Updated: Jul 10, 2021
For anyone who feels they could use a few extra hours in each day.
By Joseph (July 23, 2012)
For years I have been searching for a way to improve my mind; replace bad habits, change patters of harmful behavior, and get rid of the thousands of random useless “stray thoughts” that serve no purpose other than to clutter my mind and prevent me from living completely in the here and now. The answer came in a very short book by Maria Johnson titled, “Beginning Meditation For Busy People: How To Get More Done, Feel Less Stressed, & Be Happier”.
This book took me an hour to read unlike just about every other book on meditation that all seemed cluttered with silly rules (how does sitting in full lotus position accomplish anything but pain) and historical dogma. Despite the book's small size, its core contents can be summed up in just a few pages. Lucky for you I have done just that, while also adding a bit from my own experiences.
What is mediation?
Our brains are very inefficient and full of potentially harmful habits. Each day our brains conjure up thousands of useless thoughts. Many of these thoughts can actually be harmful. If only there were a way to weed out these “stray thoughts” and old habits so we can have complete control of our own minds.
Meditation teaches us to control our thoughts and in so doing control how we react to the world around us and its stresses. The result is that our mind learns to be continuously in the here and now helping us to achieve our goals without distraction. Undistracted by “stray thoughts” our mind keeps our most important values and goals above all else ensuring that our actions are consistent with those priorities.
Research shows that meditation can actually increase the amount of grey matter in our brains. In effect, this is the mechanism by which we rebuild old detrimental habits and patterns of behavior into habits that we have consciously chosen. I define detrimental here as anything producing unnecessary stress and anxiety. Removing these can lead to a significant decrease in the probability of getting coronary disease, congestive heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and some cancers to the point that many doctors and now proscribing meditation in addition to medications.
There are other ways to achieve this same state (or progress in this direction) without meditation. Unfortunately, it usually involves a tragedy of some sort such as being diagnosed with a terminal disease or having a loved one die. Events such as these, as tragic as they are, often have the effect of focusing the mind on the here and now. The heavy emotions brand a stronger sense of what is most important to us (such as relationships) to the forefront of our mind. The tragedy brings clarity. Trivial problems are let go more easily. Stress is removed by an inner sense of appreciation for what we have. Thankfully, a tragedy is not necessary to achieve this.
Meditation is not a means of extracting us from reality and into a spiritual world. We don’t need to be part of any particular religion. We don’t have to give up worldly ambition either. Meditation is simply the practice of controlling our mind and focusing it on the here and now where it can be most useful to us. “And when we are in the here and now we will be amazed at what we can do and how well we can do it.” (Socrates, from the movie Peaceful Warrior). Time spent dwelling outside of the here and now, on those many things outside of our control is wasted time…and who can afford to waste time?
My first attempt at mediation was only ten minutes long, but it had a very visible effect on me for the rest of the day. The most noticeable thing for me was that I was much more attuned to the people around me, how they were feeling, and how they were responding to me. I was able to easily imagine different ways I could act and how others would respond. The result has been markedly stronger relationship, a more peaceful life, and much more time…and that is after a week of meditating ten minutes a day.
In short, meditation makes me more human by giving me space between stimulus and response so that I could exercise my self-awareness, imagination, conscience, and independent will before choosing an appropriate response.
Three Principles of Meditation
Focusing our mind
Awareness and Mindfulness
Compassion for ourselves and others
Focusing our mind
Practice keeping our mind in the here and now. This allows us to become more aware of others and our surroundings. This also allows us to become mindful of our thoughts and our bodies; giving us more control of both.
Awareness and Mindfulness
With a greater awareness of others we become more capable of interacting with others in positive ways such as our ability to connect and more generally encourage stronger relationships. As our mindfulness grows we become better at weeding out “stray thoughts” that only serve to take us away from the here and now. This leaves room for us to be the best we can be in each moment.
Compassion for ourselves and others
One mystery of life is that compassion for others cultivates happiness whereas aggression only brings despair. As we become more mindful of our deepest values we are able to move to the front of our minds. A compassion for others and ourselves is almost universally at the center of what drives each of us; although many of us only realize this during times of tragedy or struggle. Meditation allows this deeply held value to come out of our actions more easily.
Mediation is the act of allowing our mind and body to become still and quiet.
There are many ways one can do this. Actually, the goal is to be able to do this in every action. However, when first starting out the guidelines below may prove useful:
Time – Decide on how long you wish to meditate. As little as three minutes is still useful. Time is less important than meditating each day. Set an alarm for the amount of time we wish to meditate (don’t watch a clock).
Place - Find a place where we will not be interrupted or hear obtrusive noises. Absolute silence is not necessary and can actually take away from the experience which is essentially to be more aware of the present. Avoid our bed as this area will likely confuse our mind into thinking it is time to sleep.
Wear loose fitting comfortable clothes
Position – Any position that is comfortable will do. The best position is one that enables us to breathe deeply and easily while sitting in the same position for a long period of time. Ms. Johnson suggests sitting with our legs below our waist (a pillow or chair works nicely), with our back not touching anything. Place a pillow on our lap. Lay one hand on top of the pillow face up. Lay the other hand on top of the first also face up.
Eyes can be open or shut. Starters may find that open eyes lead to a wandering mind. Keeping eyes closed might make some people sleepy.
Deliberate focused breathing is the bedrock of meditation. It is a subconscious act that we are almost never aware of. Allowing our breath to become a conscious act for a short time helps to heighten our awareness. To begin the meditation follow these steps:
Focus our attention to our center; located in our abdomen two inches above our navel.
Observe the rising and falling of our center. Do not judge any feelings or noises us hear as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. Just note the sensations and be mindful of them.
Stay attuned to the present moment; the here and now. Do not allow our mind to wander. Release our concerns and worries of the future along with our mistakes and perceived failings of the past as we enter the NOW. If a stray thought does enter our mind (and they will) simply acknowledge it as such and let it go. Do not become frustrated with yourself as this is very difficult.
Label our actions as a way to help strengthen our awareness of them. As we breathe in say “rising” in our mind. As we breathe out say “falling”. Let the single word last throughout the action. Give 10% of our focus to the word and 90% of our focus to a heightened awareness of the action. “In fact, the goal is not to think about our breath at all. It is just to know that it is there” (Johnson).
The hardest part of meditation is to stop our mind from wondering. Maria Johnson has a few words on how to help with this that I felt were particularly powerful so I copied them below word for word:
“The secret to effective concentration that may seem counter intuitive. You might notice that the harder you work at releasing these thoughts the more difficult to let them go!
Everyone wants to change something – from not thinking stray thoughts during meditation to getting the cushy office through the lucrative promotion to a brand new life style. But the yearning to change actually is detrimental to our growth.
Indeed the moment you accept your present condition is the moment you will find the universe conspiring with you – and not against you.
There is a wonderfully insightful story that speaks to this. It is about a man whose passion was to be the finest swordsman in all of Japan. In his search to discover how to accomplish this, he consulted a hermit living high atop a mountain, renowned for his wisdom.
“Great wise teacher,” the swordsman asked after climbing the mountain, “how long will it take me to become the finest sword master in the land?”
The hermit scrutinized the seeker of knowledge, closed his eyes, and thought for a moment. The he answered “Perhaps five years.”
The swordsman was impatient, though. Five years to him might as well have been 50. So he asked a second question. “How long, great master, would it take if I tried really hard?”
Stroking his beard, the hermit looked at the ambitions young man. Finally, he said, “Maybe ten years.”
The intense longing, the craving, actually works against our goals and our desires. It creates within us a dissatisfaction that is, quite frankly, unhealthy. Additionally, it creates a high hurdle to overcome in the form of a craving.
Mindfulness involves the recognition and acceptance of our current conditions. Not only can we accept what we have now, we can be able to go that one step further and be grateful for it. The direct opposite of pushing the experience away from us or the intense yearning for a different one, is mindfulness. This state of consciousness enables us to understand and be satisfied with what us have as we sit quietly in the present moment.
Do not confuse this with a resignation of staying the way we are. We are not meant to stagnate and not aspire to greater heights. This is not how human nature works. Acceptance of where we are today is the first vital step in changing for the better.
Basically, what we are talking about is self-acceptance. Accept yourself for who you are now. Do not envy anyone else and do not compare yourself to others. Instead of wasting time and energy comparing yourself to others or envying others, encourage yourself in all your endeavors. Tell yourself you can achieve your highest potential – and soon you will be.”
Reflections from 2019
This is Joseph again...seven years older, but not much wiser. If I had listened to myself I'm confident that I would be a lot happier and healthier today. When I wrote this we were at peak stress ... new baby, new mortgage, new job, new city. I suffered a tragedy at the time that I won't share here, but the stress was overwhelming. I began meditating because when I didn't I had trouble overcoming feelings of anxiety. A month later I had a moment of clarity that I wrote down just above my closet door:
For the next two months I felt a deep sense of awareness. My normal state of living inside my head was replaced with a constant awareness of other people in the room, and how they were feeling. My kids felt closer to me than ever. I was content to just sit in a room and listen to Lihong share her thoughts for hours on end (she still brings this up when I try to make excuses that amount to me "just being a man").
Then I started a new job that required constant travel. For the first few months I was able to bring this awareness to my work. New client relationships came naturally. People around me seemed to default to a mutual sense of trust. I remembered names after hearing them the first time. I felt calm. Always calm...and my colleagues could feel it also.
And then it was gone. I was working 70 hours a week...not including travel. I stopped meditating. Shortly after I dropped my regular sleep schedule. Then I started eating out all the time. Then seven years just flew by. So many moments lost to mental clutter. So many missed opportunities lost to selfishness.
Then I read my note last week.
I took a deep breath.
I took another really long and deep breath and whispered to myself, "In". Then I slowly let go and whispered to myself, "Out".
I realized in that moment that I stopped reading the note because I didn't want to confront the fact that I failed. Subconsciously I knew that if I started meditating again I would remember how much better I could be to myself and those around me...and that I had lost years of moments and opportunities.
Then I remembered a quote from the book, "Basically, what we are talking about is self-acceptance. Accept yourself for who you are now."
I took another deep breath...this time whispering to myself the single word, "Accept". As I breathed out I felt a slightly embarrassing sense of self empathy...like I was looking at myself and feeling love toward me. I didn't see a failure...just another flawed person with good intentions...a Dad trying to love his kids...just a Husband trying to love his wife...
In that moment I feel my own sense of control start to come back to me. That little boost of self-love gave me the strength to see the reality...that I had learned something important about how to live better, but ignored it.
What made it painful to endure was the realization that many raised voices and hurt feeling could have been avoided. Sad memories that might not have been if I stayed in control...if I been in the "now" instead of mentally at work or wrapped up in selfish pettiness.
But while we are all just flawed humans ... we are powerful. We do have the ability to change bad habits and fill those around us with love, peace, and strength.
Self-acceptance is the key to this power.
Meditation is the door.