You don’t have to be a Zen master to reap the rewards of meditation. You also don’t have to contort your body into pretzel-like shapes or chant your lungs out. I’m sure we all have our views (i.e. preconceived notions) on what meditation entails and whether it’s something that we could potentially see ourselves doing. It’s one of those things that tends to attract some far out ideas, when in essence, it’s actually pretty basic (and pretty universal) when it comes right down to it.
We had Ashley Stevenson of InnerLight come and visit with us on this topic and she made it – using one of my favorite phrases – easy peasy lemon squeezy! The first thing she did was ask us to “put aside” any thoughts or ideas we had about meditation.
She talked about the underlying premise of meditation, which is simply present moment awareness, and she shared with us several stories and experiences in which she employed this basic technique of simply “being aware” of what’s happening.
The goal is to simply be aware of our circumstances, but in such a way that we are not attaching to any sort of outcome or making any sort of judgement about why a particular thing might be transpiring.
How do you do that exactly? Here are a couple of great ways to think about it.
Clouds. Think of your thoughts as clouds drifting by. You’re not getting caught up in any one particular cloud, they just keep on passing, like they always do.
Movie. Take yourself out of your life. Zoom back and view your reality as if you were viewing a movie on a big movie screen. You can see what’s going on, but again, you’re not attaching to anything that’s going on. You bear witness to your life without getting drawn into the details (or drama) of your life.
Train. Imagine standing at a railroad crossing with a train zooming by. If you keep looking straight ahead, you can see beyond the train and to the other side each time there is a break between the cars. By focusing your attention here, instead of on each car as it passes, the scene on the other side of the train becomes even more clear.
So the moving train cars in this scenario are your thoughts – they keep going and going and going. You see them going along, but you’re not being pulled toward any of them, you’re just letting them ride on by because you are so intently focused on that present moment reality just beyond the steady movement of the train. And you know you can always count on the steady movement of your thoughts.
SIMPLY TUNE IN
Ashley led the group through a short meditation exercise where we simply sat in our chairs, feet flat on the floor, hands resting comfortably in our laps. We focused on our breath and began to tune everything else out – any background noise, any thoughts or judgements popping into our heads. We simply sat in the present moment. And you know what? It was pretty nice. How often do we really take the time to do just that?
Meditation is definitely becoming more mainstream these days as we hear things like Olympic athletes using it to “train their brains” for peak performance or Google bringing in Buddhist Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh to work with their employees on bringing the practice of “mindfulness” into their daily work. Even Dr. Tara Kuther’s graduate school blog frequently speaks to the many benefits of meditation in relation to stress commonly experienced by graduate students.
So that’s why we want our McNair scholars to explore this tool of meditation and concept of mindfulness. Being mindful, that is, simply “tuning in” to what is at hand in the present moment, can help us all to slow down and really experience life.
It can help to settle our minds and enhance our focus on the things that we really want (or need) to focus on. Instead of simply running from task to task on our to do lists, we can start to be a bit more mindful with the things we are doing. Instead of letting our thoughts “rule our mind” – especially with negative self-talk and worry, we can simply notice our thoughts and then choose to let those thoughts just float on by.
Becoming more mindful can ultimately lead to a greater peace of mind and a more deliberate mode of “being” rather than always doing doing doing. Play around with the simple technique of sitting still and focusing on your breath. See what might emerge for you.