Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Meditation: Calm Abiding & Insight

Why bother with mindfulness meditation? Because this is the "Authentic Presence" of Eastern wisdom, "Being" of Eckhart Tolle, "Conscious Contact" of Twelve Step Recovery, "Force" of Star Wars, and communion with God of many religions. Here we rest in the infinite power, presence,wisdom, and love of all creation, and as such a very worthy place to dwell.

Meditation is generally defined as "a practice to focus the mind on a particular object, thought, or activity to train attention and awareness and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state." (Wikipedia) Benefits include significantly reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and pain, and enhancing peace, perception, self-concept, and well-being. Reducing stress can also slow, halt, reverse, and prevent many chronic illnesses, diseases, and dysfunctions such as heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, high blood pressure and cholesterol, obesity, dementia, and enhancing immunity.

According to Dr. Dean Ornish stress has been shown to cause as much as 90% of chronic diseases such as heart attacks and strokes, and can also reduce arthritis, Alzheimer's, and insomnia. For more on stressing less and loving more please see the post on Dr. Ornish's book "Undo It".

The word meditation is derived from the verb meditari: meaning to think reflectively, contemplate, or ponder. The practice is characterized by efforts to go beyond the reflexive, discursive thinking and logical mind to achieve a deeper, more devout or relaxed state, and gain heightened spiritual awareness. Many people find this single pointed awareness allows them to reach very restful, calm, alert states, that are at times blissful.

Some research shows benefits can be achieved with simple oral and video training and as little as eight minutes practice per day. The classic posture is sitting in the lotus position but can be done sitting in a chair, lying down, walking, or doing any sample task. In fact the goal might be said to integrate a contemplative mind into every action and experience. The earliest records of Hindu meditation go back approximately 2500 years as people sought calm concentration to realize union with the Eternal Self.

Later Jainism aimed to realize the True Self, attain salvation, and take the soul to complete freedom through right perception and faith, knowledge, and conduct with the aim of achieving absolute purity of consciousness beyond attachment and aversion. Buddhism later identified two broad categories of meditation. First: calm abiding, also called serenity or tranquility meditation, which steadies, composes, unifies, and concentrates the mind. Resting in a calm abiding state weakens the charge of afflictions, distractions, and upsetting thoughts that one may become calm, peaceful, and serene.

Second: Insight meditation teaches to relax and sit with thoughts and feelings to let them go and see their true nature to find liberation of understanding, wisdom, and transformation. The power and value of calm abiding and insight meditation is so great we have added posts for each of them further on. Sikhs meditate to feel God's presence and divine light. They believe meditation without good deeds is futile, so seek to engage meditation with the suffering of the world.

Sufis use the breath, sacred mantras, and ecstatic dance to focus intense concentration for reflection and introspection and to access mental and emotional development that emanate from our highest consciousness. Divine inspiration may then liberate heart and mind and allow ordinary life to take on a sacred quality. Meditation is a primary spiritual development tool for the Baha'i faith to understand God, achieve divine communion, and transformational spiritual power.

Business and education leaders have embraced meditation through mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and pain management. In 2015 eighty percent of medical schools were offering mindfulness training and a 2016 study found twenty five percent of U.S. employers such as Google, Aetna, and General Mills using stress reduction practices. In 2017 the American Heart Association said that meditation in parallel with standard treatments helps reduce the risk of heart disease. 

The U.S. Center for Integrative Health states that "Meditation has a long history of increasing calmness and relaxation, improving mental balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being." For more information on the powerful secular mindfulness movement as expressed in MBSR spearheaded by John Kabat-Zinn click here, a video here, and his book Full Catastrophe Living outlining the practice, research, and beneficial effects click here.

With Calm Abiding Meditation we sit and let thoughts, feelings, and sensations go by like boats on a river without trying to catch (or sink!) them. They may keep coming back, and particularly when we are beginning meditators, but there are proven methods such as focus on the breath and/or mantras to free us from the incessant chatter of our ("monkey") minds.

With Insight Meditation we acknowledge or focus on our beliefs, opinions, emotions, behaviors, and experiences to unravel the disturbing thoughts that  keep us bound and suffering. Here we may "just sit" with our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and issues as a observer to allow their power and drama to subside. We may also "sit" with burning questions as we wait for guidance and inspiration. 

One of the benefits of having two paths to follow is switching between them as we go.  This is actually very helpful as time spent focusing on particular issues in insight meditation is balanced with the restful panoramic view of calm abiding. Switching back and forth also helps to keep a light touch and heart so as not to fall into a critical or serious frame of mind. Calm abiding also provides a welcome restful and reinvigorating period between insight sessions, especially if these are focused on suffering and pain.

These paths can also be thought of as relating to the relative and the absolute, as insight meditation looks at what is going on in our hearts, minds, and world, whereas calm abiding seeks to let all of that go to dwell in the presence of the infinite with little, if any reference points. Here we can rest and bask in the light and warmth of infinite and absolute love, peace, joy, and beauty.

These two paths have many things in common, so lets cover some of them here. First off, animals tend to have a mental bias toward negativity as we focus on threats in our environment to assure survival. We also tend to fixate on highly charged problems or threats so we lose sight of our blessings. This can create a cycle of negativity that leaves us grumpy and exhausted. 

Even without this negativity bias the mind is a thinking machine and a constant stream of thoughts can be distracting and overwhelming when trying to focus or rest. This situation is worsened as we assign our identity to our thoughts such as "I am angry, or tired, or hurting". The practice we employ is to take a backwards step in simple awareness to observe thinking, feeling, and sensations as the normal ebb and flow of the mind. 

If we are chained and imprisoned by our compulsively thinking mind then enlightened awareness is the key to free us to the magic and majesty of our true nature. To put it another way "life is but a dream", and all too often a living nightmare, but mindfulness awakens us that we may live "merrily, merrily, gently down the stream" of life. 

Life can also be thought of as a mental movie. Unfortunately most of us are simply actors reading a script and playing a part that was given to us by others that we must act out. Our family of origin has a great influence' but other situations and persons can also have huge and long lasting effects. Freedom comes when we begin to realize that we can be the scriptwriter, director, and other figures to act out the story of our lives from the standpoint of choice.

This process of observing the mind is one of the foundational principles and practices of meditation. Descartes wrote that "I think therefore I am", but meditation master Thich Nhat Hanh turns that around to "I think therefore I am not!" because once we identify with the mind it becomes our master. Therefore seeing the mind as the thinking, feeling, opinionated mechanism that it is gives us freedom from its grip so that we may at last master the mind and freely choose what we wish to think, feel, and believe. 

We also have two eyes, ears, and nostrils to locate things around and outside of us but this also leads to a separation bias and self we feel the need to protect and serve as well as a world of things and others we want to control and manage. Some things we are attracted to and desire, others we reject and avoid, and some are simply ignored as unimportant to us. Happiness only comes we we realize our inter-dependence on others and our world as part of us in a finely tuned organism. 

Another bias we have is towards past and future thinking. Looking back on regretful experiences can suck the life out of us and trap us in victim mentality if we aren't careful.  Recalling pleasant memories can be very helpful as long as it isn't at the expense of present moment awareness.  be aware of how the past has influenced and shaped us as long as it doesn't distract us from important issues in the present. 

Future concerns and hopes are worth looking at occasionally, but should also be checked in light of present day concerns so not to drag our minds off and lose awareness of the present. The problem is we often spend most of our time in anticipation of pleasant hopes and dreams or anxious fears of things that yet to come. Mark Twain put it well when he said "I have known a great many troubles, most of which never happened!"

Past and future thinking is such a common difficulty that it has inspired a movement through Eckhart Tolle in his work on "The Power of Now". Tolle sees present moment awareness as the key to the infinite power, presence, and consciousness that is the goal of meditation, and in our opinion the sacred outlook and experience of a Higher Power. We find his work awe inspiring and well worth a good look (click link).

It is also natural for us to focus or "lock on" our attention to threats or desires in an attempt to protect or satisfy ourselves, yet meditation teaches us to rest, relax, and let things go whether physical, emotional, or in our thinking.We find it amazing as well as very comforting to know that freedom from our compulsive thinking mind is just a step away, that backward step to infinite consciousness that knows all of the wonders and problems of the world but isn't ruled by them. All we need do is take a moment in prayer and meditation to find our source and center that is our True Self. 

This is the "light" of enlightenment, also the lightness of spirit we gain as we learn to take ourselves, others, and the world more lightly and less seriously. Once we can rest and relax our obsessive striving we find we are safe and secure in infinite love, peace, joy, and beauty. Yes, hate, chaos, sorrow, and ugliness have their place, but we can now choose where we put our focus and find much to celebrate as well as grieve.  

 World renowned meditation teacher Yoney Mingyur Rinpoche states in his excellent book The Joy of Living that: "All it takes is patience, diligence, and willingness to let go of conditioned ideas about yourself and the world". Only then will you come to see yourself and others simply as lost, frightened, and ignorant of the infinite purity, love, and wisdom waiting to be realized as we rest and relax into our True Self . 

The peace and calm of meditation eventually begins to permeate the rest of our lives as new healthier habits are made and neural pathways to internal well being are created. People and problems that used to dog us no longer carry as much weight as we become more kind, compassionate, and connected with ourselves, others, and our world. We come to realize everyone suffers and is just trying to be happy the best they know how, however backwards and dysfunctional.

We may even have peak experiences of spiritual bliss and joy arise and visit for a time. For most of us meditation is less lofty peaks and more peaceful valleys. Should we have moments of ecstacy and elation we are wise to let even that go before an egoic attraction and attachment spoils the encounter.

Before we finish we want to mention the incredibly powerful and healing Twelve Step Programs we are so pleased to be a part of. Step eleven is particularly relevant here as it states: "We seek through prayer and meditation to increase our conscious contact with God". Whether or not you believe in a Higher Power the value of prayer and meditation is clear as the programs have improved hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives, and saved many of those from addiction and an early death.

Meditation has been around for thousands of years but the method remains simple and direct. Click Mindfulness Basted Stress Reduction for information from a scientific perspective by expert Jon Kabat-Zinn. For his one hour YouTube click here. Also check out his wonderful books The Full Catastrophe and Wherever You Go, There You Are. For one of our favorite teachers click Thich Nhat Hanh, for his YouTube here, and his books here. For another favorite teacher Pema Chodron. For a Dalai Lama YouTube here. Also here are a couple nice music videos:  Breathing Life  Peace of Mind

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