Meditation is often lumped in with traditional Chinese medicine and other aspects of Asian culture. "Tai chi and meditation," or "yoga and meditation," or "exercise and meditation" are prescriptions we often see for the ailments of modern America. I am trained in meditation. I have practiced meditation. So why don't I push meditation for my patients, as many of my colleagues do?
I think meditation is hard. Most meditation techniques have as their goal the quieting of the mind and a ceasing of thought. Essentially, the goal is to have the mind and body be still together. The body is sitting quietly, and the mind is quietly not thinking. As someone with a very active mind, for me this is an effective form of torture. I have spent many hours trying, and failing, to reach any sort of zone with sitting meditation. I have slightly more success with walking meditation. Chanting in foreign tongues remains effortful for me, for the most part, so my mind is engaged with proper pronunciation and keeping up with the group. Failing over and over and over, the benefits of practice largely undetectable, left me unmotivated to continue practice.
Do we need such a narrow definition of meditation, though? We have mounds of research on the effects of meditation on both novices and skilled meditators. There is no denying the benefits. But are there options for those whose egos can't tolerate the parade of failure? I maintain the answer is yes. It is my assertion that the meditative state need not be limited to the thoughtless mind, but rather is represented by unity of mind and body. I think we can agree that multi-tasking and lack of mindfulness are problematic. Perhaps your body is doing one thing, such as preparing dinner, but your mind is doing something completely different, such as adding something to a mental shopping list. Bringing mind and body together for the single task of making dinner, and then later for the task of making the shopping list, is preferable for the cultivation of serenity.
I have just described mindfulness, the practice of which is now a large industry in the western world. But mindfulness teachers encourage students to practice as much as possible, each action being mindful. It is a great spiritual practice, But how easy is it to sustain a perpetually mindful attitude? Not easy at all. More failure.
I've grown to appreciate making space in my life for meditative activities that come naturally to me; activities whose unforced outcome is unity of mind and body. I think most people have something like that in their lives, and it passes unrecognized, rather than as a necessary tool for restoration of mind and body. Some things that fit the description for me are weeding my garden. dancing, and the climbing gym. When I am weeding, I have a narrow focus. I am seeking and pulling some plants from other plants, persistently, and with great care. I am thinking no other thoughts. When I dance, I experience unity of body and music (if my game is really on), and there are no thoughts. At the climbing gym, any split of mind and body results in a fall, so the motivation to stay unified is high, even though safety gear makes the risk low. I have asked patients about such activities for them, and answers include cooking and baking, hiking, bike riding, making art or music, building something, housecleaning, and other activities. I believe these activities, things that one does naturally with unity of mind and body, qualify as meditative activity. Do you feel calm and focused during and for awhile after? You were probably meditating.
But what about the "quiet mind?" Don't you have to stop thought for it to be meditation? We know from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), that brains "in the zone" are different from brains working effortfully. Researchers expected that for people with a particular talent, more of their brains would be active during that activity compared to less talented controls. The opposite was found. Rather than recruiting more brain areas during the expression of talent, such as writing, or music, talented people in the zone recruited much smaller areas of their brains, and the rest of the brain was quiet. Think about that for a moment. The zone is exemplified by singular focus and lack of cognitive noise. Doesn't that sound like monks sitting quietly and thinking no thoughts? Doesn't that sound like a meditative brain? It does to me.
Since I began to recognize meditation as fundamentally a unity of mind and body, my pursuit and appreciation of such experiences is much more gratifying, and I am careful to make time for them so I can reap the benefits. Perhaps someday I will be a person who can sit still and have no thoughts. Age is carrying me that direction, I think. Until then, I will weed, and I will dance, and I will climb. What will you do?