The force within

For most of my life, I associated meditation with something esoteric and religious. For me it was what Buddhist monks in orange robes did sitting motionless for hours. Whilst that is true it is only one explanation. Many years later on my own spiritual journey, I was introduced to Buddhism and rather than meditation, chanting a mantra was the practice. Interestingly it was a lay school of Buddhism that not only do not have any monks but do not mediate at all but rather chant a mantra, ´Nam Myho Renge Kyo´. The original school of ´Nicherin Buddhism´ from which it evolved during the last century, do indeed have monks and nuns plus customs and practices more akin to what you might traditionally consider a religion. Becoming a practicing Buddhist was a colossal step on my journey of self discovery. I wanted to know more about all kinds of Buddhist practices and it wasn´t long before I was teaching myself from books and on-line materials all about meditation too. It felt natural and soothing is probably the best way to describe it. As those in my  Buddhist community (SGI) would say, It´s called a practice because you have to practice it. Far from being a quick fix to peace and a way to clear the mind as you might have expected, it was about observing the mind and body in a way I had never quite formally done before. I undertook  courses on a form of meditation known as Mindfulness Meditation and another called MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and it was there that I discovered, that it is in fact just as much about science and metaphysics as it is about religion and esotericism. Great studies and research (often using Buddhist monks in MRI machines) have been carried out showing clear physiological changes in the brain and the body as a direct consequence of meditation. All this new information just ignited the nerd within me! 

In the area of Mindfulness meditation there have been great modern day leaders. Not only the religious ones but scientists or academic ones too and interestingly they complement each other perfectly. The most notable secular teacher and trail-blazer of them all, especially concerning the application of mindfulness to everyday life and in particular health and well-being issues is, Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn. In the follow video he explains much better than I ever could.

There are numerous types of meditation too many to describe here. But as a brief introduction there are those that use a method of bringing your mind (awareness) to constant rhythm such as focusing on your breathing. Observing the inhales followed by the exhales. Contrary to popular belief it´s not about emptying the mind of all the thoughts that come in and out but rather calming it by acknowledging the thought, letting it go and then coming back to the main focus, the breath for example, and with practice the mind can come back from thoughts effortlessly time and time again.  It is called being ´mindFUL(L)´ not ´mindLESS´ for a reason; being conscious and aware. 

Another similar approach is to focus on parts of the body, like the body scan technique where you work up through you body observing the sensations of each part of your body whether that´s the pressure on the soles of your feet on the ground or a source of heat or a breeze on your cheek. These types of meditations can be calming and it is believed with practice, it can have a positive impact on body and mind too.

The video below is The Huberman Lab Podcast, hosted by Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and tenured professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine. He has a series of podcasts on various topics which are the best I have ever watched or listened to. Although quite lengthy, I would strongly recommend watching or listening to it as you go about doing other things. If you can´t, just give it as long as you can then scroll forward. What I found particularly interesting is how he explains the two groups of meditation. One, as I explained above "Introreceptive"; focusing on the breath that trains the mind to be aware of the self within and the other,  "exteroreceptive", that focus on external sources. For example, a sound or object such as a candle. The latter type of meditation trains the mind to be less absorbed on the internal self and more aware of the external environment. This would be more helpful for example for those that find they are overwhelmed by internal sensibilities and at times, ´need to get out of their own heads´ to coin a phrase. Anyway, Dr Huberman explains this in more detail in his excellent podcast below.

Suggested reading - Highlight 

I have compiled a short list of books (see below) that I have found interesting on the topic of meditation and I think you might too. However, I would like to highlight one in particular which was given to me by a dear friend just after my mam died. I have read it from cover to cover and still dip into it regularly, selecting specific chapters or just going for a ´lucky dip´. If I had to give all my books up and keep just one, then I think this would be the one: ´A Path with Heart (A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life)´ by Jack Kornfield. "Perhaps the most important book yet written on meditation, the process of inner transformation, and the integration of spiritual practice into our western life, A Path with Heart brings alive the possibilities of inner peace, wholeness and the achievement of a happiness that is not dependent on external conditions" 

A little more from the man himself ...

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