MEDITATION — It’s Not Just In Your Head
"Meditation is not about forcing our mind to be quiet; rather it's a process to rediscover the quietness that is ever-present. Behind the screen of our internal dialogue is the silence of pure awareness-a silence that is not disturbed by thoughts of the past or concerns of the future."
--Dr. Deepak Chopra.
Meditation has become mainstream! In May 2011 ABC World news did a special report on the benefits of meditation with a focus on meditation studies done by prestigious institutions like Harvard University. According to this report, health care providers are increasingly suggesting that their patients look to meditation and other integrative techniques to improve their health.
Britta Holzel, a researcher at Harvard, found in a recent study involving novice meditators that after just eight weeks of meditation, the areas of the brain associated with compassion and self-awareness got bigger, and the part associated with stress got smaller. Dr. Holzel says, “It's fascinating to see how our brains can change in structure by learning a new skill. Meditation is the act of learning a new perspective -- of the world and of yourself, and of being more aware of experiences in the present moment."
Increasing numbers of people are seeking the kind of change in perspective offered by meditation. As our hunter-gatherer bodies struggle daily to adapt to the modern lifestyle, in which busyness is epidemic, multitasking is a way of life, and electronic noise bombards our senses, we long for a time of peace and quiet so that we can remember who we are, why we are here, what is truly important, and the meaning of what we are doing. However, for the beginning meditator, the cure can quickly become part of the problem. The problem is that when we become still, what becomes immediately apparent is that there is another whole world of noise inside of us. The things we have been suppressing all along with our busyness now all come to the surface…body aches….painful thoughts and memories…negative emotions…unsolved problems…worries about the future…and the voice inside telling us “this is a waste of time” or “you are not doing this right.” In Pogo’s famous words, “I have met the enemy, and them is us.”
Ah, the dilemma! What now? Stressed if I don’t meditate and stressed if I do! Caught between this frying pan and fire, many people give up on meditation. If you can relate to any of these problems, I have good news for you. If you can lie down, sit, stand, or walk, then you can meditate! Read on….
Your problem might be that your definition of meditation is too narrow. Many people have a fixed picture in their minds of what meditation is, how you do it, where you do it, and what posture your body should be in while you are doing it. Often this picture is far removed from your concept of normal life, and outside the comfort zone of your natural abilities and inclinations. But what if meditative moments are already a part of your life even though you are not conscious of them? Dr. Milton Erickson, founder of modern hypnotherapy, tells us that the hypnotic state is not a special or abnormal condition, but that it is a normal part of everyone’s daily life experience and that we go into and out of hypnotic states many times a day. Dr Deepak Chopra tells us that meditation is not about forcing the mind to be quiet, but about rediscovering the quietness, the pure awareness that is always present beneath the stream of internal dialogue. Is it possible that meditation is not just a “special state for experts” but that it is a completely natural part of being human? And that the flow of postures and movements we engage in every day are gently shifting us into and out of meditative states?
Meditation is often thought of as mostly a mental process. The key to opening the door to meditation for anyone is to shift the beginning point for meditation to the body. Ancient Chinese people, a highly pragmatic group by nature, noticed that people laid down, sat down, stood, and walked. Since meditation was highly valued in their culture, they developed meditative practices for each of these postures; they also recognized that each posture induced a different type of meditative outcome. In the late 1970’s, Felicitas Goodman, PhD, professor of anthropology and linguistics, began what would become a lifelong study of the unique psychophysiological changes induced by holding specific ancient postures. She observed the remarkable similarity of ritual postures across all major continents as illustrated in the cave paintings, petroglyphs, and art objects of primitive people. As part of her research she asked thousands of her students, mostly Europeans and Americans with no prior training in meditation, to hold various postures and note their experiences. Her findings indicated that each posture mediated a characteristic and distinctly different experience.
Both ancient wisdom and modern science suggest that posture itself is a form of meditation and that as we change our posture, we shift our internal state. As adults we do not pay much attention to the many times we shift from one of these postures to the other throughout the day; however, with our babies we delight ourselves by paying very careful attention to their struggles to learn and acquire new postures. Rolling over, sitting up, standing, and walking are milestones to be acknowledged and celebrated. We get out our cameras and take videos to record these precious moments. We smile, laugh, and clap to for each of these accomplishments because at some deep level we know that these changes in physical orientation to the world around us are accompanied by profound changes of perception and leaps of consciousness.
There are many things we already understand about the language of posture. After all, for all of us, posture was our first language. Intuitively we know that each posture opens us to a different quality of perception, and enables us to relate in a different way to the people and events around us.
We lie down to heal, make love, rest, rejuvenate, and restore our energy. Lying down speaks the language of surrender, vulnerability, trust, openness, and receiving. If I am willing to lie down with or in the presence of another, I feel safe. On the other hand, if I feel threatened, I am likely to say, “I’m not going to take this lying down!” and shift to a more vertical posture.
Sitting is the traditional posture used for learning. In school, the students sit at their desks. When we sit, we think, accumulating and gathering knowledge which we hope to apply in our daily life. With others, we sit to talk, share a meal, socialize, plan, and collaborate. We “sit in judgment” to weigh the scales of good and bad in a situation. Sitting can also be associated with power, such as “sitting at the head of the table” or remaining sitting while others are expected to remain standing.
Standing is a posture we associate with courage, strength, and self confidence. We “stand tall” when we are challenged. If someone attacks us, we”stand up for ourselves” or “take a stand” to let others know that we are solid and cannot be pushed around. At sporting events, we stand to send our personal power and energy to support our team, especially when they are under duress. Standing can also be a way of showing respect and honoring others, such as standing at attention, or giving a standing ovation to show our appreciation of a fine performance.
Walking introduces the radical new element of change. We are able to move through space from here to there. Our ability to walk allows us to venture away from home base, to leave what is familiar to us, and explore new territory. Freedom, creativity, and adventure are all qualities afforded to us by our ability to walk. It is the opposite of stuckness. We can protect ourselves by walking away from danger or discomfort. Through walking we set a direction and define our path. When we “walk the talk” we give meaning and embodiment to the values we hold. This meaningful aspect of walking can be accentuated by walking with others for a common cause, thus we have the popularity of “walkathon’s.”
While we “know” all these things at a subconscious level, it may never have occurred to us that we can intentionally and consciously use a change of posture to acquire an energy that we need for our life in the moment. We can and do receive help from these postures daily without even realizing it, but it is when we bring our focus, intention, and conscious participation into plaly that these postures become meditation and we receive their full benefits. There is a ancient story that the Buddha was once asked, “What do you and your disciples practice?” He replied, “We sit, we walk, and we eat.” The questioner continued, “But sir, everyone sits, walks, and eats.” The Buddha told him, “When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we know we are walking. When we eat, we know that we are eating.” It is the mindful awareness that we bring to the postures of everyday life that allows us to be in touch with the “quietness that is ever present within.”
SELECTING A PRACTICE:
So let’s come back to the issue of how to find a meditation practice that is natural and right for you. Much of the language about meditation as a healthful practice is about reducing stress. Yet the word “stress” is a catchall term that can refer to anything from an unreasonable boss to a stomachache! If we define stress to mean that the demands of my life have exceeded my resources, then getting in touch with what you need now to help you deal with stress can be useful. Some helpful questions to ask yourself might be: what resources do I need now? Which meditation practice can help me to access these resources? Now let’s try a meditation posture!
GENERAL INSTRUCTIONS FOR ALL OF THE POSTURES:
- Select a time and place for your meditation. Begin with five minutes once a day, adding time as you can.
- Select a posture for meditation based on what you need. Below I have listed the qualities that can be cultivated in the various postures, along with a brief description of how to assume the posture.
- Set an intention for your meditation. Once you have set your intention, let it go and shift your attention to focusing on your breath, and on being present in your body as you hold the posture. Bring your attention to the sensations in your body. Feel your body from the inside as you hold the posture.
- As you breathe in, focus on the freshness coming into and penetrating each cell of your body. As you breathe out, focus on emptying toxins and releasing tension from each cell, muscle, joint, and bone.
LYING DOWN MEDITATION
Healing, rest, recuperation, nurturance, trust, letting go, heartfulness
Posture: Lie down on your back. If possible, lie down on the ground. Be comfortable and use pillows if necessary to provide support. Lie down and know that you are lying down.
Wisdom, discernment, objectivity, big picture, release judgments
Posture: Sit on a chair with legs uncrossed and both feet on the floor. Keep your back straight, Sit and know that you are sitting.
Strength, presence, power, confidence, groundedness, alignment
Posture: Stand with feet shoulder width apart, letting your knees relax and your tailbone drop towards the ground. Feel the crown of your head stretching upwards toward the sky, and your chin drop slightly inwards toward your chest. Stand and know that you are standing.
Vision, creativity, freedom, solve a problem, begin something new
Posture: Walk at a comfortable pace in a place you find pleasing and appealing. Let your arms swing naturally as you move. Let your gaze be level with the horizon. Walk and know that you are walking.
To close your time of meditation, internally scan your body from head to toe, taking note of any changes. Remember your intention and express gratitude that this quality is even now growing in you. Continue regular practice for four weeks. At this point reflect on the process of your meditation and also on how your life is going. Note any differences, changes, and/or surprises. Remember that for many people the greatest effect of a meditation practice shows up in their everyday life rather than during the time of meditation itself. If you already have a meditation practice, you may want to experiment with bringing some of these postures into it and explore the effect. Enjoy your heightened awareness of power of posture and see if you can “catch yourself” using it spontaneously as part of your daily activities!
Sandy Seeber is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified EDXTM and Body Mind Psychotherapy Practitioner, Enneagram Trainer, Certified Healing Touch Practitioner, and Associate Healing Dao Instructor. She is in private practice at 112 South Spruce Street in Winston-Salem and teaches Tai Chi and Qigong (Chi Kung) with her Three Treasures Tai Chi partners Alan Graham, Beverly Isley Landreth, and David Harold.