Meditation is actually coming up more and more in articles in the news. University and medical studies are showing that mediation helps reduce stress, increase memory and test taking abilities, increase ability to focus, and a host of other benefits. But what IS meditation? First, some definitions…
There are actually two primary types of meditation, although there are many subsets of these. The first, is Concentration Meditation. The goal of this meditation, as you might imagine, is to develop the concentration. Often the primary object of concentration is the breath, but it does not have to be. You can use a candle, a mantra (series of words or syllables), music, binaural beats, a spot on the wall, or anything else. The point is to find a single point of focus and hold your attention there for as long as possible. When (not if) your attention wanders, gently, and without judgement (self-condemnation) bring your attention back to your object of focus. This is much like training for a sport. As you perform the basic drills of a sport, you develop what is commonly called “muscle memory”. You get so good at something that you can do it sub-consciously. The practice of Concentration Meditation (or śamatha in the Sanskrit) trains the awareness to develop “muscle memory” to be able to hold focus on a single object. With this “muscle memory” comes a stillness (or samādhi in the Sanskrit) that brings a great peace. Your mind is not racing anymore. The thoughts no longer control it. Pure awareness can surface. You become the “observer”.
Once you have developed at least a rudimentary ability (or “muscle memory”) for focus, the second type of meditation offers what amounts to a very powerful engine for change. The second type of meditation is called Insight Meditation (or vipaśyanā in the Sanskrit), also commonly referred to as Mindfulness. Once you have developed focus, you will realize that you can direct that focus to anything you choose. It is especially useful to direct it toward thought, emotion, and sensation as these are things that we “carry” with us wherever we go. What happens when we do this? As the observer, when you direct your focus at these things you can see thoughts arise, play out, and fade. The same with emotion. The same with sensation.
Stephen R. Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People suggests that, by nature, humans all have conditioned responses to external stimuli. The model is shown in this diagram:
This model, is not quite accurate, however. Inherent in between stimulus and response is a quality all humans have: the freedom to choose. The corrected model is shown below.
Insight or Mindfulness Meditation allows us, through understanding experientially our thoughts, emotions, and sensations, to slow this process down, effectively increasing the gap between stimulus and response and increasing the time we have to make conscious choice before conditioned response kicks in. For example, when we turn our attention toward an emotion, say anger, what can we observe. First there is a tension, the muscles in our body tighten up as we get ready for our conditioned response to express vehemence. Next we often experience a body temperature increase. Then, there is often blood rushing to the brain, prefaced immediately by an increase in heart rate. As you practice sharpening your focus, all of these become individual events. You can actually WATCH them lead up to the anger. What if, during this process, you decided that you no longer wanted to participate?
THAT, my friends, is the true transformative power of meditation. As you develop mindfulness, you develop the ability to take back choice – to make it so that your actions have meaning. You no longer are a slave to past experience or preconditioned response. You have true agency. You have true freedom. At that point, your actions can be guided by values and truth rather than societal norms or habit. Imagine the shift that this could have in your life. Imagine what you could do with this skill. No longer a slave, but free. To me, this freedom is the goal of “enlightenment” or “salvation”. It is not the relinquishing of ALL experience. It is not experiencing pure nothingness, without sensation. It is perfect, consistent, skillful choice based on complete understanding of oneself and one’s environment.
That is why I meditate. I seek to refine that ability. I seek true freedom.
– Josh Walles
The Mindful Life Coach