How can you find the inner resilience to match the outer complexities of your life?
I ask myself this question everyday. It is sometimes a struggle, just to turn on my computer, or get my son to school, or get through the dishes on the way to making breakfast. My most important tool is simple: practice mindfulness by taking time to center and track my breathing. Simple. Powerful. And easy to forget when we’re caught up in firestorms of our busy lives.
But the value of mindfulness is not new to our modern world. Far from it. For thousands of years, people in search of inner peace and calm, as well as spiritual enlightenment, have practiced the ancient discipline of meditation. Considered an esoteric Eastern practice until recent decades, meditation has now become, for many, a part of the fabric of our modern Western culture.
The truth is, millions of Americans have tried it—homemakers, schoolchildren, medical students, business executives—and often the benefits have earned it a place in their busy lives. Employees meditate in the workplace to enhance effectiveness and lower stress in boardrooms; mental health professionals teach it to their patients to reduce anxiety and bolster self-esteem; teachers train their students in mindfulness practices to help them focus and to channel their energies; physicians and nurses recommend it to clients with hypertension, chronic pain, and many other conditions.
But what do we really know about meditation? How did it find its way into our busy days? What are the different forms of meditation or mindfulness? Do some work better than others? What does science tell us about how and why it works? And ultimately, does it make us feel, behavior, and think better and with more peace and balance?
What is meditation, and how did it find its way to America, thousands of miles form its probable origin in the East? How is it that a fundamentally spiritual practice aimed at union with a transcendent reality is also claimed by Western science to provide physical and psychological benefits? Exactly how meditation provides its therapeutic benefits is unclear, but there are substantial reasons to believe there are compelling reasons for deeper exploration and personal practice.
The word itself comes from two Latin words: meditari, which means, “to think about, consider,” and the root word of medicine—which means, “to heal and look after.” The practice of meditation encompasses both. It involves the meditator’s choice to turn their attention inward, away from the demands and clamor of external reality. The goal is to move beyond the boundaries of our personal egos and experience a oneness with deeper spiritual truths. For centuries, religious adepts from a variety of spiritual traditions have devoted their lives to attaining these goals. The fruits of the practice are also said to be visible in the practitioner—people from many faiths may recognize an awakened being as “perfect”. So far, I have met a few that come close to that description — none perfect when one gets close up and personal.
There are many names for this destination—Brahman, the Void, non-duel, self-transcendence, Paradise, ultimate reality, consciousness, ground of being, the Divine—and many paths leading toward it. Meditation is most often associated with Eastern religions. Yet on closer examination, most of the world’s religions, including the Judeo-Christian tradition, contain some form of contemplative practice that fits the definition of meditation. Some shamanic practices overlap as well, when the goal of the practice is considered.
In Western countries, we increasingly use meditation as much for everyday benefits (such as enhanced serenity, clarity, and openness) as for the attainment of rarified states such as those described in the ancient wisdom traditions. The practice of meditation has been shown to create physical changes in heart rate, breathing, and brainwave activity.
Yet the basic context of meditation remains a spiritual one. Meditation is a transformative practice, involving a state of consciousness that has physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions. As Dr. Dean Ornish (2005) has observed as he urges us to break the cycle of stress:
“The ancient swamis and yogis, rabbis and priests, nuns and monks didn’t develop mind-body techniques to get cholesterol down, or unclog arteries, or help people lose weight, or perform better at board meetings. Their techniques are tools for transformation and transcendence that can help us quiet the mind and body, and experience an inner sense of peace and joy and well-being.”
I confess, this works for me. And in the meantime, it can also help me to stay healthy.