By Jeff Wright, MA – On his “Mindfulness and Meditation” presentation as part of Southwest Health’s My Healthy Life seminar series.
I think most of you have heard that secular meditation (AKA “Mindfulness”) offers many benefits for both mental and physical health. There is a wealth of responsible research suggesting that ten to twenty minutes of meditation per day can lower blood pressure, prevent headaches, ease anxiety and/or depression, and help with many other stress related ailments. My own personal experience over fifty years of studying and practicing meditation leads me to agree whole heartedly. A consistent daily practice of meditation has given me a reliable source of dignity and a general sanity that I am pretty sure I wouldn’t otherwise have.
Of course, that kind of pronouncement is impossible to validate, but I do believe as I look back at my life – quite abundant both in its fortunes and its life challenges – that my simple meditation practice has been a wonderful anchor and an enormous benefit. Perhaps its greatest gift has been an unexplainable increase in my joy and appreciation of the ordinary which has led effortlessly to an abiding desire to be kind. This is high praise for the practice, but I assure you that regarding my own life, I am not exaggerating.
The term, “meditation,” is often complicated by images of people sitting cross legged on the floor, led by experts, and immersed in the traditions of Asian cultures. Or by magazine photos of young women smiling blissfully at tropical sunsets. Over the years I’ve come to realize that meditation is really quite a simple and natural endeavor. There is little advantage in sitting cross legged. Being in a conference room is as good as being on a mountain top. You don’t need to control or stop your thoughts and feelings. Incense and soft music are of little use. And meditation need not be connected to a religion or other belief system. While it is quite different from sleeping, it is just as easy and natural, so it really makes no sense to expect a hierarchy of experts or a long austere climb up a ladder of skills. Meditation is about being very alert and very calm at the same time. Physically that means sitting upright with your back unsupported so that your spine can be balanced and very wakeful and vigorous. It should have a bold, regal, protective feeling to it. That allows the rest of your body to be very relaxed, as if hanging limply from your spine; open to whatever is going on within you (thought included) and outside of you. Just sitting like that for a while is meditation – no more, no less.
Every animal I’ve ever observed – not just cats, but even nervous little beings like chipmunks and humming birds – spend a lot of time sitting alert and motionless, looking like meditators. Except human beings, the beings with the most to process and integrate. Over the last several millennia there have been good reasons for this loss of habit. The crops had to get in or we starved, which meant there was no time to sit around in stillness. And for non-farmers, the boss was not going to pay you to sit still doing nothing. But I think you will agree that while successful in many ways, human beings have historically acted a little crazy and certainly suffered a lot of unnecessary ailments.
Meditation has always been important, and in our busy, busy, complicated world it is more important than ever. And yet, I’ll be the first to admit that even after all these years I still feel a little embarrassed and guilty about my idleness as a meditator. But the truth is, we actually do have time to sit ten or twenty minutes a day, and doing so we find ourselves much more effective in the things we have to do.
That said, though, my reluctance is not just about “wasting time.” Healthy as I may be, just sitting and allowing my brain to process its concerns in its own slow, repetitive way can be tiresome and annoying (even quite upsetting) at times. I find even more excuses not to sit. As a solution to these kinds of problems I began to organize Stillness Groups several years ago. A Stillness Group meets once a week for an hour. We sit still for that hour, broken by two short periods of silent walking to limber up and re-invigorate. It’s very simple – no chanting, no lectures, no “spiritual” trappings, no formal discussions. (We do chat casually for a few minutes before and after sitting, which is quite pleasant and helps build our strength of community and common purpose). Stillness Groups are FREE and while someone glances at a clock every so often and signals the beginning and end of a session with a bell, there are no experts, or perhaps, better said, we are all experts ready to help one another as needed.
Sitting together once a week makes our daily practice habit so much easier. Mutual support is very important. If you would like to try sitting with us, whether for a full hour or just ten minutes, please check our website, www.wayofstillness.com for current opportunities and additional details about what we do. Also, please get in touch with me for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your presence helps you, and it helps us. As you consider exploring the quiet, simple miracles of meditation, please join us.
At present, a Stillness Group meets in Platteville every Thursday from 6-7 pm at Park Place, 1075 North Elm St, (Main Entrance) Wellness Room (Lower Level), and in Dubuque every Tuesday from 6:15-7:15 pm at Body and Soul Wellness Center and Spa, 2728 Asbury Rd. If it is your first time, please arrive a few minutes early in order to get a few tips and understand our simple routine.