A copy of ‘Scientific American’ appeared in the gym recently. The cover story? ‘The Neuroscience of Meditation’. If only I had the time to read it, I thought, as I sped past.
The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year seem to fly by very fast. We barely have time to catch our breath, let alone delve into arcane explications about how to achieve enlightenment. There’s shopping to be tackled and office parties we can’t avoid, so it’s no wonder that some of us feel as if we’re losing our minds.
Over the years I must have had hundreds of discussions with friends about meditation and mindfulness. (If I’d used this time to actually meditate instead I’d have achieved nirvana approximately ten years ago.) We all nod, and agree how beneficial it is – how it clarifies the mind and aids focus, and so on – and that we should do more of it. Afterwards, full of resolve, I’ll go home and crash out in front of the TV.
Meditation seems to require special effort, not to mention all manner of accoutrements – a quiet room, a cushion, a candle, and some soothing New Age music. When I’ve managed some facsimile of this, I’ve also managed to get hung up on how well I did and what I ‘achieved’. When I’m feeling stressed out, a big glass of wine or a stiff drink can seem way more practical.
The problem is that we tend to equate meditation with ‘achieving enlightenment’ or reaching some particular ‘destination’. We’ve made it too precious. Yet if we look at the concept of mindfulness in general, it means nothing more than being fully ‘present’ in whatever we’re doing – whether that’s wrapping presents or taking out the trash. (I suspect this is why a workout or certain types of sport can leave our minds feeling so amazingly calm afterwards.)
Opportunities present themselves during the day in the most unexpected of places, and in situations where it’s impossible to multi-task. I might find myself standing on the 6 train or brushing my teeth – and with nothing else to be done in that moment, I can choose to simply notice my thoughts. This is easier said than done, I know, and inevitably I’ll get dragged down into labyrinthine trains of thought. But once I realize this, I can also choose to gently and firmly bring myself back to the task at hand.
I don’t always remember any of this, of course. Half the time I’m much too busy being annoyed with others or by my surroundings! Yet mindfulness and meditation offer us an opportunity not to feel aggravated or to be a high-achiever, or to tick things off the list, but to simply observe our busy minds and, most of the time, to feel a little less worse afterwards.
Incidentally, once I made time to read the magazine, I discovered that someone else got there first and torn all the pages out. What to make of this? On the bright side, I’d say it’s good to know I’m not the only one seeking enlightenment. But if you’re the culprit, maybe you can enlighten me while you’re at it.