Modern Meditation

By Alexandrea Dahlstrom

“In mindfulness one is not only restful and happy, but alert and awake.  Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.” —thích Nhat hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation

In it, Harris explains how he “freaked out” in front of five million people while reporting the news on Good Morning America in 2004. Harris was reading the morning’s news report live on-air when he explains that he suddenly found himself short of breath and felt like everything was caving in on him. He cut his spot short and quickly went off the air as he had a panic attack. Harris initially blamed his meltdown on cocaine and Ecstasy use. He had spent some time as a foreign correspondent reporting on the war in Afghanistan and started the drug habit to deal with the images of war he witnessed, a decision he later described as an “act of towering stupidity.”

After his breakdown, Harris sought treatment from a doctor who told Harris he needed to stop using drugs. When that did not fully cure his anxiety, he realized that he had to make some major life changes. He felt his problems were deeper than just the brief drug use after the war, and were a reflection of his life as a whole. It was during this period that his mentor and co-worker, Peter Jennings, assigned him to cover the topic of faith for ABC News. While Harris covered all types of faith from the mainstream to the fringe, it was his research of meditation that most intrigued him personally.

Harris emphasizes that he was not interested in anything he called “new age-y,” and normally backed away from things he deemed too “touchy-feely.” But he discovered that meditation doesn’t have to be any of those things. It is simply an exercise for your brain that eventually allows you to take control of your mind and your thoughts. Now Harris meditates daily and teaches others how to use meditation to improve their own lives.

BENEFITS OF MEDITATION

In recent years, science has backed up the benefits of meditation. The Mayo Clinic recommends meditation for stress reduction and relaxation. Emotional benefits of meditation include: increased self-awareness, improved stress-management skills, a reduction in negative emotions and a greater ability to focus on the present. Meditation also offers medical health benefits. Research suggests that meditation can help people manage symptoms of conditions such as anxiety disorders, asthma, cancer, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, pain and sleep problems. While meditation won’t cure an illness, studies show that it can help patients to cope with it better.

According to Tod Nielsen of Lake Geneva, a meditation practitioner and the office manager of the Blue Lotus Temple in Woodstock, Illinois, during meditation, there are distinct, observable physiological changes in the body. These changes include metabolic, autonomic, endocrine, neurological and psychological observations. A practitioner’s breathing will become deeper and steadier. Scientists have found that EEG results taken while people are meditating exhibit a slowing and synchronization of brain waves, leading to calmness and self-awareness. Meditating on a single element, such as your breath, helps to strengthen concentration. People who meditate tend to recover from stress quickly as meditation strengthens and enhances the ability to cope.

Meditation is useful to calm your own inner voice, the voice in your head that is your own personal narrator that never stops. You can get stuck listening to that voice, especially if the voice is negative. Meditation can calm that voice. It won’t take it away. You will always have your own thoughts, but you will learn how to cope with them and not dwell on every tiny aspect of your life. Life will always happen, but we have more control over how we interact with it than we think.

TYPES OF MEDITATION

Meditation may invoke thoughts of sitting cross-legged and repeating “om” to yourself for long periods of time while clutching crystals. You may have a preconceived notion that you have to be a Buddhist or practice a certain type of faith in order to meditate. Those notions are incorrect. Anyone can meditate. You can meditate for five minutes or five hours. It can be done at home, at your desk at work, in a group through guided meditation or any place you can sit quietly and concentrate. Meditation strengthens the ability to take control of one’s mind and life, and there are different ways a person can meditate.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are different types of meditation and various ways to practice, including:

  • Mindfulness Meditation: Increases awareness and acceptance of living in moment. You can observe your thoughts and emotions, but let them pass without judgment.
  • Guided Meditation: Led by a guide or a teacher, this type of meditation uses imagery to help calm and relax your thoughts. You can picture and place yourself somewhere you find relaxing.
  • Mantra Meditation: Focuses on repeating a phrase or a word to prevent distracting thoughts. This is the well-known “Om” type of meditation.
  • Qi gong: With roots in traditional Chinese medicine, this meditation combines relaxation, physical movement and breathing exercises to restore balance.
  • Tai Chi: A form of gentle Chinese martial arts, tai chi practice consists of a series of slow-paced postures performed while breathing deeply.
  • Transcendental Meditation: One of the simplest forms of meditation, in which you repeat a personally assigned mantra or word in a specific way in order to allow your body to settle into a state of profound rest and relaxation and your mind to achieve a state of inner piece.
  • Yoga: Many people do not realize that yoga is a form of meditation that focuses on strengthening both the body and mind. Yoga consists of a series of postures and controlled breathing exercises to promote a more flexible body and calm mind. The moves and poses require balance, strength, flexibility and concentration, which encourages practitioners to focus in the moment.

MODERN-DAY MEDITATION

Closer to home, Bhante Sujatha, a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka, was inspired to teach Westerners about meditation because he couldn’t understand the general unhappiness he saw in a culture that had so much, yet still wanted the next big thing. So in 2003, he founded the Blue Lotus Temple in Woodstock, Illinois. A meditation group in Williams Bay came soon thereafter. Today, the Temple is housed in an old church, and is home to five resident Buddhist monks, called Bhantes. (Bhante is an honorific, or a polite way to address a Buddhist monk.) The Temple is also home to one Buddhist nun, or Bhikkhuni. Today, the Blue Lotus Buddhist Temple holds several meditation classes each week in the area — in addition to the classes offered in their own temple, they also hold weekly classes in both Lake Geneva and Elkhorn.

Bhante Sujatha observed that a monk’s life is very simple by comparison to the average American’s; a monk’s life generally consists primarily of meditation, chants, learning, teaching and caring for their temple, whereas the average American deals with work, children, finances, relationships and other stressors. Being able to navigate through it all can be extremely difficult, often leading to anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns. Science has proven that meditation can lower your blood pressure and even rewire your brain. Simply changing the way you think and interact can lead to a healthier and more productive life.

Entering the Blue Lotus Buddhist Temple may involve some traditions that are unfamiliar to Westerners: It is polite for visitors to remove their shoes before entering the main temple hall and to have their arms and legs covered. As in most places of worship or spiritual practice, it is also polite to remain quiet but attentive. Once the meditation begins, practitioners are led in a guided mindfulness meditation, which is followed by an educational talk called a dhamma talk. The talk might include one of the components of the day’s meditation, but will be generally be tailored to Western perceptions and ways of life. After the session is over, attendees are encouraged to speak to the monks and ask questions. This is also a time where people can also speak to each other and share experiences.

Nielsen describes mindfulness meditation as having three components: calming, concentration and discovering how our minds function. He says that anybody can meditate, including children, but discipline is needed to stay on track. A person may experience the benefits of meditation almost immediately, so staying on track usually isn’t very difficult. The purpose of meditation is to remove negative qualities from your mind. Nielsen quotes the Buddha who, when he was asked, “What is the essence of your teaching?” replied, “To do no evil. To do only good. To purify one’s mind. This is the teaching of the Buddhas.”

To learn more about the Blue Lotus Temple visit bluelotustemple.org.


How to Meditate

Tod Nielsen of the Blue lotus Buddhist temple explains that the goal of mindfulness meditation is to calm and relax both the mind and the body. here are his tips:

  • Sit in a quiet place, with your back straight, hands in your lap, and eyes lightly closed.
  • Concentrate on an “object of meditation.” Nielsen recommends focusing on your breath, because “the breath is always with us.”
  • Feel the stream of air as it moves through your nostrils. If you are a beginner, you can count your breaths from one to ten. If you get distracted, simply begin counting again.
  • Focusing on breathing will build your concentration. when thoughts arise, notice them but try not to attach to them or elaborate on them. Simply drop them or let them drift away. you can do the same with feelings and sensations as they arise.
  • Eventually, even when you are not meditating, you will notice thoughts as they arise. discard those thoughts that are harmful to yourself and others, such as thoughts of anger, greed, and lust and ill will. Strengthen and foster the good thoughts that arise, thoughts of generosity, compassion, love and altruism.

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