“We are travelers on a cosmic journey, stardust, swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity. Life is eternal. We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share. This is a precious moment. It is a little parenthesis in eternity.”
– Paulo Coulho
Meditation and other practices of the mind still have the public image of an esoteric, supernatural pursuit with no practical use. It is, however, very much a practical tool to shape your mental health that is now rooted in science. A lack of a spiritual or religious belief structure does not impact your use for it in any way. Let’s dive into the depths of the mind.
The Muddy Lake
The drive to the lake has just finished, but I cannot seem to remember the time I spent in the car – nor the way I took. My head is cloudy and filled with practicalities on my walk towards a bench overlooking the water. I still have to do the dishes, but I push the thought away as soon as I can, I don’t want to be stressed.
Someone passes me and says “hello”, but I notice him too late. He is now beyond me, and I am thinking how it is odd to turn around and reply now.
I decide to just continue walking. God it’s warm today. Am I sweating? No, not yet..
On the far end of the lake I hear faint bird calls. I now approach the bench and there is some bird shit on the seat. Better not sit on it. I uncomfortably try to find a spot on the bench that will not stain my clothes too much..I still have a social event to attend tonight. I stumble a bit and sit down.
A large sigh escaped my lungs and I peer into the muddy waters of the lake…
Our brain is a complex piece of machinery and perhaps the most important organ in our body for determining the quality of our experiences in life. However, where there are clear methods to train your body with passionate ferocity, the training of the mind is being neglected. Obesity has spread throughout western civilization as a disease of the body – with exercise and healthy meals the cure. So too, has anxiety, stress and unhappiness spread as a result of deterioration of mental health – with meditation and healthy thought patterns the ancient medicine.
However, the practice of meditation – a method which has been developed literally ages ago to counteract this very unhealthy state – is too often dismissed as a spiritual and esoteric pursuit. Ask a random stranger what their association with meditation is and you will be surprised how often they describe the image of a floating Indian in lotus position.
Of course, in a historic context there was no neurology to backup the merits of meditation, and as so often happens in these ancient times – religion has crept into the gaps of knowledge. In modern days, however, there is no more need for religious or spiritual beliefs in this area – as neuro-scientific research is increasingly backing up the once mystical claims.
Your mind is very much similar to a physical muscle in that it can be trained. Whatever your mind does often, it will strengthen these pathways. This is called neuroplasticity. It has been proven time and time again that your mind can structurally change significantly after trauma, habit or by training of the mind – in which focused meditation is but one of these possible training exercises. Over time, it will become easier and easier to think like your regular patterns – and after a while it will become an automatic part of your daily experience without having to spent any effort. Your mind is very much pliable in either direction.
However, do not expect a world of change in an instant. You do not suddenly look like Thor after one gym session lifting weights. Just like you won’t be able to permanently dispel anxiety from your life after one hour sitting meditating in the shower. It will take patience and regular, consistent effort.
Note that there are many different forms and practices regarding meditation – some more infected with religious beliefs than others. I can only share the components of meditation that I have found work for me personally from my rational and atheist viewpoint.
Meditation then becomes, in my view, a workout routine exercising these three things:
An Instant in Eternity
Observation of the present is the main and initial component – and all meditative training should start here. Also called mindfulness, it’s the full appreciation of the current moment and fully opening yourself up to all of reality.
Sit on a comfortable plateau, relaxed yet steady, balanced and upright. Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath. While breathing, notice as much as you can about the sensations that occur all throughout the day.
Feel the cold air enter your nostrils. Feel how the expansion of your chest brushes against your clothes and ever so slightly adjusts your balance. Pause for a moment and notice the relative silence. Exhale and feel the warmer air expel from your nose. Do this for a short while and expand your attention to every sensation in your muscles – feel the tightness, relaxation, discomfort and strength in as much individual muscles as you can.
Already within your own physical body there are an infinite amount of sensations that are ignored from moment to moment that you can discover. Now open your eyes and ears and expand your attention further out into the world. Notice the infinite complexity of nature – the rustling leaves, the sunny reflections on the water, the birds singing and the crickets chirping.
There is so much too see, smell, taste and feel in the current moment. The present before us is an incredible, magical and all-encompassing universe full of wonder, beauty and exploration. An instant in eternity. But we are untrained to accept these limitless gifts that are constantly bombarding our senses.
The Restless Monkey
Most likely, while focusing, you have already encountered many unwanted thoughts. It’s incredibly hard to focus your attention away from the unceasing, endless stream of thoughts. And as soon as one pops up, it commands your attention. Then, as soon as you try to remove your attention from the thoughts, another randomly pops up and attempts to dominate.
In Zen practice, this is called the restless monkey, because your mind – in this state – is like a monkey jumping from branch to branch, constantly screaming for attention.
The way to subdue the monkey is not to try and beat it into submission by forcefully pushing away your thoughts in anger or frustration. Do try to resist the urge to entertain them by going down the rabbit hole of problem solving, fantasizing or rumination. When you notice yourself doing this, gently accept it and move your attention back. This is not a problem.
Some people picture their thoughts in this stage as being people on a train station. They enter the station, stay a while and talk and afterwards step onto the train and get whisked away. There is no pressure.
The only way is patience and loving acceptance of the restless monkey. Over time, you will notice the restless monkey sitting a little stiller on a branch and a little bit more likely to be gently guided away. Eventually, it will become a well groomed gentleman monkey waiting its turn.
This is the stillness of mind that must be trained.
The Hungry Potato
Imagine you are on the couch alone tonight, binging Netflix and eating entire handfuls of your favorite comfort food. Between episodes, you notice your stomach yearns for more. Rationally, however, you might realize this hunger is simply caused by a hormonal imbalance – insulin and the such.
It’s not possible that you are hungry, as you just shoved a truckload of calories in your face. Your stomach is simply sending you hunger signals because it is programmed to respond to the molecules in your comfort food. Because you are wise, you do not identify with this hunger. You can now choose to ignore or indulge this feeling.
Why should your mind be any different? All day, your mind is sending you signals of anxiety, fear, motivation and pleasure. But these are also just automatic biological processes in your mind – based on hormones, cell interactions and preconditioned neurological pathways. Why would you identify yourself with these signals any more than identify with the ‘fake’ hunger you feel as a couch potato?
You are not your mind. YOU are not anxious. Your mind is sending you anxious signals. YOU are not afraid. Your mind is simply sending you fearful signals. YOU are not worthless or inadequate or unlovable. Your mind is simply sending you these signals. You can choose what you do with these signals. Discard or accept.
While observing your thoughts, notice also how you are casting judgement on yourself for your thoughts. You might be unconsciously beating yourself up for feeling unlovable and you might be trying to impossibly push it away. Imagine feeling angry at yourself for feeling hungry! Is it not absolutely ridiculous then, to accept the thought of being unlovable as being part of yourself? You should be laughing at these preposterous thoughts!
By disassociating from your thoughts, you can choose to accept them as truth or false lies based on deeper layers of your mind. Then, you can explore deeper and deeper – going away from surface thoughts into deeper layered subconscious thought patterns locked away tight and secure because of the painful self-identifying judgement you project upon them. Like a painful trigger point in a muscle, these can then be slowly massaged into less painful experiences.
If you are deep in a meditative state, you are much closer to your subconscious mind. This is a powerful thing! Imagine your mind as being a pool of water. Starting out, the pool is chaotic, wavy and restless. However, by observing your mind with great focus and by gently disassociating from your thoughts, the water eventually becomes like a still reflection of the sky.
At this point, anything dropped into the water will create a great ripple effect across the entire surface. A transformation that would not have materialized otherwise when dropped into the restless pool we started out with!
A great quote from Zen Master Seung Sahn illustrates this concept beautifully:
Our mind is like a glass of clear water.
If we put salt into the water, it becomes salt water
Sugar, it becomes sugar water,
Shit, it becomes shit water.
But originally the water is clear.
No thinking, no mind. No mind, no problem.
Also, if your mind is clear and calm, any intention can thus spread through your unconsciousness like a wildfire. Gratitude, focus and visualization of your goals are great and powerful ingredients to insert into your mind at this stage. These concepts will then empower your intuition throughout your day and life as an unconscious background melody.
A droplet falls from the nearby shrubbery into the water before me and briefly breaks the surface tension – creating flexible wrinkles across the surface of the lake.
I slowly get up from the bench in a controlled manner. While I get up, I feel each individual muscle group in my legs activate and push my feet powerfully into the ground and up. While I am getting up, I feel the displacement of air across my skin and a ray of sunlight reflects from the water into my right eye.
I start walking and I feel my feet touch the texture of the ground through my shoes. Calm breaths automatically pace me.
Left, Right, Left, Right..
Meanwhile the birds sing, the bugs buzz around uncontrollably and the branches of nearby trees dance and drum against each other, surrounding the area with wonderful ambient noises.
A young woman walks by and a waft of her seductive perfume penetrates my nostrils, briefly intoxicating me. I confidently continue my walk and notice a brown leaf crush and crackle beneath my right foot in between the deeper thumps I leave on the pavement.
My car keys jingle in my pocket and I cannot help spotting it standing there – glistening in the bright sunlight. I spot an elderly man a few strides away from my car. He also sits on a bench – deep in thought.
A dark yellow leaf twirls and dances in the air before spreading itself on the ground between us without a sound.
Our eyes connect for a brief moment and he seems sad. I feel compelled to give him a hug and tell him he is not alone, but my soft smile already seems to have communicated the intention.
Besides, I can’t.
I have to work on the grand vision that just popped up in my mind.