Meditation: What’s in it for you
This is the first of a two-part exploration of meditation. To read the second part, Meditation: How to get started,click here.
By PIERRE ZAKARAUSKAS PhD
Curiosity is what brought me to meditation. I was busy, under stress, dissatisfied despite successes and wondering about those lofty mental states that, it was said, cannot be adequately described by words.
I threw myself into meditation with the energy that I have devoted in the past to competitive running and scientific studies. Get out of it what you put in? I started with 40 minutes daily sitting, then one hour, then two, then went on retreats of increasing duration: weekends, five days, 10 days (including one in Thailand), then month-long retreats. Now 15 years into the practice, the range of cool mental states to which I have ready access keeps expanding. I have come to the conclusion that there is no end to the journey. This is good news. There is ever more new mental territory to explore, the garden of the mind can be grown to be ever more beautiful.
Having control over your own internal weather frees you from the tyranny of external events. That’s the greatest freedom, a happiness that no misfortune and no one can take away from you.
Meditation, and its ongoing counterpart mindfulness, together constitute the ultimate stress elimination program. The Buddha said that “I teach one thing, and one thing only: stress and the end of stress.” (Actually he used the Pali word “dukkha” which is usually translated as “suffering” but “stress” is arguably a better translation). Note that he didn’t say stress reduction. He said stress elimination! Forever! That’s a tall order. Is that really possible?
Let’s consider why you would want to devote a significant amount of time eliminating, or at least greatly reducing stress in your life. First the obvious fact that stress reduces your quality of life. You are not having fun while you are highly stressed! Stress weighs on your mental health. It can lead to depression. Stress has also been found to affect your physical health in numerous ways, such as contributing to increased blood pressure and cardio-vascular disease. So if meditation is really that effective at managing stress, it stands to reason that it should also reduce a range of psychological and physical ailments. A survey of the medical literature shows that this is indeed the case. Meditation has been found to significantly improve a wide range of illnesses such as: depression relapse; low back pain, blood pressure, congestive heart failure, ADHD, AIDS progression, substance abuse, alcoholism, suicide prevention, insomnia, tinnitus, epilepsy, menopausal symptoms, skin disorders, and migraines.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
And what about those lofty mental states? What about bliss, joy, love, and being one with the universe? Well yes, they are available whenever you want them, but it turns out that they are not the main point of the practice. It is rather the absence of stress in daily life that matters, and the meditation practitioner seeks out and uproots subtler and subtler forms of stress. What you are left with, when all forms of stress are gone, is inner peace. You can be in the midst of chaos, handle urgent situations, receive otherwise devastating news, and still feel, or be, that deep stillness at your core. You are always present with whatever happens at the moment without distraction, be it driving, walking or talking to someone.
“What is imagined and willed becomes actuality – here lies the danger as well as the way out.”
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, I Am That, 1973.
We yearn to truly be in the moment, to experience “flow” or be “in the zone”. For most people this can only be accomplished when doing something that totally engrosses them, like skiing or playing a video game. Therefore we come to associate the feeling of flow with the activity to which it is associated. But what if you could be as focused on the present as a mountain climber is, all the time? Then all situations become fascinating. You no longer rely on a particular activity to experience rapture.
What does mindfulness bring you, apart from being able to always remember exactly where you put your keys? It brings self-awareness: under the unflinching glare of mindfulness, we cannot avoid facing ourselves, that we do bring about our own misery.
“Peace: it does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work.
It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in you heart.”
Early on after I started meditating I was commuting every week between Vancouver and Seattle, a three-hour drive. I often got extremely frustrated to the point of anger when I got caught in traffic jams, which are common in and around these cities and can happen unexpectedly. Then it dawned on me that, since there was nothing I could do about the traffic, it didn’t help one bit to get myself in such a frenzy. Temper tantrums without even an audience! I was just hurting myself. It didn’t feel good. So I resolved that, next time I saw a traffic jam ahead, I would just watch carefully how it felt inside.
It turned out that if you come in with that kind of awareness, frustration does not even begin to arise. I was able to just laugh at myself for having been so impatient before. That kind of awareness of self can be brought to bear in all kinds of situations in our daily lives, and uproot ever-subtler forms of stress, from annoyance to boredom, jealousy, resentment, clinging, and defensiveness.
Greater concentration and calm engender all kinds of positive side effects. Many activities that rely on concentration can benefit. Your golf score improves.
Problem solving, academic activities, productivity, creativity, all stand to benefit from lower stress and better concentration abilities.
Inscription on the portal of the temple of Apollo at Delphi in ancient Greece
Of course you are not the only beneficiary of this greater inner calm. All those you come into contact with, from your spouse and family to co-workers, acquaintances and even those you interact with briefly, are all affected. We are all deeply interconnected, in ways we rarely recognize, and every action we take, and how we act and feel, spreads to others and is then reflected back to us. You can call that karma. If you frown or scold at people, even unconsciously because you are internally caught up in you own personal drama, you get one kind of reaction. But if you have inner peace, it radiates out to all around you. I often notice lots of strangers smiling at me on my walks, and then I notice that I had been smiling without realizing it. Happiness spreads like a highly contagious disease that can be transmitted by a simple smile. If you don’t feel motivated enough to pick up meditation for yourself, then consider doing it for the sake of your loved ones.
How does it feel to have such an intense mindfulness? Because it is always on, you live very much in the present moment, non-judgementally watching everything that comes into your awareness: thoughts, emotions, and physical feelings. There is no room left for worries, frustration, anticipation, dread, and regrets. The boundary between self and non-self blurs. You are the cries of birds, the ground on which you walk, the trees, the buildings. Your empathy for others grows. Because you have access to the inner levers of mental states, you can rise within yourself feelings of incredible bliss and love whenever you feel like it. Where there used to be an inner dialogue, often negative, that never stopped for one moment, with which you used to identify, there now is only a profound silence. Yet you are still there, more present than ever, more peaceful than ever.
© Pierre Zakarauskas PhD 2009. Please request permission for any other use.