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There are many hundreds of meditation practices found in religious traditions and personal development systems throughout the world, and although it might look like people are all doing the same thing when they sit with their eyes closed, they might well be doing any of this huge range of different things. One way to get an overview of all these different approaches, is to see them as fitting into one of four broad categories – or maybe a combination of two or more of them.

Concentrating
In this types of practice you focus your attention on one aspect of your experience, and train yourself in regulating your attention by patiently and consistently bringing your mind back to this focus of attention whenever it drifts off. Meditating in this way calms and focuses your mind, and brings together all your scattered energies and thoughts. Body awareness meditations and mindfulness of the breath are both practices of this type, and are this approach is the best way to learn to meditate for most people.

Generating
In these meditation practices, you bring into being, or further develop, a positive quality or state of consciousness, using your imagination, memory and will. The classic example of this type of meditation is the family of meditations known as the Brahma Viharas, which are also called The Four Imeasurable in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The root of these is the cultivation of loving kindness (metta bhavana or maitri bhavana), the fundamental state of positive regard and well wishing which underlies all others. When you experience metta and you encounter suffering, then your natural response is one of compassion (karuna), and when you encounter growth, development and happiness your response is one of sympathetic joy (mudita). The fourth practice is the cultivation of equanimity – the capacity to respond creatively and from your values without being either overwhelmed by all the suffering in the world, or intoxicated with pleasure.

Receiving  
This approach can be seen as complementary to the concentrating practices, because instead of focusing the attention on one specific aspect of your experience, when practising in this way you seek to remain open to all of your experience even-handedly. This type of meditation is often done with your eyes slightly open, so that you pay equal attention to images, sounds, physical sensations, etc. and allow them all to come and go without getting caught up with any one of them. Japanese Zazen and the Tibetan practices of Dzog Chen and Mahamudra  can be seen as practices of this type.

Reflecting 
Once your mind is settled, then you can turn your focused attention onto your experience so that you can see it more clearly. This might mean observing the way in which your thoughts, feelings and sensations come and go, or exploring your experience to try to identify the self that we all presume to be there. Sometimes, as in koan practice, this might include the use of words, but often it is more an attitude of inquiry, as your mind may be too refined for discursive thought.

Mixing and Balancing
Any particular meditation practice might include any one, or several of these four modes or dimensions of practice, with many complex meditations in the Tibetan traditions including phases of each.

It is worth remembering that these definitions are just a guideline, as the practices do not have distinct boundaries, and whenever you are meditating you need to maintain a balance between consciously guiding your attention (concentrating) and being receptive to whatever experience is arising (receiving). If you focus too much on concentrating your meditation will become tight and dry, but if there isn’t enough focus then you are likely just to drift away from meditation into daydreams.

Leonardo's Vitruvian Man

I have been meditating for nearly 20 years, and the more I meditate the more important awareness of the body seems to be. This isn’t the way I was originally taught to meditate, however this approach to teaching meditation is now the one that is followed by most of the meditation teachers that I know.

We live in a busy world. Most of us live in urban areas and receive huge amounts of stimulus from adverts, people, music, noise, television, ipods, phones – I could fill the rest of the page with this list, so let’s leave it there. When we look at the lifestyles of humans through most of their evolution, we can see that they had much simpler and less stimulating lives. It seems likely that we have not evolved to deal with the high levels of stimulation that we currently receive – no wonder so many of us feel overwhelmed so much of the time.

There has also been a huge change in what we do with our time, with a continual move away from activities that involved our whole bodies towards work that involves only our heads and our hands. Although this process has accelerated during the last century, we’ve been losing touch with our bodies for quite some time.

So what? Well the big problem is that if we lose touch with our bodies, we lose touch with our emotions. They still underlie (and so effectively control) our thinking, but if we can’t feel our feelings we can’t take them into account, make allowances for them, or compensate for them. You only have to observe how venomous and irrational many academic disputes are to see the way that denied emotionality complicates things enormously.

During the period when the founders of the great religions taught there was no need to teach about emotional intelligence – everybody was in touch with their emotions – they just had to teach about which emotions to support and cultivate and which emotions were unhelpful and should have energy withdrawn from them. For many of us, there is a lot of work to do in connecting more honestly with our emotions and feelings, as only then can we begin to transform them. If we don’t, then we run the risk of deluding ourselves, and will struggle to connect effectively with others.

The simplest way to do this is to learn to notice the subtle sensations in our bodies, particularly in the front of the body: the heart, the belly, and the crossroad of nerves between them called the solar plexus. Although we’re all familiar with carrying emotional tension in our shoulders and other muscles, it is in this tender front of our bodies that we can most fully connect with our feelings and emotions.

There’s no need for me to go into the philosophy of this stuff here, but everybody is familiar with Descartes’ famous dictum “I think, therefore I am”. I believe it would be much more helpful for us to be able to say “I think and feel, therefore I am”.

On my Buddhist Coach Facebook page I just posted a link to this piece on mindfulness of the body, observing just how much emphasis has been placed on mindfulness as a primarily mental (i.e. thinking/ cognitive) activity. However, as the author elegantly puts it, “what we translate as “mindfulness” cannot properly be understood as a purely mental activity.”

I’ve been very struck by the huge cognitive bias in the way in which mindfulness is being promulgated, and I suggest that a key reason for this is that the people who research stuff are very heady, and that’s how they make sense of the world. I’ve been delighted to see the results of all the research that has been undertaken into meditation and mindfulness in the last few years, and at the same time there’s a little bit of me that complains “we’ve known this works for nearly 3,000 years, why do we need a a CAT scanner before anyone believes us?”

However, this isn’t just a modern phenomenon, the same process is evident in the Pali canon, where emotion-based practices such as the cultivation of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity (the Brahma Viharas) were downgraded as practices by the monks who transcribed the Buddhist oral tradition. That’s because the kind of people who want to write down and tabulate an oral tradition are the kind of people who make sense of the word primarily through the medium of ideas, and so don’t really understand or value body-based emotional experience.

The biographies of Tibetan teachers often show them as being expert scholars, who then have a spiritual crisis of some sort that forces them to recognise that they have to go beyond the intellect – Naropa being a classic example. The important thing for us to remember is to avoid the temptation to swing to the pole of rejecting rational thought altogether  – as happens sometimes, especially in New Age circles) – we need to be mindful of both the mind and the body.

This stuff is important to me because it has been, and continues to be, my working ground. I came to Buddhism with very little awareness of my body or my emotions, and the longer I practice, the more important I understand the body to be. I have a lot more to say on this issue, but I’ll leave it there for now.

Another great book summary from my friends at Coaching on Call which explains the consequences of a lack of mindfulness.

Leadership Insights from Coaching on Call

The phenomenon of multitasking has been defined by psychiatrist Dr Edward Halliwell as “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously!”You Can’t Multitask (so stop trying!)- by Paul Atchley
Atchley reports that neuroscientists at the University of California monitored interruptions among office workers and found that it took an average of fifteen minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or answering e-mail and return to their original task.
It was also found that multitasking contributes to the release of stress hormones and adrenaline, which can cause long-term health problems if not controlled, and contributes to the loss of short-term memory.
Multitasking adversely affects how we learn
Research by Professor Russell Poldrack shows that people use different areas of the brain for learning and storing new information when they are distracted: brain scans of people who are distracted or multitasking show activity in the striatum, a region of the brain involved in learning new skills; brain scans of people who are not distracted show activity in the hippocampus, a region involved in storing and recalling information. So even if you do learn while multitasking, that learning is less flexible and less accessible afterwards.
So why do we try?
There are various reasons why multitasking is more and more widely assumed to be desirable. These include:
  • Increase in technology – remote distractions and modes of communication (email, texts, messaging, internet searches,  etc.)
  • We’re hard wired to respond to social messaging and expanding our awareness of the group(s) we relate to – so we unconsciously scan for information all the time
  • We crave information because it makes us feel more comfortable – multiple sources of confirmation increases our confidence in our choices
  • The illusion of achievement – the buzz of activity makes us feel productive and needed
What can you do to avoid overload?
  1. Consciously approach one task at a time and stick with it. If the task is too large, chunk it down into sub-tasks and aim to complete these one at a time
  2. Take regular short breaks – preferably in the outdoors as frequent exposure to nature is shown to enhance receptivity and even increase IQ
  3. Know when to close your door to avoid interruption and use this time to focus intently on the task in hand
  4. Be clear about what information is useful and be on guard against just seeking more and more confirmation of what you have already decided in order to make you feel good – rather, seek out information that challenges you and therefore helps you make better decisions
  5. Check email / voice messages at pre-determined times rather than being constantly interrupted by them throughout the day
There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time
Lord Chesterfield – advice to his son in 1740

 

I wrote the following on Saturday as part of a workshop that Chris Hoyle (Tejamitra) and I were running in North London. Like many things, it had a certain resonance at the time that it loses out of context, but I thought I’d share it anyway. I’m putting it here because it’s too long to use as an update on the Buddhist Coach Facebook Page.

Credo

I believe that there is no God – we must take responsibility for ourselves.

I believe that seeing oneself as separate from others is painful, exhausting and lonely.

I believe that craving and hatred are painful and self-propagating.

I believe that actions have consequences, both in our own psyches and in the cosmos.

I believe that to act kindly changes the universe for the better.

I believe that love is always better than fear.

I believe in the transformative and therapeutic powers of meditation.

I believe there is delight in stillness.

I believe the means justify the ends, not the other way round.

I believe it’s all too easy to lose a sense of the transcendent, so we need those who are more in touch with it to remind us.


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