For years, I’ve taught meditation to lower stress and to improve health. Thousands of books, blogs and practitioners attest to its many benefits including calmness, focus and creativity. While these are all great reasons to meditate, here we will explore how this practice facilitates the flowering of Radical Beauty.
There are few things as mysterious as the mind. One day when I was ten, I was perched in a guava tree, “listening” to my mind as usual. I noticed that I couldn’t stop thoughts from arising even when I tried hard to stay focused on the clear blue sky, the rustle of the leaves and the smell of the earth.
It was fascinating that the thoughts that were coming up were not always about the sky, tree or earth – the objects of my focus. They were about other things. Astounded, I wondered how come my mind wasn’t in the same place as my body (up in the tree). Suddenly, I realized that all thoughts were referring to something that had already happened in the past (memory) or would happen in the future (imagination). I tried to look for a “present-thought.” There was none. By the time a thought arose about an event, the event was already in the past. I wondered, “So, what is actually here now?” Instantly, I became hyper-aware. The trees, birds, grass, sky and my body were suspended in 3-dimensional clarity and I lost track of time. I was disoriented coming out of the trance. I knew in some way that this was big, but didn’t have a way to explain it or even understand it.
These timeless moments of clarity continued to occur sporadically, particularly when I paid close attention to my mind. As I grew up, thoughts began to seem ephemeral and dream-like, colliding with the solidity of the outer world. I noticed that my moods were the direct result of what I was thinking. Changing how I thought about something changed how I felt about it. However, I couldn’t figure out how to overcome the mind’s powerful hold consistently. This sense of powerlessness caused great inner conflict and periods of melancholy. I felt alone. Nobody else seemed to be interested in this, and it seemed too intimate for casual chit-chat.
Fresh out of medical school, I attended a week-long workshop with a charismatic swami (monk). He talked about the mind and its complexities as the cause of suffering. It felt as though he was talking to me directly by addressing the very issues I’d ruminated on since childhood. I was home at last! He taught meditation as a tool to first become intimate with the mind and then to transcend it. Before I became fully established in the practice however, I got busy with life and work. It was set aside. The inner conflict intensified over the next few years, reaching a fever pitch. After the vivid vision I had at the time, I took up meditation again.
This time, I stuck with it.
Although meditation leads to stress reduction and health improvement, its gifts are far more precious. A stable meditation practice facilitates an irreversible rewiring of the mind leading to radical transformation. This occurs through its ability to cultivate:
- Awareness: We tend to live in a state where we aren’t aware of how our minds enslave us with inertia (tamas) or excessive activity (rajas). When we start meditating, we finally become aware of the “monkey mind.” At this point, it can be tempting to conclude that meditation is causing the mind noise and to give it up. In reality however, it just shows us how busy our minds really are!
- Single-pointedness: When our attention is split doing multiple things at once, we lose the ability to think creatively or deeply, to solve problems or to delve into existential questions. With a stable meditation practice, we become mindful, paying attention to one thing at a time. We gradually become creative and efficient. Importantly, single-pointedness facilitates self-inquiry (more on this in later posts).
- Inner silence: Perhaps the greatest gift of meditation is the quieting of the mind’s constant commentary. This is the familiar and incessant voice that judges and compares everything. It creates likes and dislikes, attraction and aversion, and all other dualistic states that propagate suffering. Mind chatter spills over into dreams, where we act out subconscious fears, pain and anxiety collected during waking hours. Ordinarily, the only rest we get from this voice is in deep sleep. Meditation results in cultivation of inner silence, where the commentator loses steam and quiets down. Inner silence eventually penetrates the dream state as the mind is no longer fueled by chatter. Notably, inner silence catalyzes the rise of the witness, with a shift in perspective.
- Perspective: When we are identified with our minds, it is like acting in a play and forgetting that it is a play. We never get out of character, delivering award-winning performances on a daily basis! A stable and long-term meditation practice gives us a 30,000-foot view of life and ourselves. We begin to see the play for what it is and learn to step out of character. We stop taking everything so personally.
- Letting go: Suffering is the result of not being able to let go of our ingrained habits, past hurts and emotional attachments. When our perspective changes, we realize that we are not who we thought we were, others are not who we thought they were and life is not what we thought it was. When we stop taking things personally, letting go happens and we arrive at a new level of transformation.
Now, none of these things happen overnight. It takes time to undo years of conditioning and habit. This work takes patience, courage and honesty. The path to transformation is made up of hills and valleys. Periods of absolute joy are often interspersed with deep despair. Like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, progress is usually gradual and onerous. Yet, like the butterfly, we emerge radically transformed.
Radical Beauty Ritual:
- Do you want to meditate? Why? Contemplate on this (there are no right or wrong answers). If you take it up just because someone else is doing it, you are unlikely to commit to it. Explore your reasons thoroughly.
- Do you have a meditation practice? If so, are you committed to it? If not, why not? Write it down.
- If you feel that you are ready for meditation, contemplate on the following. What are you prepared to do to commit to the practice? How will you rearrange your schedule? Minimally, you will need twenty minutes twice a day. Can you do this?
- Preparing thoughtfully for the practice is like tilling the soil to plant the seed. It is worth the time and effort. Take this time to be radically honest with yourself. Writing brings clarity to thought and intent.
If you find that you are not really ready for meditation, that is perfectly fine. Keep reading and exploring. There are many paths to Radical Beauty. Meditation is one of them.
Photo credit: By Hustvedt