Monday, September 28, 2009

Some thoughts on meditation

It's probably a failing of mine that I let my bad group experiences with Buddhism get me away from meditation in general. After all, I generally found meditation very beneficial on an individual level. I wouldn't say that it gave me any radical insights, but it did help me as far as coping with my circumstances. In fact, when I was meditating regularly, people often asked me how I was able to handle crazy people and circumstances so easily, and meditation was the answer I always gave them.

Over the summer I looked into the possibility of meditation without religious trappings. One thing that came up was autogenic training, which is not meditation per se but frequently comes up in discussions on the subject. Autogenic training mostly involves visualizations and affirmations about relaxing various parts of the body. One thing it shares with meditation is that people are encouraged to practice it daily at regular times. I didn't really care for it myself, but others have had good experiences. If you're interested in trying it for yourself, click here.

Something that seems to be a little more my speed is passage meditation. It can be tied to a religion, but it doesn't have to be. Some freethinkers will probably be put off by Easwaran's use of religious language, and there's no doubt he was a religious man (he was Hindu and published his own translations of some Hindu and Buddhist scriptures). But in his book, Passage Meditation, he deals with that issue:
I hope you will understand that the word “Lord” here does not refer to a white-bearded gentleman ruling from a throne somewhere between Neptune and Pluto. When I use words like “Lord” or “God,” I mean the very ground of existence, the most profound thing we can conceive of. This supreme reality is not something outside us, something separate from us [emphasis mine].

For those familiar with Hindu doctrine, this could be interpreted as aligning with the idea that we are all one with Brahman. But it can also be interpreted as simply appealing to your own best instincts. And I think most people would agree that some of our instincts are better than others. That explanation may not be good enough for some freethinkers, but it's good enough for me. If you're interested, you can click here.

So those are my thoughts on meditation in a nutshell. Feel free to provide your own in the comments.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

So now what?

When I began my "spiritual search" in earnest about a year ago, I had this idea that I would find something, settle on it, and that would be it. I would just live out my life according to that system's principles. But that certainly hasn't been the case! Freethought has definitely been more of a beginning than an ending for me.

So if there are no (or at least very few) hard and fast rules, what constitutes a life well-lived? Among the so-called New Atheists, Sam Harris attracts a lot of criticism for his interest in Eastern religions. However, as he explains in this 2007 speech, he's interested in finding a philosophy where personal happiness doesn't depend completely on personal circumstances. Harris also expresses interest in the potential transformative quality of the experiences some people have in meditative or contemplative states.

Your friendly neighborhood library probably has access to scientific journal articles through sites like PubMed or EBSCOhost. If you can get that access, you'll find that a lot of studies have shown that meditation in general has some benefits. No one method stands out as being superior, but almost all of them have been shown to reduce stress and improve mood.

Instead of aligning your chi or your chakras or whatever, there's probably a perfectly natural explanation for these experiences and the benefits people find in them. So how is it that meditation helps so many people? I don't claim to know the answer, but I think it's a question worth asking. It's certainly not a settled question, as there are many people who freak out at the mention of meditation. I'll discuss my own experiences with meditation in a future post.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Enjoy whatever support system you have

For the last couple of days, I'd been feeling a bit melancholy. So few of my friends live near me, and I was starting to get a little down about it. That, and for some reason, school has really been tiring me out. I'd posted a series of Facebook status updates that indicated fatigue and frustration, and apparently, I'd posted enough of them to warrant a phone call from my dad to ask about me. I was in class when he called, so I had to call him back. When I did, my stepmom answered the phone and also asked if I was ok. I talked to her until Dad came to the phone, and Dad and I talked about my schoolwork. "Take a nap," he said. Fortunately, I was about to do that very thing.

It's easy to think, "Well, Dad's supposed to do that," but even if that's true, I've seen plenty of instances where that's obviously not the case. The day before I graduated from boot camp, we got to spend the afternoon with our families. That evening, I heard more than one person say, "Not once did my family say they were proud of me." And while my family has its share of issues (and maybe a few other families' shares, too), they tell me they're proud of me all the time.

If you don't have a good relationship with your family of origin, you've probably created a family of choice. Embrace them. Cultivate all the connections you can. Take no one for granted.