Stress – The Unexpected Path to Meditation
Between the effects of urban living, technological advances and our hyper-connectedness to social media it appears people are more stressed than in any other time in history. The 21st century has introduced a number of variables into the game of life which is leading us all into the unknown. Although there are no tigers chasing us in our now urban cities we do have invisible tigers that chase us day and night without us knowing it. As a society we have witnessed a huge increase in both chronic disease and psychological illness as seen by an increase in prescription drugs in the attempt to help us cope with the stresses of life. So, what is driving our constant state of stress? The two most basic sources of stress are our need to survive and one’s fear of the unknown. Obviously, one’s need to survive would include having shelter, clothing, food and or course the money to pay for the basic survival needs, while our fear of the unknown is really a fear of the future. Both are be equally stressful and can easily consume the entire landscape of our minds to the exclusion of most everything that gives us meaning in life. Although our education system offers various skills paths we can learn in order to survive, it does not teach us how to work with our minds. Until we form a different relationship with our minds a tiger called the unknown will almost always be chasing us. However, the practice of meditation offers an avenue in which we can begin to consciously form a new relationship with our mind.
I first became interested in meditation after developing back pain during a summer job while in college. The pain I was experiencing was not from some kind of injury or trauma. It felt as if it was stress induced. Maybe meditation could help? I am not sure where I heard this but it seemed like a plausible solution. To my surprise the university I was attending offered a meditation class. I cannot remember anything about the class but I do know that my back pain had disappeared.
After graduating I continued to purse meditating, however the reasons for it changed. The practice of meditating had awoken something in me that was far beyond reducing stress. Meditation had been a part of many Eastern cultures and was often a part of a person’s spiritual development. I strongly resonated with this idea and began meditating with the intent of increasing my conscious awareness. In fact, most of my 20’s I lived in an ashram (monastery) so I could devote myself to meditating and chanting as a way to both grow spiritually and quiet the mind. Although regular meditation and chanting helped mildly quiet the mind, after 7 years of ashramic life I felt like I had made little traction in actually living in a quieter internal state. My mind was still very active and easily restless. I could not understand this and began to wonder if I had missed something or was just doing it all wrong. Why wasn’t the mind quieting down after so many years of meditating?
Meditation I had believed was just about sitting quietly, watching the breath and repeating a mantra. This is what I had been taught. I believed this practice would help quiet the mind and for some individuals this works quite well. However, I needed something else. It was not until I was introduced to the idea of meditation as a form of contemplation did my meditative experience radically change. Ashramic life had taught me to contemplate but did not really link the act of meditating with inquiry. They were always seen as two separate practices. Once I began to combine meditation and contemplation together, meditation became alive in a way I had not previously experienced. My consciousness awareness was now engaged in a much more participative way. It required a great deal of focus to maintain awareness of my moment to moment thought process. Without developing the intent to focus my awareness I easily became immersed in thought, unaware of what I had been thinking. The line between awareness and immersion of thought was very thin. In the beginning I could only do it 10 min at a time, but with practice I was able to be mindful of my thoughts throughout the day. Meditating transformed from a practice of sitting to a way of life that started the moment I opened my eyes each day.
What became clear was that inquiry was about investigating the mind in order to understand its nature which was in fact meditation. Expanding my idea of what meditation was opened the doors to perceiving my internal reality in a new way. I felt a deep level of ownership for the process and as I began to really see the nature of my mind. To become mindful of one’s thoughts is no easy process though. Nothing in our society trains a person to observe their thoughts, yet making the effort to become aware, even for just a few minutes a day, seems to start the process of not only learning how to work with the mind but to knowing oneself. So I invite you to begin by taking 10 min in a day to just become aware of your inner thought process. See if you can simply observe your thoughts. There is something very powerful that can happen when you bring what was once unconscious into consciousness.