By now, many of us have heard of the extraordinary, scientifically proven health benefits of meditation. It relieves stress (by lowering cortisol), improves focus and memory (by raising the level of gamma waves), prevents relapse into depression by 50 percent (according to studies by Jon Kabat-Zinn, M.D. and Zindel Segal, Ph.D.), boosts immunity (in one study, meditators demonstrated higher levels of antibodies than non-meditators in reaction to a vaccination), and actually makes you demonstrably happier (by reducing activation in the amygdala and increasing it in the prefrontal cortex).
My friend Jonathan Foust says if it were a drug, meditation would be heralded as the miracle of the century.
So, you might think to yourself, those are fantastic reasons to meditate. Well, actually--no.
Ahem, you might then ask, If I'm not supposed to meditate to feel better, why on earth would I do it?
I was hoping you'd ask that. I definitely have an answer for you. In fact, I have three. But definitely do NOT take my word for it. Test it all out for yourself. This is very important. (And let me know what happens!)
1. Meditation makes you like yourself more and you stop acting so crazy/terrified/confused.*
When you practice meditation (defined as taking as the object of your attention something other than thought--like a sound, image, or, as I teach in a practice called The Practice of Tranquility, the breath), you don't stop thinking. Thinking just goes on and on.
Instead, you take a different attitude to your thoughts, which is simply to allow them to be as they are. As you do so, you get to know yourself in a whole new way. You see how your mind works and what affects you. You see that the smell of toast makes you indescribably happy, you think way too much about your hairstyle, and that every time the phone rings, you get adrenaline in your stomach. You didn't know these things about yourself and, when you stop judging yourself (as meditation teaches), you begin to see yourself as someone rather wonderful--sensitive, vulnerable, strong, quirky and incredibly well-intentioned. You have become your own best friend, one who happens to like you a lot and no matter what.
Thoughts are always trying to seduce you in one way or another--to get mad about something, crave something, avoid something, to become busier, less busy, and so on. In an untrained state, we always go along for the ride. But when you train your mind through the practice of meditation, you see that no matter how many thoughts arise that tell you to become furious or desirous or sleepy or frenzied, they all, eventually, always pass. No one thought is any more real than the others, although that's hard to believe in the midst of an argument or loss. However, it's true. There has never in recorded history been a thought that has not arisen, existed, and, ultimately, dissolved. Not one. So the next time you get completely freaked out about something, as a meditator you know that all you have to do is wait (sometimes a long time), and eventually that thought will pass. It's not real. You don't actually have to do anything about it, unless you want to--in which case, you do so consciously.
This skill can come in really handy when you think you hate someone or that they might hate you, when you try to talk yourself into the belief that if only you had _______ (ex. a million dollars, a diploma from MIT, JLo's bootie) life would perfect, or when you fall prey to insane self-doubt. In every case, you see that your craziness is actually see-through and if you wait, it will definitely pass. With each moment you wait, you soften.
2. Meditation makes you like your fellow humans more. So much more, in fact, that it could lead to world peace. And I'm not exaggerating.
The practice of meditation has one particularly odd side effect. I did not anticipate this one and, as far as I can tell from my fellow practitioners and meditation students, no one else did either.
As it chips away at your concepts, stories and truths, meditation opens your heart. Why are these two things related? Because when you give up your story about yourself and about life, you are left with things as they are. Since you can't take refuge in stories, you have no protection. You are basically raw. When you're open, vulnerable and inquisitive, guess what happens? You feel everything. Your fellow humans cease to be puppets in your wee drama and instead become actual individuals with joys and sorrows, both of which you can feel. You see that everyone, everyone is as vulnerable as you are and is pretending that they are not. So your heart goes out to them, even the ones you think are supreme jerks. You can no longer treat anyone as less than yourself. And what does our world need more than this? Um, nothing?
3. Meditation helps you see the magic of this world.
When you have a sense of gentleness toward yourself and the ability to love genuinely, something quite extraordinary happens. You relax. Whether things go well or poorly on any particular day you can deal with it because you know how to remain soft and open. This soft openness is no different than waking up to the present moment.
In the present moment, the natural wisdom, beauty, and bliss of your own mind and this world are apparent. Piercingly so. Almost unbearably so.** Profound wisdom in the form of awareness cuts through your concepts again and again. Through the simple act of meditation, of placing awareness on breath and, when it strays, bringing it back is exactly, precisely, utterly this act of wisdom. I'm getting a little carried away here, but I hope I'm making sense.
Have you ever wondered where that awareness comes from that says "hey you're thinking--you're supposed to be paying attention to your breath"? You're wandering around in a sea of hope, fear, boredom, excitement, and so on when, out of nowhere, awareness cuts in to remind you of what you are supposed to be doing. Where does that come from?
Well, unfortunately I do not know, but I do know that this is the same place that creative inspiration comes from. So don't be afraid of softness, openness, and the groundlessness that can accompany the giving up of concept. Instead, you could learn to fall again and again into the space of not knowing which turns out to be where love, compassion and omniscience reside. In the words of Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa, "The bad news is you're falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there's no ground."
And while you're at it, please enjoy the lowering of cortisol and the increase of activity in the left prefrontal cortex and so on.
*If you would like meditation instruction, please sign up to receive instruction from me via The Open Heart Project and get access to instructional videos and a 3x week email where I answer your questions, offer insights, suggest books, and so on. It's free.
**Someone once told me how Chogyam Trungpa answered a student who asked what bliss felt like. According to my friend, Trungpa Rinpoche paused a moment, looked at the student and said, "Well, to you it would probably feel like pain." Hmmm. He always said the most interesting things...