Imagine, if you would, stepping into a room or a place where your thoughts are just not there. A place of peace and calm where those monkey-mind chatters that are usually bouncing around in your mind, just cease and are replaced with open awareness in each moment. No thoughts, no memories, no emotions, just peaceful open awareness where you are focused only on that awareness. Occasional thought might briefly wander through, but you don’t attach to them, you don’t get caught up in them, and they pass. A noise may get your momentary notice, but it too just passes on its way. So peaceful, so restful.
I am trying to describe what it is like for me when I step into my stillness. This is why I meditate. In Zen practice, the meditation form is called zazen, translated, sitting (za) Zen. This stillness is what happens that makes meditation so appealing to me; that keeps calling me back to it after some 35 years of practice. For me, where I am now, it is the “stillness.” Zazen is also the road to better attention and enlightenment, called kensho and ultimately, satori in Zen-speak. This post seeks to explore this stillness for you the reader. The desert highway image above has something to do with this effort. We will come back to it below.
Zazen is a form of mindfulness meditation. Vipassana Buddhism has a similar form. They are particularly powerful for moving you into this stillness. These practices move you out of dualistic thinking toward experiencing the world and yourself non-dualistically, as one with the universe. This is the enlightenment experiences mentioned above, kensho and satori. Kensho is just a brief glimpse. Satori is the real deal. Where you are able to stay in that exaulted place all of the time. It requires major brain rewiring (neuroplasticity). Other forms of meditation also move one in that direction, including yoga, transcendental meditation, etc. I do know from personal experience that Zen’s zazen meditation does.
To find and be able to hold this place of stillness usually takes years of practice for most of us, however. If I am in a hectic or stressful time in my life, as I have been lately, it is more difficult to stay in that stillness. I can get there because of all the practice I’ve had, but holding it, staying in it, becomes more of a challenge during these periods. I can touch it, but get caught up in a thoughts, and have to pick my mind up like training a little puppy, bring it back, and tell it to “sit.”
When I am in an intense spiritual retreat, a sesshin as it is called in Zen, I have been able to reach a deep level of this stillness for periods of 15 or more minutes and merge into it. With practice, I’m getting better at being there in my regular daily sittings, and even at times more and more, to be able to slip into it as I go through my day doing my various activities when I don’t have to be using discriminating thinking and when I just sitting being mindful. The secret is to keep practicing. That is why it is called “spiritual practice.”
Of course, there are many mental and physical health benefits of meditation that have been studied and published (see references at end of post from a workshop I attended a couple or years ago. A great workshop on meditation given by Dennis A. Marikis, PhD). There are also social benefits: meditation increases compassion. This is because meditation moves you from our cultures highly egocentric ways of looking at the world to a more allocentric worldview. Allo– means other. To look further into this aspect of meditation, see references at end.
I’ve been thinking for some time how to describe this “stillness”. The opening paragraph is where I have gotten so far. To “paint” a picture of it in words, it is very much like the metaphor of my last drive back from the Chihuahuan Desert of Big Bend National Park that I describe in some detail in my Guru book, hence the desert image above. To suciently describe it. I was driving heading north up Tx highway 118 going to Alpine. It is a pleasant drive through the desert flatlands mainly, dotted with occasional solitary desert mountains. As I drove the 90 or so miles up that road, it was like meditation, only in this I was moving steadily up the highway. I was “sitting” as in driving the truck. It struck me the mountains were like passing thoughts during meditation. They appear on the horizon, then you are passing them, and keep on truckin’ down the road/sitting, leaving them behind. The flatland is that still place in meditation. An occasional car or truck would pass, coming from the other direction, maybe another passing thought, memory, or feeling. It passes by. You are alone again driving down the road. A little later, a train passes, also going in the opposite direction. Ahh, a longer series of thoughts maybe. You pass it and are once again alone in your stillness as you drive.
Let’s talk about where most of our minds are are most of the time, at least where my mind used to be most of the time. Afterall, I don’t know what is really going on in most people’s minds. I am just summarizing; taking an educated guess. For most of us most of the time, especially in our culture, we have an endless dialogue going on in our heads most, if not all, of the time, except when we are asleep or unconscious. Even asleep, chatter goes on in our brains when we dream. This is monkey mind: chatter, chatter, chatter. And it is very egocentric chatter usually: me, me, me; mine, mine, mine; I, I, I. I know this is how my mind use to mostly work at any rate, and still does quite a bit if I don’t catch it and take it out of gear, back to being mindful in whatever I am doing. Our resting mind, is not “resting” at all. It is like a little hamster on a hamster wheel: round and round he goes, getting nowhere. How tiring! How much energy it sucks!
Imagine now, stepping into a place of no thought. Where that mind is still–and quiet. No chatter, no thoughts, just open awareness. The poor little hamster gets to get off of his wheel. It is incredibly peaceful. It’s Heaven, Nirvana! And it is always right here with us. Ours free for the taking. But the way is narrow–and for most of us it takes a lot of practice to access it. Our culture teaches us to bury it pretty much from our birth: consumerism, never-satisfiedism; more is always better, and never enough. More, more, more! Or, we get bored, sad, lonely, fearful, angry, etc., Things are only right, okay, for a little while. Sigh. Our little hamster-minds just running her little legs off on that wheel.
This stillness builds equanimity, another important concept. Defined by Webster as calmness, self-control, even-temperedness, tranquility, etc. I define equanimity in terms of no suffering, another important Buddhist concept, which ranges from the extreme to dissatisfaction and boredom in terms of psychic and emotional discomfort mainly. It takes practice and stillness to be able to have equanimity and to be able to quickly return to it when life knocks you out of it. I, again, talk a lot about this in Guru.
From Dennis A. Marikis, Ph.D. “Meditation.” Continuing Ed workshop presented in 2019 in Greenville, SC. Reprinted with permission.
Barinaga, Marcia. (2003). “Buddhism and Neuroscience: Studying the Well‐Trained Mind.” Science. 3 October 2003. 302: 44‐46.
Barth, F. Diane, L.C.S.W. (2013). “A Simple Technique for Feeling Better in the Here and Now.” Off the Couch Psychology Today. Apr 20, 2013.
Benson, Herbert, MD. 1975 (2001). The Relaxation Response. New York: Harper Collins.
Benson, Herbert, MD. (1984). Beyond the Relaxation Response. New York: Times Books.
Benson, Herbert, MD and Proctor, William, JD. (2011). Relaxation Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Biello, David. (2008). “Meditate on This: You Can Learn to Be More Compassionate: A new study shows that meditation opens the gateway to compassion.” Scientific American March 2008.
Brefczynski‐Lewis, J. A., Lutz, A., Schaefer, H.S., Levinson, D.B., Davidson, R.J. (2007). “Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long‐term meditation practitioners.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 104 (27) 11483–11488; published ahead of print June 27, 2007. doi:10.1073/pnas.0606552104.
Brooks, Michael H. (2014) This. Only This. Mindfulness Strategies for Discovering Peace in Every
Moment. Mountain View, CA: Zen Whim, Inc.
Brown R.P., Gerbarg, P.L. (2005). “Sudarshan Kriya Yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression. Part II—clinical applications and guidelines.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 11(4): 711–7. doi:10.1089/acm.2005.11.711. PMID 16131297.
Brown, Kirk W. and Ryan, Richard M. (2003). “The Benefits of Being Present: Mindfulness and Its Role in Psychological Well‐being.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003, 84(4):822‐848.
Craig, A. D. (2009). “How do you feel‐‐now? The anterior insula and human awareness.” Nature Reviews: Neuroscience. 10:59‐70.
Creed, Martin. Martin Creed: Thinking / Not Thinking (Work #1090); www.martincreed.com/site/works/work‐no‐1090.
Dalai Lama X. (1995). The World of Tibetan Buddhism: An overview of its philosophy and practice. Boston: Wisdom Publisher.
Dusek, Jeffery and Benson, Herbert, MD. (2009). “Mind‐Body Medicine: A Model of the Comparative Clinical Impact of the Acute Stress and Relaxation Responses.” Minn Med. 2009 May. 92(5): 47‐50.
Freitas, D.A., Holloway, E.A., Bruno, S.S., Chaves, G.S., Fregonezi, G.A., Mendonça, K.P. (2013). “Breathing exercises for adults with asthma.” Cochrane Database. October 2013.
Gethin, R. (1998). The Foundations of Buddhism; Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Giuseppe, Pagnoni, Milos, Cekic, Ying, Guo. (Sept 3 2008). “Thinking about Not‐Thinking”: Neural Correlates of Conceptual Processing during Zen Meditation. PLOS One 3(9).
Hanh, Thich Nhat. (1991). Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. New York: Bantam Books. Meditation| Dennis A Marikis, PhD 31 Harvard Mental Health Letter. (2009) “Yoga for anxiety and depression.” April 2009. Pages 4‐5. www.health.harvard.edu.
Hasenkamp, Wendy et al. (2012). “Mind Wandering and Attention during Focused Meditation: A Fine‐Grained Temporal Analysis of Fluctuating Cognitive States” NeuroImage Vol. 59(1):750–760; January 2, 2012.
Hayes, M., Chase, S. (March 2010). “Prescribing Yoga.” Primary Care 37 (1): 31–47; doi:10.1016/j.
Hayes, Steven C., Strosahl, Kirk D., and Wilson, Kelly G. (2012). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change (2nd Ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
Kabat‐Zinn, Jon. (2013). Trauma, Mindfulness and Neurobiology of Self. Premier Publishing & Media. www.pesi.com.
Kam, J.W., Handy, T.C. (2013). “The neurocognitive consequences of the wandering mind: a mechanistic account of sensory‐motor decoupling” Front Psychol. 2013 Oct 14; 4:725. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00725.
Krasner, Michael S, MD et al. “Association of an Educational Program in Mindful Communication with Burnout, Empathy and Attitudes Among Primary Care Physicians.” (2009). JAMA. September 23/30, 2009. 302(12):1284‐1293.
Lazar, S.W., Kerr, C.E., Wasserman, R.H., Gray, J.R., Greve, D.N., Treadway, M.T., McGarvey, M.,
Quinn, B.T., Dusek, J.A., Benson, H., Rauch, S.L., Moore, C.I., Fischl, B. (2005). “Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness”. Neuroreport. Nov 28; 16(17): 1893–1897.
Lutz, A., Greischar, L.L., Perlman, D. and Davidson, R. (2009). “BOLD signal in insula is differentially related to cardiac function during compassion meditation in experts vs novices.” Neuroimage. 2009 September; 47(3): 1038‐1046. Doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.04.081.
Lutz, A., Greischar, L.L., Rawlings, N.B., Ricard, M., Davidson, R.J. (2004). “Long‐term meditators self‐induce high‐amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. November 16, 2004. 101(11):16369–16373.
Lutz, A., Slagter, H.A., Dunne, J.D. and Davidson, R.J. (2008 April). “Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation.” Trends Cognitive Science. 12(4): 163‐169. Doi:10.1016/j.tics.2008.01.005.
Manna, A., Raffone, A., Perrucci, M.G., Nardo, D., Ferretti, A., Tartaro, A., Londei, A., Del Gratta, C., Belardinelli, M.O. and Romani, G.L. (2010). “Neural correlates of focused attention and cognitive monitoring in meditation.” Brain Res Bull. 2010 Apr 29; 82(1‐2):46‐56.
Mitchell, Marilyn. (2013). “Dr. Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response: Learn to Counteract the Physiological Effects of Stress” “Post published by Marilyn Mitchell M.D. on Mar 29, 2013 in Heart and Soul Healing” Psychology Today. www.psychologytoday.com/blog/heart‐and‐soulhealing/201303/dr‐herbert‐benson‐s‐relaxation‐response.
Murphy, Michael and Donovan, Steven. (1988). The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation. Oakland, CA: Dharma Enterprises. Meditation| Dennis A Marikis, PhD 32
Niemiec, Ryan and Wedding, Danny. (2014). Positive Psychology at the Movies 2, 2nd Edition. Boston: Hogrefe Publishing.
Pal, G.K., Velkumary, S., Madanmohan. (2004). “Effect of short‐term practice of breathin exercises on autonomic functions in normal human volunteers.” (PDF) Indian Journal of Medical Research 120 (2): 115–21.
Passingham, R.E., Bengtsson, S.L. and Lau, H.C. “Medial frontal cortex: from self‐generated action to reflection on one’s own performance.” Trends Cogn Sci. 2010 January; 14(1):16‐21.
Peniston, E. G., & Kulkosky, P. J. (1991). “Alcoholic personality and alpha‐theta brainwave training.” Medical Psychotherapy 2, 37‐55. Phillips, Adam. (2013). Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. New York: Ferrar, Strauss and Giroux.
Pickert, K. (February 2014). “The art of being mindful. Finding peace in a stressed‐out, digitally dependent culture may just be a matter of thinking differently.” Time 183 (4): 40–46.
Ricard, Matthieu. (2013; translation 2015). Altruism: The Power and Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. New York: Little, Brown and Co.
Ricard, Matthieu, Lutz, Antoine and Davidson, Richard. (2014). “Mind of the Meditator.” Scientific American. November 2014:39‐45.
RosenKranz, M.A., Davidson, R.J., MacCoon, D.G., Sheridan, J.F., Kalin, N.H. and Lutz, A. (2013). “A comparison of mindfulness‐based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation.” Brain Behav Immun. 2013 January; 27C:174‐184. Doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2012.10.013.
Ross, A., Thomas, S. (2010). “The health benefits of yoga and exercise: a review of comparison studies.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. January 2010.
Siegel, Ronald D. (2010). The Mindfulness Solution; Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems. New York: The Guilford Press.
Sterman, M. Barry. (2000). “Basic concepts and clinical findings in the treatment of seizure disorders with EEG operant conditioning.” Clinical Electroencephalography 31(1):45‐55.
Teasdale, J. D., Segal, Z.V., Williams, J.M.G., Ridgeway, V.A., Soulsby, J.M. and Lau, M.A. “Prevention of Relapse/Recurrence in Major Depression by Mindfulness‐Based Cognitive Therapy. (2000). Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 2000, 68(4):615‐623.
West, C.P. et al. “Association of Resident Fatigue and Distress with Perceived Medical Errors.” (2009). JAMA. September 23/30, 2009. 302(12):1294.
Enable lightbox for this gallery?Open document settingsOpen publish panel
From Marikis, D.A. 2019. “Meditation.” Workshop presentation sponsored by the Institute for Brain Potential, Los Banos CA. Coming soon. Waiting on permissions.