Meditation: magic pill or path to enlightenment?
Meditation will continue to intrigue the researchers for some time but the magic elixir will continue to elude them until they start looking in the right place.
Mindfulness meditation (staying still and continuously returning attention to something for a period of time) is a great skill for a whole lot of reasons, not least because we tend to lead such hectic and overscheduled lives that we need to practice the delicate art of doing nothing and being aware and present.
But… the delicious benefits we are promised will be hit and miss if we are all just sitting down in our thousands, dictated by work to reduce our sick days, and learning to savour a raisin, or pay attention to our breath.
I don’t think any culture has ever been as concerned as ours with happiness or economic efficiency and our current fascination with meditation seems to stem from that same concern.
Most contemplative practices/religions encourage some form of meditation or prayer as an important regular duty. Not because it would make us happier or more efficient economic units but beause meditation was always about the bigger picture.
The biggest picture, really.
Meditation is a practice to help us learn about and experience the true nature of reality. My scripture teacher told me that prayer is our way of seeing the face of God. To me this is the same thing. We meditate, pray, sing, dance, paint, go for long walks or whatever it is we do to find calm and connection with ourselves not to become happier or better workers but to fill in the gaps and expand into the bigger picture.
We all have gaps… holes in our lives that leave us longing and lonely sometimes. Meditation will not fill those gaps. Neither will a long walk in the wilderness. And yet when we’re done, the gaps seem smaller, or less important. When we engage regularly in these renewal activities we stop focusing on those gaps so much and start to see the bigger picture.
Eventually, with practice, and preferably some wise instruction, we might start to see the biggest picture.
Meditation gets pretty boring if you’re just sitting there noticing your breath when you have a million other things you’d rather be doing.
So when I teach my students how to meditate I never just tell them what to do. We explore different things each time and afterwards I invite them into a discussion about what they learned, and we discover how those lessons translate into real life.
What does it mean that when I am sitting there doing ‘nothing’ I feel intense pain in my knee, but if I watch it very closely I discover that there is not just one sensation of pain but an infinitely shifting kaleidoscope of different feelings, none of which can individually be felt as pain? And how is it that each of them dissolves just as I manage to focus on one completely?
Maybe all of life is this shifting, evolving, ever-changing stream of events that can never be pinned down – that can never be seen objectively because the very act of observing redefines the observed.
And what does it mean that when I watch my thoughts, ‘me’ sitting quietly on the sidelines while ‘they’ fling themselves around with abandon, those thoughts sometimes contradict each other, sometimes shout, sometimes whisper things that upset me, thrill me, taunt me and then once in a while they seem to grow tired of themselves and for a time they disappear altogether. But never for long. What are these things I live with as constant, fickle companions?
The things we learn in meditation can change lives, but change is not the real reason we take to the cushion.
Meditation is a laboratory where we can run experiments and test hypotheses without too many uncontrolled distractions. Humans are explorers and as we plough deeper into space, dig deeper into the planet and investigate every inch of the physical world looking for answers the real undiscovered territory, the final frontier, awaits you, the explorer of your own consciousness.