Read an Excerpt
The Power Of Stillness
Learn Meditation In 30 Days
By Tobin Blake
New World LibraryCopyright © 2003 Tobin Blake
All rights reserved.
Part 1 mapping the road ahead
wherein we meet and fix our mark
When the mind is still ... it returns to itself, and by means of itself ascends to the thought of God.
— Saint Basil the Great
the journey before you is an ancient exploration unlike any other. It is not a journey through books or across time, and it cannot be approached through ordinary learning methods. Meditation is a form of self-exploration in which the explorer shifts perspective, moving from a fixation on external affairs to a focus on internal seeking. The methods vary as much as do personal beliefs. Yet the experiences attained through consistent practice bridge the boundaries between religion, race, gender, and even time itself. The inner mind is the same today as it was when Buddha and Christ walked the Earth.
I have written this book in a style that will allow even the most ordinary person to experience the extraordinary benefits of meditation. You need not be a saint, prophet, or mystic; all you need is a determination to live a more fulfilling life, a small amount of time, and a spirit of exploration and discovery. From these simple commitments flow the experiences that serve as catalysts, carrying your learning to deeper levels of understanding. In the beginning nothing matters but your desire — the desire to expand your grasp of self-awareness and to face life with unflinching curiosity, to become innocent like a newly born child, touching and tasting the environment for the first time.
So before we go any further, let's pause and look at what meditation appears to be, just as an infant first examines the new world. From this viewpoint of exploration and fresh awareness, what does meditation look like?
Picture a man meditating cross-legged on a mat. His eyes are closed, his back is straight, and his shoulders, neck, and head are squarely in line with each other. His breathing is relaxed and regular, and his forehead and face are serene. Aside from his rising and falling chest, he is perfectly still, apparently deeply relaxed. He exudes a sense of focus, silence, and peace. He appears at peace with himself, at peace with all activity around him. He has entered a deep state of meditation and is experiencing a profound state of awareness.
Now add a new dimension to this picture: you and a scientist are working in a lab, studying the effects of meditation on this man. For reference, you have a small arsenal of studies and books — some relating directly to meditation, others to general psychology, and still others to stress and sickness and the mounting evidence of the connection between mind and body. You also have the requisite tools for probing your subject's physiological responses — an electroencephalograph (EEG) to measure brainwaves, an electrocardiograph (EKG) to measure the heart's activity, and some test tubes and syringes to collect blood samples for analysis.
Perhaps your research would note some of the things scientists have already observed while studying meditation. During meditation there is a decrease in blood pressure, the heartbeat and respiration slow, and less oxygen is consumed while less carbon dioxide is produced. An EEG notes an increase in alpha wave activity in the brain (associated with serenity), and the levels of lactate in the blood plunge (high levels are associated with stress). Besides these immediate effects there are also long-term physiological changes.
For instance, a study in the medical journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that subjects in a meditation group had lower concentrations of lipid peroxides than did those in a control group of nonmeditators. Some evidence suggests that the amount of these fatty substances directly correlates to biological age, and by extension to a rash of age-related diseases. Additionally, the authors cite other research that has shown that meditation decreases stress, which has been linked with diseases such as coronary heart disease, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis.
In another study, Dr. Lawrence R. Murphy of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reviewed literature on "worksite stress-management intervention." Murphy found that of all the stress management techniques studied, "Meditation produced the most consistent results." This conclusion has significant implications, especially when coupled with a mounting body of related studies that suggest high levels of stress may play a key role in the development of certain diseases.
As more connections are made between meditation and health, a striking image is emerging. Either of itself, or in combination with corresponding changes in habit, diet, and general outlook on life, meditation is now being strongly associated with better physical and psychological health and longevity.
Researchers and physicians have proposed that meditation may help alleviate the symptoms of a staggering list of ailments: hypertension, chronic pain, motion sickness, addictions, PMS and menopause discomfort, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, dermatological conditions, impotence, arthritis, insomnia, breast and prostate cancers, panic attacks, depression, and heart disease, among others. The ramifications of all this are incalculable, at both the individual and societal level. One thing is becoming clearer — meditation and its associated lifestyles yield very real benefits for practitioners.
The power of bringing the mind to stillness seems to spread throughout practitioners' lives like a systemic, healing balm. Improvements in physical and psychological health are only a small part of a larger reparation. Those who meditate regularly also report increased levels of creativity, productivity, and ability to concentrate. Philosophical views change and, it follows, so do relationships and social skills. Self-esteem rises, as does the ability to empathize, while negative emotions such as anger become increasingly intolerable. Overall, individuals become more productive, caring people, more capable of rendering valuable services to their communities.
Now, back in your lab with your own research subject, you might wonder, objective considerations aside, what this individual is experiencing subjectively. If you thumbed through a general psychology book to the section addressing meditation, it would likely be defined as an "altered state of consciousness." Reports by subjects participating in experiments, combined with the observable alterations in brain activity, have led to this definition.
Fine. But what is an altered state of consciousness? More importantly, what is the particular altered state experienced during meditation? Something is happening during meditation; this much is clear. But science stops short in its efforts at probing beyond the surface issues. By its own methods, science is securely fastened to measurable phenomena. In the case of meditation, all that we can witness and record are but consequences of the practice; they do not (define it. In essence, they are side effects.
This holds true for the physical effects of meditation as well as the personality shifts experienced in meditative practice. All the things we can see and touch and measure are like ripples spreading out from a rock's splash in a calm pond. They move out from a central event, following the event but not causing it. Studying the effects of meditation leads to little understanding of what is going on under the surface. The best that such study can do is demonstrate that something must be producing the effects. If there are ripples on a once-smooth pond, something must have caused them.
Despite the limitations of a scientific scrutiny of meditation, scientific observation is now helping us understand this ancient practice. These days, spiritual teachers are regularly relating their own theories back to actual scientific research, rightly or wrongly, and researchers are becoming increasingly interested in probing the mystery of self-awareness. Modern science and medicine have encouraged popular interest in meditation by documenting the observable phenomena associated with it, namely the health benefits. They have also lent favorable models for learning and evaluation, helping to counter some of the negative stereotypes associated with the practice. When we examine meditation fairly, we can see that it has much to offer to a needy world, and that its pursuit does not require us to sacrifice our fidelity to reason. This insight has been, in part, the gift of science to the meditative community.
However significant the contribution of science, though, there is a point beyond which spirituality and science cannot meaningfully connect. Meditation cannot be learned through observation. It must be practiced to be understood. Hence the spirit of this book is one of active participation, as opposed to pure intellectual study. To help you participate, I have broken the text into thirty days of practice. I encourage both beginners and those who already meditate to commit to the full thirty days, regardless of what happens, or doesn't happen, along the way.
Some people experience tremendous success very early on, and for others it takes a while longer. Either way, you will have to provide your own discipline, which can be more difficult than simply following someone else's orders. But discipline is crucial. It's pretty easy to slack off when nobody's watching, which is the only possible way to goastray when learning to meditate. If you commit yourself now to practicing regularly, every day, you'll be much more likely to tough it out, even if at first things seem difficult.
Back at the lab, still observing your test subject, you are now wondering what it is you cannot see; what is it the books don't answer and the tests don't reveal? Now, put the blood analysis and EEG reports aside, close your texts, and send the scientist home. This book is about direct experience. My goal is to take you from this external picture of what meditation looks like to what it feels like; from the "poking and prodding," wondering and examining, straight into the meditative mind itself.
The experience is not as mysterious as at first it seems. Yet for all our efforts, it does stubbornly defy attempts to capture it within a test-tube. This is because it isn't an external experience. We can examine our subject's test results and see his relaxed posture, poke him with needles, and analyze the level of lipid peroxides in his system. But what we can't see is that within his mind a most profound process is unfolding.
While our subject sits silently, apparently unmoved and experiencing nothing unusual, a powerful encounter is taking place within him. It is as if he has tapped some unseen force that runs like a river underneath the level of ordinary perception. He has a sense of connection to a larger body, and a view of life as an unbroken continuum, extending far beyond our own definitions of reality as a strictly physical phenomenon.
People have many different reasons for wanting to learn to meditate. Perhaps in the beginning they want only to have a little lipid peroxide reduction or enjoy the other health benefits to be wrought through meditation. Perhaps they desire the positive personality traits that meditation nurtures, traits that in turn can lead to stronger, more peaceful relationships, financial success, and so on. Others may find that through meditation their levels of creativity boom; people who never thought they could paint may find themselves painting, people who never thought they could write may find themselves writing, and people who have struggled for years to learn to play a musical instrument may suddenly open up to a flow everyone would recognize as inspired. Some even claim to have developed "psychic" abilities or other paranormal powers through meditation.
But beyond all of these diverse incentives lies a single motivation: a mystical awareness that can be touched through the practice of meditation. The feelings generated by the experiences one has during meditation tend to be of wholeness, peace, and well-being. A quietness creeps into the lives of those who actively pursue meditation, as well as a basic, primitive clarity. Sometimes, too, there are feelings of outright joy or a sense that one is awakening to a larger Life.
However this "altered state" is interpreted or whatever its physical and psychological manifestations, this mystical awareness is the extraordinary feature that transports the practice beyond the field of normal human experience, into the realm of the mystics. It opens us up to an entirely new viewpoint of life, affording us a glimpse into the root of human existence. This is the real power of stillness. It is the stone that causes the ripples. Touching it requires one to pass beyond all the effects and search out the heart of the practice. This is a journey that takes us into the essence of our lives — into the deepest collective mind of humanity, which is also, I have come to believe, the very mind of God.
nuts and bolts
minding the basics
The only thing you need to begin with — and to go on with — is commitment to regular practice. — Doriel Hall
for some the word meditation sparks images of bald Tibetan monks sitting atop Himalayan peaks, engaged in mysterious feats of mind over matter, perhaps levitating or saving laundry money by drying damp sheets with their own body heat. Others associate meditation with the 1960s — with protests, social change, and groups of friends exchanging abstract verse.
Besides these stereotypical images of meditation, add a fundamentalist or two to the mix, preaching that meditation is actually the "devil's work," practiced by heathens, unbelievers, or perhaps even demons. Many of these judgments and stereotypes come from people who have no experience whatsoever with meditative practice. In fact, every major religion has had prophets or teachers who practiced meditation as a part of their daily routine. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism all have rich mystical traditions, in large part generated from insights gathered through meditation or similar practices.
As I see it, a part of exploring meditation involves examining your beliefs and taking them to a higher level. No one need set aside religious faith to undertake meditation. You don't have to abandon your church and join your friendly neighborhood cult. You don't need to "drop out" to "tune in." Most religious traditions work well with the meditative lifestyle.
The way to begin is to be willing to challenge yourself and your mindset in order to evolve. In part this involves setting aside the stock definitions of meditation so that we can root out the reality of the practice. The first goal then is to attempt the impossible: to define the word meditation.
what is meditation?
Although no one who has taken meditation seriously could expect to answer this question fully, those who are learning still ask it. And the answers they get often leave them dissatisfied. Meditation is not easily defined because the experience one can attain through practicing it is beyond ordinary human awareness. In the beginning we have no reference point, nothing to which we can compare the experience. So defining meditation is a little like trying to explain the color blue to people who have never seen it. It would be much easier to simply point to the sky so that they could see for themselves. Without this immediate experience, definitions leave one little more than curious.
One simple definition of meditation is "the practice of stillness and silence." A person sets aside some private time, sits down, and attempts to remain perfectly still — both in body and in thought. In some types of meditation a person will choose a word, sentence, or image to focus on during meditation — a single "thought" to focus on as a replacement for all the other thoughts that normally fill human awareness. In other meditative practices, the emphasis is on letting no thoughts take root but instead letting thoughts drift in and out of awareness, like clouds crossing a blue sky. However, the uniting element underlying most forms of meditation is essentially identical: one's focus on the physical is gently de-emphasized and redirected toward the mental or metaphysical, the mind or spirit.
Excerpted from The Power Of Stillness by Tobin Blake. Copyright © 2003 Tobin Blake. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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