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Sunday, September 20, 2009

For those skeptical of meditation

For the last year or so, I have been exploring the practice of meditation. Initially, my thoughts were somewhat in line with the Quakers: explore silence and make room for the voice of God. For me, this is still an important part of my meditative practice. However, I have also been intrigued by the many other benefits to spiritual, psychological, and even biological health.

As such, my good friends, I would like to direct your attention to an interesting link:
Opening to Our Lives

"Opening to Our Lives" is an NPR, Speaking of Faith episode with John Kabat-Zinn (air date April 16, 2009). Kabat-Zinn's approach is firstly a scientific and biological approach: what are the scientifically measurable results of meditative practice? In a nutshell, the conclusion of his thirty years of research is that meditative practice helps us to be more human and to have a better understanding of our humanness.

Kabat-Zinn's approach has been non-religious, and even non-spiritual. He doesn't see the need to have discussions about spirituality or religion, rather, he prefers to stick with issues of health. Meditative practice, Zinn says, is about mindfulness and awareness: "The real practice is living your life as though it really mattered from moment to moment. The real practice is life itself." So, for those who are a bit skeptical of meditation, this perhaps can be a bit disarming. The point of mindfulness, then, is not to reach some extreme, other-worldly state of mind. On the contrary, it is opening to what is right in front of us: "You've already got it." It is an awareness of the fact that everything we need is before us.

Zinn points out that much in our society is dependent on us being attentive and aware, and yet, ironically, this awareness and attentiveness is very rarely cultivated. We are told to pay attention in school and in classes. We are told to listen to what our teacher are saying. We are expected to be attentive and productive at work. And for all of this, we suffer consequences if we are not. But who comes along to teach us about being aware and attentive? And yet this is precisely the point of meditative practice and of mindfulness: to be mindful of the present moment.

In the church circles that I used to run in, people were told to be present with God or to "pray without ceasing," but the mental element of this was rarely if ever addressed. That is, it was just kind of expected that one should either try harder, listen to more Christian music, go to more church services, or spend more time reading/studying the Bible. (I remember hearing on more than one occasion) that if one was experiencing doubt or some sort of lack of energy in their faith, the best solution was to go out and witness to someone.) The above listed practices may have value, but the idea of just being present to God was absent. It seems so basic, but a part of being present to God is to bring our whole self in mindfulness of who we are. There is a certain need to be attentive and aware, to cultivate environments where we can just be--just be everything we are, for better or worse. Just to be present to God, in the silence and stillness. And then to just be present to God in the noise and the busyness.

"Only that day dawns to which we are awake."
---Walden

Zinn cites Walden, above, and says, "Any moment we are not attentive to is lost." We lose ourselves in what we do in the world (or in our religious tradition); we lose ourselves in the image we want to put out for others; or we withdraw from the moment and hide ourselves, afraid to bring ourselves to the moment; or we lose ourselves in trying to grasp and clutch those things around us, to cling to them in an unknown sense of desperation. Meditative mindfulness realizes that what counts is the present, regardless of whether it meets our expectations.

Lastly, I was intrigued by a comment Zinn made about technology: "Our technology is getting more sophisticated than our understanding of ourselves as human beings." That is, as human beings we will have to change our method of being to adapt to technology. This presents certain dangers for us, if we lose the being element of "human being." This is where mindfulness and the life of meditative awareness comes in: to alert us to who we are as conscious beings. In the terms of philosopher Martin Heidegger: we are the beings for whom being is an issue.

Consciousness itself is our great gift. Yet it seems that it is so easily sacrificed in the name of so many other pursuits.In the book of Romans (chapter 12), the Apostle Paul talks about renewing the mind. That transformation is directly linked to what we do with this great gift of consciousness.

2 comments:

Javetta said...

I needed this RIGHT NOW.

Kevin Winters said...

If you liked Kabat-Zinn, I think you'll like this research.