Meditation, mindfulness and the mystery of the human spirit

by DRM


The overcrowded mind can lead to an unsettled soul.

Over the years I’ve learned to trust my techniques for quieting my mind. I let my consciousness float, drift into an undefined space that suspends the forward momentum of thought, quiets down the chatter and waits for a structure to form. Even as I wait the process out, I can measure the costs of the crowdedness in my life: inattention to the physical routine of wellness, less clarity in how I express myself, a erosion of my presentness in the day to day.

This over-crowdedness is a consequence of participating in modern life. It’s also a consequence of being human.

Every day we are exposed to the equivalent of more than 100,000 words of information, according to work done by a team of researchers at UC San Diego. That’s more than 11 hours of information.

The amount of information consumed by Americans in 2008 totaled 3.6 zettabytes and 10,845 trillion words, according to a report released Dec. 9 by researchers at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), “How Much Information? 2009 Report on American Consumers.”

For an average person on an ordinary day, this represents 34 gigabytes of data and 100,500 words.

When I went to school with the monks, they tried to show us the power of quieting our mind through prayer.

At Easter, the entire school would participate in a day-long fast on Good Friday, a day of contemplation on Holy Saturday and a celebration of the Easter Vigil on Saturday night in the wintry darkness of the church portico, looking out over the ink-black bay.

One year Father Anselm, who would later lose his vocation to the lure of lay life, tried to teach our entire class the mysteries of incantatorial focus. He’d implore us to empty our mind and discover the mysteries of God.

That was a hard task for an adolescent boy. My parents gave their own twist to the meditative state by bringing a Transcendental Meditation yogi to our house to initiate all of us — a family of 8 — into the world of meditation.

My initiation ceremony took place in the back room on the first floor. The yogi burned coconut shavings around a small votive alter and whispered my secret Mantra in my ear. Some 30 years later, I remember the word, and still haven’t told anyone.

These memories of meditation states flooded back when I read a research brief in Science Daily.

The power of meditation was being heralded as a wonder drug, the consequence of a study that trained a group of people how to meditate for a 20 minute stretch each day. The impact on their behavior was almost instantaneous. And, the techniques weren’t particularly sophisticated. According to the article, “psychologists studying the effects of a meditation technique known as ‘mindfulness‘ found that meditation-trained participants showed a significant improvement in their critical cognitive skills…after only four days of training for only 20 minutes each day.”

The meditation training involved in the study was an abbreviated “mindfulness” training regime modeled on basic “Shamatha skills” from a Buddhist meditation tradition, conducted by a trained facilitator. As described in the paper, “participants were instructed to relax, with their eyes closed, and to simply focus on the flow of their breath occurring at the tip of their nose. If a random thought arose, they were told to passively notice and acknowledge the thought and to simply let ‘it’ go, by bringing the attention back to the sensations of the breath.” Subsequent training built on this basic model, teaching physical awareness, focus, and mindfulness with regard to distraction.

The term “‘mindfulness'” is so deceptively simple. There’s your mind, and you know it’s there.

It’s like that moment where you suddenly are conscious of your own breathing. But instead of panicking because you can’t draw another breath, you’re able to control your thoughts because you’re keeping a watch on your mind.

A psychologist that I’ve known for a long time reduces the mind-body separation to this: the body is a beast that seeks to carry the mind around on its big back, pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain at all costs. The challenge, she believed, and the focus of all her therapeutic engagements, is to help  patients change their behavior so that they can listen more clearly to their mind, and be less of a slave to their beast.

That is the essence of mindfulness. The path to it is as varied as our constantly shifting point of view.

One thing that we all agree on, but rarely share with each other, is that we wish we had more self-control. The word “abstemious” is such a tease for an organism that despite all of its awareness of its existence is unable to exert consistent control of the impulses of the self. According to one popular personality inventory, self-control is the lowest ranking trait among the majority of people who take the test.

It would make sense then that we would channel our focus around innovation to help humankind master the art of mindfulness then. We don’t, though, and in fact, probably don’t see need to, since the act of clearing the mind is a pretty simple, although elusive, task.

It just takes ‘mindfulness’.

One recent report shared news of biofeedback techniques that alert the subject when their mind is straying. The report shared a tidy fable about ‘mindfulness’: it needs its space, and the mindful individual has to be always on the look out for the distraction that will make mindfulness an impossibility.

It makes me think of a story that Sayadaw U Pandita told when I was meditating at his monastery in Rangoon in the early 1990s. He said mindfulness has to—he was actually talking about the word satipathana—and he said it has to be very quick. Think of it like this, he said: you go to an event like a concert and there are no assigned seats. So you want to make sure that you get in there quickly and sit down in the best seat before somebody else sits down in it. Your mindfulness should be like that. You have to get in there and put mindfulness in that place before something else sits down there. So by doing it in the way that we are doing it now and reporting in real-time, there isn’t any possibility for anything else to sit down there. I had no time for my mind to wander while I was reporting to you just now.

Perhaps you are sensitive to the paradox that mindfulness embodies. To be mindful requires concentration, yet to achieve mindfulness, we need to empty our minds. It is like the first lesson of juggling: to see the balls you can not look at any single one. You look through the balls, and in doing that you see each one.

One year Lent, the monks introduced our little community of 150 adolescent boys to hesychasm, a form of meditative prayer that helps the penitent achieve the experience of God. Hesychasm is derived from a the Greek word for stillness, or a restful quiet.

We read each day a passage from a monastic memoir. The author, tormented in his quest for an understanding of God that would give meaning and cast doubt from his life, turned to the Jesus prayer as his meditative anchor.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

The instant of revelation filled the priest with euphoria and understanding. The story was very powerful to me, a teenage boy with a restless mind and a desire to feel the presence of a greater being that could give form to the meaning that I could feel life had.

In the decades since, I’ve witnessed less of the peaceful focus that comes with the true meditative state and more of the withering lassitude that accompanies the life absent of mindfulness.

The peace that comes with the simple, open mind takes constant effort. Our nature is not drawn to the divine, no matter how much we are inspired by it.