Are there benefits to meditation? From a return-on-investment perspective, yes, meditation can be beneficial. Many studies show that meditation can create a calmer state of mind, if practiced regularly. Studies show that meditation can help people with anxiety, depression, sleep and stress.
One recently publicized form of meditation practiced every day for 12 minutes is shown to help with the damage of Parkinson’s disease and supports key regions of the brain in a way that forestalls dementia. Called Kirtan Kriya from an ancient yogic tradition, it involves steady breathing, quiet sitting, and some chanting along with the use of hands.
Kirtan Kriya is just one among many meditation techniques. Most forms include a focus on the breath and a mindful awareness of thoughts as they stream by us when we sit or stand in quietness. There is even a walking meditation.
Of whatever type, meditation is not easy for most busy Westerners who adjust to a way of life that values doing, striving, organizing and the like.
In the morning I set aside 30 minutes to focus on my breath or, as in centering prayer, repeat a word. Inevitably, mental murmuring starts. I remember grievances about past rebuffs, plan the day and think about the salted caramel ice cream in the fridge. Sometimes I just doze off. As you will see, there is more to my meditation than distraction.
I receive the benefits that go along with a calmer life.
However, I struggle with the word benefit. Benefit reminds me of practice makes perfect or if I invest my time, I want to see improvement in my life. A benefit!
None of that is guaranteed if my mind is fixed on some positive outcome. Beyond the necessity for progress lies an area that is not conditioned by the accomplishment mentality of Western civilization.
Meditation or centering prayer done without expectation or evaluation of progress may become a spiritual practice. Spirituality is a much-used term. By spirituality I am referring to a sense that there is more to life that our scripted stories about how we should live: a spiritual practice where we empty our mind from the conditioning that has enveloped our lives from birth onward.
We attribute meaning to events, sensations and interactions automatically. We see the world through the idea of who we think we are. When we look out at the world, we see our reflection looking back at us. When we look at a tree, a face, a building, a painting – all act as mirrors as to how we perceive what is out there. Predictably, we experience our preferences, our fears, our hopes, our doubts, our notions of the world around us.
J. Krishnamurti, the Indian sage, points this out, “The observed is the observer.” The newness of each moment is obscured in order to fit our beliefs that hold our world together. These beliefs freeze dry the flow of experience into a manageable version of reality.
Look around us. There is a virtual epidemic of reactive story making that pits people against each other (my rights vs. your rights, etc.). Rachel Coye in her poem “New Year” writes one line that expressed the divisive climate quite well: “the whole country is outraged and outspoken and you should be too because if you’re not, then you’re not doing your part.”
That is one of the reasons I turn to meditation. Not only do I want to foster a calmer life, but I also want to pull in my judgements about what I see out there by first allowing what I see within me.
Meditation shows us our habituated tendency to follow streams of thoughts and feelings that determine our worldview. That is why it is so challenging.
Nonetheless, as we observe in meditation minor irritations and return to our focus (breath or word) we become open to things as they really are. We begin to see that our conditioned beliefs, while granting us the illusion of control over our survival and security in the world are limiting. Every day I recognize my back and forth between my grasping for comfort and certainty and my yielding to emptiness, not knowing.
A man who was dying in the hospital had given up on the clothes in his closet. Shoes and shirts he once wore. Gone. His insignias of a successful life receded. Although he had lived a good and decent life, none of his attachments to externals mattered anymore. He just opened to the emptiness of the present. Laid bare his struggle for security.
His departure may not be ours. Whatever level of openness we have is enough, but being mindful of more than our conditioning may help our journey into the great unknown.
In Matthew 6: 28-33 Jesus reminds us that the lilies of the field toil not and yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like them. Then he admonishes us to be less anxious about what we shall eat or wear. If God clothes the lilies of the field, which have a short life span, how much more will God take care of our needs if we seek first a way of communing with God?
We do worry about externals: what someone else is doing or concerns about the necessities of life; the stories that create toil and worry. Yet, despite the challenges of meditation, if we can be still and for a moment or two let the buzz subside, are we not in communion with “more” in our midst.
(Dr. John Campbell is a psychotherapist and ordained clergy person living in Brevard.)