Last week I had the great good fortune to attend a meditation retreat in the high country of northern New Mexico. For three days I sat for many hours on a cushion, silently bringing my attention back to my breath over and over again, or walked slowly upon the earth, soles alert to every pebble on the path. During the breaks I savored delicious food, wandered flower-bedecked meadows, and immersed my senses in fresh air, stars and running water. There was no phone service, no internet connection, no television. By the end of the retreat I felt a depth of rejuvenation and calm that still sustains me.
Why am I telling you this? Beyond wanting to share my joy, I thought you would be interested to know that meditation is actually good for you. For starters, it can improve your GPA. Meditators have more gray matter. This has been measured. Gray matter is what does your homework for you, so presumably more is better. More specifically, the gray matter growth that has been observed in mediators occurs in areas associated with learning and memory, sense of self, empathy and stress management. Further, long-term meditators have more folds in their cerebral cortex, which allows for faster information processing. “Sitting” makes you smarter.
Meditation is also good for your health, both physical and mental. Scientists have studied this, in typical scientist fashion, by plastering electrodes all over the heads of meditating Buddhist monks, surveying thousands of people with a smart phone app, and of course using more conventional methods like basic lab measurements. Meditation can lower blood pressure and pulse rates, improve your immune system and decrease your experience of pain. People who meditate have less anxiety, depression, and insomnia, and respond better to stress. If you have a chronic illness like AIDS or cancer, meditation can help manage the physical and emotional symptoms. Meditation and exercise are the only two activities proven to prolong brain function in old age. And perhaps most importantly, meditators are happier and more resilient in times of stress.
What is meditation anyway? In the simplest sense, it is the practice of relaxing the body and clearing the mind. Another way to describe meditation is focused attention on the present moment with awareness and without judgment. There are different kinds of meditation, but they all have the same goals. Mindfulness meditation uses awareness of the body and mind to bring the attention to the here and now. Other traditions use an object or an image for focus, and some use a prayer, a mantra, or a wish for widespread happiness. Yoga was traditionally a way to prepare the body for sitting meditation, and can be used as a kind of movement meditation. There are many choices.
The concept of meditation is simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. The nature of the mind is wild and wandering, and getting to even a few moments of calm, present-moment awareness can take years of practice.
Sakyong Mipham, a great Shambala Buddhist teacher, likens the mind to a wild horse that gallops off at every opportunity. Jack Kornfield, an internationally renowned meditation teacher, writes that meditation is like training a puppy to sit and stay. The puppy always gets up and runs away, and you just pick it up and put it back down over and over again.
If you have never tried it, meditation might sound mysterious at best, useless at worst. But more and more people are trying it, liking it, and keeping it up. It is sweeping the globe. In fact, just last weekend people in over 100 cities around the world held a special meditation for peace. This included 100,000 meditators in Buenos Aires alone.
If you think you might be interested in meditation, you could start with some reading. In addition to the teachers mentioned above, I recommend Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, The Dalai Lama, or Jon Kabat-Zinn. These are just my personal favorites: there are many others. You could also check out a DVD, find a meditation center near you, or take a class.
Amy Gross, former editor in chief of O, the Oprah Magazine, retired from her highly successful career to become a full time meditation instructor and practitioner. She writes, “As you meditate, the grip of your history loosens and you get a little saner, lighter, less entangled.” Maybe that is what I was feeling up in the mountains last week. It’s somewhat indefinable for me at this moment. All I know is that it felt good, and right, and if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to my cushion.