People often dismiss meditation as a form of health care. True, meditation does require a time commitment and a certain persistent enthusiasm to realize any benefit.Meditation is not a quick-fix intervention, but for those willing to make a little effort, the long-term rewards can be substantial. Headaches, anxiety, insomnia, bowel problems, anger, jealousy, relationship issues – I have seen meditation make a difference with these and many other health concerns.
In 1854, Henry David Thoreau, in his book “Walden,” stated: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Perhaps a contemporary Thoreau would be more gender-inclusive; nevertheless, it is this ennui, this pervasive level of suffering, that meditation can address, profoundly alleviating mental and emotional ailments.
There are as many styles of meditation as there are cultures and personalities in the world. The method I recommend is sometimes referred to as mind management, or “Taming the Mind,” as cited in the title of Thubten Chodron’s book on meditation. This style of meditation has two stages. The first, called meditative serenity or calm abiding, leads to a clear, undisturbed state of mind. The second stage is called insight or analytic meditation, in which one examines the nature of the world we live in from the vantage point of the first stage.
The benefits of a calm, stress-reduced mind, and the ability to function in the turbulence of the 21st century with additional grace, dignity and compassion resulting from calm-abiding meditation, are sufficient reward for many practitioners. For others, a more thorough understanding of the true nature of the world we live in, through insight meditation, has additional benefits. An excellent example of this is impermanence. Upon careful investigation, the meditator will understand that there is no worldly identifiable object or event that is immune to the forces of change.
For everything that comes into existence, there is demise, sometimes rapid and unexpected, and this impacts our mental and emotional well-being. When change occurs, those who cling to a concept of permanence will suffer in direct proportion to their degree of clinging to what once was. The individual who does not comprehend the true nature of impermanence will typically experience change, whether positive or negative, shackled by feelings of apprehension, fear, anger, jealousy and other negative thought patterns.
In contrast, one who grasps the true nature of impermanence will tend to experience change with feelings of excitement, compassion and curiosity. Negative experiences such as the loss of a cherished object, job or loved one will be of shorter duration and less disturbing than in the individual who is rigidly attached to maintaining the status quo.
Through meditation, we learn that our thoughts come and go. We learn that the tighter we hold on to a particular thought, engaging and elaborating on it, making it real, solid and permanent, the more it disturbs our peace of mind. In time, one develops a proficiency in noticing all the amazing thoughts the mind produces, and rather than wrapping a self-absorbed story around them, simply lets them vanish from whence they came.
A merely intellectual understanding of this will not substantially reduce the suffering of change. An experiential certainty of impermanence through analytic meditation is required to fully appreciate this perceptual shift. Just as we learn to pull back from a hot flame before getting burned, this type of meditative training allows us to move ahead and away from getting painfully stuck, when change occurs.
The method of meditation I’m describing is very simple. Find a relatively quiet location, free of external distractions. Place yourself in a comfortable position with your back straight, not lying down unless you are confined to bed.
Then, with eyes relaxed on a neutral backdrop, relax for five minutes. During this time, take note of your breath as it passes in and out of your nostrils. Likely, a million thoughts will manifest, vying for your attention and the mistaken need to follow them into the lands of distraction. As soon as you have noted the distraction, without reprimanding yourself, return to the awareness of your breath.
In time you will learn how to allow your thoughts and other sensory experiences to arise and slip away without getting mentally lost in distraction, sleepiness or agitation. You are learning how to use your thoughts, as opposed to being used by your thoughts. In this way, as with the example of impermanence, you can discover the true nature of the world we live in, and, by applying this understanding, reduce the suffering in your life and those around you.
Jon Dunn is a naturopathic physician living in Nosara, on the northern Pacific coast. E-mail comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.drjondunn.com.