'The why and ways of meditation'


Three basic reasons for learning meditation.

For whatever reason, you are reading this because you wanted to learn more about or practise meditation. Maybe it seems that something is missing, incomplete in your daily life or there is too much of something else and meditation sounds like it might sort this out for you. This may be for calmness or learning to shut off the internal dialogue – the chattering that goes on inside our heads. Calmness in turn influences better health. Or it might be in order to gain deeper insight into our being. This is also a benefit.

Also needed, in our world, is the simple skill of dropping anger and fear to bring that joy into our day to day moments. In this programme there are the seeds to provide a basis for all of these.

Why is it difficult?

Why is it that we have to learn how to step into and nurture this state? The simple answer is that we are the products of 300 million years of evolution during which time we have perfected our defence mechanisms. 300 million years is a long time to be focusing on survival. Wariness has become a habit – our default mode

The security alarm system that guided our survival:-

To survive all animals require a security alarm system. This is based around the Hypothalamus in the brain stem. It was designed for reptiles with simple brains at least 80 million years ago. There are three parts. A scanning side – the radar - which collects information, a processing side that compares this with acquired or inherent knowledge, and an activation side that prepares the body and mind for evasive action. For crocodiles it works brilliantly. Humans confuse this simple process.

The way it works.

The Hypothalamus can direct the body's energies into either of two main pathways. That of repair and long-term maintenance. Or one of survival mode. The fight or flight mode. If a message of threat is received the body is primed to take the best action available – to fight or run away. The brain is alerted by chemicals we know of as emotions.. Something gets done and the body is made safe. Then the alarm bells can be switched off and the business of maintenance can be continued. This is the way it has worked pretty successfully for the past 300 million years. And then Man came along.

Design faults as regards human beings.

Unfortunately Man's alarm system cannot register the difference between physical threats – something trying to eat you – and the 'virtual' projected or recollected threats that humans with their powers of worrying are good at developing. The alarm system primes the body (muscle tension, raised blood pressure and blood sugar etc.) as though it was being physically threatened either way. This can lead to a rise in the thermostat of physical tension within us. It switches the brain onto 'vigilance' mode which interferes with our being able to see the 'bigger picture' and gives rise to the constant chatter in our brains. We know of this noise and our reaction to it as Stress. And how do we cope with this noise? We put plugs in our ears.

Dissociation from tension leads to symptoms

We learn to ignore - to dissociate from - the tension building up in our bodies or at least we do until we develop symptoms. (And even then we try to get rid of it with symptom alleviating medicines.) The vigilance is less easy to get rid of. It presents as a constant juggling of thoughts in our minds. A constant scanning going on in our heads which can be a bit tiresome. It adds its bit to the 'all day' alarm. In this way the radar becomes the radio. Muttering away inside our heads all day long. This can lead to attempts to escape from it and the pub cartoon 'If you are drinking to forget – please pay in advance.'

All day alarm was not our designed way of being

Animal Physiology evolved to cope with a certain ratio of time spent in alarm versus time spent in restorative maintenance. We need mental stimulation, physical stimulation and then a quiet time to do the house-keeping. The body does not easily balance alarm and repair at the same time. They involve opposing nerve circuits. Yin and Yang. Sympathetic and parasympathetic. One goes up, the other goes down. Can't do both at the same time.

The consequence of excessive alarm is the gradual erosion of the functions of maintenance such as the digestive and the immune systems. 'All day' alarm is not a good thing. Finding a way to switch this off is the start of meditation. Simple breathing techniques can do this for short spaces of time.

Obstacles to finding peace.

First of all we can look at the 'design faults' that emerge when a simple alarm system is imposed on complex thinking man. That every threat should be dealt with physically, here and now is obviously against our code of conduct. Be we are primed as though they should be.

Ego business

Further obstacles involve the battle that goes on between our instincts for self preservation and our instincts for a communal life. This can give rise to worries about being good enough which is then countered by the put-downs of judgemental-ism and the ego's comfort in feeling superior. Or else it can hatch big eggs of self criticism and/or self put-down. Neither of these are particularly helpful.

And Personality

Then there are the personality chemicals that switch between helpfulness and dominance, thrill seeking and thoughtfulness. Not understanding these gives rise to personality clashes and frustration with other people's different ways of doing things.

And emotions

There are the emotions that bring fear and sustain angers. All part of the complex apparatus that is Homo Sapiens. And all potentially in excess of our modern needs.

Other Perspectives.

From a Buddhist perspective our ordinary waking state is seen as being severely limited and limiting, resembling in many respects an extended dream rather than wakefulness. (Jon Kabat-Zinn) The Hindu texts talk about man's world being suffused with 'Maya' or illusion. Christianity has many similar allusions such as St John 'And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.' In the 13th century a book with the glorious title of 'The Cloud of Unknowing' proposed a guide out of this dream-like state.

Resolution through Observation

Being able to observe all the obstacles to understanding ourselves and others and see through it all is (according to Tolle - the Author of the Power of Now.) the essence of enlightenment. It goes, at least, a long way to developing calmness and enriching our lives.

The role of Meditation

Meditation and in particular mindfulness meditation is one solution. 'Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity and acceptance of present moment reality.' (JK-Z) This in turn engenders calm and contentment.

'When we commit ourselves to paying attention in an open way, without falling prey to our likes and dislikes, opinions and prejudices, projections and expectations, new possibilities arise and we have a chance to escape from the straight jacket of unconsciousness.' (JK-Z)

Mindfulness Meditation: Getting going.

The first steps in Mindfulness involve reclaiming the awareness of our physical selves. That which we dissociated from when we decided to ignore our emotions. In order to be in the moment we need to be alive in the moment. This means being able to feel our bodies as being alive and deal with emotions as they arise. So the next step is exercises for developing awareness of the body. In the course are included some Chinese exercises but any exercise done thoughtfully will be good.