by Alison Tinsley and Chris Fields
The Mayo Clinic website (July 9, 2014) suggests that, “If stress has you anxious, tense and worried, consider trying meditation.” The Huffington Post offers a “daily meditation” for us to contemplate. And in the December 14, 2014 edition of 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper became a meditation convert right there on our TV screens. Millions of books, magazines, videos, websites, classes and workshops offer to teach us how to meditate, and almost every health expert recommends meditation for whatever ails you. Even the Harvard Business Review (Oct. 2012) has gotten on the bandwagon. According to HBR blogger Peter Bregman, “Meditation brings many benefits: It refreshes us, helps us settle into what’s happening now, makes us wiser and gentler, helps us cope in a world that overloads us with information and communication, and more. But if you’re still looking for a business case to justify spending time meditating, try this one: Meditation makes you more productive.”
Everywhere we look we’re encouraged to meditate. When I search the word in Google I get 135,000,000 results! So, yes, it’s universally agreed that we should all pull up a chair, a pillow or zafu, and get with the program – not necessarily for “enlightenment,” but for our health, our happiness, our productivity and equanimity.
If you’re like many people, however, you may have tried to meditate a few times and it didn’t seem to work for you. You were probably told to sit quietly, relaxed but erect, in a peaceful place with your eyes closed or softly focused in the distance, and to breathe in and out gently through your nose. You were supposed to bring your attention back to the breath when your mind wandered and perhaps even repeat a mantra or an intention for focus. So you earnestly did this for one day or ten or even for a month or year and it seemed that nothing happened. Your mind was an escape artist and you didn’t feel any differently and this was frustrating and you’d rather go for a run or read the newspaper or sleep twenty minutes longer or go to bed twenty minutes earlier. Meditation just wasn’t for you.
Believe me, I’ve been there. I’ve read what seems like an infinite number of books and articles, attended Zen Buddhist retreats, listened to tapes and talks, watched videos, and pursued every other avenue I could think of to find out how people actually succeeded at this seemingly so-simple thing. The search for the right way to meditate was infinitely frustrating, and I began to feel as though there were an elite group of people who “got it” and I just wasn’t among them. But I persisted because, even though I didn’t get it, something about sitting quietly in the morning for twenty minutes became slightly addictive. Although many mornings when it was dark and cold I didn’t want to get up and meditate, by the time I’d finished I was usually glad I had. So it’s been ten years now and I’ve been “sitting” (that’s meditator-speak) almost every morning wondering when enlightenment would show up. Then, just recently, I was talking to one of Chris’s colleagues who spoke of what he does during meditation. It’s entirely different from what I do during meditation. It was an aha! moment for me.
It may be blasphemy in some circles, but I’ve come to believe there really isn’t a right way to meditate. There is just your way, my way, the Dalai Lama’s way, Chris’s colleague’s way, and many, many other ways. There are as many ways and reasons to meditate as there are people meditating. So in these conversations with people from different backgrounds, different traditions, different professions, and different purposes for their practice, we’ve set out to de-mystify “meditation.” We talked to people like Deepak Chopra and Rudy Tanzi whose lives have been transformed by their meditation practices. Others, like Marianne Gontarz York and Jennifer Flower, found alternatives to traditional sitting practices that work for them. The variety of practices described in the following chapters truly astonished us. One size definitely does not fit all.
It’s our hope that hearing what people actually do and how it affects them will interest and inspire some of you to start, continue, or enhance your own practices. Studies show that meditation is, after all, really, really good for us – even if we feel like nothing is happening when we do it.
(In case you’re wondering who the “I” refers to as you’re reading along, Alison conducted the interviews and Chris took notes. With the exception of Chris’s description of his meditation, the chapter on neuroscience and the conversations with Chetan, Ed, Rudy, Menas and Deepak, Alison wrote the text.)
* Excerpt 1 of 3 from the book Meditation: If You’re Doing It, You’re Doing It Right: Conversations with Meditators