We sit in a conference room on red swivel chairs, quiet, motionless, eyes closed. We turn off our senses just like we turn down the house lights, switch off the television, and close the garage door at the end of the day. We become numb and detached from our bodies.
For the past eight weeks, I have been teaching a course on “Mindfulness” at the Meeman Center for Lifelong Learning at Rhodes College. Dr. Mark Muesse, a professor of philosophy at Rhodes and my co-instructor, tells the 18 adult students who are doctors, lawyers, professors and social workers, “We often live our lives in a state of mindlessness, constant generation of unnecessary thoughts and judgments which separate us from the present.” He adds, “We need to achieve a state of mindfulness, a state of moment-to-moment awareness.”
A student poses an obvious question: “How does one do this?”
“Through the techniques of meditation,” I explain. Practitioners have developed hundreds of types of meditation over millennia and across religious traditions. These practices can be lumped into three broad categories:
Focused attention: When we focus on an object or activity such as our breathing;
Open monitoring: When we observe our mind without any judgment;
Self transcendence: When we go into a state of no thoughts.
This is all too didactic and a bit mind-numbing, so we go on a test drive of a meditative experience.
We begin with a comfortable posture and gently close our eyes. We take deep breaths, focusing our attention on our breathing. Then, turning our attention to our mind, we observe and monitor our thoughts without judgment, as if we are sitting on a riverbank watching sailboats pass. Then we engross and transcend ourselves in the precious, almost blissful, moments of extreme serenity of the mind after the last thought is completed and before the next thought has generated.
At first it may seem hard, as our mind flips from one thing to another, but with just a few sessions, anyone can become comfortable.
“It is not hard to do,” I say, as I guide the class through the 10-minute meditative exercise.
Meditation is not an unnatural or a foreign practice; rather, it is a training.
Just as we are able to control our arm to throw a baseball or control our diaphragm to take three deep inhalations, so we can bring control to our mind.
But our mind is “smarter” than our arm or our diaphragm, so rather than forcing the mind to be still, the idea is first to observe it, and see how it moves, how it wavers, how it is ignited and elated, how it is dulled and depressed, and then not to pass judgment on it — in effect ignoring it.
In class, we talk about the benefits of meditation: health benefits such as longevity, lower blood pressure and a stronger immune system; academic benefits like better grades and test scores for school children; fewer effects of post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers, and reduced rates of recidivism and violent crime among prisoners. Mindfulness is not a panacea to our troubled world, but it is a path to moving our individual selves thoughtfully, mindfully in the right direction.
In our class, we also play “mind games.” For three minutes, we sit quietly, eyes closed, with a pen in one hand and a notebook on our lap. We track and tally our thoughts by writing down a single word for each thought like an observer watching cars on a race course. The purpose is to watch and record our thoughts as they take us for a roller coaster ride, making us happy or sad, and how they link to one another like runners passing a baton. Anyone can try this exercise, and most often people come up with up with three to four thoughts per minute.
It’s funny how each day we take 30 minutes or more to get ready, by showering, dressing, putting on make-up, deodorant or fixing our hair — all this we do for our bodies, but what do we do each day for our minds? One student tells me, “After I meditate, I feel like I have just cleared my mind of clutter.” Another says it feels like “I have rebooted my mind.”