Children are taught to read and write. Why aren’t they more often taught to meditate? Most of us in the West who have learned to meditate stumbled upon the practice somehow in adulthood. Meditation, not too long ago, was strictly an esoteric practice. In the 1970s, people in the US would have to pay money to learn to meditate using their special guru approved personal mantra. There were a few Buddhist and Hindu centers in major population centers where you could get instruction, but the average American was not likely to go there. Meditation was generally considered an odd thing to do. There were jokes about people contemplating their navel, which just made it seem silly. Gradually though, meditation has caught on. Even doctors recommend it now.
Scientists have found it helpful for managing stress, which in turn helps people to stay healthy. If you receive care for cancer or a cardiac condition in a major medical center in the US, you should not be surprised if you are taught mindfulness and meditation. If you are not offered the opportunity, you should ask why.
Roman Catholic monks discovered that meditation in the style of Zen deepened their Christian spirituality, and now many Christians practice meditation along with their prayers.
Athletes learned that their performances could be enhanced by quiet contemplation and visualization before their events. Now some forms of meditation are common at the Olympics.
The Internet has been a great resource for students of meditation. In recent years the net has blossomed with websites promoting and explaining meditation. This Interlude website was created, in part, out of the idea that meditation need not be an esoteric practice hidden away behind temple walls. While the forms of meditation are many, the technology of meditation is quite simple. You need your mind and your body. That’s all. You don’t need gongs, incense, special pillows or ceremonial robes. You can do it sitting on a tree stump, or on a bus, or sitting on the cold cement floor of your prison cell.
We teach children in school to think. At least we try. Why not, to round out the picture, teach them how to not think. With anxiety and depression rampant in the world, people need the tools to manage their thinking. So many of us become the victims of our repetitive anxious and negative thoughts, we need to be able to turn off those thoughts, or turn them around to something more constructive.
Every one of us breathes, yet so few know how to use the breath. Unless we are taught to use it, and unless we practice its use, it seems no more significant than blinking or sweating. The untrained person sees breath as a side effect of life. He might say, "My heart beats, I breathe, I scratch an itch, so what?" The what is that how we breathe is related to how we feel and how we think. Why doesn’t everyone know this? How can we let people grow up not knowing that they can calm themselves through the simple act of consciously slowing and deepening their breath?
Meditation can be very complex and sophisticated or it can be very simple. Here is a simple meditation exercise that anyone can do.
Sit up straight. Get comfortable with it. You are steady as a mountain.
Pay attention to your breathing.
Let it happen by itself.
Notice what moves when you breathe.
Does your chest move?
Does your belly move?
Invite your belly to make room for the air in your lungs. Let it expand a little more when you breathe in.
When you breathe out, give the air a little push. Let it go out a little more than usual.
Don’t force the air in. Just let it come in on its own.
It’s OK to pause a little between breaths. See if this wants to happen.
Breathe like this for a little while, and then just let your breath be very natural.
Don’t push it in or out. Just let your breath happen on its own.
As you breathe in, say to yourself, "In."
As you breathe out, say to yourself, "Out."
Just pay attention to breathing in and breathing out.
If any other thoughts come into your mind, let them go.
You don’t have to do anything with them, except notice them and let them go.
You don’t need to force your thoughts to stop, and you don’t need to hang on to them.
You are just sitting and noticing what is happening with your breath and with your thoughts.
Do this for five or ten minutes, then get up, but try it again tomorrow once or twice. Keep practicing. See what happens.
© 2002 Tom Barrett