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Sharing reflections on 50 years of meditation

Meditation is no quick fix, but if you establish a consistent practice, over time, you’ll appreciate the results.

These days, meditation is all the rage. John Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. popularized meditation with his course on “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR)” developed in 1979. He adapted various schools of Buddhist meditation for Western students. Today, corporations, health clinics, and hospitals teach this program to employees and patients to help them cope with the stress and strains of modern life.

In the 1960s, the Beatles popularized Transcendental Meditation, which originated in India. For a fee, students receive a Sanskrit mantra or phrase to concentrate on when meditating. TM is still available today, although it is less well-known than it was in the past.

I was introduced to meditation in 1974 through my involvement with Aikido, a mind-body Japanese martial art. I’ve been meditating regularly since then. I want to share some of my reflections on my 50 years of meditation.

It’s hard to establish a regular practice. This is the most difficult part of meditation. Most interested adults learn a meditation technique, practice it a few times, and then can’t quite seem to make it part of their daily routine. Like everyone, I struggled with this for the first five years. I might meditate for a few days, miss a few days, and start again. Or I might miss a month and then start back up. My Aikido practice provided a structure that reinforced regular meditation. But most people don’t have support for their meditation practice.

Meditation teaches us how to shift our attention effectively. To a large degree, meditative practices have us focus on our body, most often our breath. When we start thinking, and notice that we’re thinking, we shift our attention back to the sensation of breathing. So, we’re shifting our attention back and forth from sensation to awareness of thought and then back again. We’re instructed not to become involved in our thoughts, but simply to notice when we’re thinking. Over time, it’s easier to stay focused on our breath and we become less interested in our thoughts. But in the beginning, we become aware of how busy our minds are!

Consistency is more important than length. Most people are instructed to start with 20 minutes of meditation once or twice a day. Beginning meditators get antsy after a few minutes. It’s so hard to be still when you first start. Our thoughts seem to cascade from our minds like Niagara Falls. It’s better to meditate for 5 minutes every day than 35 minutes once a week. Meditators can increase their time when they’re ready.

It takes a long time to become aware of how meditation changes your mind. Almost immediately, most people experience relaxation when they meditate, which is valuable for stress reduction. But it takes much longer for meditators to experience the feeling of peacefulness in their everyday lives, especially when the going gets tough. This takes more time. And that experience grows slowly and not always linearly.

It takes a longer time to become aware of how meditation changes your behavior. I know that I’ve made some changes when my wife remarks that I’m more patient, kind, and calmer. She’ll say— “I think your meditation is really helping you!” Ultimately, the purpose of meditation is to become the best version of yourself. I joked with a friend that I need another 50 years of practice to get where I hope to be!

Don’t evaluate your practice. Don’t ask yourself— “How was my meditation today? Do I feel better? Worse? Did it help me?” Just do it and forget about it. Somedays meditation is lovely and other days it’s miserable—just like the weather in Washington.

Meditation isn’t a quick fix for all that ails you. But if you establish a consistent practice, over time, you’ll appreciate the results.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. For more information, visit www.everettclinic.com.

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