Why learn to meditate? The most frequent answer I hear when I ask clients or group participants why they want to learn to meditate is that they have too much stress in their lives and they are hoping meditation will help them relax and feel more balanced in their lives.
While the regular practice of mindfulness meditation will certainly reduce stress in anyone’s life, there are two additional reasons why someone may want to meditate. The first is because meditation helps people feel and be more alive. Joseph Campbell, a noted mythologist, once said “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.”
This reminds me of a man I met years ago while working as a career outplacement consultant. The man had recently been outplaced from General Electric, and when I asked him to tell me about the best job he had ever had, he immediately started talking about his two tours in Vietnam and how he would go back again in a heartbeat because that was the time in his life when he felt most alive. At the time, I was surprised to hear this. How could combat be a positive experience? In retrospect, I think I understand that this man had experienced in Vietnam what Joseph Campbell talked about. Thankfully, most of us don’t have to go to the jungles of Vietnam to experience waking up to the present moment. We can all have that experience--wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, however we’re feeling--by simply tuning in to ourselves right now. This man’s experience was not unique. We all feel more alive when we are present to what is happening right now and when our senses are fully engaged.
More often, our thoughts take over and we find ourselves dwelling in the past or leaning into the future. One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes says it all: “My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.” When I share this with clients, they nod affirmatively. They know what he’s talking about. Meditation can help because it specifically trains the mind to be more present in each moment.
A second reason to meditate is for emotional well-being. If you’ve ever felt anxious, nervous, stressed out, jittery, or had trouble sleeping at night, you might want to try meditation because it soothes and calms the nervous system. Meditation also slows us down in our too busy, high tech world. It reminds us to take time to smell the flowers. If you have ever felt depressed or sad, meditation can help you recognize specific thought patterns that may be contributing to your low mood. A young woman who took a Mindfulness Meditation for Stress Reduction class with me several years ago related the following story: she was waiting at a restaurant for her date to arrive and when he was late she started getting very angry. Her mood shifted from one of pleasant anticipation to feeling stood up. She remembered how her old boyfriend had stood her up repeatedly and how rejected and deficient she had felt as a result, and the more she thought about this old boyfriend, the angrier and more fearful she became. Then she stopped. She remembered what she had been learning in the class. She took a moment to sit down and to notice what she was doing--how her thoughts were not only remembering past experience but also building a story about her present circumstances based on this past experience that was not relevant or necessarily true. Once she realized this, she was able to relax and let go of the fantasy she had been conjuring up in her mind. A few minutes later her date arrived, all apologies for being so late. There had been a traffic jam due to an accident, and that was why he was late. In this instance the practice of mindfulness enabled this woman to avert an unnecessary confrontation by helping her be fully present to her thoughts and feelings and by helping her recognize that her new date was a different person from her old boyfriend, that his motives were not abusive, and consequently she could enjoy her evening and let go of her fears and her anger.
If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness, you might look for a book or CD on the subject, take a class or join a meditation group, or work with a counselor who has training in meditation. You can also look for my next article on mindfulness and compulsive eating.
Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Keene, NH, November 20, 2007.