Science is regularly ‘proving’ the benefits of practising meditation and mindfulness. Paul suggests that the real magic of meditation lies in the unknown.
Nowadays we are constantly exposed to the plethora of research that extols the physical, emotional and mental benefits of meditation. Meditation has been proven to improve both quality of life and lifespan.
From a physical viewpoint, meditation aids relaxation, improves digestion and elimination, strengthens the immune system, stabilises genetic expression, slows down ageing, improves cardiac function and even changes the structure and function of the brain. From a psychological viewpoint, meditation moderates emotional reactivity (and even passivity), helps with anxiety, depression, aggression and trauma. And from a mental viewpoint, it can improve concentration, regulate attention, support clear thinking and improve memory.
Whilst all this research is exciting, and for our evidence-based minds it validates this ancient practice, we ought to remember that meditation has been practised for thousands of years – long before scientific research came along.
Where to focus
If the research into the benefits of meditation helps to motivate people to get started, then that is to be commended. But this focus on the observable and provable aspects of meditation can obscure the subtler, more mysterious and profound depths of meditation. This focus on proven outcomes can also cultivate a goal-oriented approach to meditation; a ‘wanting’ that will limit the scope of the practice and frustrate the practitioner. After all, meditation is more about cultivating an open mind (not knowing) and an open heart (free of expectation) through a simple, subtle but profound practice.
The scientific approach of research is reductionistic; it breaks phenomena down to their observable, measurable components. For example, the scientific description of breathing reduces it to a gaseous exchange of CO2 for O2.
Ancient wisdom tells us that breath (qi or prana) is more holistic, mysterious and profound! Breath is our intimate and sustaining connection with the planet. Breath is the breath of life! And breath invigorates, cleanses and releases. From its Latin roots, the word respiration means ‘the spirit returns’; inspiration means ‘the spirit enters’ and expiration means ‘the spirit leaves’. The ancient terms qi (Asia) and prana (India) refer to breath + spirit + energy all connected in one holistic concept. Reductionism can oversimplify and often, completely miss the point.
So, how does meditation produce such a wide range of physical, psychological and mental benefits? Of course, different styles of meditation employ different methods but for the purposes of this article, I will explain the workings of mindfulness meditation, of which I am most familiar.
In the practice of mindfulness meditation, we open our attention (awareness) from the usual ‘narrow-focus mind’ which is dominated by the thinking commentary to a more open mind, which is more inclusive (of all the aspects of our present-moment experience) and less judgmental.
As we practise opening our attention to include sensations, feelings, instinct and impulse, thinking becomes less important. Thoughts may come and go, they are not a problem, but they are also not important. For example, as we are meditating, we may hear a sound but there is no need to label it, understand it, associate it with memories, we simply hear it and then let it go.
We open our attention from the busy, judgmental thinking mind to the still and silent observing mind. As we continue to practise, our attachment to, and identification with, our busy, thinking mind gradually softens. We start to experience a more spacious mind that is simply more present and less caught up in judging, evaluating, fixing and needing to ‘know’. We actually practise ‘being’ without knowing.
These are the first steps on a journey of awakening to life, a journey of healing and freedom from the known (the past).
Sense of self
We have all constructed a sense of self which is made up of memories, images, beliefs, stories, histories, judgments, expectations, ‘should’, ‘have-to’ and ‘can’t’. This sense of self creates and sustains most of the commentary of the busy, thinking mind. We carry this sense of self (or mind-made me) with us. It shapes our perceptions and our reality – even our brain. This is the known.
As we practise mindfulness meditation, we ease our attention away from the past, the known, the ‘mind-made me’. We ease our attention away from the beliefs, stories and judgments that keep us in a contracted, defended place. We gradually become a little less reactive and a little more aware of our habits of excessive thinking. Glimpses of choice, freedom, space, peace and joy are revealed. A sense of trust in life begins to develop as we let go of the desperate need to know and understand, fix and control. We create some space and in that space, the mystery, magic and miracles of life can reveal themselves.
As Leonard Cohen writes in his insightful song, Anthem :
“Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget the perfect offering.
There’s a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.”
Meditation opens that crack as we shift our attention away from the known to the unknowable.
This is a journey of turning our attention away from projections, expectations and judgments collected from our past to an open presence in the moment.As we meditate, we sit in the only truth there is – the present moment. Jesus said “and the truth will set you free”. He also said, “Be still and know that you are God”.
The beauty, simplicity and profundity of meditation was understood by all the ancient (and present) wisdom teachers. I like to honour this tradition in teaching meditation. The scientific, reductionist approach can limit one’s appreciation of the immense scope and possibility of meditation, mainly because it can’t embrace the spiritual journey that begins to unfold even at the very beginning of meditation practice.
When it comes to ‘not-knowing’, science reaches its limitations and only direct experience can guide the way.
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