The Sound of Silence
"When you inhale, you are taking the strength and wisdom from God. When you exhale, it represents the service you are giving to the world." - B.K.S. Iyengar
Sit still and be quiet. It seems like the easiest thing in the world to do. Thanks to our parents, we've been practicing it since we were restless children, antsy and anxious to get away from the dinner table. You might even still think you're practicing it - when was the last time you excused yourself, saying that you just need a minute to "clear your head," only to go off on your own and dive even deeper into an avalanche of thoughts? Too often we trick ourselves into believing that being alone is being peaceful, and that quiet is the same as tranquility.
Sakyong Mipham, current leader of the Shambhala lineage of Buddhism, states that the mind is joyful by nature. Any negativity, darkness or depression that passes over our minds is nothing more than a gray cloud that is temporarily concealing our true joyful nature. Through meditation, we are gently and purposefully brushing away these clouds.
Meditation is not necessarily just the absence of thought. It is the practice of being completely present, of being entirely aware of what is happening in that moment. This is why so many find it helpful to focus on the breath during meditation. By mindfully controlling our breathing, we are anchoring ourselves in the present moment. The breath serves as a natural bridge between the mind and the physical world. By reigning in each in-breath and each out-breath, we are refusing to allow our attention to wander elsewhere: our anxieties, our plans, even our emotions. We are simply breathing.
So what is the real benefit of meditation? Why should I waste my valuable time in which I could be planning and scheming, to instead sit and do nothing? How is this productive?
For the quantitative readers out there, scientific studies have proven that meditation increases gray matter in the brain. The process of sitting in silence and focusing the attention on the present moment has been shown to literally increase brain mass. (You can read more on one such study here.) But that's not all.
When was the last time you got in your car after work and ended up in your driveway, not really remembering how you got there? How often do you find your brow furrowed or your face twisted as you mull over some situation or conversation in your head, not realizing that you were frowning so fiercely? Our minds have amazing power over our physical selves. Thinking negative thoughts produces stress, illness, and other unhealthy results in the body. Thinking positive thoughts has been shown to produce spectacular healing results. And clearing the mind, if only for a few minutes, produces a peace and tranquility that can sometimes provide just enough space for an amazing mental transformation.
It's been said that prayer is when we are talking to God, and meditation is when we are listening. Regardless of what you consider "God" to be, perhaps it's worth considering the value of simply stopping and listening once in awhile. You never know what messages your body, or your universe, might be trying to send you.
Someone once told me that "meditation is like water," and I think it's true. Like water, when we meditate we become formless, shapeless, and perfectly sustained. If we can take just a few moments to calm our minds, to gently refuse to entertain any thoughts that aren't centered on the "now," we begin to move past labels. If we begin to collect the pieces of ourselves that are living in the future (our worries, our plans, our hopes), and the pieces of ourselves that are living in the past (our depression, our regret, our memories), we can slowly become whole in the present. Our true self is a state as natural as water, if only we care to access it.