Almost everyone is familiar with the image of robed Buddhist monks seated in deep contemplation. Buddhist terms like "Zen" and "nirvana" have worked their way into common usage thanks to rock groups and New Agers. But you don't have to be from Tibet, Seattle or a commune to appreciate meditation. Its widely compatible philosophies have many benefits and are easy enough for anyone to do.
"You are free to think of Buddhism as a religion, but you are free not to," says Buddhist priest Grace Schireson in a half day retreat for beginners. Grace is a licensed psychologist who teaches meditation for stress reduction and maintains the Empty Nest Zendo in the Sierra Foothills of California. Though Buddhism is a religion for many, including Grace herself, for others it is a philosophy or discipline based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the man who came to be known as the Buddha. Out of his teachings, a rich tradition of meditation has evolved that has lasted 2500 years and even now lends its beneficial influence to other religions and secular institutions.
The art of meditation shows up in surprising places. It is used by psychologists like Grace to teach people to manage and reduce their levels of stress. Expectant mothers are taught basic relaxation techniques based on these eastern exercises to help them through labor in childbirth education classes like the ones given at Memorial Hospital in Modesto, California. Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello's book "Sadhana, a way to God" takes eastern meditation exercises and reinterprets them from a Christian perspective to enhance prayer. And if you look hard enough, you can find small communities like Modesto's Almond Blossom Sangha, taught by Grace Schireson. Composed of psychologists, philosophy professors, and plain folk who just enjoy the benefits of meditation, the Almond Blossom Sangha is primarily focused on self examination and personal growth rather than religious pursuits.
The Almond Blossom Sangha meets once a week and offers retreats of varying lengths several times a year. A half day retreat for beginners was given at the Healing Arts Center in downtown Modesto on April 13th, giving newcomers a chance to get a feel for meditation, get to know members of the Sangha, and most of all - to ask questions.
So why meditate? There are a multitude of benefits to the practice. The exercise of relaxing the body can help ease a number of stress related physical symptoms, such as tension headaches and difficulty sleeping. Extended meditation and relaxation can help you "behaviorally modify" yourself to lessen your body's reactions to stressful situations. Like Pavlov's dogs learned to salivate every time they hear a bell, we can teach ourselves over time to get physically agitated every time we encounter a stressful situation. Using the conscious relaxation techniques of meditation can help decondition that reaction over time so that we are less inclined to get "stressed out" over little things. Awareness of the body and control over physical relaxation can also help with painful or fearful situations, such as childbirth, helping to prevent a panicky reaction to pain that can make those situations worse than they need to be. And some people find that the practice helps them with psychosomatic ailments like asthma or eczema.
The benefits aren't just physical, though. Meditation offers a chance to sit for a space of time and face yourself and your thoughts. In one of the fundamental exercises, "mindfulness", one attempts to still one's mind of thought and focus only on your breathing. Especially for those just beginning the practice, attaining complete mental stillness is not a realistic goal. Rather, the benefit comes in recognizing the thoughts that surface in your mind, observing them and then "letting them go" without stopping to dwell on them. "A thousand times you will be distracted," says Grace, leading a group in meditation. "And a thousand times you come back to your breathing." In the process, you have the opportunity to observe your thoughts and gain insights into yourself. A very earthy, approachable teacher, Grace described the process in another way. An aerobics instructor once told her, "you ate it, you lift it". According to Grace, she has found a parellel in meditation: "you thought it, you let it go".
This mindfulness is the beginning of a process in which we become aware of ourselves and how we act. Grace explained some of the basic elements of Zen Buddhist philosophy as the context in which meditation takes place. The ultimate goal is to be aware and to act consciously and with "an appropriate response", in the manner that best fits the situation, rather than to react to the world and its situations without really thinking about it. Zen Buddhism teaches there are four main groups of worldly distractions to "let go" of one's attachments to: things, sensations, praise/blame and reputation. These things should not be allowed to rule one's life or be one's reason for existence. For example, although it's normal to enjoy pleasant sensations and to not like unpleasant sensations, Grace says you can't go through life as a "comfort seeking missile", living to get drunk and seek physical gratification. In the same way, you can't obsess over avoiding hardships. Zen Buddhism is not about oblivion or escape from the world, but about attaining harmony with where you are.
For such a rewarding physical and mental practice, the basics of meditation aren't at all difficult. Those strict postures and lotus positions? Forget them. "The reality is, most of us are not twelve year old monks," Grace tells her beginners. Find a position that you know you can hold for twenty or thirty minutes at a time without causing joint stress or physical damage - the idea is to find a position to leave your body in so that you can focus on the meditation without fidgeting. If you're going to sit cross-legged, make sure your knees are supported - either by the ground, in the traditional lotus position, for those who are very limber or who practice yoga, or by pillows for many of the rest of us. Sitting in a chair is fine, too, but make sure your thighs are parallel to the floor to prevent muscle fatigue. People with bad backs can consider laying down with their knees slightly supported, as long as they are aware that part of their challenge will be not falling asleep. A typical meditation session at the Almond Blossom Sangha involves thirty minutes of seated meditation: once you've settled yourself into whatever position is most maintainable for you, focus on your breathing and "letting go". A bell rings to signal ten minutes of walking meditation, which Grace describes as an experience something like being a "set of legs on a centipede" as the group walks quietly in a loose circle, after which the group returns to seated meditation for another twenty minutes. The group spends some time afterward discussing their individual experiences and insights. The basic elements of the process are quite simple. Meditation can easily be done alone as well, but the "sangha" (meaning "group") is one of the three treasures of Buddhism, teaches Grace. Not only does a group make the discipline easier and keep one from feeling awkward, but they can also prevent one from falling into the trap of starting to feel too proud of yourself and your journey to self-enlightenment.
Eastern meditation practices have developed over more than two thousand years in various eastern religions, philosophies and cultures. Even so, regardless of whether your interest is passing or profound, meditation is an easily approachable practice with many potential benefits for almost anyone, regardless of religious or cultural background.