected. It's like we're floating above it all, cut off from directly experiencing reality.

If you experiment, you'll discover you can choose which part of your body you're most aware of. Usually we situate our awareness in head-eyes unconsciously, out of habit. For a moment, become aware of your hands. Feel their texture from within. Exactly where are they in relation to the rest of your body? What is their length and breadth? What sensation, temperature, and tension can you become aware of? (This may be easier to do first one hand at a time, then both together.) Stay with feeling your hands for a few moments. Does your sense of self change, even subtly? (If you've not meditated before, you may find this too hard to maintain against the barrage of mental chatter. Try it again some time when you're relaxed and quiet but alert.)

Next try moving your awareness to your legs and feet. Feel your right foot: toes, forefoot, heel, sole. Sense the dimensions, position, texture, tension, temperature, etc. Now feel your right ankle, and next your leg. Do this on the left side. Now stand and walk around slowly, feeling the floor with your feet, consciously choosing to be aware just of your feet and legs. What is this like?

Now the lower abdomen/pelvis. Sit erect and hold your hands in your lap so they rest against your lower abdomen, below the navel. Use the hands like a lens or mirror, so you focus your attention within the lower abdomen, two or three inches down from your navel and directly in the middle front-backwise. One helpful notion here is that anatomically, your pelvis takes the shape of a cistern or bowl, whose bottom is the floor of your pelvis. The sides are formed by your hip bones, spine, and lower abdominal wall. Sense into your lower abdomen and pelvis. There is a great deal going on in this area, but first what you might find is not much at all, except it's really hard to stay with it. See what you notice. If your mind wanders, one helpful technique is imagine that as you breathe, your breath moves in and out of the floor of your pelvis, extending into the earth.

Conventional wisdom holds that our pelvis holds everything that's dirty: sex organs and elimination. But when you're just sitting there sensing into the area, you may find instead a deep sense of quiet, strength, increased awareness, and connectedness with the earth.

Allowing and curiosity. It's frequently hard to figure out what you're supposed to learn or discover while you're meditating. There's all this mental chatter going on, and often it seems everything else is just a blank. It's frustrating to sit there waiting for something to happen. All that does happen is you can't accomplish anything.

The secret is that this is actually okay. It's part of what beginning meditation is all about. If you have a goal, it's to allow yourself to feel frustrated without judging it or letting it take over. Develop an attitude of openness and curiosity about what's happening within you. Stay with the meditative focus whenever you can remember to do so. Above all notice what's happening. If you find yourself judging your experience, remember that the judgments arise from a limited, highly self-critical part of who you are, and they're almost certainly incomplete at best. Don't accept them as gospel, but don't utterly reject them either. Be curious about them, and then return to your meditation.

So the secret of meditation is to make whatever's going on okay with you. It's like the First Amendment: you have the authority to say, "this is okay, and this is okay, and this is okay," etc. When you've noticed you've pulled away from your meditative focus, return gently and lovingly.

Allowing means you can't force or will or control meditation to happen. It happens by itself, by your willingness to stay with the process. Curiosity means you notice what's going on in your awareness with interest, never entirely believing your judgments about it, and wondering what else is there.

Breath. One of the greatest sacraments is literally as natural as breathing. In the same way as noticing different parts of your body brings different types of awareness of the present, noticing your breath can open you to the appreciation that each inspiration is a profound internal massage and an assimilation of the sacred. It's no accident that the words for breath and spirit are the same in many languages, just like the word "inspiration" in English.


Last updated Sat, Oct 3, 2009

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©2011, James Gagné, MD