Meditation’s fruits: clarity, peace, relaxation

“You get all that by just sitting there?! I don’t believe you.” That was my dad’s abrupt response when I tried to explain how meditating actually improved my mood and concentration. Somehow, the idea of “just sitting there” seems almost daunting. No text messages, no Internet, nothing to look at and not even music to listen to. It sounds dull at best, frustrating at worst.

Like my dad, I also was skeptical about meditation – until I tried it. One day I couldn’t focus on my homework – my mind was buzzing, and I was flat-out lost in distraction. I was curious to test the lofty claims of meditation, so I went down the hall into an empty lounge and played a guided meditation I found on YouTube. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it so much that when the 10-minute video was done, I kept sitting. I found when I least expected it, a massive wave of peace hit me. I felt completely open, loving and content. I didn’t want anything. When I finally stood up, I found “just sitting there” for a few minutes had left me feeling lighter and more alert. I left feeling the inner glow of true contentment.

You know how you feel when you can’t concentrate – like there’s a cloud of thoughts buzzing around your mind like gnats? Whenever I sit down to work, and my mind is restless and flighty, it’s usually a symptom of some unresolved worry I am subconsciously trying to wrestle with: stress about all of my homework, people in my life, the cold weather or any number of things. Meditation clears away all of that clutter. Somehow, when you “just sit there” for a few minutes, no longer distracted by the endless enticements of the external world, you temporarily surrender control of all those concerns – you are letting go. Ironically, when you sit down to meditate and stop trying to solve everything, you leave feeling more alert, thus more capable of fixing your problems.

Millions of Americans regularly meditate to reap the priceless mental and physical health benefits. Meditators generally have low stress, a relaxed demeanor, a boosted immune system, mental clarity and improved health overall. A huge body of research exists on the benefits of meditation. One study that caught my eye was conducted at University of Madison-Wisconsin. Brain imaging of meditators suggested meditation gradually rewires the brain, conditioning it to react favorably to stressful situations. Instead of the typical fight-or-flight response, regular meditation cultivates an attitude of acceptance, which fosters contentment. A Harvard study found that meditating shuts down the parietal lobe, which integrates sensory perception. This allows the subject to loosen their sensory limits and achieve a feeling of “oneness” and connectivity with the wider world.

A few months ago, I upped my semi-regular meditation practice to twice a day for 20 minutes per session. But those 40 minutes a day bring me astounding results, my favorite being that most days I can sit in a classroom and do something I’ve never done before: effortlessly pay attention. I am absolutely convinced the change was due to meditation. For years, I always had my Adderall prescription on hand so I could focus and work efficiently, but now I easily do without. I tend not to sweat the small things quite so much. As a general rule I’m less irritable, more pleasant and happier.

The point of meditation is not necessarily to clear your mind of all thoughts. That’s nearly impossible, because all your life you have been conditioned to constantly think. If you try to force yourself to stop thinking, it will not work unless you have been meditating heavily for many years. Rather, the point is to let go of the world for a few minutes. If your mind overflows with thought, let it happen. If you think something unpleasant, let it happen. If you feel some emotion, let it happen. If you get bored, let it happen. The only thing you can do wrong in meditation is to try to do it right. As soon as I started grasping for moments of deep contentment during my meditations, they slipped away. The sensation only struck me when I wasn’t looking for it. That’s when I learned that meditation only works if you don’t try to do it right. This gets difficult, because once you experience the joy and lightness that can occur during and after meditation, you naturally want the same effect every time. But as the Buddhist ideal dictates, only by giving up your desire for something – in this case, peace – can you truly find it.

If you’re curious about meditation but would like some help, try a guided meditation hosted by the Art of Living club (for all of you at Truman) at 4:30 p.m. each Wednesday in McClain room 209. All are welcome. You might leave with a clear head, a lighter load and a smile on your face. I leave you with the words of Remez Sasson: “Your mind is your instrument. Learn to be its master and not its slave.”

Zazen meditation instructions
Online Meditation center

Mindfulness Tames Clutter

NOTE: I haven’t posted here for over a semester, but I just started writing a column for the Index on spirituality, so I’d like to revive this blog. Sorry for the inordinately long delay. I’ll post something most weeks (for sure, now that I have a weekly deadline), and I’ll try to keep adding fun little things in between to keep you coming back. Here you are-hope you enjoy, and feel free to leave feedback!

My friends and family tell me I am the spaciest person they know. All my life, I’ve been dubbed the “space cadet.” Since my first years of grade school, I struggled with inattention and took ADD medication for years before deciding in college that I couldn’t depend on a pill to solve my problems anymore.

Unfortunately, a running commentary of fantasy, worry and analysis constantly streams through my head. If I absentmindedly wade into this seductive current of daydreams, it lures me into the tantalizing world and keeps me distracted from whatever is actually happening. Despite my most valiant efforts, I am simply not the student who raptly follows a teacher’s every word during a lecture.

Although I realize my issues with inattention are at least somewhat worse than average, I think most Americans struggle with it to some degree. We avoid boredom like the plague. A friend of mine tells me that her house literally has a television in every room – even the bathroom. We have iPods to drown out dullness when we’re walking around campus, and we usually read or talk to friends while we eat. TV commercials have reached a five-second run time and USA Today no longer prints stories that are long enough to jump to another page because readers might get bored and never finish the story.

With a new distraction around every corner, I am not surprised that ADD diagnoses rose among school-age children by three percent per year between 1997-2006, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Something in us always wants something more exciting than what is in front of us.

The downsides of this mentality? First of all, we waste our money funding our distractions, and we waste our time planning for future distractions simply to avoid existing without something colorful or interesting around. Second, we lose when we forget the moment we are in right now. I have read the words of Eastern mystics who claimed the present is the only thing that exists. After turning over the idea, I decided this was true. Yes, the future will come, but the future only exists when it becomes the now – when we are living it.

When we spend all our time fantasizing about the future or wringing our hands over what could happen, we miss out. The same idea goes for the past. The cliché holds true – don’t cry over spilled milk. If you spent all last weekend procrastinating instead of studying, then stressing out about it won’t help. Just do the best you can right now.

On a side note, I don’t think the Eastern philosophers meant that you can’t plan ahead. As we all know, a degree-seeking Truman student probably couldn’t emerge from college unscathed without planning ahead. But agonizing over what you cannot control is anything but productive.

Although I will probably never be rid of my inattentiveness, I have learned that practicing mindfulness – living in the present – helps me immensely. Mindfulness slowly tames the mind to ignore the mental clutter, but Lord knows I haven’t mastered it – mindfulness is about as easy as capturing jelly in a net. We have hardwired our minds to sniff out the most interesting objects around, so change takes some time. But I have discovered that when I consciously focus my attention on what I am doing right now, the present becomes a lot more interesting. My mind stops trying to plan out my next ten minutes or ten years, and I can relax and enjoy myself.

Anyone who has tried to pay attention in a boring class knows that mindfulness is pretty difficult. But from what I have experienced, simple practice eventually pacifies the wild beast. The more I think about mindfulness, the more frequently I remember to be here. When your mind simply cannot come down from the clouds, try breathing. As someone once told me, breathing connects the body and the mind. That sense of physical stability will focus your mind and bring you back. Meditation clears and sharpens my mind-without it, I would never have survived school sans Adderall.

Buddhist Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a book called “The Miracle of Mindfulness.” I distinctly remember one passage in which Hanh explains that even when we undertake tedious tasks, like doing the dishes, the mindful individual doesn’t do the dishes simply to make them clean. Rather, he or she does the dishes for the sake of doing the dishes. Hanh writes, “While washing the dishes, you might be thinking about the tea afterwards, and so try to get them out of the way as quickly as possible in order to sit and drink tea. But that means you are incapable of living during the time you are washing the dishes. When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. … Each act is a rite, a ceremony.”

Those dishes are sort of fun to wash when you are living every moment, and the tea afterward tastes quite robust when you savor every taste.

Let go of a teardrop…gain the entire ocean

If you want something, let it go. Then, you will uncover what you were looking for in the first place.

Today I used a meditation technique to improve my concentration. My attention span typically lasts only a few- look-a-bird! -moments, and my new short-term goal is to develop focus. Here’s the technique I used: I counted each breath, flowing in and out, for ten breaths. And if any distracting thoughts invaded the arena of my focus, I started over.

This was, of course, notoriously difficult. I started over repeatedly and repeatedly. Sometimes I couldn’t even count to two breaths. With a steely determination, I continued…one (in, out), two (in, out)…and as I tried harder, a voice of authority started overseeing the meditation, “fixing” my improper technique.

You shouldn’t try so hard. You should stay in the present. You should observe yourself more. You’re sliding. You’re sliding…

Eventually, this voice became another distraction, and I re-started my counting sooner each time.

Then, I gave up. My mind isn’t used to focusing for this long, I thought. I need a break. And the moment I stopped trying, I was there. My mind was crystal clear, and I counted my ten breaths with ease. Surprised, I stopped and checked myself, and counted ten more breaths without a glitch.

As soon as I started trying again, the same voices and clutter and limitations emerged. Whenever I honestly gave up, I stayed in the present without a problem.

The object of meditation is to let go of the meditator-the part of you trying to do the meditation right. This effort is the voice of your ego (the part of you that needs, wants, desires, and hurts). But when you clear away this ego-clutter of wanting and striving, you are free. And when you are free, you achieve the fulfillment you sought in the first place. You find happiness and peace, by letting go of the need for happiness and peace.

I believe that when we trust ourselves completely instead of obsessively controlling our actions, we will naturally do right. As I wrote in my last entry, love is our very core once we strip away the rest.

Try it right now, as an experiment. Take a breath, and notice how you’re feeling. Don’t try to achieve anything. Just sit…notice that if you try to achieve anything with this exercise, it won’t work. If you’re just sitting, with no underlying intentions, you will feel peace.

What won’t work is controlling your desires- whether you want comfort, possessions, or validation. Let it be. Don’t tell yourself you’re letting go of your desire to stop craving when REALLY you’re just doing it so you can get rid of the craving, because you want to stop hurting. Letting go must be honest, and if it’s not, desire still controls you. Relax- we’re human. It’s natural. (By writing this, I do not imply that I am at some expert stage of “letting go.” It’s not easy for me at all, but it truly works.)

When you stop fearing the loss of what you want, then nothing can hurt you.

Great meditation instruction website here.

More life, less effort

“‘Are you able to have a little room where you can close the door and be alone?’

‘Yes.’

‘That is your cave…That is your sacred mountain. That is where you will find the kingdom of God.'”

In “Autobiography of a Yogi,” Paramahansa Yogananda runs to the Himalayas to find holy men. A saint he encounters chides him for running away from home (with his guru) to find adventure. The saint says Yogananda should not seek God by running far and wide but rather by stilling himself wherever he is.

This spearheaded me when I read it. Lately, I’ve been overcome with everything I have left to accomplish in life. I want to develop as a painter and musician. Read more about sustainability and gender issues. Write more poetry. Work on the garden. And somehow, fit in day-to-day duties, work, people, spontaneity, and spirituality.

The world is far too vast and interesting for one lifetime!

Is life a blank slate that we have a limited time to fill? A 90-minute videotape we must cram with as many interesting experiences and activities as we can?

In the end, what do we have to show for it? Who’s going to view a copy in 300 years when you and everyone you know is long gone? Why will it even matter?

When I think about life as a process, rather than a static box I need to fulfill, the question changes from what I do to who I am. Nothing ultimately makes me happier than becoming in touch with the part of me that is pure consciousness (rather than staying entrapped within the seductive haze of the ego). The Now is pure awareness. No future concerns, no past regrets.

Self-realization transforms the smallest experiences, from sipping water to gazing at the sky, into ecstasy. When the change shifts within yourself, you don’t have to stuff the world in your pocket. Instead of constantly working toward the next adventure, everything becomes vibrant. You can just be, and you do more with less.

Find a room and try to be still for a few minutes. See what happens.

“The life of sensation is the life of greed. It requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet.” (Annie Dillard)

Eckhart Tolle on finding stillness now.