“Unless we are mindful we live our lives habitually, not
noticing our motivations and intentions.” — Om Prakash, Ph.D.
I have on occasion been asked, “Why should I meditate?” Many people are shocked to find my answer is, simply, “You already know, you just need to realize it.” Chances are you already meditate and simply do not realize you are meditating. Popular media teaches us that meditation requires a special sitting position, candles, incense, and possibly odd sounds being chanted in the background. It is true that this is meditation, but it is only a form of the true nature of meditation. When you stop what you are doing to feel a cool breeze or smell a bouquet of flowers, you are meditating. When you stop to pray, you are meditating. When you take a slow, deep breath to calm your emotions, you are meditating. When you disconnect from the emotionally reactive autopilot that most of us run our lives on, you are meditating. The more proper question should be, “How can I learn to make meditation a more powerful influence in my life?” That question can be answered.
Many of us run on an emotionally reactive autopilot, going about our day almost entirely unaware of ourselves and our surroundings and calling our inability to acknowledge the present by strange labels such as “multi-tasking”. In truth, we are only capable of doing one thing at a time — we are incapable of actual multi-tasking. The illusion stems from the fact that our minds are capable of switching between tasks so seamlessly that we begin to believe that we are doing more than one thing at a time. When generally alert our mind accomplishes between twelve and thirty tasks per second and is capable of sustaining upwards of one hundred tasks per second for short periods of time. This burst of speed does not come without a cost, a cost usually measurable in gradually intensifying stress that comes from the pressure we place on ourselves to perform. While the mind is capable of this speed of task, we are incapable of processing these tasks when we switch focus rapidly between types of tasks. The end result can be a loss of the things we have processed, such as occurs when you are driving a car while thinking and suddenly realize you’ve passed your turn or have driven for miles without realizing it, or an overstimulation that leads to stress and anxiety. To prevent these things from happening we must learn to slow the mind down — a feat accomplishable through meditation.
Western psychology and neurology teaches us five basic mental states:
- Gamma (30-100 Hz): State where the mind is using higher cognitive functions, an “intense” state of activity that is usually mentally draining
- Beta (12-30 Hz): State where the mind is alert and working, the “normal” state when awake
- Alpha (8-12 Hz): State where the mind is relaxed, can be achieved through light meditation
- Theta (4-7 Hz): State where the mind is very relaxed, usually achieved when you are drowsy, can be achieved through moderate meditation
- Delta (0-4 Hz): State where the mind is extremely relaxed, usually achieved when you are asleep, can be achieved through depth meditation
Stress and anxiety tend to negatively affect our sleep patterns, causing insomnia and/or hypersomnia that usually results in an increase in stress and anxiety. Hypersomnia may seek to achieve the lower mental states more often to counteract the higher states caused by the stress while insomnia may be caused by such an intensity of stress and anxiety that the mind is unable to slow down on its own. We can choose to take command of this process by becoming in tune with ourselves — we do this through our breath.
Breath is life, without breath there is no life. Our body knows this, our mind knows this and resultantly we know this to be true. A body that fights for breath is a body that fights for life. Have you ever noticed that when angry, scared or exercising your body becomes more aware and your breathing becomes faster? have you ever noticed that when you cease exercising or the anger or fear dissipate that your breathing becomes slower? These natural reactions are a two way street, we can control the body through conscious control of our breath. We can gain control of our breath to become grounded. Slow the breath to slow the body, slow the body to slow the brain, slow the brain to slow the mind and slow the mind to find peace. This is the beginning of meditation.
“It is the very mind itself that leads the mind astray.
Of the mind, do not be mindless.” — Takuan Soho
Do not be tempted to meditate on a thing or idea, meditate to allow your mind to rest. If you are thinking then you are contemplating. The idea of meditation is to slow the mind down to one of the lower mental states, that there is no thought. The mind creates thoughts and the brain processes them, causing the mind to speed back up again. While we should not meditate on a thing or idea, we must also allow for thoughts to arise while we meditate. This is where Witness Consciousness comes in to play, a state where we are aware of the thinking but we do not follow the thoughts.
“To think, ‘I will not think’ — this, too is something in one’s thoughts.
Simply do not think about not thinking at all.” — Takuan Soho
Imagine yourself at the beginning of a meditation floating among the waves of the ocean with your body slowly sinking as your mind slows down. Each thought is a mere bubble trying to reach the surface of consciousness above. You can acknowledge the bubble as it passes without following the bubble to the surface. This is Witness Consciousness in action.
The benefits that can be achieved from meditation, while limited, are nearly limitless at the same time. Meditation can have direct and indirect effects on a number of psychological and physiological issues. You may find your stress levels decrease. You may find that your ability to concentrate increases. You may find that your blood pressure decreases. You may find that your immune system is boosted. You may lose excess weight. You may find your energy levels increase. You may find your levels of anxiety decreasing. You may find relief from tension and tension-related pain. You may find relief from chronic illnesses such as allergies and arthritis. You may find relief from mental health diagnoses. Research funded by the National Institute of Health (www.nih.gov) found that meditation helps young adults cope with stress, may help HIV-positive individuals handle stress, may increase empathy and may make information processing in the brain more efficient.
“My actions are my only true possessions.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground on which I stand.” — The Buddha
There are some risks associated with meditation that one should be aware of before beginning practice. Meditation should not be used as a form of escape or to replace professional help from a licensed professional counselor or licensed therapist where warranted. Meditation should not be used to stand apart from life but should be used to connect with yourself and with life. Meditation should not be used to disassociate from or disown our experiences, no matter how traumatic. While it is very easy to use meditation for these purposes, the risks that come with those purposes far outweight the benefits you may achieve. Proper meditation — when combined with appropriate therapy, counseling, mentoring and/or teaching — can yield all of the benefits without any of the potential risks.
© 2014, Jeremy Liebbe. All rights reserved.