On a recent flight to Jackson, Wyo., it wasn't only the plane that soared to new heights -- so did a conversation with my seat-mate.
I had an inclination of something that might occur when she took out a book on Buddhist wisdom. So it came as no surprise that after laughing about some shared travel experiences, the topic shifted.
"Do you meditate?" she asked.
"Yes," I said.
"I can't stop my thoughts from swirling around in circles when I do," she told me. "For instance, my yoga teacher asked me to focus on '1', but I just kept thinking -- does she mean the number 1 or the word o-n-e?"
I laughed and said, "I totally get it!"
It can be hard to quiet our thoughts, whatever we're doing, despite our best intentions -- whether we're in a class, in a meeting, behind the wheel, or even sitting in silence. (Sometimes especially when we are trying to sit silently!) My to-do list keeps insisting it needs my attention, or I might find myself ruminating on a past or future event.
But it's worth it to mentally quiet down. It's now well-documented how a practice of regularly calming our thinking is healthy -- evidence abounds showing that meditation is good for emotional and physical wellbeing.
The Journal of Neuroscience reported recently that newly-trained meditators showed a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness after just a few sessions of meditation. Other recent research found that mindfulness-based stress reduction methods can decrease loneliness and, remarkably, may reduce "pro-inflammatory gene expression" in older adults.
These two studies focused on using a tightly structured program of meditation. But there isn't just one way to practice it.
I asked a few Boston-based yoga instructors what kind of training they'd received. They said it runs the gamut. They'd received training about many different ways to meditate, and incorporate different ideas they find helpful into their own practices and classes.
It's not just yogis, martial artists and people taking an active interest in Eastern philosophy who meditate. In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that over 20 million Americans meditate to improve their health.
Even the website for the movie Escape Fire -- a documentary to be released October 5 about radical changes needed in the U.S. health care system -- has a meditation app in its solution area.
This indicates how widespread the approaches taken to meditation can be.
One definition of meditation is to engage in contemplation or reflection. Another is to engage in mental exercise to reach a heightened level of spiritual awareness. Often, people associate meditation with Buddhism or Hinduism, or even consider it to be a purely secular activity.
But contemplative practices are also deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian scripture. For example, in one of David's songs, he says: "I meditate on all Your works; I muse on the work of Your hands."
Rather than the practice of emptying one's thought, this suggests an approach of consciously filling thought with something good, of meditating on a divine influence that acts throughout our day.
Time and time again, I've found that this brings a feeling of release from needing to control every aspect of my experience.
That may sound great in theory, but in practice, we may go back to trying to figure out how to stop wondering about that tricky question sitting in our email, or why we're stuck folding so much laundry every week.
So how can we move past this pesky mental chatter and think about a broader perspective? Here are a few ways I've found helpful to fill my thoughts in my moments of meditation:
1. Silently ask a really big question.
Simply allowing ourselves to consider big questions can completely change the trajectory of our thoughts. For example, I've asked questions like, "How unlimited is divine spirit, or just how good is divine love?" And then I'll wait to gain some sense of that.
I've found that when I accept the insights that come to me, it transforms my thinking. It gives me a peaceful feeling of stillness and a sense of release from concern about my ability to accomplish what lies ahead.
2. Consider the idea that you're connected to the divine.
After my flight landed in Jackson, Wyo., I headed out to a rural destination for a friend's wedding, and in the night sky I could see the Milky Way so brilliantly. As I reveled in the vastness of the universe, I thought about the oneness of everything. It's not like we are in one place and the stars are in a separate place -- I was glimpsing that time and space are constructions of a limited perspective. There is nothing that divides us from each other because we are all linked directly to and through the divine.
This had a unifying aspect to it that enabled me to feel as though I was part of the spiritual spokes that emanate from a divine source along with everything I could see in the vast sky and everyone else around me.
Contemplating this idea of connection with the divine and with one another in this way made it feel simpler for me to navigate and enjoy the busyness of the wedding weekend.
3. "Marinate" in those ideas.
Just as marinades work through chemical reactions with food -- to make it more tender and enhance the flavor -- letting new insights overtake old ways of thinking can tenderize and enhance our being.
When a new perspective comes in response to contemplating a big question or a sense of connectedness, we can be humble enough to soak it in and let it calm and still our thought. Humility helps provide the mental space to consider a new angle. And having this mental space makes it easier to bring fresh insights into our next activity after we have finished meditating.
I find that considering even just one spiritual point expands my thinking and changes me. I also find that I need to practice this type of thinking regularly in order to feel the benefits consistently.
Before my seat-mate and I parted, I mentioned some of these thoughts on contemplative thinking. She said, "I'm definitely going to try asking a big question the next time I meditate!"
Later, at the ranch in Wyoming, overlooking golden-colored aspens clapping in the wind, it was easy to delight in the stillness of the moment.
But getting back to my daily routine, that "ah-ha" moment hasn't completely left me. I've returned to Boston with a slightly more joyful spring in my step and a touch more peace in my heart.
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