I’m not going to lie. I’ve tried ‘sitting’ for over an hour a day consistently for more than two decades. While I’ve been able to accomplish this seemingly impossible feat on a rare occasion, I know of yogis and sadhus that have gone into deep meditative states for twenty years or more. The entire time I’ve been trying to sit in meditation, they’ve been actively doing it. Or not doing it, would be more accurate. What compels someone to try to calm the mind when the very nature of the mind is ‘to think’? Is meditation all its cracked up to be, or is it some glorified practice meant just for saints and not the every-day-Jane and Joe of the 21st century?
Examples of ‘professional’ meditators abound. There’s the Buddha Boy, in Nepal, who some think is an incarnation of Guatama Buddha, and others think is part of a sinister crowd-manipulating game of charades put on by his older brother. He was observed meditating beneath a tree for months at a time, without food or water, whereupon thousands of devotees descended upon the area. Buddha boy disappeared form his tree, and authorities found him later meditating in an underground chamber.
Then there are the claims in famous books like Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. He describes sadhus sitting in caves for months, even years at a time in deep contemplation, some barely breathing.
These stories are told with straight faces, even to unbelieving questioners. When coupled with tales of the 82-year old Indian man, Prahlad Janim, who claims to have had neither water nor food in over 70 years, you have to start to wonder if there are other ways to sustain an individual besides on the material, energetic ‘mana’ most of us are accustomed to.
Though these claims are inspiring, and on the outside chance, even possible for the average person, most of us have trouble sitting still for ten minutes, let alone quieting the mind for years at a time.
For me personally, meditation has turned out to be better than all the best books claim, and nothing like the wild assertions on the Internet – that the practice will make us happier, healthier, more peaceful, and live longer – though these claims are not untrue.
Allow me to explain further. Let’s assume we all come to this planet with our own bag of tricks – that means some of our ‘karma’ will serve us very well, and other bits of our ‘karma,’ which is really just a term meaning our most consistent habits of thought and action, won’t make living on earth such a walk in the park.
Your bag of tricks will be very different than mine. Whether or not you believe in past lives, we can at least agree that we are profoundly influenced by the mental and emotional programming of our families and the multiple generations of ‘karma’ (most common emotional trend of their ancestors) that they experienced while they were raising us. If you factor in hundreds or even thousands of lifetimes of this programming, you can see why dipping a toe in the unconscious material of the mind might not always be like taking a walk on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Meditation unearths the not so sublime – and the incredible. It keeps things really real. Similarly, the reason subliminal advertising works so well on us, as in every magazine, television, and radio ad we’ve ever witnessed, is because it speaks to the parts of our minds that are truly running the show. If our conscious mind is the tip of an iceberg, the unconscious mind is that looming monstrosity of impenetrable ice beneath the surface of the water.
When we meditate, we start to become conscious of the vast influences lurking in the deep. Some of these are good influences, and others are, well, every ‘bad’ emotion we could think of – from greed, to lust, anger, hatred, and self-serving tendencies, to laziness, workaholism, cheating, lying, etc. Most of these emotions are tucked away because no one wants to admit that they are ever angry or jealous or petty. Even more surprisingly, some of us don’t want to admit we are all-powerful, and capable of vastly more than we are eking out in this life!
Here’s where it gets really, really real. While meditation, in time, will make you a more compassionate and peaceful person, it takes getting down into the dark abyss below the surface to dredge up some not-so-pretty stuff before you can ever float around feeling like the world is beautiful and everyone in it is your best friend.
“Some people have a mistaken idea that all thought disappears through meditation and we enter a state of blankness. There certainly are times of great tranquility when concentration is strong and we have few, if any thoughts. But other times, we can be flooded with memories, plans or random thinking. It’s important to not blame yourself.” ~ Sharon Salzberg
Meditation allows what is called ‘the gap’ in some traditions, where you have a split second, or if you are lucky, a few of those seconds, to really think about an action you are going to take, before you take it. This gap, a small, quiet moment when you aren’t thinking of your next move, usually a reaction to some past experience, and not at all a clean, unfettered, pure action based on the moment as it truly is, is invaluable. Some people look at a problem for a lifetime – through psychoanalysis, through conversations with friends, through a dozen other methods of problem solving – and they don’t have the same insight as a ‘gap’ moment can provide. This is why it is called an ‘a-ha’ moment. It is the same type of mental clarity that creative people experience when they come up with a great work of art or a phenomenal musical masterpiece. The amount of mental clearness that can be achieved when the mind becomes still, even for a second, is absolutely earth-shattering.
Meditation is life altering – but – sometimes the ‘a-ha’ moment allows you to realize what you’ve been doing to others or to yourself was really hurtful, exceptionally misguided, or sorely small-minded. Without the awareness of what we have been doing that hasn’t been so wonderful, we can’t truly become who we were all along – before the small-mindedness, or anger, or fear crept into our ‘most common emotional stance’ or way of interacting with the world.
As Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School explains:
“We found long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. Which makes sense. When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced.”
When we meditate we are giving the brain, and ourselves more of our full potential to see things as they truly are. Sir John Eccles has stated his feelings on the infinite potential of the human brain, and he won the Noble prize.
In a lecture delivered at the University of Colorado, he stated in regards to the percentage of which humans use their brain, “The human brain has infinite potential- so how can you calculate a percentage of infinity?”
If your reality is closing in due to old patterns and erroneous reactions to people or circumstances, wouldn’t you want to wade through some of your mental detritus to get to that higher percentage of infinity?
Maybe you can’t yet sit for hours like the Buddha Boy, or eschew food and water for several decades, but you can start to ‘get real’ about life and your part in it. It starts with just a few minutes ‘sitting’ every day, and when those a-ha moments come, and I assure you they will, the fleeting sense of time where everything becomes crystal clear, you’ll know the cumulative practice of meditation was worth it.