Bob Van Oosterhout

Mastering Meditation
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Mastering Meditation:

Meditation is very simple but not easy. The purpose of meditation (as I teach it) is to train our mind to focus on what we believe is most important. Regular meditation allows us to choose our thoughts and perceptions. It provides us with a perceptual flexibility so that we can let go of non-productive ways of thinking and see things from different points of view. Regular meditation leads to clarity of thought and emotion. It helps us become more aware of our own and others concerns and leads to improved planning and problem solving.

Distraction and mind wandering are expected in meditation - each distraction provides additional practice in letting go and re-focusing. You could argue that having more distractions produces a better meditation since it provides us with more practice in letting go. However, the times of no distraction bring us a sense of peace and help us feel centered so that is nice too. Essentially there is no such thing as a bad meditation. Lots of distraction - great! - lots of practice. No distraction - great! - feel centered and peaceful.

I do not think of meditation as a relaxation technique. It is a way of disciplining our mind. Think of a child who has never been disciplined - it takes a while for him to get used to having limits. Our mind is the same way. There can be an initial resistance. Just like learning to hold a tennis racket or golf club in the right way the first time feels awkward and unnatural, meditation can seem uncomfortable at first. It usually becomes much easier after a couple of weeks. That doesn’t mean that we will no longer have distractions. I’ve been meditating for 29 years now and still experience lots of distraction at times.

It helps to set aside a specific time and place to begin practicing meditation. If 20 minutes seems too long, start with 10 but stay with it. It’s ok to look at your watch or you can set a timer to see when you are finished. Our body and mind get into a rhythm with meditation and we began to feel when its time to meditate. I notice a considerable difference if I miss my morning meditation. My thinking is not as clear and there is more mental struggle when I don’t meditate.

Meditation is different from visualization or guided imagery. It is different from listening to soft music or imagining ourselves lying on a warm beach. Meditation is a way to train our mind, to bring in under our control rather than at the mercy of whatever stressor is competing for our attention. Using music during meditation can be disruptive by making it more difficult to meditate when the music is not available.

Meditation is also different from Thought Focusing. Thought Focusing deals with surface details like worry or mental recycling of stressful thoughts. Meditation takes us deeper by training us to control our thoughts and perceptions. Meditation puts us more in touch with who we are and who we want to be. In some ways it can be thought of as a long term, gentle, self-therapy. Issues come up and we let go of them, just like every other distraction. It may not replace counseling for those struggling with specific issues but it can have a similar result and it can greatly facilitate the counseling process (besides that, its free!).

Although we begin the meditation by practicing diaphragmatic breathing, it is common for our breath to become slower and shallower during the course of a meditation. Our body simply needs less oxygen as we relax more deeply. Our body tends to take care of itself when we are in a meditative state. I find it very helpful (although challenging) to meditate when I am sick. If we find that we are falling asleep during meditation, it probably means we need more sleep.

The time commitment for meditation can be an obstacle for some people. Think of it as an investment. We are paid back much more than the few minutes per day in increased sensitivity and efficiency. Many people report that they need less sleep after they have been meditating regularly - resulting in more time and more effectiveness. How can you beat that?

Meditation tends to energize us. It is usually best not to meditate right before bed for that reason. If I start to get sleepy when driving, I pull over and meditate for a few minutes to help wake me up. It is also helpful to meditate when stress seems to be pressing in on us. It’s a way of "stopping the world" and giving our "selves" a chance to catch up.