How meditation changes lives: Practice, research, and personal journeys

Michael A. West

The start of the day. Getting up, showered and to the garden to sit on a cushion in the gazebo by the pond. Drifting from here and now presence into thoughts of the talk I gave in London earlier in the week. And back again. A bumble bee floating by. Thoughts about the meetings coming up today. And back to presence. Settling back each time into an open and contented orientation to nowness. Moments, periods of clear awareness. And thoughts about the way we humans manage our collective affairs—imprisonment for transgressors in most societies. The futility of so much in our political systems. And is the exploration of our consciousness via meditation a solution? And back again to awareness of the present moment. Presence. The peace and clarity and unbounded, quiet import of presence—being present. What is this practice?

Concentration and enquiry

A number of themes have appeared and reappeared across the chapters of this book. One powerful theme is the exploration of the processes or mechanisms of meditation. Martine Batchelor’s chapter draws on her long experience as a practitioner and teacher of meditation in a variety of contexts (Korea, England, and France) and her profound understanding of Buddhist teachings. The chapter suggests that there are two core elements of meditation: Concentration and enquiry.

The necessary first component is concentration. During meditation, the practitioner narrows attention to a single focus such as the breath, a mantra, or to awareness of the present moment. Regardless of whether the meditation involves focused awareness or opening up to all in the present moment, the practice involves concentration (with more or less intensity) on one aspect of experience— such as the experience of here and now, the experience of the self, a candle flame, or the intent to cultivate compassion toward others. Meditation is a training of attention; the development of attentional discipline. How this is achieved can vary from a permissive, gentle coaxing of attention when it wanders through to a more deliberate and “muscular” determination to discipline the wayward mind.

The second element describes the exploration of experience, whether through sensation, awareness, or intellectual engagement with what arises both during and outside of meditation. By not only being aware of experience, but also engaging with it, we become more informed and curious about the consequences of the concentration processes of meditation. As negative thoughts arise or fantasies about our success bubble up in our minds, we can observe and explore them through a process of enquiry. Our curiosity enables us to interrogate our experience and derive a deeper appreciation if not understanding, but only if we accept rather than avoid, suppress, or seek out these thoughts and sensations. Martine Batchelor argues that the combination of enquiry with concentration ensures we are not simply increasing our awareness of the contents of consciousness but nurturing the conditions for a more creative awareness. Through meditation practice we develop a less filtered, stereotypic, and habitually categorical orientation to our experience, enabling us to taste the moments of our experience rather than responding with pre-scripted appreciation or with habituated neutrality. In this sense, she suggests, our awareness is more creative both during and as a result of meditation practice. The value of this enquiry element of meditation practice to our recognition of our conditioning is emphasized by other contributors throughout the book.

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