Meditation is not easy, and it can be scary for anyone addicted to thinking. It is an exercise in not thinking.
Focus on the center point. You will see other distractions and stimuli at different parts of your vision in varying degrees of intensity. When you see one, note it, but do not switch your attention to it. Be mindful of the center and only the center. All else is peripheral.
While hearing a version of the above instructions recently, I was not sitting in lotus position on a picturesque Himalayan mountain. Instead I was leaning forward on a rather generic looking office chair, a pirate-like patch tied over one eye, my chin and forehead wedged against hard plastic.
Anyone who has had a visual field test, which screens for loss of peripheral vision, will recognize the process of looking straight ahead at a center light while clicking a hand-held remote every time another light flashes anywhere else on the screen. Unlike previous versions of this test I had done, this one used a state-of-the-art machine that not only mapped what lights I noticed but also continually monitored how well I fixated on the center dot.
Meditation for Over-Thinkers
I have found that many highly intellectual people are wary of meditation. They think it is not conducive to creativity, too unscientific, too new age, too religious, or too, well, nonintellectual. However, especially for people who are thinkers first and foremost, meditation can be a valuable part of physical and mental health.
Meditation is not easy, and it can be scary for anyone addicted to thinking. Meditation is an exercise in not thinking. We are forced to be alone with ourselves without our intellect as a safety net. Our minds will balk and stray. We will fail to attend to our breath or the center or loving kindness over and over and over, and we will need to bring our attention back again and again and again. That is in fact the point. While we strive to get better, we also accept this aspect of our being human. This is not a test that we can fail, even while we are failing.
My husband and I have been meditating twice a day for a few years now. Those ten minutes at at time, each morning and evening, are as much a part of our self-care as good food or brushing our teeth or the occasional piece of dark chocolate. Why?
- Meditation teaches us that we are not our thoughts.
- Meditation helps us to become more aware.
- Meditation can make us more compassionate and self-compassionate.
- Meditation makes me feel like a Jedi (or at least a Padawan).
Meditation teaches us that we are not our thoughts.
An October 14, 2014 article in Scientific American by Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz and Richard J. Davidson, “Mind of the Meditator,” outlines three different kinds of mediation. The first is “focused-attention meditation,” in which we attend to the sensations of our own breath, and when “the mind wanders,” we then just “recognize this and then restore attention to the gradual rhythm of the inhaling and exhaling.
The goal is not to block out the rest of the sensory world, but to note it while maintaining our thought-free focus. The distractions that clamor for our attention, including our own thoughts, are treated as peripheral to the core of our experience, not forever or even for most of the day, just for the few minutes we are meditating.
I find this kind of meditation extremely liberating, a reminder that I do not have to identify with or even pay attention to the doubts, judgments, confusions, defensiveness, opinions, grudges, or any other thoughts bounding in my head like a caffeinated squirrel. What if I were incapable of language-based thought? Would I still exist? Of course I would (sorry, Descartes). I would experience. I would feel. I would witness. I would be aware.
Meditation helps us to become more aware.
The second type of meditation is “open-monitoring meditation,” more commonly known as mindfulness:
“[Mindfulness] requires the meditator to take note of every sight or sound and track internal bodily sensations and inner self-talk. The person stays aware of what is happening without becoming overly preoccupied with any single perception or thought, returning to this detached focus each time the mind strays. As awareness of what is happening in one’s surroundings grows, normal daily irritants—an angry colleague at work, a worried child at home—become less disruptive, and a sense of psychological well-being develops.” (Ricard, Lutz and Davidson)
So much of life right under our nose happens without our noticing, especially in our hyper-connected, multitasking lives. The late author David Foster Wallace put it this way in his 2005 commencement speech to Kenyon College graduates: “Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education—least in my own case—is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.”
You can read the full speech transcript, watch an illustrated video excerpt (below, about 9 minutes), or listen to Wallace deliver the speech in its entirety, in which he spoke of the real value of education, “which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time.” It is this awareness that allows us to make wise and compassionate choices.
Meditation can make us more compassionate and self-compassionate.
Finally, there is the meditation of “loving kindness and compassion toward other people, whether they are close relatives, strangers or enemies. This practice entails being aware of someone else’s needs and then experiencing a sincere, compassionate desire to help that person or to alleviate the suffering of other people by shielding them from their own destructive behavior” (Ricard, Lutz and Davidson).
Sitting alone with ourselves for even a few minutes each day engenders a special kind of compassion. When we strip ourselves of the thoughts we hold onto so dearly and that we believe make us unique, we realize that the awareness at our core—the sentience of being able to feel, experience, and suffer—is what we all have in common. Breathe in: take in the experience and suffering of the world around you or a particular person. Breathe out: transform that suffering into loving kindness and compassion for everyone. Translate into everyday action.
This compassion also extends toward ourselves, as author and Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön explains in her 5-minute video on “Maitri” or unconditional friendship with oneself (see the Pema Chödrön Foundation website for excellent articles about compassion and mediation):
Meditation makes me feel like a Jedi (or at least a Padawan).
I have much to learn as a meditator and am truly at a beginner’s level, but those ten minutes of practiced awareness each day leave me feeling more capable and hopeful than any more tangible or worldly accomplishment.
Remember that visual field test I took on the fancy machine? The technician told me afterward that in all the years he has been administering the test, he could count on his fingers how many patients have had perfect “fixation” scores, meaning that their eyes never wandered from the center point. I was one of them.
“You could be an Air Force jet pilot with that laser focus,” he told me. Yes, he was conveniently forgetting the degree of my myopia in terms of pilot candidacy, or maybe that’s the line he delivers to all 50-something patients in need of a pick-me-up, but my minor accomplishment nonetheless made me inordinately happy. For a few moments, I was a Jedi.
Now, if only I could channel that focus while writing. Ooh, look, squirrel!
- Ricard, M., Antoine Lutz, A., and Richard J. Davidson. R. J. “Mind of the Meditator. Scientific American (November 2014), 311, 38-45. Published online: 14 October 2014 | doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1114-38
- From Forbes: “Mindfulness Isn’t Just Mind Medicine, It’s Also Good For Your Heart“
- From Harvard Medical School: “Mindfulness Meditation May Ease Anxiety, Mental Stress“
- Articles on medication from the Pema Chödrön Foundation
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