In order to make it more palatable for Western culture, the name ‘meditation practice’ might have been replaced with ‘mindfulness practice’. But as far as I can tell after digging in, they are synonyms for the same category of practices, though that would be a very broad array of practices.
However, whether we call it mindfulness or meditation, what is it suppose to do for us?
Meditations biggest selling point for the Western culture may be a promise to bring inner peace of some sort. We are a stressed out culture, after all. Meditation, we are told, is suppose to be like an antidote to all the pressure and stress our world makes us feel. It will liberate us from our suffering.
It seems to me though, that meditation is about listening or viewing, and listening or viewing from different viewpoints in order to get a better picture of what’s actually going on inside and outside. And ‘better’ = a more objective view, with less judgment, fear and distortion. That better view does not necessarily mean a more pleasant or peaceful view because it is suppose to include all the information that can be detected whether pleasant or unpleasant and everything between.
Meditation is about training the attention, and then focusing that attention on the signals coming from the body-mind (or mind-body), coming from the mental constructs inside the mind, and on the signals coming from our physical and social environment. It’s about paying attention to those signals whether they are pleasant or unpleasant, whether apparently meaningful or not.
Rather than run away from or ignore the signals that are unpleasant or seemingly meaningless, we are instructed to pay attention, to stay open to them without judgment, and view them in different ways that may not be normal for us to do. This openness, this non-judgment often opens up new ways of understanding and relating to those signals.
One person might start up a meditation practice in order to find calm in the midst of a stressful lifestyle of work and relationship challenges – pressures they consider to be external, and problems that seem to be caused by others. But a genuine meditation practice may likely reveal to him that his own body, memories and beliefs carry the seeds of his stress, not those things outside of him. Meditation opened the door to let him gain this insight. Now, it is up to him in how he will choose to respond to it, to deal with himself.
Another person might start up a meditation practice in order to find some pain-relief in the midst of a chronic, or life-threatening, or even terminal illness. The practice will not likely turn off the pain completely, or reverse the illness, but it can have a powerful effect of changing the way she relates to her pain and condition, reducing the stress and sense of suffering associated with it. The change in her relationship to her body and to her pain signals opens up the possibility of living with a new sense of meaning.
Meditation presents more of a promise of changing your view of your circumstances, than a promise to change the external circumstances themselves. It aims directly at your perception – your perception of your body, your mind, your physical and social environment. It helps you listen much better to the messages being sent. And from listening better, you gain the opportunity to understand then respond differently to your internal and external conditions. That new response might, in many cases, end up influencing the external circumstances too.
This change in your perception might lead to the so called ‘inner peace’. It might lead to a change in your motivations which provoke a change in your lifestyle. It might lead to a shift in how you interact with a loved one or an enemy. It might even make a shift inside your body which ends up reversing the illness that otherwise would have taken you down. Meditation was just the first step in a series of steps that produced a chain of changes. The other steps were necessary too. Meditation alone will not do those things for you. But it can be the vital first step.
Meditation is a practice that pursues greater insight – it pursues a bigger picture, not necessarily a more peaceful one. The insight we gain might not be what we expected. However, peace may be result of how we choose to respond to that insight, once we have gained it through meditation.
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