Our human ability to think is both a gift and a plague. A gift when it enables us to create healing medicines or grow food more efficiently and feed those that are hungry. A plague when our ability to think leads to thoughts that we accept as rigid inflexible facts, expectations or predictions about the future. An example of this might be the thoughts that create the belief that one must drive a BMW, have a big house and wear expensive clothes to be good enough. The consequence of accepting these thoughts as facts which must be listened to might be long hours at work, purchases we cannot afford on our credit cards, fear of not living up to the expectations of others, time away from our families etc.
Common place in our society is the thought that one must look a certain way to be okay. The consequence being deep seated feelings of unworthiness and attempts to feel good through diet products, plastic surgery and other services or products which promise to make us feel better about ourselves. How often have you found yourself looking at your appearance, abilities, successes, material possessions or social status and compared these to those of some other individual or to what you possessed in a previous period of your life. So somehow we take our experience in this moment and evaluate or compare it to some image of what our life or our body should be like, in which case I am not okay until I achieve this desired image. In other situations we may find a sense of contentment in our experience right now, but fear possible circumstances which could cause our current experience to change. In this case one wishes to know that nothing will change. We seek certainty and fear uncertainty. This constant evaluative / comparative “thought” processing of ones experience in any given moment prevents us from savoring the pleasure that being alive can bring and can contribute to psychological disorders and human suffering. Notice how frequently you wish that your life was different and then pay attention to the impact this wishing has on your experience.
I might summarize the above by framing the definition of the ego as the sum of all the thoughts which tell us who we are, what we must have, how we must behave and what we must need. For the most part we seek to answer these questions by looking at what our culture expects of us. All this thinking can create a busy but very tired mind. Can your recall a time when you became aware of how busy your mind was, how hard you were striving to be “something” or “someone” and how this impacted you? Perhaps take a few moments and write down answers to the following.
Who am I?
What material possession must I have to feel okay about myself?
What expectations must I meet or achieve to feel okay about myself?
How do I want others in the world to think of me for me to feel okay about myself?
What mask do I present to the world so others will accept me?
What fears do I have that keep me stuck?
From my own personal experience, having worked with clients in online counselling, observed both colleagues, friends and the culture in which I live it seems that our minds are always spinning. Stillness is not a common experience yet it is from and in stillness that we truly find the contentment we are all seeking. Paradoxically our western culture’s desire for contentment is sought through constant change and stimulation. I recall getting on an elevator at a hotel I was staying at during a conference and being amazed that they had installed a television in the elevator itself. It seemed to me a profound hallmark of just how our western cultured minds are constantly seeking escape from just being present even during a short elevator ride.
When I teach meditation to therapist groups and ask how many of them actually taste and truly experience their meals very few will put up their hands. Most will reflect on reading the paper, thinking about their day or pondering what they must do or accomplish tomorrow. In doing this, we miss the sacred taste and pleasure that my meal might bring me and in exchange, our minds perhaps replayed a conversation we had from earlier in the day or rehearsed a conversation we will have tomorrow. I might ask you to ponder – to what end? Can you recall the last time you stopped doing and found contentment in just being?
On the flip side of always doing is the mind of depression. I like to refer to the mind of depression as – “I don’t feel like it syndrome”. I don’t feel like getting up, or exercising or eating, or going to work etc. etc.. The state of depression perceives the thought “I don’t feel like it” as a fact. So for example if a depressed person has the thought, “I don’t feel like getting out of bed” , they imagine that this must be true and feel compelled to listen to the thought. This rigid binding between what I think and what I believe creates a rigid and inflexible way of responding to the world.
An example I often share with my patients is my own experience with “I don’t feel like it” thinking. At the time of writing this article my life has become extremely busy and hectic managing work, building a website, and caring for elderly parents. It is not uncommon for me to wake up in the morning having had 5 hours sleep and say to myself, “I don’t feel like going to work. I need more sleep.” Several thoughts will follow and my mind has even suggested to me that I call in sick. The difference between my mind, at least in its current state and the “depressed mind” is that I am able see the thought as mental event which I am not bound to. It has been said that the mind generates 1,000,000 thoughts a day and 80% of which we had yesterday. Because I know that thoughts are mental events which may or may not have any value / validity, I am able to distance myself from any thought I do not find helpful.
The ability to observe our thoughts as mental events some of which are helpful and some of which are not helpful has the potential to set us free from habitual patterns which cause us to suffer. Coming back to my example, when my mind tells me to go back to sleep I focus on the clients who are depending on me to be present, my family who need me to earn a living, and I place aside my unhelpful thought. In contrast, if I had depression my mind would latch on to the thought -“I don’t feel like getting up” , and become rigidly attached to the thought. Listening to the thought , “I don’t feel like getting up”, transforms the thought into a belief , “I cannot get up”. If I believe my thought I will do what it says. You can see how depressed behavior patterns arise when one buys into and believes unhelpful depressive thoughts. Once again, our ability to think has gotten in the way of ability to find contentment.
Perhaps if you now asked why should I meditate, I could answer, to experience doing nothing but being present in the moment with whatever arises . Let us try an experiment. Close your eyes and do nothing for 3 minutes. For most people including myself this is not an easy thing do. You likely experienced a flood of thoughts moving about your mind. In our day to day life these thoughts are present, even if we are not conscious of them. Mediation is a practice that can change our relationship to our thoughts. It is a misconception that the purpose of meditation is to quiet or stop our thoughts and achieve a mind without thoughts. If we try to stop our thoughts we will only encounter frustration as the only way to stop our thoughts is to die.The brain is complex computer with constant electrical activity. The brains electrical output at least in part manifests as thought, and even in ones sleep thoughts are active and manifest as dreams. So the goal of mediation is simple awareness of our experience in any given moment while at the same time becoming aware of any thoughts which may arise and pull us away from our experience. You might ask what it means to be aware of your experience. For now lets keep it simple. Let us just say that we will pick only one part of our experience to focus on. Traditionally this has been focusing our attention on the breath, The word “inspiration comes from the latin word “spirat”, which means “spirit”. Connecting with our breath can metaphorically be viewed as connecting with the rhythm of our spirit. So for now we will keep it simple. Just the breath. In later articles on mediation we will discuss expanding our focus to other parts of our experience.
So let’s start with a simple meditation.
1) Find a comfortable quiet place to sit.
2) Assume a dignified but comfortable position allowing the head and body to be aligned.
3) You may close your eyes but if this is uncomfortable for you then just direct your eyes downwards slightly in front of you.
4) Bring your attention to your breath.
5) Start at your nostrils and notice the sensations of breathing. Notice the coolness, warmth or any other sensations. Become aware of the flow of air through your nostrils. When you feel ready start counting in your mind in the following manner.
With the first inbreath say “IN ONE” and with the first out breath “OUT ONE”.
With the second inbreath repeat in your mind, “IN TWO and with the second outbreath “OUT TWO”. Continue in this manner until you reach the count of 10. You are not actually speaking the words out loud but simply repeating the words in your mind.
TO EXTEND THE EXERCISE:
Shift your attention to the rise and fall of your chest . Start the count again with each inbreath and with each outbreath.
IN ONE — OUT ONE
IN TWO — OUT TWO
IN THREE– OUT THREE
CONTINUE TO A COUNT OF 10
TO EXTEND THE EXERCISE AGAIN:
Shift your attention to the rise and fall of your belly with each breath. Start the count again with each inbreath and with each outbreath.
IN ONE — OUT ONE
IN TWO — OUT TWO
IN THREE– OUT THREE
CONTINUE TO A COUNT OF 10
TO EXTEND THE EXCERCISE ONCE MORE START THE SEQUENCE AGAIN.
If you notice your mind drifting simply and with great compassion for yourself bring your attention back to your breath. The biggest pitfall for beginning meditators is the frustration they encounter as they try to stop their thoughts which are perceived to be bothersome. It is crucial to remember that you cannot stop your thoughts and in meditation your thoughts will appear a thousand times. The trick is to just notice them as if they were passing clouds floating through you or leaves floating on a river. As soon as you notice yourself lost in thought simply come back to your breath. Notice if your mind is telling you that you are not doing this right, or that you were lost in thought for too long and come back to your breath. At a very pragmatic level meditation is about the practice of not getting caught up in our thinking. Another way to think about meditation is as the practice of cultivating or exercising our ability to observe thoughts and choose where to place ones attention — our breath or our thought. Expect to get caught up in your thoughts, everyone does. Every time you discover that you are lost in thought, get excited about the opportunity to practice coming back to your breath. There is a wonderful poem by Rumi that is worth reading called The Guest House”.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all.
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
How long should you meditate for?
Consider using a timer and start with 5 minutes periods. Whatever length of time you set your timer for commit to completing your practice until the timer rings. You can gradually extend the length of time you meditate. Ideally one would meditate for at least 20 to 30 minutes per day, but whatever you can do is great. Even 5 minutes a day or 5 minutes 3 times per day is helpful. I worked with one client who was a single mother. Trying to get 20 minutes away from her two and a half year old was difficult. Together we found 5 periods in her day where she could practice for 5 minutes. Sometimes we get caught up in all or nothing thinking the result, being that we get nothing. Something is always better than nothing. Another client placed a timer on his computer, and whenever it sounded, he would stop and do one cycle of breathing as described above.