Meditation is very ancient, and has many uses, and can help to bring peace and relief from stress into your life, as well as to deepen and widen your mind. Other benefits include: physical and mental healing, relaxation, ability to cope more easily with everyday problems, a more balanced and happier personality, better concentration and emotional stability.
Many people are unaware of the benefits of learning to meditate. Regular meditation makes the mind calm and steady, reduces stress and improves overall health, enhances intuition and awakens the consciousness to new levels of attention. Classic meditation techniques start with focusing the attention on breathing. Meditators, and alternative health practitioners have known for a long time that conscious breathing can help increase relaxation and decrease pain.
In music, one practices the scales until recognition of the key signatures becomes effortless. Learning the scales and key signatures becomes the framework for making music. Accomplished musicians experience a kind of gestalt where the mind understands music almost as if it were becoming fluent in the subtlties of a foreign language.
In a similar way, quietening the mind and focusing the attention becomes the framework for a state of consciousness which transcends the ordinary distinction between subject and object, and experiences a state of ecstatic union with humanity, nature, and the cosmos. Typically this is a sense of overcoming the usual divisions and fragmentations of the body and mind, and reaching a state of inner unity and wholeness that is associated with feelings of joy and bliss. Some move beyond that to a deeper serenity and peace, to a kind of transcendent reality. So, practicing meditation can eventually even lead to living in a transcendent non-duality, or Unitive Consciousness.
This is very healing. In her book Molecules of Emotion, famed neuroscientist Candace Pert tells us that bringing our attention to our breathing during meditation brings many such benefits. Such mindful breathing helps us "enter the mind-body conversation without judgments or opinions, releasing peptide molecules from the hindbrain to regulate breathing while unifying all systems." The key here, it seems, is simply to be present to our breathing, using our inner attention to follow our inhalations and exhalations as they take place by themselves. So if you want to increase relaxation and reduce stress and pain, try sitting quietly each day for at least several minutes and simply follow your breathing with your attention.
Lawrence LeShan is a pioneer in exploring the therapeutic uses of meditation. As a clinical psychologist, he has spent over thirty years working with cancer patients to promote healing and well-being. Dr. LeShan has developed a profoundly new approach to psychotherapy which focuses on assisting an individual (often a cancer patient) to find a source of joy and meaning in his life, rather than focusing on neuroses. The question to ask, says Dr. LeShan, is not "what is wrong with me?" but "what is right within me? What brings me joy and a sense of purpose in my life?"
His book, How to Meditate, is one of the simplest, most straightforward books on the topic. Dr. LeShan takes the approach that mediation is not mysterious; nor is one form of meditation ideal for everyone. Dr. LeShan outlines a variety of meditation techniques, and teaches four distinctly different forms of meditation: Breath Counting, Contemplation, Insight, and Mantra.
The idea of consciousness fascinates us. The word itself literally means "knowing things together," and is derived from the same Latin root as the word "science." And "con" means "with or to together." In fairly recent times there has been a lot of change about how we deal with the contents of the mind.
William James coined a convenient term to describe the flow of our thoughts and perceptions which he called the "stream of consciousness." This is a metaphor which is difficult to talk about in that we quite often take the words we use for the reality we want to communicate. We must remind ourselves that the recipe is not the meal. The map is not the territory. Getting away from the map and actually experiencing the country-side can be surprising!
Yoga, buddhism and the other mystical traditions, as well as the psychologists have been concerned with how one brings about changes in the mind. In a sense this has been the technology of consciousness. And, as with any technology, there is a tendency for the technology to become an end in and of itself. Or a sense that there is a resource to be exploited, resulting in a kind of tunnel vision. Each of us perceives things with our own unique awareness. Consciousness is our personal experience of life and is that portion of your being that IS you.
There are various states of consciousness, but we actually know little about them. For example, there is a state of mind between waking and sleeping that is called the hypnogogic state, which is a very interesting area of consciousness. One of the most striking discoveries about the hypnogogic state is that there are memory banks devoted only to this unique state of awareness. These memories are not normally available and are revived when you come back into that state.
You simply may have no remembrance of these experiences, except in the hypnogogic state. This is somewhat comparable to dreams not recalled, or dimly recalled, so that the first thing you remember is often the last part of the dream. You recall the experience in reverse order, following a thread through to the beginning. But even more amazingly, there seems to be awareness of things removed by a distance in space or time. Hypnogogic images thoughts and feelings are difficult to verbalize because they really belong to another state of consciousness, resembling a dream state.
The artists and poets are the best communicators of the dream state. The film makers, painters, photographers, and the musicians can often capture and communicate vividly the unique contents of their subjective awareness. Despite the uniqueness of each persons thoughts, there are common frameworks that enable us to characterize the different states and contents of our awareness. For example, our consciousness is formed, to some degree by our culture which teaches us values, what is important to have in the foreground and what is to be kept in the background.
The relationship of foreground to background can change at any time. In the background is always a steady, constant awareness of the self. A deliberate shifting of this awareness can give us overview or insight. Is the cup half empty or is it half full? Nearly all discoveries in every field appear to involve sudden right brain inspiration. At an idle moment, maybe even in a dream, intuition makes an intellectual leap sensing the solution to a long standing problem, arriving at fresh understanding, reaching a new level of appreciation in one quick burst of illumination.
Then the left brain intellect laboriously works out the details of this hunch, step, by step. Finite mortals find hope and inspiration in the infinite. In a dream state, there may be no background awareness. Without background, you don't relate to the experience in the same objective way. You seem to BE the object or experience. A lucid dream state is when you are dreaming but you KNOW that you are dreaming.
There are elements of ordinary consciousness, but interestingly, you think differently because you know you are in a dream state. You can allow things to happen that are extra-ordinary. So, if you don't like what you are dreaming, you can just change it! Similarly, in the hypnogogic state of consciousness, you can learn to structure the outcome of the experience so that the INTENT of the experience becomes the NATURE of the experience.
It seems apparent that we must go into the hypnogogic state daily when falling asleep. But, in fact, we don't go there, but go through there. Normally when you go into the hypnogogic state, you go right through it into sleep. We rarely dwell there for any significant period of time. But when you train yourself to linger there awhile in that state of consciousness, you can learn to effect very real changes in your normal waking life experience!
This is, in fact, a powerful technique, and we are beginning to comprehend that its potentials are quite valuable. In the stream of consciousness you can go foreword and backward in time, and you can focus externally on the objective world of things, or you can focus internally on your own subjective world of thoughts feelings, and images.
This attention, this focus is a continuum deep within us that is constantly tuning in and out areas of awareness, like tuning a radio or switching channels on television. We may be completely absorbed in something outside of ourself such as reading a book or solving a puzzle. Or we may block out external stimuli as in a daydream, where we are experiencing only inner realms. We tend to be unaware to what extent we control consciousness. We adjust the images or sound on a TV using a remote control almost automatically. We are just as unaware of shifting the focus of our attention.
Quoting from Evelyn Underhill, "True illumination, like all real and vital experience, consists rather in breathing of a certain atmosphere, the living at certain levels of consciousness, than in the acquirement of specific information." It has been said that to understand the human condition is to understand the difference between our thoughts and our actions. Such understanding implies the possibility of balance between what we think and what we feel.
Since the mind is the place where both happiness and suffering are stored. It is also where we might well seek the means by which we can release ourselves from our own suffering. Imagination and visualization are keys to your inner mind. Dreams bridge the gap between what is and what might be. You are creating the kind of experience you choose. The focus or direction of your attention amounts to your purpose in life. Your mind is like a garden plot. Neglected it will produce weeds. But tended and cared for it will grow whatever seeds you plant and cultivate.
Huxley said that the brain can be seen as a kind of funnel or filter that keeps the mind from being overwhelmed by all the stimuli it receives. In front of "the veil" in the conscious mind are survival and procreation, and some say, not much else. Behind "the veil" in the unconscious is everything else. By considering these broad areas of the brain and their corresponding kinds of activity; objective, subjective, we begin to understand more about the implications to our behavior.
Many attempts have been made to systematize and understand the thought process such as the conscious and unconscious mind, ego and id, right brain and left brain, inner parent and inner child, etc. These seek to divide the mental functions into categories that would explain our process of thinking. At the most basic level these categories make reference to the idea of polarities, now you see it, now you don't. At the very threshold of conscious awareness are subtle impressions and biddings clamoring for our attention.
Certain things must be taken for granted as the given in any situation, and others must not. When you jump out of bed in the morning you must be able to assume the floor will still be there. This process of simplification is a kind of exaggeration but it is also at the heart and core of that which keeps the funnel from overflowing. It requires imagination and conscience. This is what makes us human.
But to be given over to either too much feeling or to become too rational and unfeeling is to be lost. When the subjective id is opposed to the objective ego, the id will grow stronger until it prevails. You can hold your breath until you pass out but you then automatically start breathing again. Similarly you can regulate your emotions up to a certain point but beyond that your reactions become more or less automatic.
Evidence suggests that persuasion to act comes from subjective values (the intuition or id) rather than from objective reasoning, (logic or the ego). So most of our choices are apparently made on a subjective level by our unconscious mind. That is, what we do about something depends primarily on what we feel about it.
Estimates vary as to what portion of our minds are given over to conscious vs. unconscious processes, but by far the greater portion of the total is apparently instinctual, connotative, and emotional. Research indicates that probably 90% or more of our choices are made subjectively unless we make the effort of choosing consciously which happens only about 10% to 20% of the time.
Our experience is largely a matter of attention. Webster's defines attention as, " a selective narrowing or focusing of consciousness and receptivity." Sounds simple enough, but try to concentrate on a single idea for any length of time it becomes apparent that it isn't all that simple. The mind has been compared to an "unbroken horse," or even a "drunken monkey." It follows its own bidding. Until very recently only a few people were thought to have any control over their autonomic nervous system.
Heart-beat, respiration, and so on, were thought to be exclusively unconscious. We now know that our minds can single out and activate a single cell within our body under the proper circumstances. The brain sorts through various sensory impressions, making determinations as to what should be saved or remembered. These impressions are flagged with emotion, so that they can be indexed, stored, sorted and recalled.
Those thoughts flagged with the greatest emotion take priority in the order of things to be considered by our bio-computer. Value judgments such as the aesthetic and symbolic meanings of our experience, are deeply subjective.
Connotations, qualities and feelings, the "shoulda, woulda, coulda," values are primarily relagated to the unconscious mind while quantitative and objective judgements may be thought of as the conscious mind. Thus we are usually more obliged by fear or instinct than by logic. Bad news automatically might get our attention more easily than good news.
Life on the planet evolved from and remains closely linked to the sea. Our bodies, composed mostly of water, are essentially plastic bags filled with this sea water and able to move about. A hole in the bag means the water ends up in the sea again unless something is done quickly. We must maintain conditions very similar to ocean water and within a remarkably limited range of tolerance of temperature, salinity, acidity, and so on. And we have a whole set of more or less automatic built-in defenses to maintain these conditions.
Together these reactions comprise what we call conditioned responses or FEAR, which helps us to protect the integrity of our plastic bags of seawater in ways beyond just our powers of logic. A conditioned reflex allows immediate self-preservation reactions to each threatening stimulus. In the presence of danger, we don't have to think so much as act, instinctively.
When a child burns his finger, his body learns, so that the next time it happens, the body begins removing its finger from the hot object even before the child is consciously aware of the danger. A newborn animal is capable of remarkably complex behavior. In a sense we are hard wired to follow certain patterns of behavior having to do with approach and avoidance. For example, when we are threatened, a "fight or flight" response is triggered in the body which automatically increases levels of adrenalin in the bloodstream accompanied by tensing of the muscles and alertness.
This "fight or flight" response is genetically ingrained. Stress is any perceived demand placed on you whether physical, mental or emotional. Stress is a condition of life, and can bring about physical and emotional discomfort. Stress arises from psychological tension created by the pull between opposing pairs of possibilities. As we approach any situation in our lives we compulsively think, "If this happens then I will be ok, but if that happens then I will not be ok."
So, stress is our PERCEPTION of what is coming our way and can cause problems. This inner tension, besides being inherently painful, results in a continuous flow of concern and preoccupation which undermines our ability to accurately read and relate to other situations, thus creating further difficulties and more pain. All of this suffering arises from the core belief: "I am not ok. I will only be ok if..."
Many spiritual masters have taught that what we pay attention to is what we become. And that the real cause of our suffering is the lack of skill in utilizing our minds. And that true meditative concentration is pure mindfulness without any sense objects. In the Taoist view you become pure and clear and being totally clear at all times and in all places about everything pertaining to true nature amounts to liberation from suffering, pleasure, worry, sorrow.
When a student monk once asked a Chinese Chuan or Zen Master, "What is the gateless gate to satori, or enlightenment?" The Chuan Master replied, "Attention." "Well," the student nodded impatiently, "of course, we know that attention is the first step, but then what?" The old Chuan Master looked at him, "The second step is attention, the one hundredth step is attention." The student asked, "Then what do you mean by attention?" The old Chuan Master replied, "Attention means attention."
Meditation is a unique kind of tuning in on the focusing of attention in a way that sensitizes you to the larger awareness of your life. The simplest definition of meditation is attention. Meditation begins with the premise of an inherent, unconditional okness, or oneness, sometimes referred to as "Buddha Nature," or Christ Consciousness." Wu-wei embodies a feeling that aesthetic experience necessarily crosses conventional boundaries of mind and body, subject and object. Wu-wei is a Taoist term meaning, literally, "no-mind." In Zen art, the word yugen describes a mysterious vagueness, a subtle order of beauty sometimes referred to as cloud-hidden. Buddhist mediation is sometimes called the path of peace.
The I-Ching supposes that the key exists within each of us. This is the premise of all divination. Divination surmises that there is a part of us that is at one with everything, including time, and therefore knows what everything knows. The English root word of divination is divine. The Latin root word is divinus, meaning a deity, and also, to foretell.
"Our emotions and thought can determine our health, researchers say. The more we learn about the mind-body connection, the closer we can come to treating and preventing disease."
- Lara Pizzorno, M.A.,L.M.P.
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