FROM Moon Over Water
by Jessica Macbeth
Gateway Books, 1990

2. Treasures Found by the Wayside

Almost as soon as we begin our inner journey, we find treasures by the wayside - practical, down-to-earth benefits that happen just because we are meditating. Some of these were mentioned briefly in the preceding chapter, but let's take a closer look at how our practice gives us these things.

Concentration & Self-Discipline

The ability to concentrate, to keep our attention on one thing, without distraction, so that we can bring our full mental capacity to bear upon it, is a skill. Like other skills, concentration can be improved with practice. Meditation is concentration, a special kind of relaxed but focused awareness. It is concentration without strain.
Many of us have been conditioned to the idea that concentration must involve strain and tension in order to be effective. This is part of the world-view that says that anything worth while must be difficult - and therefore, this view illogically goes on to conclude, anything easy must be worthless. This seems to mean that we must tense up our neck, shoulder and facial muscles in order to think well. If we scrunched over our desks, clutching our pencil so hard that our little knuckles turned white, the teacher knew we were trying.
The problem with this, of course, is that our energy and attention went into trying (and into being seen to be trying) rather than into thinking. It seems fairly obvious that our brains must function better when oxygen and nutrients reach them freely than they do when the blood supply is cut down by muscular tension. But then how would we (and others) know that we were really trying? On the face of it this attitude may seem silly, but most of us developed it when we were quite young and are still deeply influenced by it. Have you ever noticed that attention sounds just like at tension?
Meditation gives us a chance to let go of the habit of struggling to focus our awareness, and it allows us to practice concentration combined with deep relaxation. As we get better at letting go in meditation, we begin to discover how much more effectively we can concentrate when we put less effort into other things - things like pressing our lips tightly together and frowning. We tend to carry this new relaxed way of being into other aspects of our lives.
This means we have more energy for actual thinking, and we tend to do it more clearly and efficiently. Although there are a few people who seem to get by without using their minds much, most of us would find an improved ability to concentrate and to ignore distraction to be an advantage in many aspects of life. A person who has reached an advanced stage of this relaxed concentration may even be able to do her accounts without moving her shoulders closer to her ears.
The word concentrate is derived from words meaning to join in one center, and meditation is about bring ourselves to the peaceful center of our own beings, the mountain in the center of the sea. From that peaceful center, we can think and act with balance and grace, rather than with stress and confusion.
Self-discipline is closely related to concentration. Most of us, in order to carry out a regular program of meditation, need to be more self-disciplined than we usually are. No one makes us do it; perhaps no one even cares whether we do it or not. It is entirely up to us. Our best reason for doing it is for ourselves. We are the ones who benefit, and the benefits may or may not be noticed much by others.
There is a potential self-sustaining positive feedback loop here. Doing our meditation exercises regularly is a way of exercising our capacity for self-discipline. When we do anything often, we tend to become better at it. In this case, the better we are at it, the more practice we get. Like the strengthening of concentration in meditation, the exercise of self-discipline spills over into our daily life, encouraging us to be that bit more disciplined, organized, and efficient in other ways - which in turn helps us to be more disciplined about our meditation practice. Round and round we go, gaining on each turn.

Relaxation & Self-Healing

The ability to reduce habitual or excessive tension is achieved easily and naturally through meditation. Deep relaxation often occurs in meditation, and is, in fact, an indication that we are meditating well. When we are deeply relaxed in meditation, amazing things can happen in our bodies. These are achieved much more effectively and rapidly through meditation than through the ordinary relaxation that usually occurs when we sit back and let go of our attention.
For example tests (see 'The Physiology of Meditation' by Wallace and Benson in Scientific American, 1972, 226, No. 2) have shown that the amount of blood lactate (which increases rapidly during stress or anxiety) is reduced substantially more quickly during meditation than during sleep or ordinary relaxation. Many people find it surprising that such simple mental exercises can have a significant and measurable physiological effect, but there is even more. Other physiological indicators of tension such as heartbeat rate, blood pressure, and oxygen consumption are also beneficially affected. Additionally, some of the stress-related diseases, especially high blood pressure and tension headaches, may be alleviated - or even eliminated - by regular meditation.
These physiological effects alone would justify the practice of meditation even if there were no other benefits to be obtained from it. Tension-related diseases are by far the most common disorders in our society. These diseases are apt to be either chronic or recurring and are often not very responsive to the usual medical treatments.
When we practice consistently we find that we not only become unusually relaxed during the meditation period itself, but also that our reactions to tension and stressful situations in everyday life gradually change. Over a period of time we develop a calmer, more relaxed, and probably more constructive response.
We all know that we are more apt to catch an illness if we are tired or stressed. To be more relaxed and generally less stressed enhances our resistance to contagious disease (see Maximum Immunity by M.A. Weiner, Gateway Books, 1986, p.44). And if we do get ill, meditation and its accompanying deep relaxation enables the natural repair systems of our bodies to function more effectively. This is only reasonable - energy being used to maintain a state of tension or stress is not available to the organism to use for self-healing. When we free that energy for healing ourselves, we naturally speed the healing process.

Listening

Perhaps the most difficult and yet one of the most important of the things that we may expect to learn from the continued practice of meditation is the ability to really listen - to be silent within our own minds, so that we can hear as we probably have not heard since childhood. This kind of listening can be directed inwardly as well as outwardly. Relaxation and improved concentration occur simply because meditation is practiced, but learning to listen well does require additional effort.
Everyone realizes from their own experience that people often do not really listen to what others are saying. During any conversation, while one person is speaking, the other is usually 'listening', making evaluations about what is being said, and formulating a reply - all simultaneously. We cannot hear clearly because we are listening to the other person speak and at the same time talking to ourselves - and usually paying more attention to our own voice inside our heads.
All too often the listener doesn't actually hear much of the other person's thoughts at all. He simply assumes that the speaker is going to say certain things, and his evaluation and reply are based on this assumption rather than on what is actually being said. This may be good enough for a lot of casual exchanges, but conversations of greater depth and importance deserve better listening. This principle also applies to inner-directed listening or awareness, where we learn about ourselves and clarify our own needs and feelings. Our Plain of Reflections needs to be still, listening, aware.

Self-Awareness

How many of us are truly aware of the things our bodies are trying to tell us? Do we always notice the warning signals such as excessive fatigue, irritability, mild depression, lowered levels of physical, psychological, and/or psychic energy, little aches and pains, increased tension, and so on? These are some of the signals that come before a malfunction or breakdown of the physical or mental processes. Any change in our physical or emotional health is always heralded by such warnings, but often we are too distracted or too unaware to notice them. We usually travel through life so dazzled by the outer world that we are only aware of the inner when it goes seriously amiss.
Meditation helps us to become more aware of these signals. It gives us practice in monitoring the subtle changes that take place within ourselves, not only physically, but also mentally, emotionally, and energetically. As we become more aware of ourselves, we learn to correlate various physical and emotional states and to recognize more clearly than ever before how feelings affect our physical and mental states. Too many people, when asked how they feel, say what they are thinking and cannot give a clear answer about their actual feelings. When we meditate, we gradually become much more self-aware and in touch with our feelings and bodies. We not only know how to relax, but also to recognize more readily when we need to let go.

Sensitivity

At first, as we practice meditation, we begin to sense the subtle changes in physical, mental, and emotional states in ourselves. Later on, we usually begin to be more aware of these subtle energies in others as well. We become more aware of these energies and states, whether they come from our physical bodies, our unconscious minds, or the bodies and minds of others. In fact, one could say that our awareness expands to include areas of our own minds that were previously unconscious.
One of the important functions of meditation exercises is to teach the verbal and analysing part of the mind to be quiet so that the more subtle, non-verbal signals are able to get through more often and more clearly. Because we have greater clarity about these personal warnings of stress and fatigue, and because we have increased sensitivity to and understanding of the needs of ourselves and others, we also develop an increased sense of 'rightness' or 'wrongness' in situations requiring choice. This makes our 'hunches' and 'intuition' both more clear and more accurate.
These are results that most meditation exercises have in common. They are the natural consequences of doing these kinds of exercises, but many, probably even most of these exercises were originally developed for another purpose.

This chapter originally appeared in Moon Over Water,
published by Gateway Books, 1990
Copyright © 1990 by Jessica Macbeth. All rights reserved.
Your comments will be read with interest.
Moon Over Water, Chapter 3
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