A Meditation on Meditation
In his opera Thais Jules Massenet wrote a superb piece of music which has become to be known as Meditation. It is certainly one of my own personal favourites. It is a serenely beautiful rhapsody with the violin predominating.
In every day parlance we use the term “meditation” quite loosely. It is often used in a way that implies “to ponder deeply”. But in its true sense meditation does not mean to ponder at all! In fact it is just the opposite. It is an exercise of the mind that seeks to shut down the incessant thoughts that flood the mind.
Contrary to what most people believe, our mind is largely reactive. It is generally flooded with thoughts which arise entirely without volition. The incessant chatter which imposes itself on our consciousness is often referred to by Buddhists as “monkey mind”.
Moreover the mind is unduly obsessed with the past and the future. We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time reconstructing the past and ruminating over it or projecting into the future and worrying. As a result we lack awareness of the present or what the Buddhists call “mindfulness”.
Many people shy away from meditation because they believe it is something irredeemably associated with Eastern religions. Or worse, others believe it is New Age “clap-trap” championed by those who believe in the magic powers of crystals and aspire to paranormal practices like levitation or psycho-kinesis. Yet meditation in its various forms has been practiced by sages from all the major religious traditions, including Christianity. And its benefits, such as reducing blood pressure, improved immune system, and lowering anxiety have been well-documented scientifically.
In essence, as I have outlined in other essays, meditation is a technique for training the mind. Consequently, although there are compelling intellectual arguments for its adoption, it is essentially a pragmatic, practical tool to fashion the mind to serve us in more useful ways. Even though it does not engage you intellectually, you know if you are going to play a piano concerto you must do your practice. If you are going to run a marathon you must spend countless hours conditioning your body. If you want to become “mindful” with all the attendant physical and mental benefits that provides, you need to put a similar effort into conditioning your mind.
But we also need to be realistic here. Not everyone who practices hard at the piano will become a concert pianist – but they will be more accomplished than if they hadn’t practiced. Not everyone who runs twenty kilometres a day will become a marathon champion – but they will be a better athlete than if they hadn’t had the discipline to exercise daily. And indeed few who practice daily meditation will attain the exalted goals of enlightenment that the sages speak of. But they will live better lives. They will be more effective. And as recent research suggests, they will be happier.
Let us cut to the chase. To put aside the past and to disassociate from the future is to put aside the self. When I live in the eternal present with no concern of what went before or what may come after, then I have discarded (albeit temporarily) the self. The self is dependent on the sense of continuity that a past and a future illusion provide. The self is a pervasive construct that largely dominates us and is our natural reaction to the fear of death and dissolution.
Now, this is of course why meditation is beyond religion. Meditation relies on the very nature of our consciousness. It is a characteristic of all (self) conscious beings that they are aware of the traffic that engages the mind. This traffic, comprising thoughts impulses, urges and emotions, is largely unbidden, beyond our normal volition and predominantly negative, repetitive and self-referential.
There are many benefits in being able to still this traffic and engage in pure awareness. Let me just describe two.
Those of us who suffer depression and anxiety are largely controlled by the “monkey mind”. It subjects us to incessant irrational demands and fears. Those so afflicted ruminate over their supposed problems and can’t stop thinking about themselves. They are, in a sense, self-obsessed. Learning to be able to turn off brings obvious relief. As someone (I can’t remember who) once said, “Well-adjusted people don’t think less of themselves, they just think of themselves less.” To test this theory, just remember the happiest times in your life. I am willing to bet that during such times you weren’t thinking of yourself!
Let us look at another area where we benefit immensely from meditation.
To explain this benefit I must first give you a further insight into the practice of meditation. Whilst the ideal outcome in meditation is to “still the mind” this is of course, even for the most proficient adept, impossible. Instead we learn to disassociate from the thoughts and emotions that arise unbidden. When a thought spontaneously arises in the theatre of mind we merely say to ourselves, “here comes a thought again”. We understand that we are not the thoughts and emotions that float through our minds.
A metaphor I used in my little book on depression, Froth and Goblets was to think of the things that impinge on the mind as clouds floating across the sky. The essential “I” (I will come back to this) is not the clouds but the boundless blue sky that they trespass unbidden on. Just as we might say, “there goes a cloud across the sky’, we tell ourselves “there goes another thought”. If we don’t identify with it we know it will soon pass.
This is a very important part of meditation. In fact a working definition of meditation might easily be “paying very careful non-judgmental attention to the contents of consciousness in the present moment”. Such awareness is very beneficial to us. When we associate unthinkingly with the negative content of mind we become what we think. We might as a result be angry or fearful or depressed.
When we are able to dissociate ourselves from the unbidden thoughts and emotions that float into our minds we are able to pause and evaluate the thought or emotion before it overwhelms us. This is particularly helpful in mediating our emotional responses. Most people just automatically assume the emotional response that the “monkey mind” throws up at us without question. Our emotional responses are a repertoire built up largely through our early socialisation. Some environmental cue arises and we automatically respond in the way we “learned” to respond without questioning its effectiveness. But as meditation increases your awareness you become conscious that an emotional response is rising within you, be it anger, fear, offense, jealousy, irritability or whatever. This awareness provides you with a “gap” between the stimulus and the response which enables you to make a conscious choice on how to respond. This is very liberating because you are no longer a slave to the learnt repertoire lodged in your unconscious mind. We can therefore learn to take responsibility for our emotional responses. (I have written other essays outlining the damages that we sustain when we give others the credit for determining our emotional responses.) Once we reach this stage it becomes apparent that we are each entirely responsible for our own sense of well-being.
There is much more to say about meditation, but I won’t go on because meditation is not an intellectual exercise. It is a practical tool, as I said at the beginning, to help you train your mind.
If you were to take an intellectual stance on the issue of meditation, you might do well to remember the tri-partite model of the good Dr Phil. Phil says that the nature of the human condition is that we have a body, and a mind and something that observes the mind. He calls this the “watcher” but many Eastern traditions call it the “witness”. This is the essential “I” that I mentioned above. So what is enduring is not the mind or the body but that which watches the mind. In meditation, in those instances when we can put aside the “monkey mind” then we are in the presence of the “witness”. That is probably the highest state that a sentient being can aspire to. Then we are at one with every sentient being. Then we know the truth “That All is One”.