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Meditation: mad or marvellous?

Posted on 19 July 2010, 16:52

Meditation is like marmite: it tends to divide people. ‘I remember the bloke with a beard,’ said a friend of mine recently when the subject arose. ‘And I remember deciding then and there that meditation was a load of nonsense.’ He was referring, slightly uncharitably, to the Maharishi Maresh Yogi, who founded the Transcendental Meditation movement. It was a form of meditation that caught the media’s attention in the 1960’s when the Beatles grew beards and found love and happiness – if only briefly.

But while the Beatles split up, TM continued and is back in the news now as medical experts claim it’s more effective than both diet and exercise in removing stress from everyday life. At the heart of TM is the use of a mantra or repeated phrase, used throughout the day when circumstances allow. The repetition of this single phrase is designed to centre you, to gather your fragmented self and help create inner calm. But does it?

The Meditation movement is bigger in the USA than here. There, 1 in 11 adults practiced meditation last year which is a substantial 20 million people. Once thought of as dubious and weird – and by my friend, still viewed in that way - the shift of acceptance across the Atlantic has been widespread, with claims that it helps with concentration, immune function, blood pressure, insomnia, anxiety and depression.

I myself find great benefit in meditation, and often think of it as a breakwater. Like a seaside town flooded by a storm-tossed waves, we can be overcome by circumstances. They can creep up on us slowly or hit us suddenly and without warning. So we need to develop breakwaters in our day, to protect us from the surge of circumstance. Without this, our psychology is constantly flooded, as life crashes through us and over us.

TM is not the only form of meditation. In Zen practice, for instance, you’re more likely to be sat in front of a blank wall than chanting a mantra. The aim here is to experience the purifying effects of nothingness, where we give up playing the expert, and allow ourselves to be emptied of stale knowing and false impressions. Although the idea of nothingness can seem frightening, it can also be viewed as something full of possibility - like an artist sitting down with a blank canvass in front of them. Walking round the Royal Academy’s Van Gogh exhibition recently, I was struck again by the fact that each of these masterpieces started out as an empty space. So it maybe that half hour in front of a blank wall is more creative than you think; though my own version of this is to contemplate an empty bowl, which I brought back from Rhodes, for just this purpose.

The number of converts is certainly increasing. ‘I find it makes me a better listener,’ said one American politician who meditates for 45 minutes every day, before going to work in the Senate. ‘My concentration is sharper, and I get less distracted when I’m reading. It’s like I see through the clutter of life and can penetrate what’s really going on.’ He discovered meditation on retreat, and on retreats I’ve led, the practice has proved an eye-opening experience for many. I remember one hyper-active entrepreneur announcing that he’d ‘never lived in the moment until now!’

On that occasion, we were using mindfulness meditation, a practice rooted in present experience. If Zen asks us to contemplate emptiness, mindfulness invites us to focus on our breathing, which is always wonderfully present. Wherever we happen to be, we focus on what is happening now – our thoughts, physical sensations, emotions – without either judging them or avoiding them. ‘Awareness of present experience with acceptance’ is perhaps the classic definition of mindfulness meditation, and ‘acceptance’ is an important part of the equation. If we are not accepting emotions as they emerge, we are rejecting them, which takes us into the dangerous waters of denial.

Breathing exercises are a simple and profound way into mindfulness because they gift us with the present. Wherever our thoughts or emotions may be taking us, backward or forward in time, our breathing is reassuringly present; and invites us to join it there. 

And so at various times in the day, I might take a minute or two and count each breath in and each breath out. It’s inwardly strengthening to be returned to the present. It does us good because it’s where we’re meant to be; it’s like putting a plant in sunlight.

As we breathe in and out, distractions will appear; one thought after another will try and snatch us from the moment. We note each distraction kindly, however many there are; and return each time to our breathing; to being present, to being strengthened, to being conscious.

As a therapist, I’ve noticed meditation can be particularly helpful in instances of bipolar disorder and depression. The reason for this is simple. Universal in all mediation techniques is their focus on the body and their disregard for our head thoughts. For bipolar sufferers, attention to breathing takes them into their body and away from the endlessly destructive use of their mental perceptions and imagination. ‘I’ve learned to detach from my thoughts,’ said a young female sufferer. ‘I observe them like clouds moving across the sky. I sometimes reach out and grab them, but then I remember they’re just passing, and so I let them go. I feel much better letting go of my thoughts because they drive me mad.’

For the depressed, there is also value in meditation that leads them to the present. To live in the moment is to be free of stale things - past happenings and old perceptions which frequently fill the depressed like a soaking sponge. The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, which is always the gift of being in the moment.

Meditation can be practiced anywhere and any time; the bus stop is a regular venue for me. It’s a discipline, of course, but then so is everything of value; and with ever-increasing evidence for both its psychological and physical benefits, with no prescription necessary, meditation could just be the best free offer you get this year.

Go here for my meditative Conversations with Meister Eckhart.


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