Practical Benefits of the Integrative Quality of Meditation
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.