Sunday, 6 April 2014

Life as Meditation: T2 Article dated 6th April 2004

It was a hectic week for us. Our teacher, whom we consider an exceptional human being, needed emergency neurosurgery.Over the past two- three weeks, we had been noticing a few changes in him. He told us that he was not enjoying playing the sitar, an instrument that he has played every day for more than six decades, because the strokes were not perfect. He was finding it a little difficult to keep track of the rhythm. He complained that his handwriting was changing. His very sharp mind was not at its best. We dreaded that it could be an irreversible neurological condition. Of course his ever- infectious positivity, sage- like peacefulness and wit made us hopeful and created a certain scope of denial for us. He is 82 years old, so these not- so- obvious symptoms can easily be mistaken as part of a normal ageing process. We suggested to the family members that a neurological consultation was necessary.
However, in retrospect we find ourselves questioning if we pushed hard enough. Could we have pushed harder for a neurological scan had we been more objective? Was it possible that a part of us did not want to face what really might be in store? Of course, there was nothing that we could have done that would have changed the outcome.
So, what really happens to us when we are faced with a crisis? Do we really see the situation as it is? Or do we respond to the memories of experiences that we have had in the past? And based on these experiences, we try to pre- empt the future outcome? What happens in this process is that we are constantly vacillating between ' what has been' and ' what will be', and are not present for ' what is'. In 2000, pscychologist Joseph Tloczynski studied the changes in perception that accompany mindfulness meditation. He surmised: ' A person who meditates consequently perceives objects more as directly experienced stimuli and less as concepts.' In other words, meditation helps us to see experiences as they are happening in the now, rather than our perceptions of it.
The purpose of any authentic meditation is to train and help us be in the NOW, to be better able to see and accept ' what is'. In her book The Blissful Brain , neuroscientist Shanida Natarajan says that a meditative procedure must meet five essential criteria:
1) It must involve a specific technique that is both defined and taught.
2) It must involve, at some stage, progressive muscle relaxation.
3) It must involve, at some stage, a reduction in logical processing.
4) It must be self- induced.
5) It must involve a tool, referred to as an ' anchor', that allows effective focus of the mind.
A recent consensus definition of ' mindfulness', which essentially is any authentic meditative process, emphasises two complementary elements: the placement of attention on the immediate experience and adopting an open, curious, and accepting attitude toward that experience.
In Indian philosophical texts, the five stages of mind in meditation are described as:
1) Mudha ( Ignorant) — Where one is ignorant of the reality.
2) Ksipta ( Agitated) — As we try to focus, our mind becomes restless, agitated and distracted. We compulsively feel the need to ' escape'. 3) Viksipta ( Scattered) — Our mind becomes scattered and random thoughts, memories take our awareness away from the present.
4) Ekagra ( Attentive) — Finally, we become focused and attentive. We observe more, listen more, and become aware of the present.
5) Nirruddhya ( Restrained) — We are in control of our mind. We know we are not the mind and we do not get swayed by emotions, by our needs or by our defences. We become more cognizant of ' what is' and we flow.
Contrary to popular belief, authentic meditation does not consists of mere visualisation and surely does not advocate any dissociation from reality. Neither does it mean you have to be secluded in a room for endless hours. In fact, meditation teaches us to open up more to life itself, to become more objective and less interpretative.
There are numerous benefits of mindfulness on issues ranging from medical to psychological — be it stress, anxiety, bipolar disorder, low self- esteem or overall life satisfaction to medical conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and psoriasis. It also reduces the likelihood of developing Alzheimer's in old age.
If we consciously choose to be more present in the reality, be more aware of what is happening, observe more before concluding, listen more before interpreting, be open to experience rather than react... if we just try to lower our need to intellectualise all the time and be biased by our own judgements, perhaps life itself can become a meditation. We can then, perhaps ' flow' in life as well.

Dr Sangbarta Chattopadhyay and Dr Namita Bhuta are medical practitioners, psychotherapists and life coaches Share your problems with them at  dr. sangbarta@ gmail. com

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