How NOT to Meditate
by Michael Braunstein
Even in Western culture, one would have to be living under a rock to be unaware of the concept of meditation. The physical, mental and spiritual benefits would fill volumes (and do!) There is no need to describe them in detail here. Anyone who knows how to do an internet search can find an extensive list. They are many and profound; in most cases have been heavily researched. The technique of meditation is ages old. So old that no one really knows where or how it began. The important thing about meditation is that it is specific. It’s a real thing that is not like anything else. Think of swimming. Swimming is not akin to any other activity in the sense that one is either self-mobilized in water or not. There is no mistaking basketball, watching video or driving a car with swimming. Apples and oranges.
A Common Mistake. Several times monthly, I have occasion to mingle with a large number of acquaintances who claim or at least seek to embrace meditation as a daily practice. Whenever the topic emerges for commentary, almost all of those people describe their particular method of meditation as anything but. They capsulize their practice in narratives that reveal how few people really understand what meditation is. They all have an idea that meditation has something to do with the mind but beyond that, it gets pretty sketchy. Here are some of the descriptions of meditation as they practice it.
One lady detailed how her mornings are so busy that it keeps her from meditating at home. Instead, on her fifteen-minute drive to work to she will “turn the radio off in the car and just try not to think of worries or work. That’s the best time for me to meditate.” What?
A gentleman shares that he has a fantastic app on his phone that he listens to. It’s music and relaxing sounds. Another swears by his “exercising on the treadmill at the gym. That’s the best meditation.” Or another, “Golf is like meditation to me, very relaxing.” Another reads the Bible for meditation. (Admirable, but that’s reading.) Or another sits to “think about the things in my day and how I want them to be.” (That’s cogitating, not meditating.) And another says, “I sit quietly and let my mind wander and go wherever it wants to.” (Sorry. That’s called daydreaming, not meditation. Close but no banana.)
Golf may be like meditation to someone. But it isn’t meditation. Driving a car isn’t meditation; it’s… driving a car! Listening to music isn’t meditation. It’s listening to music. Treadmills are exercise, not meditation. And sitting quietly, letting your mind wander? Letting random thoughts take over your mind? That’s almost the antithesis of meditation.
Dismissing negative thoughts or worries isn’t on my list of bad things to do. Reading, exercising, daydreaming are pleasant and relaxing but not meditation. All of those described activities or inactivities may be beneficial in some way, shape or form. Many activities bring about a noticeable mental shift but they do not bring the benefits that meditation does. And they are simply not meditation.
Formal attire. I once read that we have around 50,000 thoughts a day. It wouldn’t surprise me if that were accurate. That’s what our intellectual mind does. It thinks. It seems like those thoughts are random, unattended and come without bidding and they do. The result is an unnecessarily overactive mind that we have very little control of. Thoughts seem to come and go without our oversight. Figuratively, it’s a madhouse in there with most of those thoughts having little or nothing to do with our real goals, activity or wellbeing. In short, we have a very undisciplined mind with little hope of controlling our thoughts and the feelings or consequences those thoughts bring with them. With so much of our mindpower being wasted on insignificant babble, we are anything but efficient with our thinking and certainly not in control of our own mind. That’s where meditation comes in.
Meditation is not an informal, ambiguous variety of mundane activities that elicit any old kind of mental shift. It is not an athletic endeavor. It is not even an intellectual endeavor. Meditation is a formal skill that requires learning and practice under the guidance of a qualified and experienced teacher. Why? To start with, that’s how humans learn anything. No one learned to walk by reading a primer. We learn things by being taught, by being shown.
A useful analogy might be learning to swim. It’s possible that a young child who has never swum could be walking alone, see a lake, jump in and without any instruction from a teacher, succeed in staying afloat, swimming. Possible but unlikely and who would recommend their child learn to swim that way?
Summarizing what it is. Briefly put, meditation is a learned practice of gently coaxing the mind to enter thoughtlessness. This results in the conscious, intellectual, babbling monkey-mind to quiet. Thoughts settle and eventually the mind can enter a unified field of consciousness that brings physiological changes that are beneficial to the body. As humans we have become too sloppy with our minds, acting as if we have no control of them ourselves.
Think of standing in front of a chalkboard with those 50,000 thoughts filling the board. There is little room for any productive thought at all. Meditation gently wipes the board clean so that once it is clean, later, after meditation, we can put the thoughts we want there. Meditation is not writing thoughts on the board or listening to some voice telling us to write certain thoughts. Meditation is the act of creating the space for our higher mind to have if it wants to write those thoughts anytime later during the day.
A word about time. Some bemoan the inconsistency of their practice, acknowledging that it is something they wish they did more regularly. How many times have I heard, “I don’t have time in the morning!” Well, we all have the same 24 hours in a day. We all find the time when we want to do something — put makeup on, take a shower and so on. A recommended meditation of 15 minutes is usually considered best at twice a day, morning and evening. But even if just the morning, there is benefit. And think this over: There are 24 hours in the day. That’s 96 fifteen-minute segments. Start with just one of those. That’s like one percent of your day. One percent! You’ve gotta be kidding that you “don’t have time.” Now, go learn something.
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