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by Kamal Sarma
Meditation is not about thinking of nothing. It requires you to be aware of your thoughts. By focusing on the thinking process, the space between each thought will increase, your thinking will calm down, and you will relax.
NWhat comes to mind at the idea of meditation? Do you associate it with an attempt to reach a higher plane? Do you see an image of a bald man in orange robes sitting on a cold, stone monastery floor, chanting a mantra? Perhaps it's a picture of hippies with legs crossed in the lotus position, breathing deeply and murmuring, "Ommmmm."
Adding to the confusion is the fact that there are many different types of meditation practice-Transcendental Meditation (known as TM), vipassana, zazen, stillness, or devotional meditation. Is each one different? Let's say that they all share many elements and each has its benefits, yet some would be more beneficial in certain contexts than others.
When discussing my personal meditation practice with friends and colleagues, I have encountered some misconceptions about precisely what meditation is or what it achieves. One particularly memorable instance came in response to my telling my boss that I meditate. "Ah," he ventured, "I don't meditate, because that's what cows do. I'm human, after all!"
I'm still not sure what he thought cows really do. He was probably thinking more along the lines of rumination-hanging around all day, slowly chewing grass. Nevertheless, I am sure that cows are free of mental clutter, but they probably do not strive for the things that meditation offers: mental peace, mental resilience, and the skills to make better decisions in daily life.
Misconceptions can discourage people from beginning a meditation practice, or cause some to have unrealistic expectations about what meditation can provide. So I'd like to address some of these misconceptions.
Misconception 1: Meditation is Only about Relaxation
You could think of meditation as practiced relaxation-the process of concentrating the mind, calming the body, and shutting out external stressors. These are key relaxation techniques and are also the first steps in any meditation practice.But meditation is much more than relaxation. It enables you to delve deep inside yourself, into the subconscious and unconscious levels of your mind. Through this, you gain an awareness of what drives your actions and what underlies your decision-making processes. This state is often called centeredness. Simply, it means that your decisions come from awareness, not from transient mental clutter or, worse still, destructive emotions.
Misconception 2: Meditation Means Going into a Trance
Meditation does not necessarily involve going into a trance state. It is not about zoning out, achieving unconsciousness, or escaping reality. In fact the opposite holds true-meditation is geared toward achieving a greater awareness of ourselves and our thinking processes. Meditation is a more direct, raw experience of reality. When you meditate, you learn to acknowledge the internal chatter and focus on the precise emotions you are experiencing, thereby experiencing them with their full intensity.
When my daughter passed away, initially I was overwhelmed with grief and guilt. I just wanted to escape the dreadful pain of those emotions, so my first thought was to turn to alcohol and antidepressants. I feared facing my emotions and instead wanted to run away from them.
The process of running away from negative feelings toward positive ones is very tiring. Meditation provides you with the chance to sit with your emotions and actually experience them, a process that, initially, you may find challenging but, ultimately, extremely liberating and invigorating. Facing your emotions and acknowledging them gives you courage and strength. It provides mental stamina, or emotional resilience, to make decisions that are not adversely affected by your feelings. According to psychologist John Welwood, "Uncovering the raw energy of emotions is like moving into the depths of the oceans, underneath the whitecaps of emotional frenzy and the broader swells of feelings, where all remains calm."
Misconception 3: Meditation is Just a Fad
A fad or trend that comes and goes does so because it usually lacks substance or can't demonstrate real results. It might deliver instant gratification, but it rarely requires a significant commitment of time or energy. On the other hand, meditation has been a cornerstone of Eastern philosophy for thousands of years. Although it has a shorter history of acceptance in mainstream Western society, it is increasingly recognized as a valid and effective tool. The health benefits are so significant that meditation is now recommended as an effective health regime for many - from executives, mothers, lawyers, and prison inmates to elite athletes and police officers, to name few.
Misconception 4: Meditation is Only for Holy People
The misconceptions abound: to meditate, you must be enlightened, become a vegetarian, join a religion or cult, or must avoid evil thoughts. Right? Wrong! Meditation is a practice of calm, focused thinking and attention that is available to, and effective for, everyone.
Meditation is for people like you and me who work every day and have to make decisions on what to buy or sell; whom to hire or fire, date, or marry; how to meet a tough deadline; or whether to say yes or no to that boring cocktail party. Meditation is for people who face the daily pressures of trying to balance work with healthy families and relationships. Meditation is suitable for vegetarians and nonvegetarians alike.
Misconception 5: Meditation Makes You Spaced Out
Meditation became popular in the West in the 1960s; it arrived alongside experimentation with alternative lifestyles and drugs. As a result, some assume that people who meditate also take drugs. Though meditation can make you feel naturally high or joyous, its effects are generally the opposite of those of taking drugs.Drugs often make you lose touch with reality, numbing your experience of emotions. Meditation enables you to experience the reality of your emotions head on and simultaneously develop your ability to focus. The state of bliss achieved in meditation comes from having the courage to face an intense emotion and experience it in all its rawness. I tend to experience this joyous feeling when my meditation contrasts with a negative experience just preceding it, such as an argument with my wife or barely meeting a brutally tight deadline. The more intense the prior emotion, the more blissful my meditation makes me feel, just as coming into an air-conditioned room on a hot day is more pleasurable the hotter it is outside.
Misconception 6: Meditation Takes Up Too Much Time
A common complaint for many people is, "I already don't have enough time to do all I want to do, so how can I start another activity?" Many people considering meditation might be put off, fearing it will take up time that is already in short supply. However, the paradox is that meditation actually gives people more time.My meditation teacher assured me that one minute of meditation is equivalent to ten minutes of deep sleep (however, I recommend that beginners start off with ten to fifteen minutes of meditation initially; this is enough to get you started); the deep rest you get in meditation actually helps clear your mind so that you become a more effective thinker. In turn, you will be able to make decisions faster and therefore have more time in your day.In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey uses the metaphor of "sharpening the saw" as a picture of how a focused mind creates time. By taking the time out to focus the mind, or sharpen the mental saw, you can cut through the decisions of life faster and in a more considered way. With increased mental focus, the effective time you spend with your family or at work will increase in intensity and quality.
Misconception 7: Meditation Requires Thinking about Nothing
This is the most common misconception I hear about meditation. People say to me, "I can't meditate, because I can't turn off my mind." However, especially for beginners, meditation is not about thinking of nothing. True, meditation is about slowing the mind, but it does not require that you empty it completely. In fact, trying to think of nothing actually makes you think of something. Try it! Meditation requires you to be aware of your thoughts and reactions. By focusing on the thinking process, the space between each thought will increase, your thinking will calm down, and you will relax.Meditation helps you make peace with whatever is going on in your mind. As you become aware of and accept the mental chatter and stories you spin for yourself, you will develop the willpower and capacity to let them go. As our society evolves, it gets more complex; the world gets louder, faster, and more demanding. Because meditation provides the skills to achieve a sense of calm and resilience, it will continue to attract more and more practitioners and advocates. Meditation is much more useful in the middle of mayhem than on the mountaintop.
Excerpted from Mental Resilience: The Power of Clarity - How to Develop the Focus of a Warrior and the Peace of a Monk ©2008 by Kamal Sarma. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. Visit www.newworldlibrary.com
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