Particles of sand: the art of meditation
"The brain waves of meditators show why they're healthier. Neuroscientists have found that meditators shift their brain activity to different areas of the cortex—brain waves in the stress-prone right frontal cortex move to the calmer left frontal cortex. In other words, they were calmer and happier than before." - Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts Medical School
Excerpts from an interview with Lynne Cardinal by Tanya Witteveen, undertaken as research for her master's thesis. Tanya is working on her Master of Arts degree in Human Kinetics at the University of Ottawa.
Tanya: Lynne, could you explain the process of meditation?
Lynne: Meditation is a tool to help settle the mind, to create a sense of peacefulness within. Once that is achieved, a new type of awareness emerges, a perspective that is impossible to attain with an overactive or anxious mind. According to Ken Wilber, a contemporary philosopher of international acclaim, "Meditation empirically demonstrates techniques that will increase self-esteem." Indeed, meditation provides us with a confidence or a sense of self that is peaceful, stable and unshakable. This confidence is not based on superiority, but rather on the knowledge that our true essential existence is free. That behind the body and mind, there is calmness.
The first step is to settle the mind, gain focus and deepen our meditation. There is an analogy I like to use to describe what happens to the mind during the process of meditation. Imagine an aquarium with sand at the bottom. Now take a stick, stir up the sand, and watch as the particles whirl around, clouding the water. The particles of sand are your thoughts, the water your state of mind. Mostly, our state of mind is cloudy. We get up in the morning and thoughts whirl around: "I must do this, I must go there, I must not forget x, y and z." And off we go! Too often, our minds are in a constant state of activity, busy planning, thinking, remembering, anticipating, worrying. We live in the past, and in the future, but seldom in the present. When you meditate, you temporarily remove that stick from the aquarium, and the first thing you see is the momentum—and it whirls! At first, the speed of whirling may even appear worse, because, unlike before, now you are looking directly at it. This is when some think, "meditation doesn't work for me, I can't settle my mind". But it is working. Just wait. The momentum will slow down and then, just as the particles of sand eventually settle, so will your mind. If you meditate long enough, the sand may completely settle at the bottom and you will see clear water. People often tell me, "I open my eyes after meditation and I see better. Sometimes colors seem even brighter, scents more acute. Above all, I feel better because I have a clear mind."
You can use meditation to get to deep place inside of you. To illustrate this point, think of the ocean, whose surface is generally quite choppy. If you go just slightly below, you will still feel the currents from above. But if you go deeper, you are no longer affected by what's happening on the surface. Likewise, when you go very deep into meditation, you can free yourself from superficial mental activity and experience a deeply balanced state of mind. A regular meditation practice is not only balancing and healing, it is also a great tool for coping with issues and problems. So when a crisis occurs, you will be prepared, as you literally have practiced and developed a healthier perspective on life. You will find yourself reacting with greater ease, agility and clarity. With years of practice, stability will permeate your being. In Sanskrit it's called Stithi and refers to a fundamental equanimity that predominates, no matter what. But it is fundamental. You may still feel sadness or unease, but you remain aware of a deeper place in you that remains stable, calm. Allowing space for your emotions is important. We do not want to fight with them. Providing space for them is healthy, and then letting them stay and go, naturally. With time, you develop a sense of being an objective observer in your daily life. In a way you realise that the deeper you no longer rise and fall with the superficial waves. Your greatest stability lies deep within.
Tanya: Sometimes people feel frustrated because of not achieving tangible results quickly enough. It seems extremely difficult not to judge our meditation.
Lynne: That is true. We judge according to concepts we've acquired based on what we consider good or bad. That's what we've been taught. We constantly judge ourselves and others, our work, our relationships, our yoga practice, our meditation. So one day, you feel good in your meditation and you experience a profound sense of peace, and you think it is beautiful and blissful and that finally your meditation is working. Those experiences are really remarkable, but they will pass, and it can be very frustrating if you depend on them or expect them to happen every time you meditate. So if the next day, instead of experience something special, you encounter endless thoughts whirling about, you may feel uncomfortable and disappointed. Then you will think, "I'm not a good meditator", again, judging yourself. In reality your objective in meditation is to practice it regularly no matter what and to observe your thoughts dispassionately. As it is often said, "Just show up. The rest will happen by itself." If you keep at it, you will eventually transcend the conceptual judgmental mind that has been super-imposed on you by culture. Every meditation counts, as they are cumulative and lead to transformation.
That very act of not judging your meditation is essential and will carry over into your daily life. You will be less harsh on others and kinder to yourself. When you meditate, you gradually get to a place of authenticity that is pure awareness. The practice of meditation involves a definite process, and what is essential to understand is that the secret lies in perseverance. Do not stop, just keep at it. Rest assured that nothing bad will ever happen to you in meditation if you practice with the guidance of a qualified teacher and use proper techniques. Enjoy every meditation, even when you have a lot of thoughts. Let them be, humor them a touch, then return to your technique. You may have a hard time settling your mind at times, but it is all part of a gradual process that leads to transformation. So just keep at it.
Meditation leads the mind into concentration. Not a concentration that is rigid, but a gentle sense of focus. Gentleness will pervade, next to insight and awareness. At this point, for me, after 40 years of daily practice, meditation is like drinking water. It quenches my thirst. It always feels balancing, no matter what experience I have. Each meditation is unique, but there is a fundamental sense of satisfaction and balancing of body and mind. Sitting quiet with a focussed mind is balancing. A lack of it can generate anxiety both for the body and for the mind.
Tanya: Can we call this an actual training of the mind?
Lynne: Most definitely. If the mind is scattered, acknowledge it, then take steps to focus it. Taking those steps, focusing the mind, does involve effort but it's a gentle one. It means that we are committed to a daily practice and accept the fact that it's a long-term project. Then with time, with years of practice, transformation of the mind occurs. This is my direct experience. I feel transformed, every year, as are others I know who are regular meditators. The practice of meditation is, as one of the Dalai Lama's books says, "The Art of Happiness." Over time, meditators will become happier, lighter, more content and less anxious. So that's what happens when you meditate. It is training in peacefulness, in stability. I can tell you that after many years of practice, you reach a level where the meditative state permeates the entire day. And yet, evolution continues and that is the beauty of it. Life has its challenges, and yes, ups and down will remain as to be human means to feel. And perhaps we feel deeper as meditators, more aware. We can feel our unity with one and all, and that leads to compassion, and a sense of love and wanting to help if we can, in our own way. I believe that our potential is unlimited and I remain sceptical towards anyone who says that they have reached the end of learning, that they have attained perfection. I think that evolution goes on and that makes life wonderful.
Once you start meditating regularly, at times, you will become aware of the loss of balance in your mind. And at that point, you will know how to take a few minutes, or a little longer, to allow your mind to relax in a deeper way. You will achieve a higher level, a calmer, more stable place with less buzz, less mental activity. And when your mind becomes restless again—as it inevitably will from time to time—you will have the skills acquired through meditation to gently guide it back to its more balanced state. This is considered a big step for the meditator, to have the ability to grasp your energy level and address it. The problem in our society is that people usually don't know when to stop. Their lifestyles are so overactive and busy that often they don't even realize when their mind and body need a respite. Or by the time they become aware of it, they are deeply exhausted or very anxious and stressed. Being aware enough to know when to stop, to breathe deeply and to take a few minutes in meditation could prevent many of these negative consequences. It simply makes sense to know when to relax and meditate when you need it. And every meditation has a cumulative effect, helping us to live with greater awareness and clarity. For meditation to work, just practise. Show up. And enjoy, be patient, look at it as a process.
Tanya: Is that why people don't sleep well? Because the buzz of the day pervades the night and they can't turn it off?
Lynne: Regular meditators sleep very well. A daily practice of 15 to 20 minutes suffices to ensure a focused and rested mind, along with a solid sense of stability. These regular meditators tend to also develop the ability to take short breaks during the day to meditate when needed, an invaluable tool for preventing burnout, depression and anxiety. Meditators have their priorities straight. They value their peace of mind and understand that taking the time necessary to achieve this is not selfish, as eventually everyone will benefit from it. An agitated mind creates discord and leads to a host of difficulties including relationship problems, insomnia or even nightmares. In contrast, a stable mind generates balance, peace, and happiness.
The following steps can help achieve a stable mind:
1. A daily practice of meditation
2. An understanding of mind and its mechanism, and
3. A study of empowering attitudes and philosophies
Meditation requires discipline and patience, particularly as progress is not always obvious. Change—any change—does not happen overnight. But it is cumulative; every meditation counts, even the ones we don't consider successful. When I started to meditate I simultaneously began to work on myself spiritually, emotionally and intellectually, as that is an integral part of meditation. It wasn't always easy. But I knew, and I was always told, to never give up, to just keep at it. Eventually I noticed that I had turned a corner, that a paradigm shift had occurred. I felt stronger. I had healed certain vulnerable aspects of my personality, and had evolved to another level. To continue this process of evolution, we must keep on with our meditation practice. If need be seek help from a therapist or a qualified coach or meditation instructor. Now the good news is that it gets more satisfying as the process deepens. Living with awareness, living mindfully makes for a fulfilling life.
© Lynne Cardinal