This morning on Radio 4 there was a news item on scientific recognition that meditation really does have some effects. I would have thought this was a no-brainer, but then, in certain circles, nothing is real unless you’ve poked it in a methodical way.
Meditation is nothing more than an organised and deliberate form of thinking. If you change the way you think, you have the scope to change your behaviour and your emotional experiences. This is the understanding that underpins cognitive behavioural therapy, currently used to help tackle depression and anxiety. Thoughts and feelings do not belong to separate systems, and they both belong to and are influenced by what happens to your body. In essence, it all comes down to the same chemistry.
When we think, pathways form in our brains. The more we do something, the easier it becomes to think it, and the faster it translates into action. This is obvious when you try and learn a script, or an instrument. Practice is partly in the mind. Thinking something through contributes to practice even if it’s a physical activity. If you never imagine killing your neighbour with an ice pick, the odds of you doing just that are pretty slim. If you imagine, every day, killing your neighbour with an ice pick the odds of you doing it are going to be somewhat higher. The same probabilities apply to pretty much everything else as well.
Meditation can be used for all manner of things, but at the heart of it lies the intention to slow down and become calm. Deep breathing, resting the body, thinking calming thoughts and imagining soothing things are frequent habits in meditation. They form the basis from which more complex meditation can follow. This develops the habit of being able to deliberately become calm. Introducing a few minutes of deliberate calm into every day helps break the hold of stress and anxiety in life. It also gives a tool that can be drawn on in times of need. Even when there isn’t time to meditate, the habit of drawing breath, and settling into a calm mindset can be very handy in a crisis. The more in the habit we are of becoming calm, the more readily our mind can run down that particular track. It’s simply a skill to master.
We know that stress and anxiety have effects on the body – raised pulse and blood pressure, trouble sleeping, tight chest, difficulty eating and digesting, shoulder pain, headaches to name but a few. Creating calm helps to tackle these. The pains and trials of stress and anxiety induced illness are real. There can be a tendency to write off such problems as ‘all in the mind’ or ‘psychosomatic’ but the mind is real, feelings are real, and our emotional lives matter and need taking seriously. Depression is a crippling illness and it can be born from ongoing distress.
In terms of quality of life, our emotions are one of the things that influence us most. Emotions are not always rational, and don’t seem scientific, or terribly measureable, but that doesn’t make them less real, or less important. The view that sees emotions as irrational silliness can also be rather too quick to assume we have no control over them. Working with our own emotions, we can come to understand them, to see what prompts them, to work out what is justified, what needs expressing, and what we have been feeding in the darkness to our own detriment. Taking time to meditate can be a way of accessing our own emotional lives and developing a calm space from which to have a relationship with ourselves.
By consciously shaping our own thought forms, we can take control of ourselves. At the same time we create spaces for the unconscious to breathe. Rather than crushing and repressing the unconscious self with its dream logic and animal impulses all jumbled together, we can embrace it. There is a deep realness that comes from being more at peace with the unconscious mind.
How we feel shapes the ways in which we think. If we aren’t in good relationship with our own emotions, the rational, logical thoughts we are so sure we have, may be no more than illusions based on misconceptions. About the most irrational thing we can do is cling to the idea that intellect and emotion are separate, incompatible and that one is better than the other. We need both.