Lesson 2: The Role of Meditation (Free Preview)

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  • The exploration of inner space

    Through daily meditation

    Is the most important thing anyone can do to enhance health and well-being.

    - David Simon.

What is Meditation

MeditationThe word meditation comes from the Latin “meditio” which means contemplation and spiritual exercise. The pioneer of mindfulness meditation, Jon Kabat-Zinn, says that medicine and meditation come from the same Indo-European root. Medicine is “restoration of right inward measure” and meditation is “perception of right inward measure.” The Sanskrit word for meditation, dhyana, conveys the idea of concentration or contemplation.

As we begin this transformative study of Ayurveda, we have the opportunity to integrate meditation practice into our daily life. Meditation can be enormously helpful… it can gradually give us the awareness, focus and calm needed to study and absorb all the new material, and also help us open and balance our minds so that we can realise the full potential of the amazing path of Ayurveda. Some of you studying this course will already have a meditation practice, some may have started meditating and had a hard time sustaining it in their busy lives, and others of you may be completely new to this ancient practice of working with the mind. We hope that the integration of meditation into the study in this course will be helpful to you and we encourage you to experiment with the practice as a daily routine and see for yourself the changes that unfold.

Meditation Then and Now

Meditation conjures up imagery of ascetics sitting in full lotus posture, gazing peacefully from a mountain retreat, Buddhist monks and nuns sitting quietly inthe great shrines of monasteries, and yogis who practice asanas (yoga postures) to prepare the body and mind for the concentration that meditation entails.

In the West, meditation has seen great growth and increasing acceptance in many strata of society including the medical community, particularly as studies reveal the scientific basis of its health benefits. The widespread popularity of yoga in the West has helped meditation gain acceptance and popularity throughout a diverse population.

American doctor Jon Kabat-Zinn is one of the early proponents of meditation and its positive effects on health. He developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Hospital Pain Clinic. This clinic has been very successful and has influenced many other similar programmes in hospitals and centres across the US and Europe. Similarly, Dr Herbert Benson has been a pioneer in legitimising and proving the benefits of the core meditation technique that he has popularised as “The Relaxation Response”.

Meditation for All

 

Extensive studies on the benefits and effects of meditation on optimal function and health of the brain are being conducted at top universities and institutions. The Mind and Life Institute has been established by The Dalai Lama and prominent scientists to study the role of meditation and contemplative practices in alleviating human suffering in modern life

Mindfulness meditation is emerging as a valuable and widely used practice by mental health professionals and is being introduced into the school curriculum in many areas of the world.

Mindfulness Meditation—A Foundational Practice

“Tame your own mind” – The Buddha

The basic mindfulness practice teaches us to draw our attention to a point of focus internally, such as the movement in and out of the breath, or externally to a flame, a flower or a sacred object. When we sit still in a relaxed fashion, with our spine straight, our body settles, prana vata flows evenly through the channels, and the mind begins to calm. With the support of a relaxed and upright posture, we remain focused on the object of our awareness–the movement of the breath. Our mind will inevitably wander, and when we notice that we have become distracted, we return our focus to the breath. It is this careful attention to the breath, the recognition that we have wandered and the willingness to return our focus to the breath that develops the skill of mindfulness. We can then gradually begin to observe thoughts and sensations without becoming entangled in them.

Meditation is not about escaping our present state of mind or creating a certain state of being; rather, it is about being with our present experience and observing what is happening. This very practice of observing thoughts and sensations from a point of focus of the breath begins to settle the activity of the mind and give us a wider view of what is happening in the here and now. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says “Meditation may be thought of as a technique by which we diminish the force of old thought habits and develop new ones”.

Recognise What is in Your Mind

When we first sit down to meditate, we need to recognise what is going on in our own mind. Most of us have a long-established habit of being completely absorbed in our thoughts as the mind jumps from here to there, into the past, off to the future; or we can get stuck on a thought, memory or feeling and it keeps spinning around and around. Normally we are completely unaware of this process and because we’re unaware, we don’t notice that our mind goes wherever it is pulled and gets stuck and repetitive.

CandleThis process can feel like we are being tortured by our own thoughts and emotions! We seem to have no control. For example, when we’re worried about a loved one and we can’t get away from repetitive thoughts of worry, and our anxiety just intensifies.

Meditation helps us to recognise what is happening in our own minds so that we can have some choice about where we focus our attention and mental energy. Just having the choice to let go of a thought and return to the breath gives us the space to see things differently. This choice and the space that opens is deeply empowering and can make a big difference to the quality of our life.

With meditation practice we gain some ability to settle the activity of the mind and this helps to give us perspective and the capacity to engage more deeply in our relationships and experiences.

Mindfulness in Daily Life

Life Can be Hectic and Fast-Paced!

VataWith smart phones, texting, and the lightning-fast pace of the internet, the quality of our attention can be disjointed, scattered, dull and disengaged. We can find ourselves not fully available for the experiences of our lives and life can feel superficial and rushed. It may not be easy to allocate time and space for regular meditation practice.

But once the formal time for meditation practice becomes integrated into our lives, every day activities become an opportunity for mindfulness. Walking, eating, washing the dishes, playing a musical instrument or engaging in conversation can be more meaningful when joined with a simple awareness of what we’re doing in that moment. Instead of just trying to get things done and over, we can enjoy and savour even mundane tasks and daily interactions.

A Centered State of Awareness

Remembering what we’re doing enhances our capacity to sustain a centred state of awareness and the ability to observe and let go of automatic reactions. We can listen, be receptive and respond from a place of awareness rather than habit. We can begin to enjoy a richer quality of experience and a broadening perspective of the challenges that life brings. Emotions and experiences that were previously overwhelming can become easier to handle just by giving them our full awareness. Mindfulness practice allows us to remember what we’re doing with our full attention and be with our experiences authentically as we are now.

Our True Nature

As we continue with the practice of meditation, we can begin to recognise and experience the awareness that is our true nature. We witness the thoughts, emotions and sensations as they come and go and this gives us greater perspective. When we witness and observe the movements of the mind, it’s clear to see that we are not our thoughts and emotions, they come and go continuously. This mental process is the nature of manas and manas is under the constant influence of ahamkara (the ego).

The Conscious Observer

On the riverWho is the conscious observer who does not get enmeshed in the intensity of thoughts and emotions? This awareness is our true nature – buddhi. Mindfulness meditation allows us to settle the mind and discover this awareness. At any moment, we can shift our attention and free ourselves from the thoughts and emotions that cause mental pain and turmoil and develop a more expansive experience of who we are. Ayurveda teaches us that ultimately we are not our mind, but a part of the universal mind of awareness. Meditation is a powerful medicine for healing the mind and heart and is essential on the path to moksha.

Meditation allow us to rest our mind evenly in order to see the basic nature of reality – Thrangu Rinpoche

How Do We Describe Consciousness?

Pure Consciousness

  • Purusha – Sankhya Philosophy
  • Brahman – Upanishads/Vedanta
  • Tao – Taoism
  • Great Spirit – Native American
  • God – Mystical Christianity

Individual True Nature

  • Buddhi – Sankhya
  • Atman – Upanishads/Vedanta
  • Buddha Nature – Buddhism
  • Spirit – Christianity

How do we Benefit from Meditation?

Meditating on a mountain

We can begin to see the benefits of meditation almost immediately in our own experience and the quality of our awareness. Both Ayurveda and modern scientific research show us that meditation has a powerful and beneficial influence on the body and mind. A regular meditation practice can help clear mental and emotional ama (toxins), and can help prevent the further build-up of ama.

Every thought, feeling, and experience that is generated in the mind correlates to a cascade of physiological and chemical changes in the body – Candace Pert, MD neuroscientist

When we feel anxious, fearful, upset or angry, a chain of physiological events is set into motion; our bodies flood with hormones and biochemicals from the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. This cascade of biochemicals, including cortisol and norepinephrine, ignites the fight-or-flight response and has far reaching negative effects throughout the body.

During acute stress our heart rate increases, blood flow is increased to our muscles, our pupils dilate and more oxygen flows through our lungs. With chronic stress our bodies remain in a state of hyper-arousal for long periods of time and hormones that are meant to help and protect us are over-secreted and eventually depleted. Stress depletes our ojas (vital energy and immunity) and this can contribute to a host of degenerative diseases.

Research on meditation shows that it can increase ojas, enhance our resilience to stress, reduce cortisol levels, lower blood pressure and decrease negative emotions such as fear, aggression, and anger. Even diseases caused by deep-seated ama, such as heart disease, hypertension and stroke, are found to significantly improve with the practice of meditation.

Meditation can Transform your Brain

We have a remarkable potential to transform our brains and our whole being through meditation. There are cutting-edge studies that show that training the mind with meditation actually changes the brain (known as neuroplasticity) and promotes its capacity to generate new healthy brain cells (known as neurogenesis.) In the past, the scientific community commonly believed that the brain could not change and that nerve cells could not be generated. Neuro-imaging, sometimes called brain-mapping, measures the structure and function of the brain. This relatively new technology has allowed researchers to study long-time meditators and Buddhist monks and has shattered previously held beliefs about the brain’s inability to change and regenerate.

In recent studies the brains of Buddhist monks showed a high level of gamma brain waves associated with “eureka” moments both during and after meditation. This “aha!” state of mind is also seen during peak performances of elite athletes and musicians. It would be wonderful to cultivate that in ourselves! Brain activity of Buddhist monks was also shown to increase in an area of the left prefrontal cortex associated with happiness.

Here’s the good news- you don’t have to be a Buddhist monk to reap the benefits of meditation! Studies show that measurable benefits of meditation begin immediately and increase gradually over time. In 2011, a groundbreaking study led by Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital found that those meditating for as little as eight weeks experience decreased anxiety and greater feelings of calm. It also revealed growth in the areas of the brain associated with memory, empathy, sense of self, and stress regulation.

Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain, tells us that meditation adds billions of synaptic connections and therefore a measurable thickening of brain tissues (neurogenesis) in the regions handling attention and sensory awareness. Meditation seems to shrink the parts of the brain associated with anxiety, panic and fear, and expand and strengthen the parts of the brain associated with mood regulation, calm, self-motivation and happiness.

Our body seems to be eavesdropping on our thoughts and states of mind. Through meditation, we can tap into our “inner pharmacy” of beneficial neurochemicals and use this mind-body connection to our great benefit. Meditation lessens symptoms of depression and anxiety and this corresponds with a heightened release of neurotransmitters associated with happiness and well-being. These include serotonin, the happy mood chemical that helps regulate mood and sleep; dopamine, the regulator of pleasure, reward and focus; oxytocin, the hormone of feeling calm, secure and loved; and endorphins, the chemicals released during periods of exhilaration such as “runner’s high.”

Modern science and Ayurveda agree that meditation practice generates extraordinary benefits for mind and body and has the ability to transform our health and well-being. Through meditation we can strengthen the parts of the brain associated with happiness and creativity and help prevent established habits of negative thinking from strengthening the neural pathways of stress and anxiety. It is exciting to see all of this modern research unfold and validate Ayurveda’s view of the essential role meditation plays in realising our full potential.

 

The Benefits of Meditation

Ayurveda and the Benefits of Meditation

  • Digests and assimilates experience and memory
  • Cultivates the inner source of happiness
  • Dissolves the seeds of karma
  • Cultivates effortless awareness
  • Increases feelings of connection
  • Engenders a sense of wholeness
  • Draws the senses inward
  • Cultivates sattva
  • Balances sattva, rajas and tamas
  • Secretes tarpaka kapha
  • Diminishes the strength of ahamkara

Modern Science on the Benefits of Meditation

  • Calms the mind
  • Enhances self-awareness
  • Enhances body awareness
  • Cultivates self-regulation
  • Increases neuroplasticity
  • Stimulates neurogenesis
  • Cultivates emotional regulation
  • Restores immunity
  • Lowers heart rate
  • Decreases blood pressure
  • Reduces secretion of stress hormones
  • Improves air-flow through the lungs
  • Increases brain wave coherence
  • Decreases anxiety, depression and irritability
  • Increases mental and emotional stability
  • Decreases pain perception
  • Increases brain coherence

Basic Mindfulness Meditation Practice

As Thich Nhat Hanh instructs:

“Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out”

  • Begin with finding a quiet place to be where you can be undisturbed for 10 minutes. Sit upright in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. Rest your hands facing downward on your upper legs. Find a way to sit comfortably so that you’re relaxed, alert and upright. You can adjust yourself at any time to find a posture that supports you.
  • Rest your gaze on the floor in front of you so that your eyes are relaxed and open, but not looking at anything in particular; just gazing at the floor in a settled way.
  • Begin to notice your breathing. Usually we are unaware of the subtlety of our own breathing, but now it is the most important thing! We observe the breath with our full attention and awareness. We don’t seek to change the breath. Just notice it as it is naturally.
  • Breathing in, breathing out. When you notice that you have lost the awareness of the simplicity of the breath, say to yourself “thinking”. And then return to the breath.

Am I Doing it Right?

You will find yourself continuously distracted from an awareness of the breath. This is just the well-worn habit of the mind taking you here and there, backward and forwards in time! When you notice that you are no longer connected to the breath, that very noticing is a moment of mindfulness. In that moment, we remember to return to the breath. Every time a moment of mindfulness emerges from the busyness of thoughts and emotions and you remember to return to the breath, you’re receiving the many benefits of mindfulness meditation. Often new meditators can’t believe the instruction can be that simple and that there could be any real benefit. We may try to make it more complicated than it is and fabricate some kind of experience of calm, or we may be hard on ourselves and think we’re not doing it right. But, by experimenting with meditation we begin to notice its effects, as gradually this ancient practice heals and balances our mind.

Just sitting with ourselves is a radical act of self love – Jon Kabat-Zinn

How to Meditate

  • Settle into an upright and relaxed posture
  • Rest your attention on the breath as it is
  • Notice when you’re absorbed in thought and say to yourself: “thinking” without judgment
  • Return to an awareness of the breath again and again
  • After a short time of practice, raise your gaze and take in your environment as it is with full awareness

Consistent Effort

Find a regular time each day to sit and experience meditation for yourself. Morning is the ideal time before the busyness of the day begins. This can set a tone of awareness for the entire day and benefit the quality of your life. Ten minutes is all you need to begin to experiment with the instructions.

From a Poem by Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche...

“Where are you now, my good friend? Are you out in the field, in
the forest, on the mountain, in a military camp, in a factory, at
your desk, in a hospital, in a prison? Regardless of where you
are, let us breathe in and out together, and let the Sun of
awareness enter. Let us begin with this breath and this
awareness. Whether life is an illusion, a dream, or a wondrous
reality depends on our insight and our mindfulness. Awakening is
a miracle. The darkness in a totally dark room will disappear
the moment the light is switched on. In the same way, life will
reveal itself as a miraculous reality the second the Sun of
Awareness begins to shine”.

New Terminology

  • Mindfulness
  • Dhyana
  • Mental ama
  • Ojas
  • Neurogenesis
  • Neuroplasticity
  • Cortisol
  • Norepinephrine
  • Serotonin
  • Oxytocin
  • Endorphins
  • Neuroimaging

Experiential Exercises

  1. Reflect on any experience you may have had in the past with meditation.
  2. Think about ways you could benefit physically and mentally from meditation. If you currently meditate, what are benefits and challenges that you have noticed?
  3. Consider why it is important to integrate meditation practice in our lives and our study of Ayurveda.
  4. Review and become familiar with the meditation instruction given in this chapter and set the intention to meditate 10 minutes a day while you take this course. Listen to the audio of the meditation instruction. (See below.)

Basic Mindfulness Meditation Instruction

 

 

Schedule ten minutes a day to begin to practice meditation. Review the simple steps above and become familiar with the technique. It’s helpful to commit to a month of consistent short practice. If you find it difficult at first to stay connected with your breath, experiment with counting the breath. Each cycle of inhale and exhale counts as one. As soon as you notice you have become distracted start at “one” again. At first counting 3 cycles without distraction can be a big accomplishment! Counting the breath can sometimes ground the technique and help you stay focused.Remember that this is a practice- you don’t have to be good at it! You can allow yourself to experiment and let the time be without expectations or judgements of yourself. No pressure! When you sincerely practice the instructions whatever arises in your meditation is valuable just as it is.

If you have been meditating for a while bring a spirit of curiosity or a beginner’s mind to this renewed commitment to practice. As you progress through the course, you will have the opportunity to explore other meditation practices that will build on the foundation of mindfulness.

Taken from An Imaginal Journey of Peace

 

“When a caterpillar first begins this transformation, an entirely new kind of cell begins to appear inside the caterpillar that scientists call imaginal cells. These cells contain the imagining or blueprint of a whole new being. At first as these cells appear, they are attacked and resisted by the caterpillar, but gradually as more of these appear, they grow stronger and begin to cluster together to form the first organs of the new creature. Eventually clusters of cells will form extensions of connective tissue that bridge these small groups of cells into a larger form. The old form literally dies, as a new being is born from within the old. This is what is happening to humanity. Every person who carries universal peace in their hearts represents an Imaginal cell. In every nation there are groups of these cells that have begun to cluster together in specific regions to form an organ of peace, and gradually these groups are weaving a web of peace throughout the land”.

Michael White

Resources

  • Jon Kabat-Zinn – www.mindfulnesscds.com
  • Mind and Life Institute – www.mindandlife.org
  • Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel – Elizabethmattisnamgyel.com
  • Thrangu Rinpoche – Rinpoche.com
  • Meditation Cushions – samadhicushions.com
  • The Relaxation Revolution, Herbert Benson
  • An Open Heart, The Dalai Lama
  • No Time to Lose, Pema Chodron
  • Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson
  • Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, Sharon Begley
  • Destructive Emotions, Daniel Goleman and The Dalai Lama
  • The Joy of Living, Mingyur Rinpoche
  • It’s Up to You, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche