Ideas Presented in Chapter 5

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Idea #23: Connect Sitting with Something Social and Significant

Meditation is one of the more private and intimate acts of our day. But, establishing this private time as a regular part of life inevitably involves our social relationships. This is not only inevitable. It is also a great resource. As you know, meditation has remained with us for centuries. This is not entirely due to its being a built-in function of the physiology. It has every bit as much to do with the social settings that have carried the knowledge of meditation from generation to generation. We can draw great strength for our practice from participation in meditation-related social activities. We also provide support and richness for others by doing so.

Throughout much (probably most) of its history, meditation has existed as an act that is deeply imbedded in social and cultural forms. One would not meditate simply to soak in the experience or to advance the development of mind and body. Indeed, those reasons for meditation might not even have been articulated by anyone in the community. Instead, meditation would emerge out of daily and weekly routines of social and religious life. One would meditate as part of something larger and more complex than the sitting itself. For a Western equivalent, consider prayer. For millions, prayer occurs mostly—or only—while sitting in congregations of worship. This does not mean that congregational prayer is any more significant—or any less personal—than prayer that happens quietly at home or on the bus. The point here is that prayer is something most of us learn about and practice only within a socially defined context, a religious context. It has little existence—and maybe little meaning—independent of that context.

<>If the social milieu has been essential to meditation throughout the centuries, it would be foolish of us to think it has no bearing on our own practice. Yet, it is not immediately obvious how to apply this idea to Natural Meditation, which is by design non-cultural. It is the "spring water meditation" designed for those for whom a drink of pure water is preferred over juice, tea, coffee, milk, or soup. But now we must consider this obvious fact: plain water is never really enough. It’s not that Natural Meditation itself is an inadequate meditation method. But, we do need some social and philosophical context for meditation. A Course In Meditation intentionally stops short of providing that context. That restraint is an unusual and important feature of the course, which was designed to meet Natural Meditation Initiatives’ standards for a culturally neutral introductory technique offered with high respect for individual differences and autonomous choice.

One reason for having a social setting is to have fun. To get this going for Natural Meditation, you might want to participate in—or create—a group of people who do this style of meditation. A group that does Natural Meditation will tend to be open-minded enough to give your ideas room to breathe. At the minimum, find someone else who meditates—even an email or pen pal—and begin chatting about what you are doing. For the more personal discussions, you might just keep it between you and your journal. If you have a mentor or tutor, keep that link alive. It’s precious.

Another reason for "getting out" a bit with your meditation is to help you mature in the conviction to meditate. Getting into meditation is like getting into a mate relationship. At this point you may well be getting excited about where this can lead, but might not be ready to "get married" to meditation. Over the coming months you will develop that quiet, enduring attraction that leads to true commitment. This evolution is extremely personal, but it helps to have outward, social forms in which to develop. These forms can be very informal and as minimal as talking with a friend or family member. Remembering and honoring the date you began the course, or the day of your first sitting in Lesson Three helps. It is your anniversary date. Tell someone about it and when your first anniversary date rolls around, enjoy it.

Another reason for studying with at least a few other people is to be fertilized by multiple viewpoints. Because meditation functions at the core of experience, it is a short hop to almost any topic of human experience. Others will be enriched by your views, too, even if you have just begun stepping into these waters. Studying with others gives us a forum for thinking aloud about our own ideas. Privately held ideas sound different when spoken aloud for others to hear. To get involved this way requires a group of people who like to think aloud about their lives. It actually does not require that all of them meditate. Many religious communities have small groups that meet to get to know each other and to work through life in an intentional way. Meditation’s long-term purposes fit well within those contexts.

If you have a religious background, you may want to, or need to, bring your plans for meditative growth into alignment with your religion. The deeper your religious roots, the more important and inevitable this alignment will become. This is a fruit-ripening and cannot be accomplished quickly or in anything like a straight line. The art of making a religious journey with meditation in the backpack keeps many people fascinated for decades. Beyond intellectual enrichment, of course, meditative religious journeys enrich the soul. Whatever your current view of religious or spiritual communities, you may find yourself gradually seeing these things in new light over the coming year. All roads that lead to the core of experience eventually cross and cross-fertilize each other.

You can bring your faith and philosophy right up to the door of meditation by setting your mind and heart consciously on a deeply held conviction as you are arranging yourself in meditation. You can have a special room and chair, a special shawl, a sitting cushion. You can ring a bell before beginning, look at a painting, read scripture. All of these are ways of dedicating your sitting to a higher or wider idea. They remind you of your context, as you see that context. This does not need to be complex and laden with material things. Indeed, the simplest and most profound version of this dedication is to have an orienting thought just as you close your eyes. Some examples: the loving presence of God, gratitude for your family, ability of the mind to heal the body. You can be sitting on a rumbling commuter train and still close your eyes, briefcase securely on your lap, and take a moment to remember, to thank, to surrender and then begin the dip into the spring water.

Is such a dedication needed? No. However, if you have strong roots in faith or philosophy, it probably is important. We stand on the shoulders of research done by Dr. Herbert Benson. As mentioned earlier, Dr. Benson formulated a culture-free method of meditation in the early 1970s. He called it the Relaxation Response and became a best-selling author with The Relaxation Response and an authority on the subject. He found that it worked well and could produce clear, physiological results even in patients who learned it in clinical settings. By the early 1980s he had advanced his understanding of the complexities of healing and saw that it requires engagement of the deeply held convictions. In 1984 he wrote about it in Beyond the Relaxation Response and called it "the faith factor”, a “a new kind of ‘package’ that contains two powerful but familiar spiritual vehicles: (1) meditation; and (2) a deeply held set of philosophical or religious convictions.”

Some Other Places To Go

Once you know how to meditate using Natural Meditation you will have built that foundation we described in Idea #4 and will be able to enjoy other styles of meditation along with this. Most styles will be noticeably different in their form and purpose, but not all. There are at least two forms with worldwide followings that you can move into right away. They are Transcendental Meditation and Centering Prayer. Each of these has strong philosophical, cultural and religious contexts that you would want to consider.

Transcendental Meditation: For those who want a strong, consistent training with certified teachers, there is nothing better for students of Natural Meditation than Transcendental Meditation Program®. You will be surrounded by a worldwide organization with over 40 years of experience teaching introductory forms and 25 years teaching complex, advanced forms. Your technique will be enhanced by live, personalized instruction and receipt of a traditional Sanskrit mantra. The teaching centers are redolent with classical Indian (“Vedic”) philosophy and practices, but unless that bothers you a lot, don’t let it stop you—they don’t make you take it home with you. Their philosophy, far from being ancient, has been a prime mover in the integral movement, bringing together all the branches of western thought with both classic and modern studies of consciousness. It is based in India, but your meditation method will be culturally neutral, with the exception of your mantra. You will continue to meditate in a chair, without cultural or religious requirements, and will continue to practice a method that is closely designed around the meditative function. The TM fees are, in some areas and for many people, quite significant. So ask about that up front if you are on a tight budget. See tm.org, mou.org, miu.edu.

Centering Prayer:If you want to use the meditation sitting not only to experience healing and growth provided by nature, but also to deepen your relationship with God, then there is nothing better for a student of Natural Meditation than Centering Prayer. You will continue to meditate in a chair, without external cultural or religious requirements and will continue to practice a method that fully supports the meditative function, although Centering practitioners interpret the effects of prayer as being the action of God rather than a natural process. Your grounding in Natural Meditation will only help you as you move into this God-centered way of meditating. Although it was founded within a Roman Catholic monastic setting and has received wide following and support by that church, the principles are so clean and openhearted, it can be a welcome home and school for people of any theistic faith. You can take a brief, effective, inexpensive, one-day training, with certified teachers. The main promoters of this method are a Christian organization, Contemplative Outreach, founded by Father Thomas Keating.
See contemplativeoutreach.org.

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