“Boring, even painful, experiences can become interesting and pleasant when experienced in a state of intense concentration.”Tweet
– Shinzen Young
Shinzen Young is a mindfulness teacher and neuroscience research consultant who says of himself: “I’m a Jewish-American Buddhist teacher who got turned on to comparative mysticism by an Irish-Catholic priest and who has developed a Burmese-Japanese fusion practice inspired by the spirit of quantified science.” In this excerpt from his new book, The Science of Enlightenment, Young outlines the most basic principle of mindfulness meditation: a cultivation of focus that can be practiced at any moment of the day, during any activity. He explains how learning meditation can be like learning to drive a car – a process that we build from the ground up, starting slowly and in silence, and working up to engaging in busy traffic and fast-moving highways.
There are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes around what meditation is and what it is not. People who have not practiced it may think that there is a single meditative state. But there is a continuum of meditative states, starting from a light focus that almost everybody has experienced and proceeding to profound states of physiological trance that very few people have experienced. So one dimension of growth in meditation involves depth. As a general tendency, as the months and years pass, our ability to achieve deeper states improves.
A second misconception about meditation is that it is something that can only be done sitting cross-legged on the floor in a quiet room. By definition, meditation is any practice that significantly elevates a person’s base level of focus, and a meditative state is any state wherein you are extraordinarily focused. So any situation wherein you’re consciously cultivating focus is, by definition, a meditation.
For example, you can practice meditation while talking to someone. In fact, you could do that in a number of different ways. You can do that by intently focusing on the sights and sounds of that person—so intently focusing on those sights and sounds that you enter into what Martin Buber calls an “I-Thou” relationship with them. I call that approach Focus Out. But that’s just one way that you could meditate while talking to a person. Another way would be to monitor, in a state of high concentration, your mental and emotional reactions to that person. I call that approach Focus In. Yet another way to meditate while talking to a person would be to intentionally create lovingkindness emotion in your body and then taste an expansive flavor of concentration by spreading that pleasant body sensation out into the room, enveloping your interlocutor with love. I call that approach Nurture Positivity. Although the specific strategies vary, in each of these circumstances, there’s a conscious tasting of a concentrated state.
You can also meditate while washing the dishes. You anchor yourself in the physical touch of the water and dishes, along with the sights and sounds of washing, the motion of the water, and the clacking of the dishware. You get into a zone state and become one with the water and the dishes—yet another instance of Focus Out
“As your experience grows, you eventually come to a point where you are so present that there is a kind of merging of inside and outside. When that happens, focus becomes more than an extremely interesting and pleasant experience; it becomes a spiritually transformative experience.“
The Focus Out approach makes it possible to enter a meditative state while driving through traffic. You put all your attention on what’s relevant to driving, such as the sights of the road, the sounds of the other cars, and the physical body sensations of driving, the touch of the steering wheel, the touch of the seat, the physical linkage to the car. That way you can enter a deep state and still be driving safely—indeed more safely than most people. In this case, your meditation practice is the way that you drive. You’re fully focused on the seeing, hearing, and feeling of the drive.
Rigorous research by people in the positive psychology movement has shown that a concentrated state is intrinsically rewarding, and that reward is independent of the content of one’s experience. Boring, even painful, experiences can become interesting and pleasant when experienced in a state of intense concentration. This intrinsic high associated with meditation is sometimes colloquially referred to as a “flow state” or a “zone state.” (Although in the way I formulate meditation, the word “flow” has a different meaning.)
As your experience grows, you eventually come to a point where you are so present that there is a kind of merging of inside and outside. When that happens, focus becomes more than an extremely interesting and pleasant experience; it becomes a spiritually transformative experience. You begin to get an insight into the nature of oneness. You begin to break through one of the most fundamental illusions, that of the separateness of inside and outside. Hopefully at some point, something as mundane as dishwashing will become a vehicle for cultivating spiritual transformation and expressing that transformation.
So meditation is not just something that is practiced on a special cushion or in a special posture; a meditative state can be entered during any ordinary activity.
“In the beginning, meditation is something that happens within your day. Eventually, the day becomes something that happens within your meditation.“
With the combination of formal practice in stillness, formal practice in motion, and informal practice in daily life, your meditative skills grow in two dimensions. On one hand, deeper and deeper meditative states become available. On the other, you are able to maintain those states throughout more and more complex activities of life. We might refer to the first dimension of growth as depth and the second dimension of growth as breadth.
Eventually, a delicious figure-ground reversal takes place. In the beginning, meditation is something that happens within your day. Eventually, the day becomes something that happens within your meditation. At advanced levels of practice, the dimensions of depth and breadth come together. Profoundly deep experiences occur continuously throughout your daily activities. Or, put more accurately, your daily activities continuously arise from and return to the Profound.
For most people, it takes time to get to that level. Learning to meditate is in some ways analogous to learning how to drive a car. You have to start in an empty parking lot where everything is simple, and there are no pressures on you. Formal practice in stillness, such as sitting meditation, is analogous to the empty parking lot. Over time, however, you internalize the skills of driving and are able to drive on a quiet country road. Formal practice in motion, such as walking meditation, is the quiet country road. Eventually, driving becomes second nature. It requires little thinking or effort. You simply get in a car and driving happens.
At first, meditation requires a lot of effort. You have to think about what you’re doing, and you can only get in a meditative state while sitting still, perhaps with your eyes closed. But at some point, the skill becomes second nature. You can attend to the business of life and still be in a meditative state just like you can listen to the radio while driving on a freeway at rush hour.
So, as your meditation gets deeper, you’re able to achieve more and more profound states of concentration and tranquility. As it gets broader, you are able to maintain those states throughout more and more challenging and complex activities of life. When depth and breadth pass a certain critical point, you find yourself living an enlightened life.
From – The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works