Eight Myths About Meditation

Recently I taught a unit on Eastern philosophy and spirituality to a group of high school seniors. In order for them to fully understand and appreciate what we were reading and discussing we began a multi-week series of meditation sessions. Most of them had never meditated; a few had experienced some form of relaxation or visualization practice with various athletic coaches. I have taught meditation practice for many years to all ages and was heartened, even thrilled, by the responses of these eighteen year olds, future leaders of our world. (I use some of their comments, with permission, in this article.)

Myth #1: Meditation is not a way to relax

Relaxation is one of the benefits of developing a regular meditation practice. Guided by a skillful teacher, you learn to relax tension in head muscles, particularly the jaw, and neck and shoulder muscles. A correct posture, achieved by imagining a piece of string kept taut and coming from above and moving down the back of the top of the head and spinal column, helps to hold the head and shoulders back allowing for the chest cavity to open, more air to circulate in the lungs, and for the great solar plexus muscle between the lungs and the abdomen to act as a bellows.

It is important to sit with a straight back either on the floor or ground or in a chair with your hands loosely resting on your knees. As more oxygen enters the blood stream, every cell is fully energized. Fingers and toes tingle. Breath deepens and slows. After only some practice a relaxed body allows for inner mental spaciousness and lays the ground to begin intensive concentration practices—for beginners usually based on the reference point of the rise and fall of the breath—until you feel confident that you can concentrate on the breath with single-minded attention.

Myth #2: Meditation does not sync the mind and body

One of my students wrote that by focusing on the breath our mind and body synchronize, increasing our blood flow, oxygen intake, and even mental capacity. Meditation is about simplicity. Every person has reasons to be happy, reasons to be thankful, and finding them is as easy as focusing on the one common gift everyone can be thankful for: the breath.

Myth #3: Meditation practices do not sharpen the mind

Concentration practices are among the most intense mental exercises you will undertake. It is normal for the mind to be filled ceaselessly with thoughts. As you are able to concentrate more and more on the breath and like a laser beam shine a thin intense ray of concentration onto your breath, yoking your mind with the breath, you become more aware of the frantic nature of your roiling thoughts. Do not tense the mind to reject the thoughts, rather practice what one of my meditation teachers called “Teflon” mind; do not let anything stick. As thoughts, emotions, memories, the whole of our internal Easter parade floats by, name the thought and let it go. After only a few sessions of this practice, and using the breath as a constant reference point—“come back to the breath”—I will remind students again and again, you will find that your mind becomes clear and diamond sharp. Relaxed body and concentrated mind is what we are practicing.

Myth #4: Meditation is not a focusing activity

Another student wrote that our class meditation was deeply relaxing but also a focusing activity. He describes how in deep meditation all perception of space melted away, even the perception of where parts of his body were. By stripping away concentration to the outside world, he was left with only the feeling of existence. He reports that this psychological presence was the simplest and most elegant form of existence.

Myth #5: Meditation does not heighten awareness of the present moment

In a deep, relaxed but concentrated state it is easier to accept the idea that all we have to experience is each precious individual moment. We can let go of the past and not worry about the future. We begin to realize that every prior moment was necessary to bring us to this present one, and this chain of continuity can be relied on until the last nano-second that we are breathing.

Myth #6: Meditation does not allow for a sense of inter-connection with the world

Meditation allows us to have a penetrating connection with the world through the realization that we all exist in the same ocean of breath—we breathe the same air and are interconnected through this simple act. This realization allows us to feel connected in a new and vital way. We breathe the same air as Hitler, Idi Amin, Gandhi and Mother Teresa. A student states that through just one simple breath you embrace the wholeness of the earth and all of its creatures, becoming part of something greater than just self.

Myth #7: Meditation does not encourage a sense of well-being

One student eloquently describes this sense of well-being. He writes, so for me, meditation is an act that is passionately active, one that bases its practice on improving the human condition, on bettering the well-being of others around us. When I end a session on meditation, I can already feel the effect that a mode of deep contemplation and reflection has on me. For one, with my body relaxed and at ease, I am naturally happier; I am more prone to laugh, to smile, and to interact with others. And with my mind cleared of the clutter, I possess a natural tendency to exude a feeling of optimism that catches on with those around me. Thus meditation influences others and me.

Myth #8: Meditation does not bring the freeing power of meditative perception

This student offers a powerful summation of her experience. (Possibly all our experiences.) She writes that by letting go of my body, but also being completely aware and grounded in my seat, I feel I was able to connect to some greater power. Coming out of meditation I was often astonished by the greatness of humanity and all it could achieve with the possible realization and development and gentleness that accompanies this type of enlightenment. It is essential that we realize the power of our perception, because I have learned that ultimately, it is in my power alone to control and make peace with everything I face, because what I choose to believe in can be all that exists.

 

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© amazon.com 2011

Many of my readers clamor for another post on Generation E. These are mostly readers who have found the early posts in this web blog on that topic of interest and helpful. One of my students recently read my book The Enneagram Intelligences: Understanding Personality for Effective Teaching and Learning , and found the E-model so intriguing that for a class assignment to create an utopia (after we studied Plato’s The Republic)  this student wrote a short essay on the topic. Here is an excerpt (printed with permission.)

Heptilibrium: A perfect balance of the nine ways to be in the world: Perfectionist, Helper, Performer, Dreamer, Observer, Questioner, Optimist, Boss and Peace Keeper. In order to create the perfect utopia, especially one that accommodates nine different aspects of living, requires a profound and complete educational system. The general principles of education will revolve around the core values of the utopia: equality, compassion, fairness, honesty and trust. Every teacher will be trained in the nine ways to live and with this broad spectrum of knowledge they will teach these principles and values to all students. The nine different ways of learning will be accommodated: every student can explore their own learning style. Students will learn how to compete fairly, treat each other with honesty and respect, and be guided to acquire true knowledge of life. Students will learn compassion and how to care for and be concerned about, others. Exploring various cultures (through the nine lenses) will teach them to forgo racism and respect the differences among people. Students will perceive the world through different perspectives. To elaborate on the core values, everyone is created equal and has equal rights under the law. There is no racism and separatism between the people; everyone is taken care of on an equal basis.

Heptilibrium is governed under the perfect balance of the nine. By forming harmony with nature, different cultures, moral principles and one’s inner self, citizens of Heptilibrium will walk the paths of happiness and live life content with joy while being responsible and upright citizens.

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What is Time? Such a seemingly simple question but it can lead to intensely elusive searches for a concept that defies easy answers. Sure we have schedules, and clocks, and calendars based by our ancient forebears on their observations of the wheeling stars and planets. But we also have so many postulations by so many philosophers and cosmologists and various scientists that one’s head can spin from it all. What is Time? Some say Time is a synonym for God. Others that Time is change. Saint Augustine said a thousand years ago, “Intuitively I know what time is, but if you ask me to explain time to you I cannot do so.” What is Time? If all human life disappeared from this planet would Time cease to exist? In other words does our consciousness conceive of Time or does it exist whether we are here or not?

A woman in Soweto, South Africa, a tour guide for a group of harried Americans, wanted to stop at a museum but was asked “Do we have time?” She answered, “I don’t know if you have time. I know you have watches…and I know I have time.”

T.S. Eliot one of the most famous poets of the twentieth century wrote one of his master works The Four Quartets as an exploration into Time. In Burnt Norton, one of the quartets he writes, “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past./…all time is eternally present…”

All time is eternally present. What you need to know is that Eliot studied Eastern spirituality as an undergraduate at Harvard and had in depth knowledge of the teachings of the Buddha. One of the Buddha’s seminal teachings is that Time is an unceasing succession of transient nanoseconds through which our lives pass and of which passage we need to be aware as our ephemeral future so rapidly becomes our fleeting past. Or in other more colloquial words we need to live in the present moment. Not the past. Not the future. But the present moment. To be truly alive we need to bring all our attention and awareness to every moment of our lives: to our loves, our activities, our preoccupations, our commute, to our emotions, to eating, bathing and on and on. Then perhaps we can begin to understand what Time is and what Time is not.

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I saw a robin today as I walked across campus, a harbinger of spring to come. In a flower bed in front of my home office window there are a host of white and green snowdrops emerging from under those leaves that were not swept away last fall. My heart leaps at the marvel of them. Up here in the north-east corner of this great country of ours, in and around Boston, despite some frigid weeks in December, January and February we have had a mild winter. While all around us and especially to the south and west snowfalls amounts have accumulated above sixty inches (which is our average too),  this year we are at twenty eight and a half inches. Of course we can still encounter some huge storms and maybe will, but on the other hand an early spring is also a possibility. In my native South Africa the change of seasons was not of note. Nine months of summer merged into three months of winter and then, at least in Johannesburg where I lived, the dusty winds of August (spring) heralded the first rains and onset of dry summer heat. Here the spring is a true rebirth. The talons of icy winds and below freezing temperatures slowly loosen their grip on the land and on our psyche. There is an explosion of buds and birds, lawns turn green, the air is warmer on our cheeks, days lengthen, and it rains (a lot). Suddenly the sidewalks are filled with suburban walkers and joggers. More people smile.

Over the past weeks my Philosophy class of college-bound seniors read and discussed Tibetan Buddhist master and Western teacher, Chogyam Trungpa’s book “Shambhala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior.” As I read their reflective journals these past days I was struck at how these two-thousand year old teachings caused a rebirth of sorts in my students, an awakening, an opening. They responded with touching honesty to ideas such as “basic goodness”, “being in the now”, “letting go”,  and “drala” the energetic interconnection of all that is. Some wrote of their awareness of their own fears, of how they worry and question, of the endless conveyor belt of expectations they find themselves on, of the material rewards they have accepted as the goal they need to strive towards in order to be “successful” and achieve “happiness.” Trungpa suggests alternative mind-structures, those built of inner balance and harmony, gentleness and respect for self and others. He posits meditation practice as a giant step on the path to becoming a spiritual warrior. As we read the book I taught the basics of meditation and breath-focused attention practices and many students responded positively to the sense of inner calm they can begin to feel burgeoning within.

As Trungpa says “Synchronizing mind and body is not a concept or a random technique someone thought up for self-improvement. Rather, it is a basic principle of how to be a human being and how to use your sense perceptions, your mind and your body together.”

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Every four years the Winter Olympics come around and I am hooked. I love the speed of downhill skiing and bobsled races. I cannot comprehend the luge and feel distraught at the death of the young Georgian on the first day of these 2010 games in springlike gorgeous Vancouver. I am a sports fan but trying to understand curling is one sport too many. The skating competitions have the strongest draw for me: gymnastics, dancing, skating at the highest level all in one package. The costumes, the different personalities (go Johnny Weir and Patrick Chun), the symbiosis of coach (Svengali) and young athlete, the choice of music; this is compelling. But this time around the thrill of watching is enhanced by two factors, HDTV and the record button on my remote. HDTV is image perfection; watching the cross-country ski pursuit on a picture perfect Saturday fully displays what I am talking about. Then there is the ability to record programs so I can watch at my convenience and zip through at alpine ski speeds those endless, inane and mind-numbing ads. To say nothing of Bob Costas and his smooth talking, bland commentary and schmaltz with which NBC tries to tie the drama (that needs no enhancement) together. (Although I did enjoy watching Mary Carillo attend the Royal Canada Mountie school. But then I am a tennis fan too.) No doubt it already exists, but is not available to the American public, raw live feed of the events as they happen without commentary and without ads. May they day come soon when we can see what the TV producers and  journalists see.

Another huge plus (which perhaps is our live feed of the moment) is the amazing official Olympic Winter Games website with myriad opportunities to follow in real-time each and every minutia of the Games.

So this leads me to a socio-political line of thinking. HDTV, touch of the button recording of at least two channels at the same time, access to the latest computer technology and the ability (economic and utilitarian) to use the ever-changing and increasing tools of the Information Age creates a cyber-age global apartheid that separates the hi-technology and computer literate and savvy haves, from the billions and billions of have-nots. Earlier this week I lost electrical power as I was settling in to watch the medal round of the Men’s figure skating (why all those falls?) Sitting in the dark for two hours while the electrician did his work, brought home to me how utterly dependent so many billions of us are on electricity. Think about it.

I have no idea what this means for the future of our beautiful planet. I am an optimist, so I think of great opportunities for out-of-the box thinking entrepreneurs who can attempt to close the gap. On the other hand the gap may become so vast that cyberspace implodes and sinks us all in an immense dark hole.

Happy Winter Olympics second week TV watching.

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This weekend I had some discussion with a high-level member of an organization that focuses on reconciling differences between Israeli settlers and Israeli Arabs. Old feuds and resentments run deep. Who took whose land from whom? We can go back thousands of years trying to understand the roots of this conflict. The truth is that over millenia the vast majority of feuds, struggles and wars between all people everywhere are over territory and resources. It is part of our DNA to defend our territory and ensure not only our food supply but the future of our children and our clan. Xenophobia’s face is that of the cave dweller across the valley.

In my native South Africa the famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission that for three years in the late 1990s tried to heal the wounds caused by apartheid atrocities for both the oppressed and the oppressor was a daily Greek theater played out on TV and radio across the land; a catalyst for airing the tragedies, the manifold tragedies of those years. The mighty, the all powerful, the members of the Security Police brought face-to-face with their accusers and humbled by the probing commissioners. Amnesty or no amnesty, a bad conscience set to rest, a death explained, some expiation of revenge. Thus far there is no similar commission anywhere that has attempted to tackle the root question of who took whose land from whom? White settlers with a four hundred year history of living in South Africa regard themselves as Africans born of African soil. And they are, but who took their land from them? History is a tangled knot.

There are so many well-meaning, well-trained mediators conducting grass-level interventions in so many conflict areas; to mention but a few,  Sunnis and Shia, Serbians and Bosnians, Hutis and Tutis, Israeli settlers and Israeli Arabs, Tibetans and Chinese, Indians and Pakistanis. These mediators do good work especially when they work with children to create a new narrative that bridges the differences of conflicting older stories. Then the children can believe, “This is the nownarrative of our land, this is ourstory. ”

A fundamental challenge for our time, as cyberspace  shrinks our planet, is how do we change the humanstory, the rigid mind structures of past eras? How do we  preserve the richness of cultures and traditions and learn to share the resources of the planet. Mother Teresa said, “Small steps with great love.”

Perhaps. But until we understand the fundamental truth that all conflict arises from a struggle for resources even small steps towards lasting reconciliation are unlikely. In North America the Water Resource Wars have already begun…how are we going to change our mind-structures to accommodate this story?

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Whatever it is we are waiting for let’s call it “the next step.” The next step to the high school of our dreams, the college we know is exactly right, the graduate school that will crown our academic life, the position we have prepared for years to enter…and on and on like a hamster on a wheel. Unfortunately, the next step, while not always, most often leads to heart break and the crushing of hope. Or does it? How do we handle disappointment? Maybe the more appropriate question is how do we handle our expectations? I work with many adolescents on the cusp of entering college and this time of year is stressful and poignant. A fortunate few are admitted “early” to their dream college, while so many wait for April for news. Recently one usually upbeat student  came to class pale and so despondent it was sad to watch her. Urgently she held a friend’s hand through class, she was the personification of someone who had, as we say in our cliched but accurate way,  been “kicked in the gut” by her rejection from college. All the air had disappeared from her enlivening buoyancy.

I am a writer, you cannot continue to write if you do not find a way to handle rejection. All writers know this and the history of literature is replete with stories of what writers do with rejection letters. Some turn them into lamp shades or wall paper. Others burn them, file them, flush them down the toilet. Some keep them in a folder, and send out yet another query letter. Keep the dream alive. Some frame the one acceptance letter that comes amongst all rejections. Somehow you have to separate the rejection letter from yourself. The same truth applies to the college process or any “next step”. Colleges build a class, they want musicians and mathematicians, athletes and astronomers, political science majors and painters. They have expectations for that class and maybe you do  not quite fit the profile, but you will at another school or job, agency or publisher.

Try to separate the essential you from your “next step” application. Whatever happens to the application, you are still the remarkable, shining you that you were before the rejection.

Practice thinking  in “a middle way” process; expectation not too high, disappointment not too low. Keep your balance and harmony.

Don’t indulge in a dichotomous success/failure paradigm. These are the frames you put on events. Events themselves are void, they simply are.

Allow yourself some mourning of your dream, but don’t get mired in the drama you create.

Be resilient. Create mindfulness techniques that allow you to bounce back; rationalize, talk to others about your feelings, go for a walk, meditate.

Breathe, breathe often and deeply. Then let the sap of life rise and surprise you as it is wont to do.

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