Breathe in and out. The mind is blank and relaxes in a pensive pose. We are far away from civilization in a haze of incense, listening to the sound of waves; we have never been so at peace. Ommanipadmehum. As with the great “Eastern traditions” of Hinduism and Buddhism, we are closer to understanding life through meditation. While this may be a beautiful image, it reinforces some commonly held misconceptions of meditation.
“Meditation isn’t about getting into a comfortable part of your mind but an uncomfortable one,” says Myoky, a Zen practitioner and Associate Buddhist Chaplain at McGill.
Meditation is not an easy thing to accomplish and requires a lifetime of learning. There is no specific moment of becoming a great meditator; it is a process of active inquiry. The goal isn’t to achieve a blank mind – this would be impossible – but to engage in mindfulness. A thought is simply a thought. The intent is to become aware of our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, and to challenge our misconceptions.
“There is a Western misunderstanding of the mind-body relationship. It takes a long time to sit still and be quiet,” says Myokyo. “When your mind isn’t still, your body isn’t, and vice versa.”
Scientists have been able to observe the mind-body relation and there are undeniable benefits. According to a November 2005 article in the New Scientist, meditation helps to reduce stress, increase attention span, and can alter ones mood. What’s more, a Boston-based study discovered that meditation enhances the brain’s cortex in areas responsible for attention and sensory processing. The lead researcher, Sara Lazar, is quoted as saying that this is evidence that those who meditate “aren’t just sitting there doing nothing.” They are in fact exercising their minds.
Joseph Emet, 70, is a Montreal meditation coach and founder of the Mindfulness Meditation Centre. He claims to have taken a majority of his life learning how to meditate because of the distinctly internal nature of the process. He notes that there is a physical technique, but that it is the part that is easy to master. Going through the physical process of meditation without a sense of mindfulness can reinforce negative habits instead of overcoming them.
“It is like a musician doing the formal action of playing scales. That isn’t the end of it – you have to tune yourself,” he says.
Emet and Myokyo are also proponents of the commonly held Buddhist belief that meditation should be guided by a teacher or a group and not in isolation. A group gives structure, and the others’ energy serves as feedback. In this, the group becomes a teacher that helps the individual from straying. What’s more, practicing in a group allows the individual to become a teacher to others as well; you practice for others as much as for yourself.
“My teacher would say, ‘sit in a quiet place with like-minded people in an upright and stable posture and your breath will become full and complete. With that, your mind will become full and complete,’” Myokyo says.
The physical act works to establish a bridge of continuous mindfulness between each practice.
One of the core beliefs of Buddhism is the capability of creating change in the world through the individual, in contrast to prayer, which emphasizes a higher power. Through meditation, we ourselves become more peaceful, and in turn, the world becomes a more peaceful place.
“We can say, ‘Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.’ This sets the stage for real transformation,” Emet says.
The techniques and insights achieved through meditation should not be divorced from everyday life, but integrated into whatever we are doing, whether it is driving or doing chores.
These ideas are not as archaic or alternative as they may appear; you do not have to be a practicing Buddhist to effect change in the world. To quote President Barack Obama, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”