A case for meditation

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Elizabeth McLaughlin, Staff

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Our phones can serve as a bottomless pit of distractions, leaving us drained and dissatisfied. Meditation can help.

Do you have trouble focusing in class? Do you find that you can’t muster up the courage to do that assigned reading? Do you ever find yourself exhausting your Twitter feed, closing out of the app, only to reopen it seconds later, expecting something different? Do you find yourself in a constant negative feedback loop of ennui? First, we’ve all been there. Second, you should try meditation.

To be clear, the central purpose of this article is not to claim that you should meditate, but rather to illuminate the struggles we face, especially in a post-Zoom world, while offering an empirical prescription to those ailments. This prescription has served me well, but in no way do I want to act as a meditation evangelist. Simply put, you can take it or leave it.

Let’s briefly discuss some of the struggles of being human. Listlessness is characterized as a lack of interest or energy; I believe that we are engaging in an attack on our energy levels every time we unlock our phones. The adult brain can store between five and nine items in short term memory. You can open Twitter, and by the time you see your tenth tweet, it is very likely that you can’t remember the first. More importantly, when presented with much more than five to nine pieces of information at a time, it’s easy for our brains to get overwhelmed. It’s a shame that social media, by design, presents you with an infinite amount of information at once, so long as you enable it. It’s a shame because our prefrontal cortex — which evolved millions of years ago to mediate the functions of goal articulation, goal retention, and self-discipline — is no match for computers. When you put it that way, it’s no wonder that we are turning our thumbs arthritic in the name of scrolling.

But it doesn’t need to be so bleak. Sure, we’ve designed a computer that can accurately anticipate our needs and desires and use that information to present us with our own virtual reality. Big deal. Still, the quest to manage stress isn’t completely hopeless. I was surprised to learn that the term “stressed out” was invented sometime in the last century. Before we had a name for it, did people feel stressed out? Of course they did, but their stress was informed by extremely different circumstances, and they just didn’t identify that overwhelmedness like we do. Nonetheless, holding all circumstances equal, there is one timeless practice that, if done correctly, is almost guaranteed to reduce stress. You guessed it: meditation.

You’ve probably heard that before; that meditation is worth trying, whether it was from a friend, a fellow netizen, or a public figure. Neuroscientist Sam Harris says meditation is “the practice of learning to break the spell and wake up;” I concur with Mr. Harris here. There are many unique forms of meditation and the practice itself has evolved from myriad different branches of philosophy and religion. In Zen Buddhism, there is zazen, or sitting meditation. This is the form I espouse, although there are other forms that provide their own benefits. Bodhicitta is a Sanskrit word which is interpreted to mean Beginner’s Mind or Awakening Heart. A key element of experiencing bodhicitta is attentiveness to each moment, in each moment. Thich Nhat Hanh once said something along the lines of, “if you miss the moment, you miss your life.”

Meditation is about being present in each moment. You’ve definitely heard that kitsch phrase before, but I find it a lot easier said than done. Try it. Find a comfortable seat and settle in. Aim your eyes downward, or completely close them at the risk of accidentally falling asleep (I can’t say that hasn’t happened to me once or twice). Then, notice. Notice any sounds that might arise around you; let them come and let them go. Notice how your body feels, if you’re needlessly tense in certain areas (you probably are, and that’s okay). Notice the temperature of the room, if you can. Just notice things, letting them come and go. Don’t hurry them or ignore them. Focus on your breath. I’ll admit, it’s harder than you might think. But if you get off track, if your mind begins to wander, that’s okay. Just redirect your attention to your breath. Keep on doing that, and you’re strengthening your ability to concentrate.

Right concentration is one of the steps in the Eightfold Path, which is what the Buddha proposes as the path to end suffering. Right concentration involves the concept of samadhi, meaning oneness with the object of meditation. Samadhi is not hyper-focusing on one thing, feeling, or sensation. Samadhi is regarded in Hinduism as the final stage of meditation, so don’t feel frustrated if you fail to comprehend it or realize it in your practice. Rather, I offer this information in hopes to inspire you to look into right concentration, the Eightfold Path and meditation.

If you do, you might find yourself more present in each moment. You might find that you are better at redirecting your attention to the task at hand, to the present. You might find that the prospect of endlessly scrolling through social media loses its appeal; that you feel less drained by technology and more in control of your digital footprint. You might find yourself more self aware. And in the end, I hope you find wisdom and compassion in each moment.

mclaughline7@lasalle.edu

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