The Benefits of Meditation
In one form or another, meditation has likely been
practised throughout the span of human history. Though it is often
shrouded in mystery and mistaken for an exotic religious practice,
it is really just a means of inducing a focussed state of mind that
is as natural to each of us as our breathing. By fostering this
state, meditation can bring the practitioner numerous benefits including:
mental clarity, reduced stress reactivity, and peace of mind. Also,
a regular meditation practice can be central to a more balanced
life, greater personal effectiveness, and spiritual growth. So what
is so important about this focussed way of being, and if it is so
natural, why the need for meditation to take us there?
The focussed state of mind that I speak about is actually our most
natural way of being. It is a condition in which our mind is calm
and centred on our experience of the present moment. It is a condition
of unfettered awareness of the internal and external worlds, within
which we do what we do automatically, without thought, and often
effortlessly. It is not a matter of being "zoned out;"
rather, it is being "tuned in." Most of us have had the
experience of being lost in some enjoyed activity wherein we feel
alive and completely focussed on what we are doing. Athletes and
performers sometimes talk about getting “into the zone,"
the experience of performing their craft effortlessly, with single
pointed attention, without thought or distraction. Both such experiences
are examples of being in or near this natural state of the "being
mind” that meditation helps us attain.
As to what happens to draw us from this natural state and how and
why meditation helps bring us back to it, it all comes down to our
greatest strength and liability: thinking.
Lost in Thought: Thinking appears to be a uniquely
human ability. By thinking, I mean the ability to internally generate
coherent strings of words that form meaningful patterns. When combined
with interacting images and emotions we have the incredibly complex
world of our active or "doing mind”. With this, our species
has developed technologies and cultures, and has built and destroyed
civilizations. On the other hand, by virtue of this same ability
we have largely become disconnected from our true inner selves,
our essential natures. One of the culprits is simply the seductive
complexity of the world today; the everyday events of modern life
tend to capture our attention and consume most of our energies.
Our doing minds tend to run amok with needless activity, and because
observing our own thoughts and reacting to them can be so stimulating,
we can literally become lost in them.
It is important to realize that our thoughts are not who and what
we are; they are just highly complex sequences of conditioned cognitive
behaviours. Our true self is something very different and exists
without words. In becoming lost in thought, we become detached from
our true, deeper selves and from the reality of the present moment.
When that happens, we become dissociated from our most deeply satisfying
experiences, and lose touch with our inner intelligence. This state
of dissociation is thought by many to be at the heart of most of
the suffering we experience in this life.
Meditation allows us to re-experience the true self and the real
world, if but for a brief time. By entering the boundaries of this
awareness, our perceptions begin to change and we can then start
to see ourselves and the world as they truly are. At first, these
glimpses are usually brief but most practitioners carry a calmness
away with them after a meditation. Unfortunately, the doing mind
quickly takes over and before long they are whisked away into the
chaos of mental activity. The more we practice; however, the better
we become at detaching from the doing mind and this sense of equanimity
is more easily attained and longer lasting. Regular practice is
a way of re-training ourselves to remembering how to be fully present
in the moment and in touch with our inner selves and this leads
to the longer term benefits of meditation practice.
Clarity of Thought: Try this exercise: Take a
few moments and allow yourself to become aware of your train of
thought. Follow the flow and see where it leads. It may be that
in reading this just now you have created enough focus that your
thoughts have a degree of clarity. Unless we are unusually focussed
in the moment, however, most of us find that the mind, when left
to itself like this, jumps from one thought and image to another
and generally wanders about without direction.
An unfocused mind is filled with a constant flow of extraneous thoughts
and images that invariably lead to nothing except more extraneous
thoughts and images.
This is the normal state of the modern mind. Thinking is a critical
task that we engage in every day, but trying to think with true
clarity for many of us is like trying to tune in a faint station
on an old radio with a bad tuner: we hear static and a clamourous
mixture of signals and then a brief moment of the desired station,
followed by more discord. With effort we can tune in the station
but it will tend to fade in and out with the background noise. Meditation
is a means of training the mind to tune out the noise and obtain
clarity of thought and experience. When we have such clarity, our
thinking becomes more effective and efficient (hence we need less
of it), and the same intuition that makes itself known in rare flashes
of insight and prescience, becomes more freely available.
Getting Real: Much of the dissatisfaction we experience
in life, comes from failing to completely experience it. It is as
though we wander through life absentmindedly, not noticing what
is around us because we are off into the future of past or simply
lost in the distortions and illusions of our own thoughts. This
is sometimes referred to as being caught up in the doing mind. The
essence of meditation, regardless of method, is being present in
the moment. This is sometimes referred to as sitting in the being
mind. Rather than living by the illusion of our thoughts, by dwelling
on the past, fretting about the future, we learn to sit in the reality
of the present. This is true freedom and grace.
Personal Growth: Meditation also has many benefits
similar to therapy in that it engenders self-awareness, can restructure
and revitalize the personality, and can enable an ongoing detachment
from the stressors of modern living. Many of our thoughts are quite
unhealthy and self-defeating; this is the whole focus of cognitive
therapy in psychology. When we learn to detach from our thoughts,
their true nature comes into proper perspective and then we are
not as vulnerable to their effects.
Final Words: Meditation offers a legion of benefits
and holds incredible promise as a core integral life-practice. Like most
self-maintenance skills, though, the greatest benefits come from
consistent and gentle practice. Daily practice, even if only for
a few minutes, will benefit you more than an extended meditation
retreat in the Himalayas. There are many forms of meditation and
it’s fine to explore a few at first, but it is very important
to pick one form that works for you and stick with it for a time.
Take care not to dabble too much at first less you get caught up
in the doing mind’s thirst for stimulation and sabotage your
Stephen Renfrey, Ph.D
“When walking, just walk. When sitting, just
sit. Above all, don't wobble.” - Zen Saying
“Even the most exalted states
and the most exceptional spiritual accomplishments are unimportant
if we cannot be happy in the most basic and ordinary ways,
if we cannot touch one another and the life we have been given
with our hearts.” - Jack Kornfield