We say “In calmness there should be activity; in activity there should be calmness.” Actually, they are the same thing; to say “calmness” or to say “activity” is just to express two different interpretations of one fact. – Shunryu Suzuki
In recent decades, meditation and mindfulness practices have made progress integrating with the mindset of Western culture, and the promise of benefits may give way to even more mainstream approaches. Finding peace and balance in the busy-ness of modern life seems a worthy commitment, and the findings on the positive impact of these practices on well-being is growing. Since 1990, scholarly articles on the “effects of meditation” have increased nearly six-fold, focusing a wide lens from depression and ADHD, to arousal level and aerobic exercise. Some form of mindfulness or meditation is a part of several therapeutic modalities including Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).
While meditation and mindfulness overlap, this article focuses on meditation and its value to both our inner and outer lives. Just as emotional intelligence includes awareness of self and of others, the core component is understanding self. While one can be mindful walking, working, cooking, and exercising, the practice of mediation is internally focused requiring a commitment apart from other daily activities.
Meditation is practiced in different ways, but at the core they have commonalities. I offer this because many people give up on meditation due to misunderstandings of what meditation is. Just the mention of the word brings stereotypes and labels that miss the essence of its utility and purpose. The fundamentals of meditative practices include posture, awareness centered on a target (usually breathing), non-judgement, and non-attachment. In other words a meditative practice is: you sit, you center and “watch” your breath, you let go of what comes into awareness in a non-judgmental manner, and breathe. It sounds simple but it is not. Regarding practice, Shunryu Suzuki offers in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
“If you try to calm your mind you will be unable to sit, and if you try not to be disturbed, your effort will not be the right effort. The only effort that will help you is to count your breathing, or to concentrate on your inhaling and exhaling. We say concentration, but to concentrate your mind on something is not the true purpose of Zen. The true purpose is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes. This is to put everything under control in its widest sense.”
One of the biggest misconceptions, one that is often communicated in popular media, is to stop thinking, to silence the mind. The true purpose of meditative practice is the practice, “to see things as they are” (non-judgment) with no sense of gain (non-attachment). To see things as they are is to notice that the mind thinks—and to let it go as it goes. Over time thoughts are fewer and less frequent—but not because you attempted to stop them. As Suzuki says, “When you are practicing zazen, do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. If something comes into your mind, let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything.”
While this is not meant to be a primer on meditation, it is important to understand the obstacles in order to reap the benefits. Oddly, to try for the benefits is a goal and that is not what meditation is about. The purpose is to practice. The benefits happen of their own, just as fitness and weight loss follow a shift from sedentary life for they are of different qualities.
This point is important because many start a meditative practice with specific goals in mind. This is not atypical in our goal-oriented culture, but if this is your focus, the practice itself will be difficult. Just as Suzuki says, “Even though it is impossible to get rid of our self-centered desires, we have to do it. Our true nature wants us to.” The desire to be rid of desire is a desire in and of itself. To know this is one thing, and to let go of it is the essence of practice. Because the meditative practice is a way of being, our mind and body will experience the benefits of the practice. The greatest of these is the beginning and expansion of true self-awareness.
Here are just a few more of the practical benefits of meditative practice:
The Power of Making Space. A meditative practice of “seeing things as they are” creates space between the sensations, thoughts, and feelings that our attention may typically be immersed in. This is the essence of the reflective process of development and moving that which we assume to be our identity, into an objective space. In meditation, this is a consequence of awareness rather than something you are trying to do. The only thing you do is “practice.” What you come to notice is that this process becomes a part of who you are and you are better able to notice thoughts and feelings as they arise. The latter is at the heart of developing emotional intelligence (EQ).
More Conscious Decision-Making. Because you become more self-aware, you are less apt to be at the mercy of habits of thinking. You are more likely, in the “space” mentioned above, to make decisions based on values and principles. The space between stimulus and response becomes more available in the moment.
Effects on Executive Functions. Findings on the effects of meditation points to the influence on the prefrontal cortex and its functions. Meditation promotes integration, connecting the “control tower” with other areas of the brain. We are better able to regulate attention, emotions, and impulses.
Reduction in Stress. Meditation lowers activation levels and enhances the braking capacity of the autonomic nervous system. Practice gives the mind and body respite from expectations, deadlines, and outcomes.
Relationships. Once we notice the activity that arises when we are focused in meditative practice, we can begin to see how our internal interference may influence the quality of our relationships. Over time, the essence of seeing things as they are and letting go enables us to be more present in our relationships without the intrusiveness of our personal narrative or immersion into our own thoughts.
Self-development. There is a saying that in gaining knowledge something is added, and in gaining wisdom something is lost. A meditation practice over time fosters both knowledge and wisdom—but, again, these come of their own and not as “part of a plan.” On some level, developmental theories align with this process and delineate stages that cannot be skipped. In the constant flux of life we reach the limits of our present capacity of our way of knowing, and either we evolve or we do not. In the transition to higher levels of development, what we were once subject to, embedded in, and therefore unaware of, becomes object and then we can be responsible for this new capacity of being. The self gains capabilities and a wider perspective. Similarly, meditation brings the self into awareness in the moment and we see things, including what we “think” is our identity, as they are. And in letting go unconditionally we come closer to our true nature.
While these are just a few of the benefits, remember that if the focus of practice is on gain, most likely, it will not work. For in this space of “desire” you are attempting to control aspects of life that are beyond your control. This is a trick of the egocentric self and the very thing we are attempting to let go. Simply commit to the practice. Start small with a few minutes a day and build from there. With consistency over time, you will find your practice to be an integral part of your day.
Suzuki, S. (1977). Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Weatherhill.