Welcome to a new month, and a new topic, as we follow Kevin Schoeninger’s training on Spiritual Growth Monthly. This month Kevin looks at “The Deeper Secrets of Meditation.” Before any of us can go very deep into a meditation practice, we need to learn how to deal with things we might consider problems while we are still wading into meditation’s shallow end, otherwise we may wonder why meditation isn’t working and throw in the towel.
That’s where a lot of us get stuck, don’t you think? We may know we are missing out on some of the deeper benefits of meditation, but we can’t seem to get far beyond just getting started. Even if we’ve been starting for years.
What are some of these benefits we hope for? A lot of us are looking to relieve stress, and attain the ability to withstand “the slings and arrows” life seems to throw at us without losing our equilibrium…or our minds. We want to learn how to finally relax, and how to stay calm within a storm. Just once, to be serene, when we really want to throw a tantrum or slap someone alongside the head.
Kevin assures us that relaxation is a worthy goal, but it is not the only one. In fact he calls it the “entry point” into what meditation is all about. The deeper benefits of daily meditation, he says, include improvement in our immune systems, better mental clarity, relief from chronic pain, better digestion, better memory, and what he calls a “reset” of our nervous system.
Kevin describes the process of meditation practice as something that occurs in stages. Stage One is this stage of Conscious Relaxation. The encouraging thing is that some of the issues we may have been considering problems in this early stage are just normal parts of the process. And if we accept and release them, we can stop thinking of them as problems at all.
Learning to look inward, when we are programmed to be alert.
Kevin quotes some remarkable data from Prevention Magazine, that a majority of participants in a meditation study were so uncomfortable simply sitting with their thoughts, that they chose an electric shock rather than sit there any longer.
What’s so hard about sitting? Many of us do it in front of a television every day. It’s the sitting with only our own thoughts that is the problem. We are hardwired to be alert to dangers and outside stimuli. Like saber tooth tigers and such. So if we sit and are entertained our attention is still outside us somewhere. If we try to just sit and focus inward, we get antsy, and our minds start to fidget and fret.
Plus, we’ve all been taught to frown at idleness. When we sit still we can start to feel guilty, like we should be doing something useful. We should be busy, checking things off our To Do lists, not watching the minutes tick by. Of course, the better mental clarity that we develop in meditation would probably make us profoundly more productive, but that seldom occurs to us when we feel dying to get up and go.
If we overcome some of the problems that we tend to associate with this uncomfortable sitting, Kevin suggests, then we may find ourselves not so uncomfortable any more. The three common problems, or challenges, he addresses this week may be the key to moving on to Stage Two.
Challenge #1 – Body aches and discomfort.
A lot of people experience back pain or other discomfort while learning to meditate, because it is usually done in a sitting position where the back has no direct support. We’re all probably a little too used to sinking in comfy upholstery, or in chairs which allow us to lean back. But sitting up is important while meditating because it allows us to breathe more deeply by opening our chests. And it also relaxes the upper back and neck muscles by straightening out the spine and taking off the strain that happens when our necks are bent and our shoulders hunched over.
Some eastern meditation practitioners suggest that this is why sitting on a cushion with crossed legs is better than sitting on the floor. The cushion raises the spine, and it straightens out naturally. Kevin recommends sitting up straight, toward the edge of your chair, which achieves that same straight but relaxed posture. You can check his article for pictures of how it looks.
Over time, sitting up straight gets easier. After all, that is how we are built. Not hunched over or slouched on a sofa. The discomfort we may feel reminds us that our core muscles have grown a little weak, but they will get stronger the more we practice our sitting meditation.
Plus, Kevin reminds us, it is okay to shift around and get comfortable. There is no reason to deny the discomfort. Just accept that it is there, without fighting it. Stretch or move as you need to, and allow your muscles to relax.
Challenge #2 – Dealing with challenging thoughts and feelings
This is the biggie, I think. Because somewhere along the way we may have gotten the idea that meditating means achieving a state of mind without thoughts. Some sort of absolute inner silence. Then we get frustrated because we can’t get our brains to cooperate with this idea of not thinking.
Eureka! Kevin reassures us that our thoughts will always be with us, and to just not worry about it. It is how we view them that makes the difference. If we let them come and go, and stop blaming them for getting in the way, they will stop being a problem. They just exist, and we don’t have to pay them any mind.
One really new idea that Kevin brings up is that we can let our physical sensations take precedence over our thoughts. He suggests we shift our attention to other parts of our minds “not associated with language and thinking.” I found that a very new way of looking at this whole issue. Not trying to articulate everything we feel into words is not easy to do, but it could make a real difference. He says it quiets our minds naturally, and lets us enjoy sensations for their own sake.
On this issue of our thoughts, Kevin recommends what he calls “The 3 R’s of meditation practice: recognize, release, and return.” We simply recognize our thoughts for whatever they are, release them, and return to our practice. These three steps could be beneficial for lots of stressful situations as well, so meditation is certainly a good way to practice them.
Challenge #3 – Boredom, restlessness, and sleepiness
In our modern societies we seem to have lost the ability to exist without constant outside distractions. The phones, the televisions, the computer screens, or constant music. Some young people I know get truly agitated by just being in a quiet room. Outside sounds are so constant that going without them is like a kind of withdrawal.
As we mentioned above, this lack of stimulation, along with our need to be busy, can make us extremely restless if told to sit still and just be. The more we have on our agenda, the more restless we are apt to be. Or we may be so used to constant entertainment that we become instantly bored without something to do.
At the other end of fidgety are the people who become sleepy when they try to relax. Well, the other end of too busy is not getting enough sleep. Kevin suggests doing a short meditation and then taking a nap. If our meditation practice is the first really relaxing thing we’ve done for a while, chances are we really are sleepy.
In conclusion, Kevin asks us to consider what if none of what we call problems in meditation are problems at all. Furthermore, what if what we call problems in life are not problems either. There’s a thought. If everything is just part of the journey, then we should be able to recognize, release and return to a myriad of challenges in our lives.
Kevin has much more detail than I have summarized here, and I highly recommend his entire article. If you need a break at the end of a busy day, try closing your eyes and listening to his audio recording. It gives your eyes a rest, and lets your mind simply follow along while you unwind.
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