The other day my Father asked me why I wasted my time meditating. Well, he didn’t actually phrase it that way, it was more implied, like meditation was a huge self-indulgence, a way of avoiding the world’s problems. I said, “It’s true I’m avoiding the world’s problems Dad, they are scary and lack the proper proportion of whale-sightings. But that’s not why I meditate.” “Well why do you meditate then, son?” he asked, and then, as I began to respond, he fell immediately into a deep and peaceful sleep. This is what he missed:
“Well Dad, the way I see it, there are two tiers of meditative effects, the surface effects, and the deeper effects. I’ll start with the surface effects – actually calling them “surface” is unfair, because these are also really important and it so happens that over the past dozen years or so many of them have been corroborated by excellent scientific research.
So we have research on the physiological benefits of meditation. Has been found to improve blood pressure and heart rate and even boost the functioning of the immune system. These practices reverberate through the body. On the psychological front, we see lower levels of stress, of anxiety, of depression. There are also studies showing increase in positive emotion – this actually corresponds to changes in the brain, thicker cortex, more neural connections around brain areas correlated with positive affect. And of course people report all these other benefits: more clarity, concentration, calmness, empathy, creative energy, and general happiness.
To me it’s common sense why this happens. Meditation makes space. It gives you room around your experience. Meditation interrupts the automatic looping of the racing mind, which stresses and freaks and shoots free radicals around the body and picks all the macadamia nuts out of the salad of life, leaving you with a bit of mushy leaf. Damn you mind. Why don’t you chew on this bit of emptiness. And so, you give it to the mind, by not giving to it. Of course this whole confrontational vibe will mess you right up and will have to be worked through ASAP – I’m exaggerating for the sake of contrast.
Anyway, Dad – if I may call you that, as I am your son after all, and you are snoozing happily on the couch not five feet from here – as these meditate effects settle in, something very beautiful begins to happen. You find there is a general reduction in suffering and an elevation in fulfillment. The great and beautiful Buddhist nerd Shinzen Young taught me this – he introduced me to the equanimity piece of the practice. You fight with yourself less. You let pain come and you let pain go – you feel pain more in a sense, but by not fighting with it you suffer less. Pain moves more cleanly through you. You also feel pleasant sensations more. You notice things – the world, the birds in the trees. Ordinary sensations become extraordinary. Freed from the automatic imperatives of our racing minds, we take time to notice the sparkly wonder of life. Wow: moss. Wow: the act of stapling. Wow: whatever. It all seems so cool just existing like that.
Along with this you find you also have more space around your behaviour. The compulsion to act immediately – to react – is buffered. You find you have more space to stop and think about your actions. What’s more, from that more spacious place, you find you have more room for others – to truly know others, to accept them for who they are. As a result, one’s spirit of love and service is amplified and freed, and this despite the frequent cursing and lashing out. This has been one of the most delicious effects for me – this desire to help others by explaining meditation to them until they fall asleep.
These are all very deep benefits, but from a spiritual perspective it gets even deeper. The primary purpose of this practice is radical self-knowledge – I think of it as deep psychology. As we meditate we gain an experiential understanding of the nature of thought and awareness, and their relationship with reality. So first you learn about the different components of your mind. And the longer you practice, the more you begin to tune into what is prior to and beneath those components. In Tibetan and Zen traditions they talk about discovering the mind’s true nature.
Attempting to describe this true nature with language is a fool’s errand – it is paradoxical and sounds, to skeptical ears, like New Age baloney. Yet it lies at the center of every one of the world’s mystical traditions. Each has a different name for it – the Tao, Buddha-nature, Christ-consciousness, Turiya, God, the Ground of Being, Pure Consciousness, whatever. The more time you spend abiding in it, the less need you have to try and name or describe it. What is important is the expansion of identity that accompanies this lived intimacy. You feel connected to everything around you in a fresh and different way.
For all this, only two things are needed: regular practice and time. Nature will do the rest.
So how do you know meditation is working? The litany from teachers is always the same: the real measure of progress is not some trippy state of consciousness or a Kundalini lighting bolt vibrating in your ass. In truth, these only happen to some folks, and they are not that important. What is important is the spillover into daily life – more ease, more empathy, and a slow erosion of the sense of alienation between inside and out.
That’s why I meditate Dad. Now I’m going to eat everything in the fridge.”
– Written by Jeff Warren
Octopus Garden welcomes Jeff Warren, renowned author and meditation instructor, for a meditation and mindfulness class like no other. Over eight weeks, participants will dive into a full 13-technique contemplative curriculum, all with an emphasis on play and exploration.
Join Jeff in the exploration, contemplation and practice of meditation. This 8-week workshop explores many different techniques, including:
- deconstructing thoughts and emotions,
- anchoring attention in the external world,
- working with states of deep relaxation and surrender,
- and practicing “reconstructive” loving-kindness.
Dates: Thursdays, February 7, 14, 21, 28 and March 7, 14, 21, 28
Time: 5:45pm – 7:30pm