In the Garden of Your Mind…
I have heard people say -- “I don’t need to sit to meditate. My life is my meditation.” I admire that approach, although it would never work for me. Or it would work for me as a meditation, if I would be content with a life full of confused thinking, anxiety and bursts of inappropriate anger. Not really what I’m going for.
One common definition I have heard for the word meditate is to cultivate. And just like a garden, what is cultivated in the mind are the seeds you have planted.
Mr. Rogers knew all about this. Take a look, I’ll wait.
Meditation can seem mystical or otherworldly. Sitting still in a formal posture of some kind, eyes closed or partially open, gazing into nothing. Some people wear robes or meditation shawls when they practice, adding to the mystery. Truthfully, meditation in one way can be thought of as nothing more than intentionally cultivating and tending the garden of the mind.
I have often heard that meditation is a tool used to help one relax. That is true, but there is so much more meditation can offer. Relaxation is a vital first step in any type of meditation. But from that foundation the possibilities are endless. There are meditations to cultivate relaxed, stable focus; meditations to cultivate lovingkindness, compassion, empathic joy and equanimity. There are yet other practices to help one gain insights of various kinds.
What determines the meditation(s) one practices is based on the question: “What is it you would like to cultivate?” Greater focus? Learn one of the many meditations to cultivate focus. More empathy and compassion? Then practice one or more of the meditations used to cultivate qualities of the heart. Seek to gain insight? Again, depending on your intention, there are a myriad of practices to help gain insight.
For example, in 2011, I attended a five-week teacher training certification program called “Cultivating Emotional Balance”. This course was designed at the request of the Dalai Lama by Dr(s) Paul Ekman and B. Alan Wallace. The training program integrates Buddhist contemplative practices taught in a secular (non-religious) way with Western techniques for dealing with negative emotional experiences. It is designed to help people gain insight into the nature of negative/destructive emotions and how to manage them through learning a series of meditation practices.
Research showed that participants who learned these techniques were able to reduce destructive emotions and enhance compassion and empathy for others. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22148989
It would be great to be able to set an intention to focus, be kinder, more empathic and so on, and then simply “make it so” by intention alone. However, I have never seen that work in practice. The other end of the spectrum is to think we are simply at the mercy of our lack of focus, irritability, anxiety etc. with no ability to change. This is also untrue.
As countless research studies support, we are in fact able to learn new skills of attention, emotional intelligence and insight. What is true across the board is that to create these new skills what is needed is a daily practice of meditation. If one really seeks to hone and deepen these skills, it is necessary to set aside more time to practice each day. This is the intention of a meditation retreat.
Just as Olympic athletes train full time to hone their craft, to become truly skilled at the practices taught in meditation it is necessary to go into practice full time... at least for a period of time. It is easier to train without lots of of other stimuli competing for your attention.
Oh and by the way, about the shawl thing, I do wear a shawl when I meditate. For me, it is very practical. It helps keep me warm in the winter and helps keep flies and mosquitos off in the summer. Mine is striped, which means I am a householder (not a nun) and indicates the type of meditations I practice.