Saturday, 17 June 2017

Daily meditation: what works and what doesn't -- my practical recommendations

 
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In 1422, Bernardino of Sienna was facing a disastrous situation. The plague had wiped out half of the monks in his monastery. To make things worse, the crop had been lost, partly because of insufficient cultivation, partly because of an unusually harsh winter. The monks that had survived had no resources, no energies, and no motivation to go further.

Those still alive were looking at Bernardino, hoping that he would be able to figure out a solution. He was the spiritual magnet that had attracted them to the Franciscan Order, prompting them to abandon parents, friends, and possessions. He was the fountain-head from which they had always been able to draw strength in times of trouble.

To everyone's surprise, Bernardino did not convoke a chapter to discuss the situation. He also didn't provide any instructions, explanations, or words of encouragement. Instead, he just announced that he needed to be alone for a while in order to meditate. "I will be back in two weeks," he said, before walking out of the monastery, headed for the nearby woods.

Bernardino spent the next weeks in solitude, thinking about the challenges he was facing. During that period, he drew nourishment from wild fruits, drank water from the Arno river, and slept in an improvised shed.

When Bernardino returned to the monastery, he was saluted sombrely by John Capistrano, the monk who had taken up Bernardino's functions during those two weeks. "Did you find an answer?" asked John Capistrano. Bernardino nodded. "When I meditate, I always find answers," he replied, "and these are answers I could not find by reading a hundred books."

In fact, what Bernardino had accomplished through meditation was not so much finding the answers to his problems, but letting the answers find him. He had made himself ready to see the invisible, ready to let solutions take shape before his eyes, ready to overcome obstacles that seemed insurmountable. He had allowed nature to speak to him, and point him in the right direction.

"Letting the answers find you" constitutes the perfect definition of meditation. Instead of exerting pressure, you create conditions that render pressure unnecessary. Instead of pushing for decisions, you let them emerge naturally. Instead of agonising about the future, you trust that the right process will always deliver the right results, given enough time.

Through the years, my attitude towards meditation has evolved from total scepticism to daily practice. This evolution however is not the result of a philosophical revelation, but of trial and error. It is the result of acknowledging what works and discarding what doesn't.

"In order to learn, you need to accumulate, but in order to understand, you need to simplify," observed Lao-Tzu. His words provide us an accurate description of the meditation process. The whole point of meditation is to grasp the principles, patterns, and structures that shape our lives; to draw practical conclusions from a multiplicity of facts, intuitions, and emotions; to become better, more effective human beings.

Yet, my daily practice of meditation has only served to increase my suspicions towards grandiose pronouncements about "becoming one with the universe" and "understanding that we are all one."

My approach to meditation may be viewed by many as unorthodox, but that's too bad for them: I find proven success more convincing than grandstanding. I prefer a solid track record in problem-solving to the possession of arcane knowledge.

If you are practising meditation in the traditional Eastern style and it's not working for you, you may want to take a look at my unorthodox methods:
  • instead of meditating in a yoga position, put on some comfortable shoes, and take a one-hour walk.
  • instead of emptying your mind and controlling your breathing, carry with you a brief list of the main issues you are facing, and focus your thoughts on those.
  • instead of looking for solutions to problems, seek only to formulate the questions accurately, and then let the answers find you.
  • instead of meditating only at certain times during the week, take breaks every day at irregular intervals, enjoy a cup of herbal tea, and meditate for ten minutes.
  • instead of demanding immediate results from your meditation sessions, accept the fact that the benefits will be non-linear, benefits such as gaining deep insights at unexpected moments, and coming up with creative solutions to problems while you are performing unrelated tasks.
  • instead of meditating about little things, focus your reflections on big principles, big patterns, and big structures; ignore irrelevant details, and concentrate on essential traits and large commonalities.
  • instead of following a meditation routine, explore different set-ups and sequences to see which one works best for you; do not pay attention to people who claim that their meditation method is the best for everybody.
Anyone who has read my books won't be surprised to hear that I regard beneficial meditation and a consistent philosophy as indissolubly linked. I don't think that you can have one without the other.

Meditation -if understood and practised as intense, quiet thinking- will render you happier and more successful, if only because it will improve the quality of your decisions and actions. As Longfellow put it so beautifully in his Psalm of Life: "Not enjoyment and not sorrow is our destined way, but to act so that tomorrow finds us further than today."

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph of classical painting; photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2016.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
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