The Practice of Tranquility is more than 2,500 years old and has been practiced by countless people over the millennia. I say this so you can know that what I'm going to teach you is ancient and time-tested. It may or may not be for you, but, in any case, you can trust it. I didn't make it up.
Our culture keeps uncovering more and more reasons why it is a good idea to meditate. For example, according to studies, it has tremendous health benefits, like decreasing stress (by lowering cortisol), improving focus and memory (by raising the level of gamma waves), and preventing relapse into depression by 50 percent (according to studies by Jon Kabat-Zinn, M.D., and Zindel Segal, Ph.D.).
Western science has done a tremendous job of cataloging so-called "negative mind states" (like depression, anxiety, and so on) and prescribing truly helpful treatments for them. Meditation is fast become one of those treatments. Buddhism, on the other hand, has spent the last 2,500 years cataloging positive mind states, such as wisdom, compassion, generosity and patience. It is truly wonderful to live in a time when these two mighty traditions meet. No matter what perspective you come from, the benefits of meditation are numerous and deep. Here is my list:
1) Meditation makes you like yourself more, and you stop acting so crazy, terrified and confused.
When you practice meditation, you don't stop thinking. Thinking just goes on and on, but you take a different attitude to your thoughts, which is simply to allow them to be as they are. As you do so, you get to know yourself in a whole new way. You see how your mind works, and what affects you. You see that the smell of toast makes you indescribably happy, you think way too much about your hairstyle, and that every time the phone rings, you get adrenaline in your stomach. You didn't know these things about yourself, and, when you stop judging yourself (as meditation teaches), you begin to see yourself as someone rather wonderful -- vulnerable, strong, quirky and incredibly well-intentioned. You have become your own best friend -- one who happens to like you a lot, no matter what.
Thoughts are always trying to seduce you in one way or another -- to get mad about something, crave something, avoid something, to become busier, less busy, and so on. In an untrained state, we always go along for the ride. But when you train your mind through the practice of meditation, you see that no matter how many thoughts arise that tell you to become furious, or desirous, or sleepy or frenzied, they all, eventually, pass. With each moment you wait, you soften.
2) Meditation makes you like your fellow humans more.
The practice of meditation has one particularly odd side effect. I did not anticipate this one, and, as far as I can tell from my fellow practitioners and meditation students, no one else did, either.
As it chips away at your concepts, stories and truths, meditation opens your heart. Why are these two things related? Because when you give up your story about yourself and about life, you are left with things as they are. Since you can't take refuge in stories, you have no protection. You are basically raw. When you're open, vulnerable and inquisitive, guess what happens? You feel everything. Your fellow humans cease to be puppets in your wee drama, and instead become actual individuals with joys and sorrows, both of which you can feel. You see that everyone -- everyone -- is as vulnerable as you are, and is pretending that they are not. So your heart goes out to them, even the ones you think are jerks. You can no longer treat anyone as less than yourself. And what does our world need more than this?
3) Meditation helps you see the magic of this world.
When you have a sense of gentleness toward yourself and the ability to love genuinely, something quite extraordinary happens: You relax. Whether things go well, or poorly, on any particular day, you can deal with it because you know how to remain soft and open. This soft openness is no different from waking up to the present moment.
In the present moment, the natural wisdom, beauty and bliss of your own mind and this world are apparent. Profound wisdom in the form of awareness cuts through your concepts, again and again. The simple act of meditation -- of placing awareness on breath and, when it strays, bringing it back -- is exactly, precisely, utterly this act of wisdom.
Have you ever wondered where that awareness comes from that says, "Hey, you're thinking -- you're supposed to be paying attention to your breath"? You're wandering around in a sea of hope, fear, boredom, excitement, and so on, when, out of nowhere, awareness cuts in to remind you of what you are supposed to be doing.
Where does that come from?
Well, unfortunately, I do not know, but I do know that this is the same place that creative inspiration comes from, and insight and freshness. So don't be afraid of softness, openness and the groundlessness that can accompany the giving up of concept. Instead, you could learn to fall, again and again, into the space of not knowing, which turns out to be where love, compassion and omniscience reside. In the words of Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa, "The bad news is you're falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there's no ground."
Here is a brief video introduction to Shamatha meditation, or the Practice of Tranquility. It is about 10 minutes long:
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