The Potential of Meditation and Mindfulness Practices
by Sean Murphy, Sage Institute Executive Director
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction approach to healing illness, pain, and stress, “mindfulness means moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness. It is cultivated by refining our ability to pay attention, intentionally, in the present moment, and then sustaining that attention over time, as best we can. In the process, we become more in touch with our life as it is unfolding… we also gain immediate access to our own powerful inner resources for insight, transformation, and healing.”
When I teach mindfulness to my university students in my meditation classes at UNM-Taos, I demonstrate it this way: “OK, raise one arm,” I tell them. Everyone raises an arm. “OK, now raise that arm again and pay attention while you’re doing it.” Everyone raises their arm again. It’s immediately apparent to everyone what the difference is… not that raising an arm mindfully is such a big achievement, but it illustrates the difference between automatic action, which governs most of our lives, and action with attention and intention. Everyone senses the difference, and most importantly everyone can do it. What this means is that mindfulness is a natural human ability – not anything foreign and esoteric, but something we are born with. Just watch a young child exploring the world when they are just learning to crawl, or to walk. They are in a constant state of mindful attention. The difference is whether we choose to develop this skill in such a way that it transforms our lives.
Meditation can be thought of as the engine behind mindfulness. Yes, anyone can practice mindfulness, but meditation, through its ability to focus our attention, gives us the power to do so much more effectively. People often come to my meditation and mindfulness classes with the idea that meditation is just a way ‘to chill out’ and relax. I acknowledge that it can serve this purpose, but that’s really just a side effect. I tell my students that using practice only for this is like getting in your 747 and taxiing down your main street to get to the local 7/11. Sure, you can use it for that – but the thing is made to fly. No one is going to transform their lives in a deep way by simply chilling out a little, although of course that is helpful… but one can, over time, deeply transform one’s life by taking on meditation and mindfulness as a genuine practice.
So why, you might ask, do our lives need transforming? When my university students ask this question I answer with another set of questions. How many of them feel stressed out on a daily or near-daily basis? With few exceptions, everyone in the class raises their hands. How many of them find their minds or emotions doing things they would rather not have them do but that they seem to have no control over? In this case, everyone raises their hands. How many of them, I ask, suffer from depression, anxiety, chronic worry, or negative self-talk – that internal voice that tells us we’ll never succeed or that we’re not good enough? Nearly everyone responds in agreement. How many sometimes have the feeling that the joy and beauty of life have somehow faded away out of reach? Many or most will raise their hands.
This seems to me a sad state of affairs, and hardly the natural state of a healthy human being. So what can we do about this? Sure, psychological counseling and a traditional religious affiliation are useful, as well as other wellness practices like simply staying in good physical shape and eating a good diet, trying to keep a positive attitude and living a conscious life. But for many of us this is not enough. In my experience, I’ve found nothing to match meditation and mindfulness as the best medicine an individual can find for the many maladies of our current age. At this point I’ve taught thousands of people to meditate, and seen many of them, if they take on these practices in a serious way, emerge from a condition of hurry, worry, and stress into a more satisfying life. Personally, I have in the past suffered from many of the above maladies myself, and although life of course remains forever challenging, my meditation practice has given me the strength and stability to handle these challenges in a balanced way, without excessive worry or stress, and without succumbing, as I did in years now long past, to chronic anxiety or depression.
But these are only the personal benefits. When I ask my students to report on the effects of meditation and mindfulness they’ll frequently report that after even only a month to six weeks of regular practice, they are feeling less reactive, less thrown about by circumstances, more able to stay in the moment – and, significantly, that this has resulted in better relationships with their families, children, spouses and co-workers. Many even report that their partners or co-workers — even though they have not been practicing meditation — have become “nicer” or easier to get along with. So the power of an individual practice radiates out – even if only because the practitioner becomes less reactive and easier to get along with themselves. Which raises the question of what effect meditation and mindfulness practice, if more widely engaged in, might have upon our communities or society at large? There is growing scientific research, in fact, that supports community benefits including increase in compassion and altruistic behavior, and decrease in violence and crime.
Makes one wonder, doesn’t it?
Sean Murphy has had over 25 years of formal Zen training. He now studies with Gerry Shishin Wick Roshi of the Great Mountain Zen Center in Colorado. He teaches meditation, creative writing and literature for UNM-Taos and has taught and presented on Zen practice and meditation for 15 years. He is the founder of the Sage Institute for Creativity, Consciousness & Environment. www.murphyzen.com