Recently, in a presentation on the subject, I explained that mindfulness meditation is an intensive exercise of our inhibitory neuronal mechanisms and that the strengthening of such mechanisms is at the root of the extraordinary benefits of its practice. With such logic, I thought, everyone will want to meditate. “You are wrong,” someone told me. “Your theory of inhibitory mechanisms will not convince anyone to sit, eyes closed and in silence, for hours “. What a frustration! I did spend much time and effort in this work.
This note aims at an easier sales speech: Mental noise is harmful and meditation is as sowing silence. Why then are many people reluctant to meditate? Because mental noise is so ‘normal’ that the silences induced by meditation are considered strange. Noise is like a fog that hides what is behind it; meditation removes such fog.
All our actions and passions are first automatically coded as brain instructions and then executed by the physical body or the thinking portion of the same brain. In a typical sequence, we can walk voluntarily or mechanically in some direction, observe or not what is happening around, perceive or ignore the contacts with the ground on where we are walking, talk absent-mindedly with someone, or grumble quietly.
Alternatively, we could sit still for long periods, close our eyes, become aware of body sensations, keep silence and focus attention on our breath. Which sequence is more common? Of course the turmoil of the physical and mental movements; stillness and silence are ‘unnatural’.
The first string is typical of our routine life that happens while us barely realizing what we are experiencing. The second is… Mindfulness meditation. What is its goal? Simply disciplining our mind to maintain awareness of what is going on within and outside us, minute by minute, while our life unfolds.
Our mind may and should be disciplined to stay silent and attentive. Have you ever watched the training routines of soccer players (English footballers)? They spend hours simulating the actions they might need to run on the court in the limited moments they touch the ball during actual matches. Unlike soccer, in meditation practice we must sit for only 45 minutes a day, half a match, to train our brain to stay mindful during the long game of our life.
How do we train for immobility and silence? With much patience, as soccer players do for actions and motions. It is easier to stay still when we focus attention on a mantra or an anchor, rather than instructing the body to stay still. From my childhood I remember how, for hours in a church, my grandmother could stay on her knees, eyes closed and rosary in hand. ‘Addict’ to praying, she could reach trancelike states. Her prayers were a kind of yoga meditation, with a mantra (the Hail Mary) and an anchor (her rosary), that fastened her attention, turned off ramblings, and fascinated her religious devotion.
Why this reference to my grandmother? To show that staying still and silent with eyes shut is not such a difficult task. Compared with prayer, what is even easier in meditation? Sitting is more comfortable than kneeling, and meditation does not demand beliefs or mantras. The most common meditation anchor is the focusing of attention on the breathing rhythm, a tool always readily available.
The most common excuse for not meditating—”I cannot concentrate”—is, paradoxically, the main reason why a person should undertake its practice. What about its health benefits? Are they not a better incentive? They are indeed important and it is reasonable to take them into account as a motivating factor. But…
Once a session starts, the meditator should cancel out all expectations to avoid that the healing anxiety becomes part of the noise. If, during a practice, the meditator wonders whether migraines will disappear, insomnia s going to end, concentration will improve or bad temper is going to calm down… She simply should focus attention on her breath. What if it does not work? Then the patient should get a rosary and pray to some sacred being to fix her problems. This strategy, I must say, never settled my troubles.
Atlanta, August 21, 2016
Most people know that exercise is beneficial, yet very few find a way to actually make it happen. There’s a gap between being convinced and following through.