Notes From My Mind: Meditation
I've been pondering writing a treatise on meditation and, to some extent, spirituality, so here goes. This will be a simple and quick synopsis of my experience. Some may wonder why I'm bothering to write about this - aren't you the Southwest travel guy?
There is a nexus between my peace in nature and meditation. Let me try and explain...
I used to think that meditation was phony new age hocus pocus. Smart and sophisticated guys like me weren't into such things. I put meditation in the same camp as mediums and psychics and believers in "spiritualism", all of whom science has roundly discredited in the 20th century. Moreover, I tried to meditate a few times and thought, "What the Hell is this?"- I felt more miserable after trying it then I did before I started. Mostly it wasn't comfortable because I always had to constantly be doing something. Have you met people like that?
Like many things in this lifetime, I was wrong about meditation.
My basic nature is somewhat skeptical and this sitting around and thinking wasn't what I thought would be beneficial. To that extent, I was right. However, meditation is hardly "sitting around and contemplating". In fact, it's just the opposite. In my case, the term "contemplating" often meant perseverating to me.
perseverate: verb (used without object), To repeat something insistently or redundantly.
My life had become one big perseveration. Sometimes I'd change my thinking but it usually went from one perseveration to another. In other words, I was substituting one anxious thought for another anxious thought.
Most of my life I rarely felt at peace. Sometimes, in nature, or listening to music, or riding my motorcycle, I felt peaceful but I didn't make the connection that those were the times when I actually stopped thinking for a few moments.
When I retired I picked up a book by a fellow named Michael A. Singer called, "The Untethered Soul". The book stunned me. He immediately started talking about the "voice in our head". I hadn't given much thought to the voice in my head. After all, that was ME, wasn't it? Turns out the answer is, remarkably, and importantly, NO. That voice, always playing in my head, wasn't, in fact, always my friend! That "me" was frequently brutal - always criticizing and trying to figure things out, worrying and planning and being obsessed with every bad thing that had ever happened to me. The problem was I wasn't aware that I was habitually identifying with those thoughts. Singer wrote:
"You're ready to grow when you finally realize that the "I" who is always talking will never be content".
I think I'd noticed my thinking was regularly negative but I WAS going to be happy someday, right? Y'know, when the bills were all paid, I was happily married, living in the perfect spot and when all my problems disappeared? Right? Yeah! Then! Of course, Singer pointedly expressed that, "nobody has really become okay by changing things on the outside".
Due to my identifying with that voice in my head, thinking it was really ME, I couldn't figure out how to change the "inside". In fact, my mind was consumed by injustices, some imagined and some definitely real, that I'd experienced in my life. I used to say that I had an "obsessive mind" and that's a burden but it becomes nearly unbearable if you obsess about bad things and can't stop. So, hmm...maybe this Singer guy was on to something here.
With the encouragement of a personal phone call by Trudy Goodman I decided to enroll in a "Mindful Based Stress Reduction" or MBSR class at Insight LA in Santa Monica, CA. I read Jon Kabat-Zinn's book, "Full Catastrophe Living". It's a fine book but the instruction and meditation was what I needed. At first, I hated the practice. I was supposed to focus on my breath but my mind would wander and I'd be lost in thought for the entire "meditation period" or, worse, I'd fall asleep. So, here I was failing at meditation. Talk about a loser.
But, through pure stubbornness and the encouragement of a fine teacher (thanks Christiane Wolf) , I kept at it and, after about a month, something happened that was profound. I stopped thinking. It came in bits and pieces but, I was amazed to find out, I actually had a "quiet mind" behind all the noise of my inner voice. One Saturday, after meditating for about 90 minutes I just stopped thinking- for awhile. Then, when a thought came up I saw it, felt the emotion attached to it in my body, didn't judge it, and let it pass. WHOA! I had stepped away from my crazy mind for a few minutes! Talk about a revelation. I felt relaxed and completely okay in the present moment. It was a feeling I'd had a few times in my life but couldn't replicate no matter how hard I tried. On occasion, through meditation, the trees had finally disappeared and I saw the forest. This certainly does not happen all the time. I still get lost in thought but it is the moment we recognize that we're lost in thought and gently return to focusing on our breathing that is the real "work" of meditation.
I am trying to describe an experience which is impossible to describe because what happens isn't contained in a thought. Efforts to create this non-thought will only produce more thoughts about how not to think! Look, you may be losing the plot here, I wouldn't blame you, but that's why I recommend reading books, taking classes, and just practicing.
A few months back one of the great thinkers of our time and neuroscientist, Sam Harris, wrote a book about meditation for us skeptics called, "Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion". I can't recommend it highly enough. Last time I looked it was nearing number 1 on the New York Times Best Seller List in non-fiction which is remarkable. It's even more impressive because Harris is one of the leading "new atheists" and recently a poll found that rapists and atheists are loathed about equally in American society. Somehow, scads of people are looking past that and buying this book. The reason it's so valuable to me personally is Sam Harris is a scientist- his life's works are devoted to evidence based ideas. He is the last person I would expect to lead us into "enlightenment" and yet- there he is - making a pitch for inner peace, a spiritual life, and importantly to me, sans any religious dogma. In truth, many scientists are now studying the brain changes created by meditation and starting to acknowledge its' positive effects.
Ok - enough. So, how does this work on a daily basis? How does it make me a "better man"? First, that question presupposes I am, indeed, a better man and I am no objective expert about that- ask my kids and wife. I can tell you that I had always been miserable at being alone for any extended period of time and "relaxing"- taking up full time residence with my mind was like living with a crappy roommate. I longed for solitude but when I got it I didn't find it soothing. Obsessing over work, or worrying, or drinking helped me to be distracted from my mind and negative thinking. Meditation has soothed my fractious mind. I now, most of the time, see my thoughts as thoughts- that's all they are and they rarely are lofty or important. Indeed, they are mostly devoted to trying to control things that I can't control, worrying about things that won't happen or have have already happened, and wanting things that, in the end, are not significant or important. My mind believes my feelings are permanent, while all the evidence demonstrates that everything, especially feelings, is temporary.
Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience, it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves"
A great complement to meditation, and here we finally come full circle, is travel and being in natural settings. In a previous blog post I cited recent research on "awe". Awe is similar to meditation- we just stop thinking and experience. Meditation doesn't just enhance and enrich my travel experiences it substantively changes them. It's a life affirming, present moment knowing, fulfilling experience, that my words will never adequately capture. I can only say this- it's one thing to appreciate nature it's entirely another to BE in nature.
I write this in the hope that one or some of you reading this might be stimulated to give meditation a try. If nothing else, finding a quiet place, carving out time just for you, and being with only you is a healthy activity.
This will mostly be a journal of my travels. I may include other items that interest me. Feel free to join in.