Published by kind permission of Adam Khan
THE WORD OR PHRASE
I have experimented with lots of mantras. The one I like most is an instruction: “Gently bring attention back.” All you’re trying to do in meditation is to keep bringing your attention back to thinking the mantra. This instruction helps you remember. The instruction is also good for just about every other task in your life, so it is an excellent thing to practice thinking.
I’ve noticed that when I stretch a little before I meditate, I sit still more comfortably. I have heard that hatha yoga was originally invented by meditating monks to help them meditate. Whether it was or not, it does make meditation easier. It is easier to sit the whole time in comfort and without fidgeting after some gentle stretching.
The downside of meditation is that it takes time. But it doesn’t take as much time as you’d think because the meditative state is deeply restful and you will probably need less sleep. You can also justify the time you spend meditating by thinking about how much time you will save that you now waste on disagreements or upsets – those become less frequent and less intense when you meditate. And if you waste time obsessively worrying, much of that time will be saved also. With a calmer body, you have less anxious mental activity.
Since meditation is time-consuming and often boring, you need to keep yourself motivated to keep yourself doing it. Remind yourself of the costs of anxiety and the rewards of keeping your stress hormone level low (re-read the first part of this article now and then).
Transcendental Meditation, otherwise known as “TM” is the McDonald’s of the meditation business. They have training centers all over the world and probably in your town, and their training is very standardized and consistent. Their particular form of meditation has had more scientific research performed on it than any other meditation method and the comparative studies show TM to be superior to other forms of meditation. One of the reasons, I believe, is the education you get before they teach you to meditate. You learn all about the benefits you will derive from meditation – the scientifically validated, practical benefits – so when it gets boring or tedious or you don’t feel you can afford the time, you do it anyway because you’re motivated.
TM emphasizes the scientific research on long-term physical health benefits. This is usually more motivating to Westerners than a possible state of enlightenment (if it even exists) maybe occurring some day, or the motivations of someone in India a thousand years ago who believed they would be reincarnated as a higher being.
There are lots of books and tapes explaining the physical, scientifically-validated benefits of meditation. If your motivation starts to lag, simply read about the benefits. Boost your motivation.
Another reason TM might work better than other forms of meditation is because they emphasize not trying, not forcing, not using effort. A truly meditative, calm, concentrated state is effortless. Effort will prevent that state from occurring. Some meditation teachers emphasize effort and will, which may be useful for other purposes, but doesn’t help to lower stress.
DEALING WITH PEOPLE
The principles of human relations come more naturally when you’re calm and relaxed. The authors of the book, Stress, Sanity and Survival, make a very good point: In conflicts with other people, our general physical arousal tends to make the conflict more destructive. When we have extra stress hormones in our system, our conflicts will tend to be less productive and more upsetting than otherwise. And as they put it, “When we are excessively emotional we become preoccupied with our own personal positions and less able to understand the other’s point of view. We also become more defensive and less able to think clearly.”
One of the most important things you can do in a conflict is try to understand the other’s point of view. Having too many stress chemicals in your bloodstream makes that much more difficult. Your inability to listen, your inability to think outside your own point of view, and your tendency toward defensiveness all intensify the conflict and prevent resolution. Being upset makes you more self-righteous and stuck in your own point of view. Being relaxed makes you less pigheaded and more empathic.
Once you’re relaxed, arguments turn into discussions. What would have been an upset gets resolved more peaceably. That itself has a positive effect on health. Studies show arguments with a spouse can have a deleterious effect on your health.
Adrenaline narrows attention, and that makes it harder to apply people skills, among other things. A strict focus of attention is very useful for many things, but it can be disastrous for other things. I remember hearing about a graphic example of this. A true story. A group was making a parachute jump. One of experienced jumpers was given a left-handed chute because they didn’t have enough regular, right-handed chutes to go around. It worked exactly like the right-handed one except the ripcord was on the left side instead of the right side.
They all made the jump. Then they watched in horror as one of their men fell straight to his death. The chute never opened. When they were back on the ground, they discovered it was the man with the left-handed chute. His jacket on the right side was torn and shredded, down to his skin which was severely lacerated. Apparently the tunnel-vision his adrenaline produced caused him to focus on pulling that ripcord, and made him forget it was on the left side.
CONSIDER IT TRAINING
“Animal experiments on the hypothalamus suggest that motivation is to some extent nonspecific,” wrote Melvin Konner, PhD, MD, professor of anthropology and associate professor of psychiatry. This means that basically, as he put it, “the organism’s chronic internal state will be a mixture of anxiety and desire, best described by the phrase ‘I want…'”
That is exactly what Buddha taught.
The human brain is not equipped to deal with as much diversion as we have in Western society. It isn’t equipped to handle so many options and so much stimulation. Yet it is also not very good at resisting the temptations. The practice of meditation functions as a kind of training – it develops the skill of serenely resisting temptations. Perhaps resisting isn’t the right word. It trains you in the skill of recognizing temptations for what they are and thus not being as tempted by them.
Meditation is really training in letting go of distractions. It is a way of breaking the grasping habit. Of course this would have universal effects on all aspects of your life, making you generally happier and more relaxed.
It is also a flow activity in itself and could reasonably be considered a kind of flow training, allowing more daily activities to produce flow for you as you learn to let go of distractions.
In Julian Simon’s excellent book, Good Mood, he talks about an important ability in overcoming depression – the ability to change the subject of the content of your mind. This ability is also important in managing anxiety. Some people don’t think they can do this, but they can. “Of course,” Simon says, “this means that you must be willing at times to turn away from subjects of interest to you when they cause you pain.” The examples he uses are switching the content of your mind away from your failures at work and toward your family, or away from war in Africa and toward some technical question. Anxious thoughts are every bit as compelling as depressed thoughts, but with the right ability – a skill meditation can strengthen in you – you can learn to give up your attachment to those compelling thoughts and turn your attention to other things when it is in your best interests to do so.
Simon says sometimes people think that changing their thoughts is somehow dishonest. But he makes an important distinction. Yes, it can be dishonest to deny the truth of something, and it isn’t very smart to ignore unpleasant thoughts, especially if it will cause you trouble down the road to ignore them. “But for those facts which you cannot alter,” he says, ” – a chronic ailment perhaps, or a low pay level in one’s chosen occupation – then there seems neither practical nor moral virtue in keeping oneself constantly aware of the fact…to do so is simply foolhardy and counterproductive.”
Question : Will meditation make me less motivated? Will the increased contentment take away my drive and ambition?
Answer : Motivation can be broken down into two categories: sufficiency and deficiency. Sufficiency motivation is satisfied or contented motivation. For example, doing something because it feels good, or because you want something good to happen, or to make something beautiful.
Deficiency motivation is agitated or needy motivation. For example, doing something in an effort to prove something to someone, or striving out of agitation, or because you think you aren’t good enough, or out of the perpetual dissatisfaction we are genetically designed to have.
Meditation enhances sufficiency motivation but diminishes deficiency motivation.
THE PROMISE OF ENLIGHTENMENT
In a cultural anthropology class in college I learned that some seemingly strange customs around the world actually have practical value. For example, the “sacred cow” of India. For thousands of years, the majority of Indians were farmers and the cow was their only work animal and often their only source of fuel for cooking. Had they eaten their cows, their livelihood would have been ruined.
Perhaps the practical rule “don’t eat cows” over the centuries developed into a religious creed full of significance because those who didn’t have that kind of belief ate their cows and perished, leaving behind only those with a reverence for the cow.
Maybe the idea of enlightenment is like that. It is possible that “enlightenment” is a religious reason – a carrot – to get people to meditate. The meditation is really what’s valuable. It keeps you cool on hot days, keeps you out of trouble, makes you require less food, keeps you calm and relaxed and so a more benign member of society, and it’s good for your health. And you’ll feel good more often.
Meditation is of great practical value, but maybe that wasn’t enough to get people to do it. That was then; this is now – in a different time with a new understanding of how things work. Luckily, a knowledge of the scientific-proven benefits of meditation is enough to keep modern people meditating.
Stress hormones keep you from feeling good. The mind is naturally agitated and motivated in many directions at once – wanting and avoiding thoughts and circumstances.
Meditation is a method to cultivate a calm, relaxed, alert state of mind. It is a great state to be in. It feels good. It improves many important skills – communicating, interacting with people, focusing on a task without getting distracted, being patient when impatience is counterproductive.
Herbert Benson, author of The Relaxation Response, described the experience of meditation like this:
1. Peace of mind. 2. Feeling at ease with the world. 3. A sense of well-being
One of the things meditation does is relax you. Then thoughts intrude – sometimes stressful thoughts – but then you go back to your mantra. You are then continually associating those stressful thoughts with a state of deep relaxation. This is exactly what therapists do in a form of therapy called Systematic Desensitization, which has proven very effective for many psychological problems such as phobias.
One of the benefits of meditation is that you enjoy your life more. This benefit partly stems from the sensory-deprivation effect combined with the contrast principle. When you deprive yourself of normal sensory input for awhile, your brain adjusts. Then when you get ordinary input again, it seems dramatically bright, sensuous and clear.
In the book, Papillon, the author, Henri Charriere, talks about his time in a Columbian prison. He violated a prison rule and was sent to a dungeon – a dark place, built so every day when the tide came in, the cell filled up to waist-level with water, putting all the rats afloat. If you just stood there in the water, the rats would climb all over you, seeking escape from the water. So the prisoners had to climb up on the bars and hang there while the tide was high, twice a day. The cell was slimy and smelly afterwards.
Papillion was down there for twenty-eight days. When he came back to a regular prison cell, he said it was like being in a palace, and this was a cell that was already what anyone would consider very bad! But the contrast between the two made this terrible cell a wonderful place to be.
Meditation is dark and quiet without much sensory input, and it often feels boring, so it’s possible that meditation makes the rest of your life seem wonderful just from the contrast. It is easier to appreciate the simple joys of everyday life. And really, that’s where you’ll find happiness. Big successes and dramatic events are all well and good, but whether or not you feel contentment and happiness in your life depends on your ability to appreciate the small everyday pleasures. Meditation helps you do that.
In still another way, meditation makes life more enjoyable: It directly lowers cortisol and lactate, hormones that produce unpleasant sensations as they circulate in your body.
ADJUST YOUR ANXIETY SETTINGS
It is very likely that your nervous system tends toward tension and anxiety when you just let it drift – with no significant events happening, no anxious thoughts – your system drifts toward tension and anxiety.
The anxiety triggers your mind to start looking for the cause of your anxiety. That’s natural. It’s just what the mind does. You start to wonder what’s bugging you. And no matter who your are, it is always possible to find something to worry about if you look. So you look, and you find something to worry about. And then you worry about it, which prolongs or intensifies your already-existing state of anxiety.
So whenever you feel anxious, before you start looking around for the cause, meditate. Lower your level of stress hormones first, and if you no longer feel anxious, you can go on about your day. Meditation resets your idle to a lower level of stress hormones. It is only temporary, but you can do it again the next day.
Some people might prefer to feel anxious or tense, and have all the side-effects of that, rather than spend the time meditating. Others would rather self-medicate with alcohol – producing serious side-effects – simply because it’s easier.
But the little bit of effort and time it takes to meditate is a good alternative with many other benefits beyond simply reducing anxiety. Someday you may even be glad you had an anxiety-prone nervous system because it introduced you to the benefits of meditation. On your own – without the motivation of discomfort – you might never have availed yourself of this wonderful practice.
RETURN TO SIMPLICITY
When your desk is piled high with things to do and the phone is ringing off the hook, you feel tense and agitated. If you were to clear your desk except for a single task, you’d relax and you’d be able to concentrate. Concentration and calm go together. Tension and scattered attention go together.
Complexity produces tension. Simplicity produces relaxation. Complexity stirs agitation. Simplicity elicits serenity.
Think of going back to the mantra as returning to simplicity. As thoughts start coming, you’ll feel your body tense, especially around your eyes. Then as you return to the simple mantra, you’ll feel the tension relax.
WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW
Practiced once or twice a day, meditation can make the world a better place. That might sound overly dramatic or even fanatical, but think about it – meditation makes people more peaceful and kind, better able to solve problems, and it ameliorates heart disease, high blood pressure, and other stress-related health problems. Best of all, meditation can cure our main problem, which is being caught in the whirlwind of wanting-wanting-wanting. It’s an ideal cure. Good for yourself. Good for the world.
More calmness, more patience and empathy, and less greediness – these things are worth the effort to bring into the world. Since moods are contagious, you can help others feel less anxiety, anger, and frustration by lowering your own stress hormone level. The scientific evidence is overwhelming that meditation produces calmness and gets rid of agitation. Many virtues arise spontaneously out of a calm state:
1. Problem-solving is easier when you aren’t agitated.
2. You’re a better listener with greater empathy. This leads to closer relationships. Closer relationships are associated with better health.
3. Patience: agitation tends to make people impatient.
4. Impulse control: Having the calm and contentment to think before you act, and to act in constructive ways.
5. It is easier to delay gratification when you have a feeling of contentment.
Meditation is a good medicine for what ails us. And it has built-in self-serving rewards that justify the practice, including good health benefits. One person doing this one simple thing can have a ripple effect out into the world, absorbing the tensions of others without passing them on, helping to calm others by one’s mere presence, and allowing conflicts to be resolved fairly and peacefully. Will you be one of these people?
For more information visit Adam Khan’s website at www.youmeworks.com >