Last month I read an article that broke my heart. It was called “Can We End the Meditation Madness?” In short, it dismissed the millennia-old practice of quieting the mind as a “fad.”
Rather than critique this opinion (as I did in the first draft of this post), I'd like to offer an antidote to the belief that meditation is a passing fancy, a practice only for ascetics or — as the article's author describes — "dreadfully boring."
To do so, I'd like to introduce a different author altogether: Bhante Gunaratana
Several years ago, a friend recommended a book by Gunaratana entitled Mindfulness in Plain English. In 2010, as I packed for a graduate school internship in rural Tanzania, it was one of the few texts that made its way into my bag.
This small volume was a treasure worth its weight in gold during my six weeks abroad. Every afternoon, I climbed the ladder into an open-air cabana to read from its pages. While I sat alone in that forest tree hut, I felt as though I was joined by a wise, old friend. Gunaratana’s words are gentle and patient. He is straightforward and playful.
"Somewhere in this process [of meditating], you will come face to face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy," he says. "Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and helpless. No problem."
Early on, he promises readers “clear pointers" in “ordinary, every day language” to guide the cultivation of mindfulness. He recognizes that “meditation is not easy” and “requires a host of personal qualities that we normally regard as unpleasant.” But, he promises, it is worth it because it frees us from “that deep, subtle sense of dissatisfaction” that beleaguers every human soul.
“Mental cultivation through meditation is without rival in helping you achieve […] serene happiness," he promises.
During my short time in Tanzania, I devoted myself to a practice of daily meditation. The results were astounding. Now, over five years later, I am still in awe of how much quieting the mind for twenty minutes a day can change a life.
First, I developed a much healthier relationship between my body and food. I cherished the flavors of each meal and ate just to the point of satisfaction and never satiation. Over the course of six weeks, ten pounds I’d been lugging around as extra weight melted off.
Second, I achieved remarkable clarity about my next steps in life. I had one year left in graduate school and I became very certain about the field I wanted to work in, the geography I wanted to focus on and the sector I wanted to enter. This definitive direction guided me to a field I'm still active in today.
Third, I became subtly aware of certain habits — such as swearing — that I wanted to prune from my conduct. Not only did I easily pinpoint the changes I wanted to make, but I developed the willpower to honor my commitments and make daily shifts that resulted in lasting change.
Fourth, I gained quiet confidence. No longer was I easily tossed about by external praise or criticism, but I found an inner solidness that allowed me to approach life with assertion and courage.
Fifth, I felt very little stress about my unknown future back home. Instead, I enjoyed precious moments of laughter and song with my host family and neighbors.
Sixth, I increased my ability to stay present. This helped immensely in my studies, particularly of the language. I retained sharp focus during my personal study and again during hours spent listening to conversations in Swahili about medicinal plant conservation — the focus of my internship.
As I take the time to record these lessons, I am filled with so much gratitude and a tinge of remorse. The latter sentiment comes from knowing that upon my return, I gave up the steady meditation practice and didn't pick it up again — until now.
Reflecting on meditation's power through first-hand experience has helped me realize another day cannot pass without reintegrating it into my life. Otherwise, I continue to miss out on the stillness Gunaratana promises:
“Meditation is intended to purify the mind. It cleanses the thought process of what can be called psychic irritants, things like greed, hatred, and jealousy, which keep you snarled up in emotional bondage. Meditation brings the mind to a state of tranquility and awareness, a state of concentration and insight.”
So, dear reader, it looks as if I'm writing this post as much for myself as anyone interested in beginning a meditation practice.
The wonderful news is that we can start today — at this very moment. Gunaratana's entire book is free and available online.
As we close 2015, I hope you'll join me in testing for ourselves the impact of this age-old practice. I can't wait to hear what you learn and the insights you achieve. I promise to share mine as well.