Ordinarily, when we undertake something, it is only natural to expect a desirable outcome for our efforts. We want to see results, even if it is only a pleasant feeling. The sole exception I can think of is meditation. Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity, which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are. – Jon Kabat-Zinn (JKZ)
The ancient aesthetic practice of meditation is becoming ever increasingly popular in modern culture. Its prevalence can be seen reflected from the growing amount of clinical research being funded on the subject to the ever-increasing amount of literature written on the practice. But to understand the core of this practice it is important to understand its root in mindfulness.
Very simply we may define mindfulness as that state of knowing that we know. The naturally occurring condition of the mind’s ability to observe itself, a state of active, open attention on the present. You might think of the simple phrase “I am me” or “I am thinking ____”. Because it is a naturally occurring state, and one that we drift in and out of so frequently, it is often overlooked. However, the benefits of meditation lie exactly in the recognition of the usefulness of this state of mindfulness as a tool.
Mindfulness as it has come to be translated in the west has its root in the ancient Pali word Sati. This translation as mindfulness places an emphasis on the word mind, when actually Sati does not refer to mind directly and may be more accurately translated as awareness, or skillful attentiveness. This unique state of awareness allows us to view our own experience in a non-reactive state. As if we are observing what is happening from a distance without judgment. Gathering more information about the impact events have on us, and the consequences our reactions carry, we can view our experience objectively, and interact with clarity and honesty. With present awareness we are able to act from a place of clear understanding, making conscious choices about how we interact or respond to a particular situation, thought, or feeling. Like a conductor who moves through a train examining car-by-car, only able to see the individual cabin, it is not until he is able to step off the train and examine it from a distance that he is able to see the connection of the parts as pieces of the whole. Through this understanding of a greater interconnected sum of parts, we acquire the wisdom that comes with the ability to see the whole picture.
So ultimately meditation is the practice in which we cultivate this state of mindfulness. One in which we intentionally anchor ourselves to the present moment watch and listen without judgment for whatever we encounter. This practice may come in many forms. It may be that we arrive in the present moment by focusing on the subtleties of breath. Perhaps we use our bodies as an anchor to the here and now as we do in the physical practice of yoga. Even activities such as cooking, dancing, surfing, or walking can be forms of meditation. Any activity that allows you to be connected to the here and now. The practice then becomes staying with that awareness and redirecting it back to the present moment, with out judgment or expectation, when attention wanders. Whatever the modality you practice, as Kabat-Zin pointed out, the function is not to get anywhere, or to achieve anything. But rather to simply become aware so that we might act from a place of wisdom rather than react from a place of unconsciousness. Perhaps its value lies precisely in this. Maybe we all need to do one thing in our lives simply for its own sake – JKZ