Take an example. A venerable Yogi, a master in the art of longevity, himself over 1000 years old, comes to teach me his art. I fully respect and sincerely admire his achievements, yet all I can tell him is:of what use is longevity to me? I am beyond time.
However long a life may be, it is but a moment and a dream.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
Before we examine whether or not meditation can prolong and/or improve the aging process we need to define what we mean by meditation and its seemingly interchangeable counterpart mindfulness. (From this point on I will refer to the duo as M&M.) The problem we encounter is that depending on who you ask you will get different definitions of M&M and these can be as different as night and day (heretofore known as N&D). Turn to a neuroscientist and you will be given an understanding of M&M in terms of brain wave patterns and synaptic formations. Query a spiritualist and you will hear tales of higher Self sitting beneath the illusion that is the ego. Turn to someone in corporate America and you’re likely to hear all about how M&M impacts the bottom line.
Added to this is one of the most common misunderstandings about M&M, and one that even many longtime meditators still can’t wrap their heads around. M&M have nothing to do with stopping thinking. Having said that you will, no matter who is promoting their technique, run across the words “stillness,” “quiet mind,” or “silent observer.” The confusion is caused by the use of words that point to a state where the so called Monkey Mind stops chattering and seems to suggest the need to restrain a process that we are also told we have no control over. It’s enough to make you lose your mind. (In Zen circles this is actually the goal and was well described by Alan Watts as “Go out of your mind and come to your senses.)
In actuality, the practice (the use of this word is intentional as one should not “work” at M&M as it just adds one more tick to our “To Do” list) of turning away from thoughts and focusing instead on something like breathing does slow down the mind. As one teacher explains, the mind turns from water, easily disturbed by the least little thing, into honey that is less reactive. By turning repeatedly away from the stream of thoughts, we create a new habit that has the payoff of a calmer and quieter inner-voice.
In my years of studying, contemplating, and teaching meditation the best definition I have found came from the venerable Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj who said, "The primary purpose of meditation is to become conscious of, and familiar with, our inner life. The ultimate purpose is to reach the source of life and consciousness.” While it’s not as easy to put on a T-shirt as the current “Meditation, it’s not what you think,” it oozes with profound, and at the same time, simple clarity. Meditation is a journey back to our true home.
Mindfulness, in the way it is currently discussed, is the intentional shift of attention away from the goings on in the mind and onto the present moment. They key to this process is bringing a nonjudgmental attitude toward the now and allowing it to be just as it is. This hurdle has tripped up, and even hobbled, the most sincere seeker as the habitual mind reaction goes something like, “It is what it is, but it shouldn’t be.” The key to opening the mindfulness door is acceptance and it’s this allowing of things to be the way they are that releases one from the inner tension of resistance that we experience as stress, worry and anxiety.
If you’re a little squeamish about the esoteric side of life, you might want to take a deep breath before we head into the next paragraph. It’s about to get all metaphysical up in this place.
The historical roots of M&M practices reach back to cultures that had a profound understanding that the current state of our consciousness, our day-to-day existence, is at best a mere shadow of who we really are and at worst a complete illusion. Not illusion in the sawing a woman in half sense, but an illusion in that it is limited to the workings of the mind which takes reality and breaks it into symbols, words and numbers. Thus, thinking is separate from the true, or inner, Self and it’s that Self that throws the light upon the cinema screen that is the mind. In this understanding Descartes’s “I think therefore I am” is an error in perception where the observer of thoughts is confused with thought itself. According to the gurus of old, the ultimate expression of consciousness simply removes the first three words in his pronouncement and leaves only “I am.”
Whew, that was quite a ride; time to come back to our original question that started this post. Is the secret to healthy aging going to come from a pill or can we, through searching into our inner landscape and living in the present moment, discover the source of Life itself thus putting an end to the very search for longevity? If you’re thinking, “Please tell me he’s not going to drag this out to another post,” I admire your insight and feel almost compelled to go on. Sadly, I have yet to decide how I want this particular topic to end so, “It is what it is.” See you next time.