A recent NYT article describes how sustained meditation can actually create observable neurological changes. It has been noted to reduce blood pressure and increase attention spans--but this is only the beginning. Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and author, did a TED talk on how the habit of meditation increases our overall happiness after only a few months of practice. If you're interested in giving meditation a try, this blog is a short introductory piece intended to get you started. More important than the philosophy is the practice itself. Dogen, a great Zen master of Japan, has even said that zazen (a form of sitting meditation) is enlightenment.
Scientists are learning more and more about the brain, but they are truly only beginning to understand the affects of meditation. For now, we know it helps develop attention and relieves stress--an encouraging ideal for our frantic, 9-5 lifestyle. It also does much more than that. A contemplative practice (another name for it) has the potential to transform our entire life. As the teacher Shinzen Young describes it, meditation is the practice of cultivating ordinary happiness and extraordinary happiness for ourselves and others.
The practice itself is deceivingly simple:
- Sit with your back straight, either in a chair or a comfortable cushion, eyes open but looking down, and hands resting in your lap. You can close your eyes, if that helps you bring your attention inwards (it can also help you fall asleep).
- Let yourself settle into that position for a few moments. Just be aware of how your body feels as it sits there.
- Take a few deep, easy breaths. After each exhalation, let yourself relax a little more (I don't recommend doing this lying down unless you are sure you won't pass out. This is an easy way to have an unintentional nap).
- Let your breath become more natural, following it in and out. Focus on the way the chest expands on inhalation, and contracts (releases) on exhalation. Feel the muscles, the subtle body sensations associated with relaxation.
- You mind is going to wander. That's okay. Don't try to stop thinking (good luck with that). Just gently bring attention back to the breath.
- Continue this for 5-10 minutes each day. Twice a day is best, morning and evening.
- When you are ready, extend the practice.
- If you choose, look for more nuanced approaches that teach you to focus your attention in certain ways.
That's it. Yet "just sitting," is something that any of us hardly do. We are too busy projecting our attention outwards, at the world, rather than inwards, at ourselves and our own well being. A habit of spending a few minutes day focusing inward can transform the way we experience the outward world. In time (or out of time, depending on how you look at it), this practice can help us realize that there is no true separation between inner and outer. This is not an abstract idea. It is a description of an encounter with the real, something each of us can do, and does when we practice meditation and mindfulness.
Thich Nhat Hanh, popular Vietnamese Zen author, has a wonderful book on this subject called The Miracle of Mindfulness. A great place to start for beginners.
To end, here is a basic meditation instruction from one of my favorite teachers, Shinzen Young: Focus on Relaxation.
Remember, what starts as an ordinary practice can lead us to extraordinary life.