I used to be anti-meditation. Whenever someone suggested meditation as a method of relaxation, I imagined sitting cross-legged on the floor in some expensive studio, dragon blood incense filling the room and soft chimes blowing as a chirpy voice commanded “Breathe in. Focus on the magic inner being…”. It was another facsimile of peace, something that “spiritual” white people did to make them feel better about themselves. It was right up there with laughable suggestions that warm baths, sunlight, and chocolate would cure me of a lifelong depression wrought from trauma. (Those things do help, but not in the way that most people simplify it. I might write a post about that later.)
The first time I meditated – really meditated – with posture straight, mind fully focused on the breath and the countdown, I realized the purpose wasn’t to relax at all.
Yes, it can help you relax. Meditation can produce alpha waves, which are typically associated with drowsiness and relaxation.
The purpose of meditation was to focus, to bring yourself back to awareness.
It doesn’t bring the instant gratification of happiness, which many people have started to call the “mcmindfullness” school of meditation. It is a tool to help you guide yourself toward better daily decisions and awareness of your own thought processes.
I consider myself a meditation neophyte, as this perception is coming from someone who has meditated for only a little over a year. If I’d known that it was a tool to build focus, to train the mind to think better, react better, I probably would’ve started sooner. And yes, I’d read those articles about how meditation might lead to better brain activity, but like many things, it takes some kind of personal experience or revelation for things like that to really matter.
Meditation is a way to create an altered state of consciousness. It has a long history, probably as old as humanity, and since prehistoric times people have used ritual, dance, and drugs to create altered states. It seems part of the human experience to want to experience different states of consciousness. With an altered state of consciousness comes new insights, new ways of perception, new thoughts and feelings. Maybe it’s linked to our perpetual and innate sense of curiosity.
Keep in mind, you can create an altered state of consciousness by spinning until you get dizzy, drinking a beer, or skipping a meal. It’s not mystical or magical, it’s simply a part of being human.
Meditation has almost always been inextricably linked with religion. Although most people associate meditation with Buddhism, most major religions incorporate some kind of meditation in their practice. For Christianity, it’s prayer. For the Jewish, it’s Kabbalah.
In the quiet of meditation, maybe it’s easy to hear a voice of God speaking back to you. Or that in the altered state of meditation the experience is so different from normal modes of thought as to be akin to a religious experience.
Our brains are perpetual sensory machines. We can’t turn that off. Even when we dream, we’re creating a landscape to explore, reacting, sensing, and touching. We can’t still ourselves completely. It’s just in meditation, that is focused on becoming aware of the perpetual buzzing of activity inside of our brains.
I prefer a form of meditation in which I sit up, close my eyes, and count to ten between breath and exhale. It seems to be the easiest way to access the consciousness stripped of any religious significance. I’ve been to a Buddhist meditation center where we were asked to contemplate on the humanness of their guru and then chant in Tibetan (I can’t read Tibetan), and I was left with the feeling that I was supposed to have experienced something significant, and yet only felt disappointed and confused. One of the buddhists who lived at the residence at the center talked to me a few minutes and said he hated zen meditation, because it was just “staring at a wall.” Then he stuck his tongue out.
There’s actually a story about a monk who’s master stuck his head underwater until he almost drowned because he said he thought breathing was boring. The whole point of that story being that boring is about perception, but I guess he’d never heard of that story.
I felt a much more powerful connection and transcendence and excitement “staring at a wall” than imagining fire coming out of a demon’s chest, or whatever the hell it was we were supposed to imagine.
Meditation has made me more aware of my emotional states.
It’s shown me how even the most benign thought can grow teeth and fangs and grow so raging and out and control that it warps my whole state of being
I get less bored, as I’ve become aware of myself and my surroundings and how everything is always bursting with movement and data even in its stillness.
It’s strengthened my focus and mental clarity
It’s made me aware that I am in control of my mind, because I am my mind
There are several articles on the Internet about the dark side of meditation. People become depressed, enraged, and even psychotic after spending time at meditation retreats or in their own practice. This isn’t a new development. There’s a sutta, a kind of Buddhist discourse, that describes many monks who committed suicide after they’re given a talk about meditating on a particularly disturbing subject.
Then the monks — [thinking,] “The Blessed One, with many lines of reasoning, has given a talk on the unattractiveness [of the body], has spoken in praise of [the perception of] unattractiveness, has spoken in praise of the development of [the perception of] unattractiveness” — remained committed to the development of [the perception of] unattractiveness in many modes & manners. They — ashamed, repelled, & disgusted with this body — sought for an assassin. In one day, ten monks took the knife. In one day, twenty monks took the knife. In one day, thirty monks took the knife.
But, that meditation might have negative effects shouldn’t be surprising. Being aware isn’t the key to happiness, and mindfulness doesn’t necessarily equate to joy. What awareness brings is additional knowledge, and knowledge is not always comfortable, easy to accept, or kind.
Since I started meditating, sometimes I’ll make breakfast and go sit in the floor in my room, cross-legged. I’ll set a timer to 5 or 10 minutes, and force myself to be aware of every bite, every breath. I focus on the surface of my cup of coffee, how it seems to change color around the edges of the cup. I focus on the swallow, on the change of temperature in my stomach.
I can see my breakfast and myself vibrating and in motion, the thousands of little pieces of reality and physics that were required to make eating breakfast possible. Everywhere I choose to focus, to examine, there is only more data and sensation to unearth. More than my brain could ever process.
For once, I’m beginning to feel excited to be alive.
An image: A wheel of fire around me, everything in existence inflamed and interlocked.
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