By ANDREW CRENSHAW
In its simplest and most classical sense, ‘meditation’ means only ‘no mind.’ Eastern philosophy and religion have recently been embraced by Western culture, yet the concept of ‘no mind’, taken literally, somewhat contradicts the classical notion of “I think, therefore I am.” The importance of thought has long been a tenet of Western civilization, and has played significantly in its modern dominance of the world stage—i.e. its rapid industrial, scientific, medical and technological innovation. Thus, for many Westerners, the ‘no mind’ concept is somewhat threatening, as it alludes to idleness (the devil’s workshop), atrophy (the muscle gets weaker without use), and ultimately death (“Who am I without mind?”).
Meditation, however, seeks not to kill the thinking mind but to calm it, to quiet it, and ultimately, to control it. An effective starting point is to view the thinking mind as a computer (brain as hardware, mind as software), because it is easy to see how our computers, after running all day, tend to bog down and malfunction, and how a simple power-off and reboot often remedies the problem. Meditation follows the exact idea: an overactive, over-worked mind, running hot, day and night, will eventually malfunction—i.e. become stressed, depressed, anxious, fearful, etc., and that oftentimes, a similar break (a power-off—of minutes, even just seconds) can alleviate the pressure.
Meditation is a coping skill, a type of ‘zoning out’ or ‘spacing out’ that we all do unconsciously. For example, during a particularly difficult period in grad school, long before I understood what meditation was, I would go to the school gym on Saturday mornings, when the basketball courts were empty, and I would just dribble around, practicing my little moves and shots, basically playing like a child and not thinking about anything. I looked forward to that time—it was my favorite part of the week; later, I realized it was because that was my escape from a stressful life, and the powerful sense of relief I felt came from the simple act of being fully focused on the present moment.
This gets to the core definition of the practice: to meditate is simply to merge with the present moment and to not let the thinking mind dominate awareness. Most people, upon hearing the word ‘meditation’, envision a Buddha, sitting lotus-positioned on the mountain with his eyes closed; unfortunately, this style is only for the most advanced practitioners. The uncultivated mind of the average person would only kick and scream louder in such a closed-down, inactive situation. Fortunately, however, active meditation is an easy and very obtainable pursuit for even the foremost beginner; all one has to do is find something interesting enough to hold their conscious awareness in that moment.
In fact, there are as many ways to meditate as there are people; some do it with exercise, some by cooking, cleaning, gardening, washing dishes, etc… When I first moved to Taiwan and was experiencing extreme culture shock, I discovered another powerful yet simple technique: I had to walk about 10 minutes across campus from the subway station to my office, and I noticed, in those moments before class, my mind absolutely racing with lesson plans, appointments, things to prepare, etc… and I would literally check myself, saying “HEY! STOP! Take a deep breath; look around at this beautiful campus; feel your feet on the ground.” I made it into a game to see how long I could stay there before my mind carried me off again, and if I could do it even for 1 minute, it was a miracle.
And this gets to the core benefit of why we should actively meditate (especially when stressed): first, because even 1 minute (or even 30 seconds) is an enormous and immediate pressure release—like opening the hole in a balloon; second, because forced inactivity does not weaken the mind but in fact, strengthens it, allowing the trash and static to fall away so as to later return with a fresh, more specific focus; and most of all, because it opens the door to a higher consciousness (what my Qigong master calls ‘True Self-Awareness’) that exists apart from and beyond the mind—i.e. it starts a process of noticing that ‘you’ and your ‘mind’ are different entities.
This may seem a radical notion, and yet just by observing the mind in action—just in noticing its patterns and behaviors, you immediately begin to realize that there is one doing the observing and one being observed. Meditation is what cultivates this relationship between the ‘I’ and ‘me’ (the relationship with yourself) as it creates the space for a higher consciousness to emerge and develop. For me now, after some years of practice, I see my mind as a part of me—an organ, a tool, a data center, a collection of everything I have ever experienced and more—BUT it is a tool that ‘I’ use; it now follows the direction that ‘I’ set, and this has absolutely been the most significant development in my life thus far.
Andrew Crenshaw lived in Taiwan for 7 years, studying traditional medicine, language, philosophy, religion and spirituality. Professionally, he has taught composition, TESOL and general-education English at National Taiwan University, National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, National Taipei University of the Arts, University of Louisville, Jefferson Community and Technical College, and Western Kentucky University. He is currently working for Jefferson County Public Schools in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.