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Mindfulness Meditation

posted Jan 23, 2010, 10:12 PM by Darwin Stephenson
Zoe Baker asks, "Darwin, what do you know about Mindfulness Meditation?"


Hi Zoe:

So there are areas that I "know" and other areas that I'm "exploring." Meditation is certainly one of those areas that I'm actively exploring and it is a big part of my practice. And like most things, I have a different perspective on meditation than mainstream teachers.

To begin, I firmly believe that our society has meditation all backwards. We think that one does meditation to bring the rest of their life into a peaceful state. Instead, I think of a peaceful life as something we do to enhance our meditation practice. Which begs the question, "If my life was already peaceful, why would I meditate?"

Many people struggle with meditation because of the false expectation that in meditation they're supposed to instantly sit down, stop their thoughts and check out. I think that the reason we believe in this false expectation is that we seek a peaceful state in the present moment. Even if we've never visited this state, we inherently know how peaceful it would be. And we all desire a state of peace in our lives.

But our experience is often quite different than this ideal state. Our thoughts ramble, our body fidgets and we find ourselves focusing on everything but the state of 'nothing' that we seek. But here is where we unravel the crux of the problem: fear of nothing

Have you ever experienced nothing? No stimulus what-so-ever? The absence of thoughts, emotions, and sensations (no light, no sound, no taste, no smells and no sensory touch). Unless you've participated in a psychology test where you've been placed in a sensory deprivation environment, chances are you've never experienced nothing.

Nothing is actually really hard to experience. When I was in college, one of my college professors invited me to participate in one of these sensory deprivation experiments. Whittier College isn't a power house of science, so our deprivation environment was actually a storeroom adjacent to one of the lecture halls. And as I recall, there were two other students in the room with me so the noise of them stirring and breathing entered sound into the equation. But, even so, it was an interesting dreamlike experience.

Fast forward ten years and in support of my book, Inspiration Divine, I'm giving inspiration workshops where we guide the students through four states of being:

  1. Joy/Happiness
  2. Nothing
  3. Sadness/Despair
  4. Union (bringing everything and everyone together)

The students don't know that they're being taken through these experiences in a particular order for a reason. And to be honest, we stumbled into this amazing discovery.

In the joy/happiness experience, we have the students focus their attention on a photograph of theirs that connects them to happiness, joy or any positive memory. We then put on happy music, rub a vibrant essential oil into their hands, give them a bite of an organic orange wedge and move them into a joy evoking physical activity (e.g. specific yoga poses or NIA dance moves).

After joy/happiness, we go through the same experience but absent of the stimulation described above. There is no music, no added smells, no added tastes, no movement as the students lie on their back to experience a Pranayama inspired breathing technique. It's not completely nothing, but after turning up the volume in the first experience, it feels like nothing.

Unlike that thoughtless meditative state we seek, this state of nothing doesn't quiet the voice in your head. In fact, the voice in your head is hyperactive during this experience. If you think you're critical in every day life, your voice in your head becomes hyper-critical during this phase of the workshop. And the reason it is so activated during this phase is that this accentuated state of nothing feels like death.

This deathlike state I'm referring to is not a morbid feeling. It isn't that you feel lifeless during "nothing," but rather that you experience what it is like to not experience emotions, arousal, sound, sight, flavor, smells and sensory touch. By first turning up the volume in the joy/happiness experience, the lack of emotional feelings and sensations in the nothing experience brings the student into a simulated experience of nothingness.

But that's not what's interesting. What's interesting is the transformational breakthroughs students report having in the next experience of sadness/despair. One would think that engaging the most tragic moments in one's life would be very difficult for students. After all, many people spend years in therapy to delicately deal with the tragedies of their life. But something about going through "nothing" opens up a new way to experience sadness and despair for the student.

Our workshop students have reported being able to face the sadness in their lives for the first time ever. Lisa Gray, Marriage and Family Therapist, describes the Inspiration Workshop in this way:

With the right tools in a safe environment, experiencing sensations, feelings and thoughts can help us see our shadow self. Seeing can then become accepting and accepting can then become understanding with compassion. The Inspiration Workshop enables each student to experience an entire range of sensations, feelings and thoughts in a safe and supportive environment. In this experiential context, the student finds a healthy container for the self to unfold and be embraced with compassion.


So why do sensations, feelings and thoughts have the power to transform us? As we go through life on a regular basis, our lives are filled sensations, feelings and thoughts. And yet we don't have breakthroughs and transformational experiences all the time. How is it that these everyday aspects of life become powerful tools for change in an experiential context? And what does this have to do with meditation?

The reason sensations, feelings and thoughts are powerful is because they are the languages spoken by Body, Spirit and Mind. The Body communicates via sensations, the Spirit via feelings and the Mind via thoughts. When we conceptualize our "self" as the collective consciousness of our Body, Spirit and Mind (rather than a physical manifestation of that voice in our head), we experience a more connected sense of being. Instead of ignoring our Body and finding it difficult to connect to our Spirit, we find that these languages become pathways to an enlightened life.

OK, let's visualize the meditative experience. We sit down in a meditative posture, attempt to still the Body and quiet the Mind. We focus on our breath and this initially helps us distract the voice in our head as we connect to the air entering and leaving our lungs. One can almost feel the heart slow down as a sense of peace enters the room.

And then something in our Body feels uncomfortable; we adjust. We notice our posture is beginning to slouch forward; we straighten. And then that first thought floats into our consciousness like a breeze blowing through a tree; we ignore the thought and return to our breathing. But another thought floats in and we try to ignore it too.

So when we conceptualize our self as a physical manifestation of that voice in our head, we tend to find fault in this experience. We feel frustrated that we were not able to sit still and quiet our mind. And thus we seek out techniques that will aid us in this quest. And there are lots of techniques that can help with this experience.

But when we conceptualize our self as the collective consciousness of our Body, Spirit and Mind, we find a different experience. And we also have a completely different reason for meditating.

Have you ever heard the expression "a hammer looking for a nail?" It is a phrase that describes the downside of a "one size fits all" mentality or the risk of applying a favored approach to every problem. Hammers work great for nails, but not so good for screws. And so too, many spiritual teachers seem to recommend meditation as a tool for any life problem. It is the big hammer in their toolbox.

When we conceptualize our self as a collective Body, Spirit and Mind we can move into a nurturing approach to life. Instead of simply experiencing life as it comes at us and faulting ourselves for our reactions, we can instead nurture these three separate, but collective, parts of us as a means to live in harmony. At the close of every day, we can ask ourselves these three questions:

  1. What have I done today to nurture my Body?
  2. What have I done today to nurture my Spirit?
  3. What have I done today to nurture my Mind?

And when the answer to any one of these questions is "nothing," it becomes clear what we need to do in order to return to a state of balance. We know what part of us needs nurturing. But when is meditating the right nurturing activity? What part of us is nurtured when we meditate?

Can you imagine working out while your baby was crying next to you? Even if you don't have children, imagine yourself running on a treadmill while your baby lies crying in a cradle next to you. As much as your Body might need exercise, you couldn't do it. You couldn't nurture your Body while your child cries out to you.

When we meditate, we bring the Body and Mind to a state of peace. The Body is still and the Mind is calm. Or at least, that's what we're striving to do. And in this view, we can see that meditation is something we do to nurture the Spirit.

A lot of people don't like to think of the Spirit as something that could ever need nurturing. In this cosmic view of God and our Spirit, the Spirit is a stable, unwavering, permanently blissful part of us. It cannot be damaged, hurt or destroyed. And while I agree, please try to conceptualize a person that lived their entire life devoid of engaging their Spiritual side. Born into a non-spiritual family and raised in a non-spiritual community, this person goes through every stage of life with no concept or connection to God or their Spiritual side. They experience great tragedy in their life and find life to be a struggle.

Now imagine this same person born into a faith filled family and raised in a healthy religious community. As they go through each phase of life, they have a strong connection to both God and their Spiritual side. They regularly spend time with their religious community and devote a part of their life to making a difference in other people. They too have struggles in their life, but find God by their side each step along the way.

In comparing and contrasting the Spiritual experience of these two paths of life, we can visualize that in both scenarios the Spirit survives and is not damaged. But in one life the Spirit is nourished and thrives through playing an active role in the person's life. So we don't look at nurturing the Spirit as providing it life support, but rather taking care of the Spirit like we take care of the Body.

So just like you might carve out a half hour of your day to run on the treadmill, we look for opportunities to take care of our Spirit. We do this in one of two ways:

  1. Expressing our Spirit.
  2. Nurturing our Spirit.

How to express one's Spirit is a whole other discussion (covered in Inspiration Divine). However, nurturing our Spirit is something that can be done through meditation because in this experience we bring the Body and Mind into a calm state. The babies next to the treadmill are peacefully sleeping so the Spirit can be nourished.

"OK, that's great, but how do I still the Body and quiet the Mind during meditation so the Spirit can be nourished?"

As I mentioned above, there are a variety of techniques that one can employ during meditation. But more importantly, it is what we do when we're not meditating that has the greatest influence on this experience. How we live our lives is the means by which we bring our Body and Mind into a peaceful state during meditation.

When we're meditating and we experience our Body fidgeting or our Mind rambling, we can view them as crying infants. Instead of finding fault in their communications, we can have empathy for them like we would a crying baby. "I need nurturing too," they cry out to us.

"Don't worry, I will nurture you too," should be our response. But right now your sibling needs our care and compassion. "Shhh, it will be OK."

Recognizing that sensations, feeling and thoughts are the languages of the Body, Spirit and Mind helps us focus the meditative experience. For example, in the weekly meditation class I teach at my local yoga studio we are experimenting with walking meditations and incorporating music, tastes, smells and sensory experiences. And rather than these things distracting the meditative experience, my students report that they've experienced an even deeper sense of peace.

I know this hasn't been a simple explanation of how I approach meditation. But I hope it provides you some clues as to how you can embrace your own practice.
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