Learn To Be Still
“Mindfulness and meditation practices are about living our best lives
from moment to moment to moment … until those moments end,
as all things end, and return to source.”
During our time at sea, Lua would find her ‘alone space’ on Kalea’s front trampoline early each morning. She would get up just before daybreak and quietly make her way to the bow to do her unique blend of yoga exercises, where she would always include a few minutes of silent meditation at the end of her exercise routine. I think it helped her begin each day with a fresh mind and a renewed connection to herself and to the marvelous, deeply mysterious world she knew she inhabited. Following her routine that morning, I asked Lua what benefits she derives from meditation.
“Meditation helps me get centered and understand things better. It helps me have a healthier and more intimate and balanced relationship with my mind. I observe the everyday miracles around me much better — the plants growing, the sun shining. I get strength and understanding and unique insights from this heightened awareness. And you know, Mister Rico, some answers can only be found on the ‘Inner-net.’ ”
“I see. You know, I just had a dream where … oh, never mind.”
Lua hesitated for a moment to see if I would give in and tell her about my dream. I didn’t. She then went on to elaborate,
“Dedicating some time each day to meditation is a way of caring for yourself. It helps you move more gracefully through your life, especially during difficult periods. As your mind grows quieter and more spacious, you begin to observe negative thought patterns for what they are — self-defeating.”
She explained that one of the main benefits of meditating is that it keeps sharp, judgmental thoughts from dominating you. These thoughts naturally float in and out of your brain, but you begin to realize that they are just thoughts. You witness them, without judgement, and then you just let them pass on through. Being aware of what you’re thinking and experiencing, and then accepting it without judgment, has an extremely strong, calming effect. Then you can open up to other, more positive options. Congruence between outer and inner life is a vital prerequisite for enduring happiness, Lua insisted.
Lua described meditation as a mode of paying attention to your attention — about practicing being completely present in the ‘now.’ It is simply a state of clear, nonjudgemental, undistracted attention to the contents of consciousness — pleasant or unpleasant as they may be. She claimed that the character of our everyday experiences are largely determined by how we pay attention to the present moment. This, in turn, directly affects the quality of our lives. Though mystics and contemplatives have made this claim for ages, a growing body of scientific knowledge is now affirming it. She explained,
“The reality of our lives is always in the present — always in the NOW. Not dwelling on painful past events and not worrying too much about problems that may or may not arise in the future — in other words, letting go of history and mystery — is profoundly liberating. And if one wants to be truly happy in the world, and feel a sense of freedom from that common general feeling of ‘unsatisfactoriness‘ with daily existence and the impermanence of things, there may be no more important truth to understand than that.”
She described meditation as a quieting of the mind that can be deeply restful. The practice makes clear that distraction is the mind’s normal state. She described it this way,
“Thoughts are like clouds in the sky drifting about — some large and some small, some fast and some slow, some wispy and some full. The mind, however, is more like the sky itself — clear, bright, constant, and connected to everything else.”
Meditation is a technique for waking up from this recurring trance of discursive thinking. It is a practice that offers a reprieve from the endless cycle of reflexively grasping at what is pleasant and recoiling from what is not. It sharpens the senses, especially your appreciation of your surroundings. It keeps life fresh by cultivating openness, relaxation and awareness — which especially includes an awareness of one’s chaotic and confused ‘monkey mind,’ very dominant and disruptive in today’s restless, noisy world. Amusingly, many people believe they are meditating when they are actually just thinking with their eyes closed. Monkey mind is hard to tame.
Lua explained that learning to meditate is just like acquiring any other skill. For example, students will tell you it takes many thousands of repetitions and countless hours to master the forms of Taekwondo or to coax music fluently from the strings of a guitar. But with practice and persistence, a state of mindfulness becomes a natural habit of attention.
On one occasion, when we were discussing the connection between prayer and meditation, Lua described the relationship this way,
“Prayer is when you talk to the source of being; meditation is when you listen.”
I had read that meditation has many physical and psychological health benefits: it lowers stress levels, improves academic performance, lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system, reduces depression, helps to regulate blood sugar levels, helps improve memory, helps protect against heart disease, stabilizes emotions, and calms nerves by bringing the entire nervous system into a unified field of coherence. Perhaps this is the message behind the song Learn To Be Still by the Eagles:
Another day in paradise as you stumble to your bed
You'd give anything to silence those voices ringing in your head
You thought you could find happiness just over that green hill
You thought you would be satisfied but you never will
Learn to be still, learn to be still
We are like sheep without a shepherd, we don't know how to be alone
So we wander 'round this desert, wind up following the wrong gods home
But the flock cries out for another, and they keep answering that bell
One more starry-eyed messiah, meets a violent farewell
Learn to be still, learn to be still
Now the flowers in your garden
They don't smell so sweet
Maybe you've forgotten
Heaven lying at your feet
So many contradictions in all these messages we send
How do I get out of here, where do I fit in
Though the world is torn and shaken, even if your heart is breakin'
It's waiting for you to awaken, and someday you will
Learn to be still, learn to be still
For those who practice seriously and regularly, meditation means diving deep within, beneath the surface of thought, to the source of thought, to pure consciousness. There, the conventional sense of ‘self’ drops away — the feeling that we call “I” is revealed as an illusion — and the joyful emotions of patience and compassion are awakened and strengthened. Meditation makes clear that the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.
Different meditation techniques produce long-lasting psychological benefits across many areas: attention, emotion, cognition, and pain perception. And all these correlate with both structural and functional changes in the brain.
The Buddha, it is said, taught mindfulness as the appropriate response to the truth of the general state of ‘unsatisfactoriness‘ all humans feel throughout most of their lives. It is a technique for achieving equanimity amid the flux by simply being fully aware of the quality of experience in each moment — whether pleasant or not. So when someone tells you to ‘go to hell’ during a heated discussion, for example, you won't unwittingly oblige through your own untamed emotional reaction.
Many people have learned that relaxation techniques like meditation dramatically decrease the need for healthcare visits and interventions. With relaxation techniques, patients are better able to care for themselves and manage symptoms without requiring a physician’s intervention. This has great value considering that stress-related disorders are a leading cause of healthcare expenditures, after heart disease and cancer.
Lua commented on what she described as ‘mainland madness’ in the U.S.,
“Ironically, while touting American exceptionalism, the U.S. is the most obese, medicated, imprisoned, and armed country in the world. I think that if more people took up meditation, especially people in ‘advanced’ economies suffering chronic Nature-deficit disorder from car-centric, hyper-competitive, tech-saturated lifestyles; it could take human society to a higher evolutionary state that leaves behind the ugliness, detachment, and spiritual emptiness that perpetuates poverty and economic inequality, extreme consumerism, widespread depression and loneliness, and endless conflict.”
She informed me that many people who meditate regularly say they experience a form of ‘awakening,’ (indeed, Buddha means ‘awakened one’), which expresses itself as a strong desire to live life to the very fullest — with greater awareness, care, compassion, and desire for knowledge. They recognize the perpetual ‘unsatisfactoriness’ of the economic treadmill and readily abandon it. They simultaneously experience a renewed joy in life and a diminished fear of death. And they hint at vast uncharted expanses of the mind that few of us can even imagine or will ever bother to discover.
Lua insisted that with the practice of meditation, it was possible to feel at ease in the world, for no reason whatsoever, and if only for a few moments at a time; and thereby not unwittingly add any more to its suffering out of one’s own fears, restlessness, delusions, and confusions.
“Though too many believe that confusion and suffering is all that they will ever know, wisdom and happiness are never far away from anyone.”
Lua believed that a Great Awakening, precipitated perhaps by widespread mindfulness and meditation 'awareness' practices, could bring about the collective consciousness that is needed to rebalance our resources, lives, values, and priorities and re-focus our attention on sustainable and equitable health and well-being for all.
She believed that ‘lean economies’ — held together by richly developed ‘social capital’ and culture and organized around the rebuilding of small-scale community self-reliance and resilience — were the best way forward. Lean, small-scale economies where government funds and services are very limited can still be strong, vibrant, and stable without the need for continuous growth. Lean community draws on our best behavior and awakens our whole nature. And lean travels light: it concentrates on what contributes real value to social health and well-being and discards everything else. I commented,
“But Lua, even with growing collective awareness brought about by mindfulness and meditation practices, there is no guarantee that this epic ‘Great Awakening’ you refer to is ever going to happen.”
“No, of course not, Mister Rico. But at the end of the day, all we can do is strive to be better. Life will unfold as it will. Mindfulness and meditation practices are about living our best lives from moment to moment to moment … until those moments end, as all things end, and return to source.”