Personal meditation journeys
The themes identified across the chapters are replicated too in the contributors’ accounts of their encounters and experiences with meditation practices and traditions over the years. These accounts vary enormously from initial encounters with transcendental meditation to reciting the “Ode on Melancholy” for weeks on end or practicing Zen meditation in South Korea. One contributor describes her nine-year-old self searching for adult library books on meditation and yoga and hoping the librarian would not confiscate them. This sense of calling to explore meditative traditions, try out meditation, or respond to the allure of the esoteric mirrors the theme of meditation as a component of spirituality, philosophy, or religion.
This is reflected too in the extraordinary dedication to their practice shown by the contributors. One travelled to Korea to become a nun and practiced meditation ten hours a day for six months a year for ten years. A number went to India—several times each (“so once again, I headed off to India”). Others sought out ashrams that offered yoga training and most dedicated thousands of hours of practice over the subsequent years. None were dilettantes—this experience became, in most cases, the grounding for a way of life: “It was the start of a decades-long immersion in Buddhist practice that included long periods of solitary retreat.” They describe how, over time, they observed a consistent change in daily awareness, which became clearer and more powerful over time. It has become, for many, a core to their way of living, a key component of their days, and a core element in their philosophy of life. They describe the profound consequences for their life experience: “Meditation has been a touchstone for my mind and heart. Most importantly, it has introduced me to unprecedented and profound peace of mind, happiness, and love . . . the practice has woven itself into the fabric of my life.” Another contributor described finding many benefits: “. . . deeper meaning of existence and . . . enhancement of awareness, wholesome mental states and attitudes, insights about conditioning of the mind . . . positive reverberations in relationships with others, such as in terms of more mindful, kind, and compassionate dispositions in the family and at work.”
Why have they pursued meditation? Meditation for most has been an experi- ential/existential enquiry rather than merely a palliative or a therapy. They describe learning the value of turning toward the difficult rather than trying to escape it, in sharp contrast to the idea of using meditation as a means for escaping from neurotic patterns or developing a “superimposed equanimity": “My mind could be a tool for healing and well-being and this was an astounding and unexpected discovery" As psychologists, most have sought synergy between their private meditation practice and their work, describing complementarities such as the “questioning and curiosity that is at the heart of both our meditation practice and the science with which we study it" And relishing the opportunity “to sit smack in the middle of human experience rather than endlessly theorizing from a safe distance" For others, there was also the opportunity to share their own learning about meditation and its benefits with others: “I was overjoyed to be able to apply what had become a central and very important part of my personal life . . "; “The opportunity to share what I have gained in service to others is an ongoing creative process that gives my life tremendous meaning" Another described meditation as like becoming “a mountaineer of the inner world"
Such exploration has also been demanding: “It is not all nirvana. I struggle with deep aspects of my own shame and guilt, which come to greet me on the cushion" But there is wisdom too: “. . . the act of introspection is informed now by years of practice that has shown me the inner calm that emerges when I suspend the ‘power of knowing’ and attend kindly to this moment, this breath" And the discovery of powerful touchstones: “The best single advice I have is . . . smile and breathe . . . And if I do nothing else in the day, that is at least the way it starts."
The outcomes of their practices vary; some describe wisdom or a sense of “presence”; the experience of inner peace even during turbulent times; and of balance in the activities of daily life: “The meditation practices form an inner discipline and structure that help me weather all kinds of momentary and lasting difficulties"; “Infused into daily living, it has all seeped into my bones and given me a richer register of ways of being an ordinary human being" This slow infusion of awareness extended to the management of acute pain also: “The quiet miracle of my own improvement is the result of a steady application of gentle effort across a very broad front." Other outcomes relate to the simple yet important challenges of daily living: “My challenge is mindful parenting. I try every day to be in the moment with love and acceptance for my children, balancing this with necessary limits and boundaries." Another reflects that “I find I go mindfully about my daily life. Choosing what actions to take that are consistent with my values is very useful to me in creating a meaningful life" Particularly striking in all these accounts is how many of the contributors describe a sense of privilege, gratitude, and joy—discovering, as one says: “Joy, the inner throb at the heart of everything, even sadness.”