By Ed Staskus
“It’s like having, you know, your phone has a charger, right? It’s like having a charger for your body and mind. That’s what meditation is.” Jerry Seinfeld
Meditation is not a huge undertaking. Anybody can do it anywhere they are, anytime they want, sitting somewhere familiar or even on the fly. It’s often thought that meditation is thinking about nothing. It’s not, since thinking is one thing and nothing is another thing.
If you’re trying to think about nothing, you are still thinking, giving your best shot to making something out of nothing. But, trying to think of nada is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. Only nothing comes from nothing. The black hole of meditation isn’t the dark side of the void.
The practice is about being somebody somewhere in a state of being less and less distracted, especially by thoughts. That’s why there are walking and sitting meditations, in the park or on a park bench. It’s not about the moving body. It’s about the non-moving mind. It’s about slowing down the brain on the train.
“If you’re impatient while waiting for the bus, tell yourself you’re doing bus waiting meditation,”” said Gretchen Rubin, author of ‘The Happiness Project.’
It’s about knowing everything without thinking about anything, at the same time that it’s about paying close attention to one thing, the one thing you’re doing on the bulls-eye spot you’re doing it.
It’s about being alone.
But, who wants to be alone? Many people hate being alone. It makes them feel insecure anxious depressed. They get into relationships and marriages and stay related and married because they’re afraid of being alone. We seek family, work, and obligations to stave off loneliness. Social isolation poses health risks and is associated with an increased risk of death.
Most people avoid being alone as much as possible because who wants to hear the voices in their own head all day long, their own internal monologue. You can’t get away from yourself. It would drive anyone crazy.
Even the Bible says it’s not good for man to be alone, although Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist writer, once said hell was other people. Whenever you’re left alone you have fewer problems. It’s harder to find someone else to blame, though.
Meditation is an old practice, prehistoric, mentioned in some Hindu texts more than three thousand years ago, and practiced by pagans, Christians, and Muslims. The Romans said, “Do what you are doing.” Japan’s Zen is meditative, Sufis practiced meditative breathing controls, and a meditative tradition is implicit in the Jewish Tanakh.
The bones of it all come from the Buddhists. “Many techniques commonly practiced today originate from ancient Buddhist meditation texts,” explained Susan Chow, a science writer and editor. For most of its long history it was a religious approach. Even when it wasn’t it played a top spot in many religious and spiritual practices.
Believers went to churches temples mosques for many years centuries millennium to affirm and reaffirm their beliefs. They prayed and meditated because it was the person-to-person way to talk to God. It was the direct line to heaven. If you wanted to go to heaven you went to church first.
But, who goes to church anymore? Religion was once called the opiate of the masses. However, denominations and church attendance have slowly and steadily declined the past thirty years, so that today, according to The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, only about 52 million worshipers go to a weekly service.
Yoga is the new opiate of the masses. It has grown by leaps and bounds the past thirty years, so that today, according to Yoga Journal, about 37 million Americans practice it. Getting on their rubber mats about twice a week, at a studio or at home, means that more people practice yoga than go to church every week.
Spiritual practice has gone rubber soul secular.
Nobody wants to climb the Holy Staircase of the Scala Santa in Rome on sore knees anymore. Everybody wants to get down on healthy knees for cat cow pose. Nobody wants to chant a mantra to a complicated-sounding deity. Everybody wants to go ecstatic kirtan dancing at Wanderlust. Nobody wants to meditate like old-school Buddhists, for whom meditation was a cog in the machinery of enlightenment, along with virtue and wisdom.
Virtue and wisdom don’t get it done anymore, dude, not in the machine age.
What does get it done is mindfulness meditation.
“Meditation is not religion, not spirituality, it’s a technology of upgrading the mind that can enrich one’s life,” wrote Jay Michaelson in ‘Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment’.
Mr. Michaelson cut to the chase, limning his perspective on meditation and its offspring, modern mindfulness meditation. “There are a lot of same-old, same-old Buddhist books out there. I wanted to write the book I wanted to write, for my circle of serious practitioner friends, all of whom are either Gen-X or Millennial, and none of whom have any patience for those clichés.”
“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone,” wrote Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher, coining a cliché.
But, three hundred years after Blaise Pascal, nobody needs to sit in a musty quiet same-old room meditating all by themselves. Besides, it’s not a quiet world anymore, not when the nagging question of the age for the Gen-X and Millennial body politic is, “Where’s my iPhone?” We have turned our backs on silence, even though it’s only silence that can express the inexpressible.
The idea used to be to get in touch with the silence within you. Now the idea is to get in touch with your social media account to see what it’s saying about you. The sounds of silence were once golden. Although the world is never quiet, it used to be much quieter. Chattering is the new knowledge.
Silence is scary.
Fortunately, there is little need to meditate alone anymore. Wherever you are we can all go to mindfulness meditation seminars, classes, and studios. MNDFL in New York City offers 30-minute sit-down sessions for $15 and 45-minute classes for $25. For those aware that MNDFL fills up fast, endless meditation is available at $200 a month.
The Awakening Series at Cleveland’s Mindful Moments is $200, while the Deepening Series is $280.00. Austin’s Meditation Bar offers an unlimited monthly pass, with a 3-month commitment, for $99 a month. At the Kadampa Meditation Center in San Francisco, “perfectly suited for busy modern people,” drop-in classes are $15 and there is a bargain coupon offer of 4 for $50.
“Having a dedicated space where you can go to meditate really brings the practice to life for people,” said Rinzler Lodro, one of MNDFL’s founders. Otherwise, at home, he added, “They’re always going to be distracted by the stain on the carpet.” Carpet stains can be a bane to the tidy and distraction is the archenemy of meditation.
Before meditation was mindfulness meditation it was meditation. It was a way of shaping the mind so that it could be cognizant of content without identifying with content. It was an exercise in generating energy, sometimes called life force, and developing patience, generosity, and compassion. It could also simply be about sustaining a single-pointed concentration as an end in itself.
“The simplest definition of meditation is learning to do one thing at a time,” wrote Tony Schwartz in The New York Times.
The complexity of mindfulness meditation, on the other hand, is that it wants to do everything at once: it lowers stress, enlarges your brain, elevates your school grades, makes music sound better, lowers your health care bill, reduces depression risk, supports weight-loss goals, comes in handy during cold season, and finally, among much, much more, basically makes you a totally terrific person, according to Amanda Chan, editor of ‘Healthy Living’.
What doesn’t it do?
Brain, Behavoir and Immunity Journal Proves Meditation Reduces Risk of Alzheimer’s and Premature Death!
Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre Reveals Meditation Better than Morphine for Pain!
University of Wisconsin-Madison Demonstrates Meditation Effective in Relieving Inflammatory Bowel Disease!
Whew, it’s time to take a breath!
However, not everyone is all-in with the one-size-fits-all outsize role of mindfulness meditation. “Mindfulness practice has its benefits,” noted Catherine Ingram, author of ‘Passionate Presence’. “But, there came a point when mentally noting my breath, thoughts, and sensations became wearisome, a sense of always having homework and of constantly chopping reality into little bits.”
Even Jack Kornfield, the American author and Buddhist teacher, believed there were limits to what meditation could accomplish. “While I benefitted enormously from training in the Thai and Burmese monasteries where I practiced,” he wrote, “there were major areas of difficulty in my life that even deep meditation didn’t touch.”
One major area in which meditation has undergone a sizable transformation is in the world of business. Not only is meditation, like yoga, like spirituality, like all things ingenuous, being transformed into a commodity, businesses are co-opting meditation for their own purposes.
Fortune 500’s as diverse as Nike, Prentice Hall Publishing, and Proctor & Gamble have gotten behind the meditation-at-work wave. “You cannot out-work a problem, you have to out-meditation it,” said P & G’s CEO A. G. Lafley, who has his own mindfulness practice.
Apple and Google offer meditation space and courses on a regular basis. Google’s ‘Search Inside Yourself’ program is designed to teach employees how to breathe mindfully and listen closely to their coworkers. Steve Jobs often meditated, was married in a Zen ceremony, and the technology titan he created affords employees 30 minutes a day to meditate.
It is no fad in Silicon Valley, since many techies believe it is the kind of thing that rewires your brain, all to the good of the bottom line. “The woo-woo mystical stuff, that’s really retrograde,” said Kenneth Folk, a meditation teacher in San Francisco. “It’s about training the brain.”
In the Digital Age in the New World it’s the kind of thing that can make or break your career. Many companies are concerned with employee motivation, or what they call emotional intelligence. “Every company knows that if their people have emotional intelligence, they’re going to make a shitload of money,” said Google’s Mindfulness Coach and ‘Jolly Good Fellow’ Chade-Meng Tan, sounding like a squid on a skateboard.
At Google there are bi-monthly ‘Mindful Lunches’ where everyone eats in total silence, the only sound the sounds of munching crunching digesting, and the tolling of prayer bells. They have built a labyrinth, too, for walking meditations, although it’s not clear what getting lost has to do with being found. Nevertheless, it isn’t “hippie bullshit,” said Bill Duane, who designs meditation classes for the industry giant.
Meditation used to be one man or woman in one place somewhere on Main Street doing one thing, doing their own thing. There was no bullshit to it. Now it’s walking in circles to get the Wall Street share price of your employer’s stock going in the right direction. There are many kinds of bullshit to it.
Meditation for a long time was an individual enterprise, the seventh element of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path. It was about being attentive to everything as-it-is. It wasn’t about being attentive to your co-workers making sure they were on the same path to profits as everyone else.
It wasn’t goal-oriented mindfulness meditation and data-driven wisdom conferences at resorts with executives from Cisco and Ford among the headliners.
“Are we there yet?” asked the man at the Journey to Enlightenment class.
Individualism is the idea that an individual’s life belongs to him or her. The Declaration of Independence is largely about individualism. Collectivism is the idea that an individual’s life belongs to the pack company society of which he or she is a part. The Constitution is largely about collectivism.
According to collectivism the group is real and the individual is an abstraction, clear as dishwater. When meditation is reduced to its lowest common denominator, a dollar sign for a breath of life, individuals are reduced to consumers and notional values on an Excel spreadsheet. According to individualism men and women are an end in themselves. They are not a means to an end for Apple, Google, and Proctor & Gamble, although, God knows, everybody needs soap.
Nobody needs to meditate about that, not even the P & G soap makers.
Mindfulness meditation, as conceived by spiritual entrepreneurs, sharp-eyed businessmen, and post modernists, is a collectivist endeavour, full of hearty healthy happiness on the menu. Meditation as conceived by the old-school sit-down tradition is a breath and point-of-focus practice to get you to a new state of consciousness, out of time, back to the future.
Maybe you got there and maybe you didn’t. In any event, back-in-the-day the results weren’t going to show up on your pay stub. They were going to show up in something that money can’t buy. They were going to show up in a brain and body sitting quietly by itself, the showing up as much the big bang of consciousness as consciousness itself.
When men and women fall in love they rarely want a third wheel along for the ride. Nobody takes collectivism that far, neither back-in-the-day nor today. The dynamic of love is two minds two bodies two individuals melding into what makes the ride worthwhile.
Three’s a crowd.
Meditation can be practiced anywhere, by yourself or in a crowd. All you have to do is be quiet and go inward. No one can do it to you or for you. You have to do it yourself, all by yourself. In the end, when the effort is intentional and the end is unintentional, everyone meditates alone, just like everyone is born alone and everyone dies alone.
Meditation is as solitary as your own reflected light in a mirror. It’s minding your own business.
“Travel light, live light, be the light,” said Yogi Bhajan. When it comes to meditation, and its modern soul mate, mindfulness meditation, two’s a distraction from the solitary practice. It’s me and my shadow.
Other than that, two’s a crowd.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.