What is Meditation?
Meditation is not just to evolve spiritually. It is a tool that can help lower stress, by promoting the ability to be calm, make sound decisions, and better choices. Meditation can help you live in the present, as stress and tension is often caused by obsessing over failure, guilt, grief, and regret, all of which set you further back into unhappiness and depression.
For a time meditation was associated with the occult, practiced by ascetics in remote locations. Today it is accepted and recognized as a very valuable resource that can improve the quality of our living styles. It is often recommended by health professionals, accepted in some school curriculum and has been taught to inmates in a few prisons with the intention of curbing violence.
It is well documented that life styles impact our mental and physical health. Stress caused by the hectic pace of life has been associated with road rage, car crashes, bursts of anger, physical violence, alcohol and drug addictions amongst many social problems. Stress may also result in depression which is not always expressed in an outwardly, volatile fashion.
Depression, a harmful way of coping, also described as anger contained inwards, hurts all those connected with the person and not just the depressed individual.
Children in the care of such a person are at great risk of harm, as depression may reduce the capacity for rational reasoning and sound decision making, to properly take care of responsibilities. Stress also manifests itself in many physical conditions such as rashes, itching, anxiety, forgetfulness, high blood pressure and heart attacks.
Acts of violence, committed in the “ heat of the moment,” are often related to the inability to handle stress effectively. You may have heard that we need to slow down, to take time off for ourselves and family so that we can live better lives. How do you do that when the pressure is so great?
Many methods and techniques of meditation are advocated. Some organizations charge a fee to teach how to meditate. In my opinion there is no need to pay a fee. You may begin meditation by using the suggestions in this article and supplementing the information by using the links provided.
I have been greatly influenced by the works of Thich Nhat Hanh and Sri Eknath Easwaran. Below is a summary of the methods advocated by these remarkable men.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by his friend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. Although this prize was not awarded to him, his work is valued and his mission of peace is ongoing.
“In his nomination Rev. King said,”
“I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of [this prize] than this gentle monk from Vietnam. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist who founded the School of Youth for Social Service in South Vietnam in the 1960's with the purpose of actually practicing the teachings of Buddhism. It “drew young people deeply committed to acting in a spirit of compassion. They helped people cope with the ravages of war, helped people rebuild villages, set up medical and farming resources and taught children. ” These students did not support any political party, believing that the only enemy was the hatred and ignorance that prevailed. In a time of distrust and violence, this stance was not understood by the opposing parties and many students met with brutal treatment and death. Even after the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, the brutality continued. In this atmosphere, it was very hard not to give in to exhaustion and bitterness, but the work continued in a spirit of love.
Although Tich Nhat Hanh was exiled to France he continued to support the school by writing letters. The book, The Miracle of Mindfulness A manual on Meditation is based on those letters.
He recommends the discipline of following one's breath, by focusing on breathing in and breathing out. He suggests that:
breathing “connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”
This technique will help to make you aware of your body, to improve concentration, nourish and maintain calm mindfulness. If this is done in ordinary, day to day tasks, it can be a great source of strength and will prepare one for the most challenging of circumstances. You can begin trying this method immediately, just by being aware of your actions and staying in the present.
He gives the following simple example of an everyday chore:“ while washing the dishes one should only be washing dishes, which literally means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”
While that my seem strange, here is his reason. The fact that you are standing there washing the dishes should be a wondrous reality. You should be completely yourself, following your breath, conscious of your presence, and conscious of your thoughts and actions. This will prevent you from having your mind flit to other thoughts and remain in the present, enjoying that moment for what it is.
He goes on to say that even while walking, if we are aware that we are walking we will probably appreciate the things around us. How often do we walk, working out solutions to all kind of problems, dwelling on painful memories, or planning the next meal? We tend to ignore the present and often neglect to appreciate the beauty around us, the miracle of life, a blue sky, clouds, or wildflowers. You maybe more refreshed if you remain in the present. Perhaps you will be able to figure out the other issues in a clearer frame of mind when those issues receive your full attention.
You can of course apply the washing dishes example to whatever task you do. For those who are engaged in negotiations, contracts and important projects, he says, keep focused and alert and be able to handle the situation with intelligence, using the best judgment. If you are not in control and let anger, impatience and prejudice, interfere, then your work loses value. Calmness, and self control are necessary if you are to obtain good results during consulting, resolving and dealing with whatever arises.
Mindfulness helps us to be aware of the present, and thus restore ourselves as it greatly improves our concentration. I can see the advantages that mindfulness can bring. I have spent hours looking for my car keys, worried about whether I switched off the iron or stove, not able to find my scissors, and not concentrating fully on driving, due to other distractions, like the cell phone.
On the extreme side is the case of a few people who forgot that their babies were in their car and proceeded right on to their work place, completely forgetting that they had intended to leave them at their day care. The children remained in car with outside temperatures of over 90 degrees while the parent went off to work for the day. The children died due to parental neglect caused by stress or distractions that left them unfocused, with tragic results. This example highlights how very important it is to be in the“ present.”
If you would like to learn more about the philosophy and meditation techniques outlined by Thich Nhat Hanh, check the following links.
Thich Nhat Hahn
Information Related to Thich Nhat Hahn
General Information on Thich Nhat Hahn
Eknath Easwaran was greatly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi who freed India from British rule by non-violent means. He examined how this great leader, timid and shy as a child, with very little confidence, became one of the most beloved, and powerful men in the world, addressing statesmen and world leaders in a calm and dignified manner. Sri Easwaran, visited Gandhi's ashram in Sevagram, India, in order to learn how he was able to become such a powerful world leader through non-violent means, in the face of vociferous opponents and the mighty power of the British Empire.
He learned that Gandhi could not understand how a person could be at peace with himself by hurting others. He witnessed many upsetting incidents of cruelty, injustice and prejudice that could have made him bitter, vengeful and angry. Instead he trained himself to channel his anger into an instrument for change. In his book,
Original Goodness Sri Easwaran describes an interesting metaphor to channel anger.
Electricity can be dangerous, he points out, yet harnessed, it creates power, warmth and light, which benefits all. In this same way, anger can be used as a powerful force, to find creative solutions to conflict.
At a deeper stage of meditation, with a keener sense of insight and the desire to act only in ways that benefit all, “we have simply to flip a switch to redirect the current into its new channel.”
Gandhi believed that being intolerant of other views and getting agitated and angry was a sign that we did not have faith in our own view. “ If we really believe what we believe, we will not be shaken when someone challenges it.” He goes on to say that Gandhi was at his best when he was criticized:
It made him even more respectful and compassionate, and made him reach deeper into himself to find new ways of answering.
Sri Easwaran describes how he trained himself to practice this philosophy and learned to appreciate different perspectives, give them his full attention, and understand other opinions. Note to readers: The title, Sri, that precedes the name Easwaran denotes respect. That is how his followers refer to him
Sri Easwaran noted that Gandhi was influenced by the scriptures that advocated a disposition that handled pain and pleasure with the same temperament:
That one should always do the right thing.
When multitudes of people, who had experienced torment by their rulers, chanted in a frenzy “ an eye for an eye”, Gandhi responded, and was able to quieten the crowds by raising his hands and saying,
“ an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
He believed that all people have innate goodness, padded with layers of anger, hatred, prejudice, disrespect, tendencies for violence, greed, lies and other negative qualities. Meditation is one way we may calm ourselves and reduce those layers
He also believed that the source of our strength lies within each of us. He reasoned that we have control only over ourselves, nobody else, and if we want to see change, then change should begin with ourselves, first.
This philosophy is advocated by many religions, as well. One of the means to get to that inner source is meditation which help us to focus and draw strength when faced with great opposition or simple nuisances of everyday living. He also observed how Gandhi appeared transformed while meditating and he was always energetic and appeared refreshed even after hours of intense negotiations.
Based on what he witnessed first hand, on how Gandhi trained himself to be in control, Sri Easwaran set about trying to meditate himself. He found such a benefit to himself that he introduced meditation as a credit class, upon his appointment at the University of CA in Berkeley on the 1960's. His simplicity, his ability to draw the essence and integrate the teachings of many religions, and his 8 point program, a practical and flexible guide to living a life free of stress, was welcomed by a large following. He is the author of over 25 books and his method of meditation is used by many. Although Sri Eknath passed away in 1999, he left behind a legacy that continues to sustain those who follow his program. The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation which he founded is now located in Tomales, California.
Summary of the Eight Point Program
Sri Easwaran clarifies that the form of meditation he refers to, is hard and strenuous work. He said that meditation can relieve tension, “But so does a ten-mile run, which is a lot of work at the time.” Meditation can go on relieving tension at a deeper level as your outlook changes and you are able to handle conflicts differently. He reminds us that at the beginning it is a lot of work, but the benefits can be seen throughout the day. He also suggests that his method of meditation is a “ turning inward” or an interior discipline where you concentrate on turning the mind inward and forgetting about the body. He describes meditation to be:
The regular systematic training of attention to turn inward and dwell continuously on a single focus within consciousness, until after many years, we become so absorbed in the object of our contemplation that while we are meditating we forget ourselves completely. In that moment when we are said to be empty of ourselves, we are utterly full of what we are dwelling on. This is the central principle of meditation: “ we become what we meditate on.”
Sri Eknath advocates choosing an inspirational passage and repeating it silently. He suggests choosing a time early in the morning, so that you begin the day having the benefit of having a peaceful beginning. A half hour session is advocated as well as comfortable seating in an upright position. If you wish to, you can light a lamp or candle or use a picture to help you focus if you find these methods useful.
If you are new to meditation you will find that within a few seconds your mind has gone on to several other subjects. It is recommended that you just go back to the passage and begin again. This will continue to happen, but as you go on you will find that the periods of your mind drifting to other subjects get fewer and fewer. Of course the benefit to you will be that you will get into the habit of focusing your attention on matters throughout the day, without getting agitated and stressed. Remember, you will not be able to achieve these benefits until you are able to focus and practice giving your full attention to the inspirational verse that you recite. Like anything you undertake, training is essential to achieve success.
The Mantram or Mantra
This is a silent repetition, in the mind, of a prayer word or name of a deity. The benefit of this is to prevent you from silently debating issues in your head, worrying endlessly about issues about which you may have no control but that often wear you down. Just begin the mantra and it helps to steady your thoughts and curb the urge to go back to those matters that never seem to leave you.
This is really a practical suggestion to help you prioritize, so that you can achieve realistic goals, without becoming frustrated when you are unable to complete all the tasks that need to get done.
This is similar to the suggestion outlined by Thich Nhat Hahn. Once again it is suggested that you really concentrate on the activity at hand. The benefit of this is that you will avoid careless errors, remember where you have put something, thus reducing stress and the anxiety associated with the unnecessary time spent on searching for misplaced items.
Training the Senses
This refers to training ourselves to control certain habits. We often snack without really being hungry, or do chores that we prefer and ignore others that we dislike. If we try and give up the temptation to snack if you really do not need a meal, or do the chores that you dislike, you begin training the mind to do what you want the mind to. In the event of a crisis, sorrow or unhappiness, it will be easy for you to react appropriately and not be overcome with grief or anger. You should be able to contain yourself and make decisions in a clear state of mind, without panicking.
Putting Others First
When you show consideration for another person, you benefit as well, as you become less selfish and renew a state of harmony. You feel good when you know someone else is having a better experience because of the difference you made. A line in the Prayer of St. Francis describes this as, “For it is in giving that we receive”
It helps to meet with others who follow the Eight Point Program as you can share support, benefit from the opinions of others and enjoy the inspiration that come from a group.
Reading the mystics
The purpose of reading is to draw inspiration from scriptures of all religions and people who were able to achieve peace and harmony in their lives by applying the methods advocated. A common feature amongst the different religions, is that, you should look within for achieving peace, that you can train yourself to cope differently, you are the instrument of change, forgiveness, compassion and generosity, amongst a host of similarities.
Sri Easwaran describes how we can train our attention-both in meditation and the rest of the day-until eventually we can make the mind calm, clear,“ and concentrated as a laser, which we can direct and focus at will”
The works of Eknath Easwaran, who was an English Professor in his native India, is easy to read and offers guidelines to improve your daily living. He has anecdotes that you can identify with, written in down to earth style, yet the message is clear. What I like the most about the teachings is the acceptance of all faiths and finding the common themes that indicate respect for differences and that there is unity in life.
If you who are not familiar with the concept of meditation, try meditating for at least 10 minutes a day. Although it is recommended that one should meditate for at least half an hour every morning, it may be hard to do, if you are trying it for the first time. I would suggest 10 minutes to start and slowly increasing it to where you are comfortable. Even if you do 10 minutes a day you will have started to try and receive the benefits of meditation. Check out Micro Meditation for more information.
Navigate these links for more information on Sri Eknath Easwaran.
- General Information on the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation
- General Information on the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation and Retreats
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