Meditation: It’s Not What You Think
When you read the word “meditation,” what image first comes to mind?
A New Yorker Magazine cartoon once depicted two monks in robes, one young, one old, sitting side-by-side, cross-legged in the lotus position on the floor. The younger monk is looking somewhat quizzically at the older one, who is turned toward him saying, “Nothing happens next. This is it!”
The truth about meditation (and the formal practice of mindfulness) is that actually EVERYTHING happens next. Mindfulness teacher and MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) founder Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Mindfulness is a practice of letting go and letting be, of waking up to our truest self, our innate nature.”
And most people don’t get this point right away. Waking up to what?
If asked what is the shortest distance between two points, one might respond, predictably, with “a straight line.” The practice of mindfulness is somewhat like this. It is transitioning from the discursive, meaning-making, chattering mind at Point A to the gentle, quiet, and present-moment observant mind at Point B. And it is also arriving at Point B with one’s collective sanity intact without leaving a mess behind. Now that’s waking up!
For me, mindfulness practice, which includes the formal practice of meditation and movement (tai chi, qigong, yoga) is really a love affair with what is: What is beautiful, what is unknown, what is possible, what is here now, what is true. And as Jon Kabat-Zinn explains in his seminal text Wherever You Go, There You Are, EVERYTHING is already here, at the same time, everywhere, because “here” can be anywhere at all.
There are some common myths about meditation that deserve some clarification and understanding. Myths like meditation helps STOP the thinking mind. Try this: For the next 60 seconds, close your eyes and do NOT think about anything. NO THOUGHTS!
How did you do?
Meditation is NOT about stopping our thoughts or eliminating them completely. Meditation is about learning to recognize thoughts as they arise, and at the same time, not be fixated on them or allow them to hijack our attention and exhaust our energy. Author Anne Lamont writes, “The mind is a dangerous place. Don’t go in there alone.” The practice of meditation is always escorted by the breath and armed with the intention of “letting go and beginning again” at any moment, so you are never alone.
Another common myth about meditation is that it is an “ism” in disguise, e.g., Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. The truth is, meditation is neither a religion or a dogma, but rather a practice of bringing kind awareness to the present moment and at the same time increasing the gray matter in the brain’s frontal lobe responsible for activating the body’s “relaxation response” to stress-producing (fight, flight, freeze) events.
My favorite definition of mindfulness comes from Dr. Ellen Langer at Harvard University, sometimes referred to as the “Mother” of Mindfulness. She says mindfulness is “the simple act of actively noticing things.”
So before arriving at Point B today, try noticing something new.
Elmo Shade is the Founder / Principle of Mindful Foundations, Inc, a holistic business intervention committed to improving personal health, performance, leadership effectiveness, and well-being through a combination of mindfulness-based and emotional intelligence practices. He currently facilitates Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Workshops at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Vanderbilt in Nashville, TN; serves as an Executive & Leadership Coach for the Owen Graduate School at Vanderbilt MBA Program, and practices Mindful Leadership and Coaching as a Consultant. Contactelmo@mindfulfoundations.com.