The Space Between the Breaths

Meditation makes the difference

Written by  Kurtis W. Eaton, M.D., MBA

Photography By Edward Badham

Meditation is an ancient art, practiced and taught for millennia in secluded monasteries in exotic, far-flung corners of the earth. It has only recently reached the West and we, with our busy, self-important lives have barely taken notice. When we first saw the Maharishi Yogi teaching The Beatles Transcendental Meditation in the late ’60s maybe it seemed cool (it was the Beatles, after all) but who really knew what they were doing and more importantly…what it might do for us?  Enter Vietnam and the images of Buddhist monks on television performing silent protests of self-immolation, and the whole Eastern philosophy/spirituality trip seemed pretty remote from our daily existence. After all, we were living in the era of speed for the sake of speed:  microwaves and portable phones, faxes and leveraged buyouts, sports cars and million-dollar athletes. Who in the world had time for meditation?  Not us…and certainly not me.

By this time, forces were already at work in the inexorable spread of meditation and Buddhism to the West. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was a preeminent teacher of Tibetan Buddhism who became interested in spreading its teachings. He began studying Comparative Religion at Oxford University, and eventually he and other like-minded individuals laid the groundwork in the United States and established teaching centers where students who were interested in meditation could receive personal instruction. Wars in Indo-China led a flood of refugees to the West from Viet Nam, and many thousands of Tibetans fled after the Chinese takeover and assault on their sovereignty in 1950. Others from Thailand sought out major Western cities as economic refugees. The cumulative effect of these sociopolitical forces was to drive a large number of Easterners into the West during the latter half of the 20th century, and many brought their Buddhist beliefs with them into their new homes. Centers for study and meditation were established. The important work begun in the late 19th century in translation of the Buddhist texts reached critical mass during the latter 20th century when virtually the entire collection of Theravada scriptures and a large number of the Mahayana texts were translated for Western consumption and contemplation.

Doctor Janet BronsteinDr. Janet Bronstein is a professor in the Department of Health Care Organization and Policy at UAB, and Senior Scholar, Lister Hill Center for Health Policy. Her Ph.D. is in Applied Medical Anthropology. She is also one of my meditation teachers, and was kind enough to speak with me about her personal journey of discovery in meditation.

“The first open house meditation I went to was in the summer of 1979,” says Dr. Bronstein. “I was 26 years old. I was in graduate school at the University of Kentucky. I was just walking down the street one day and I saw this poster: Learn To Meditate, you know, stapled up on a street pole and I said, ‘I want to do that.’ I had done in college, four or five years previously, transcendental meditation as many people had in the ’70s because that was the big thing out there. But I hadn’t kept it up. I guess it was — I don’t know exactly — just this ‘connection’ that you have. That feeling of ‘I’m interested in that. That sounds good.’ The place that was advertising happened to be a Shambhala meditation center, like we are here. That’s how I walked into that setting. But I really came just to learn to practice meditation.”

Janet continues, explaining what it is about meditation that she connected with and why she continues today, even teaching at the local center: “Our minds are very busy. We keep them going all of the time. Which is fine, and we accomplish a lot with our active minds. But we also get out of balance, we become too active. We don’t give ourselves time to rest, recover — to experience what’s beyond the urgent, demanding thing. To experience our emotions or notice our intuition. By not resting our minds, we tend to lose access to those experiences. So, I think of meditation as a formal way, an established technique, to let yourself rest. When you’re super active and you’re always focused on the most demanding thing, you lose track of what’s happening around you. When you rest, you can notice. One name for meditation is peaceful abiding. So you can think of it as abiding, or resting. So meditation is the opposite of the go-go-go mind…. it’s the stay-stay-stay mind.”

Janet pauses, thinking, then smiles (leaning forward slightly) as the teacher in her continues, “It’s a mistake that a lot of people make to think that what you’re doing in meditation is trying to make your mind enter a certain state. If you go into it with the goal of making your mind enter a certain state, you get frustrated because you can never get your mind to be in a state that you’ve decided upon beforehand. So meditation can be frustrating, if you approach it like ‘I need my mind to do this and it’s not doing it.’ If you adopt the more correct attitude towards meditation, then you’re just interested. You know? You say things like….‘Wow. I sat here for 20 minutes but I was only here for about two minutes. My mind is really zippy today’. If you have the right attitude towards meditation you say, ‘Oh…zippy mind!’. (She laughs)  And you notice it. It’s only when we put that extra layer on it: zippy mind and I don’t want it to be zippy—that you get into expectations and self-criticism.”

“Self-criticism? Is it possible,” I asked, “to do it wrong?”

Meditation Group“I don’t think you can hurt yourself doing meditation. It’s a safe activity,” she says. “The Buddhist tradition of meditation is an orally taught activity. There are many books on meditation, full of good information and more information online. But then at some point you’re going to want to talk with somebody who knows how to teach meditation. Because we all have ingrained habits such as self-criticism, or even avoidance, that seem really solid to us. But if you talk with somebody who’s experienced in meditation they can say ‘You can relax that.’ I often tell my meditation students to have a good sense of humor and to ‘Take it easy.’”

I met Janet two years ago when I first visited the Shambhala Center in Birmingham. I believe she sensed my apprehension, and was kind enough to sit down with me for a few minutes to explain the basics of meditation. Like many people, I carried a few misconceptions about what meditation actually entailed; I mean, what do you actually do once you sit?  I was aware of my own growing curiosity about meditation and the perceived benefits I thought it might hold for my life, and I was familiar with the research validating the physiological benefits of meditation practice. There is evidence that regular meditation practice lowers blood pressure, the amount of stomach acid we secrete, circulating levels of stress hormones, as well as bettering rates of oxygen consumption and heart rate. It has been shown to improve exercise tolerance in cardiac patients. It has also been shown to improve serotonin production, and higher levels of serotonin have been linked to improvements in overall mood, obesity, insomnia, and headaches.

Janet showed me how to focus on my breath, clearing my mind of extraneous clutter. Like anything else, it’s practice and progress — not perfection. Tell your mind not to think about anything, and see what happens!  We learn, over time and with practice, to become aware of our thoughts and distractions, to label them as exactly that (thinking, thinking) without judgment or self-criticism, and then to return to the present moment, the now, by refocusing attention on the breath. As our meditation practice matures we grow naturally into meditation with other concepts and contemplations besides the breath, but this is where is all begins. It is deceptively simple, always available, completely free, and ultimately enlightening.

meditationDr. Chuck Whetsell is a Shastri, or senior teacher, appointed as a resource, mentor, and spiritual guide for those studying meditation and Buddhism in our area. Whetsell is a practicing Clinical Psychologist here in Birmingham (along with his wife, Mary) and has been studying and teaching meditation for 40 years. He was kind enough to share his insight into meditation with me. “My first teacher was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche,” he said, “and he talked about meditation as a practice of making friends with yourself. Rather than being a vigilance task, where you’re trying to pay attention to whatever the object of meditation might be, it’s much more the feeling of spending time with yourself so that you can find your strengths, find your needs, feel affection for yourself, and connect with some greater source of wisdom. So whatever one might call that or conceptualize that, the basic idea is that we’re not isolated. We’re not only not isolated from ourselves or from other people if we were to make that connection, but we’re not isolated from all the different good qualities of this world. Whatever you call the spiritual realm. That’s available to us if we just open. So a lot of meditation is just purely about opening. And then, as a result, receiving.”

He continues, elaborating on the meditative concept of being in the present moment fully; being in the “Now.” “One of the hallmarks of meditation is the ability to non-analytically challenge the assumptions of our lives to find out things that exist without our knowing. So we’re talking about subconscious phenomena at really basic levels. What we like and what we don’t like, what we need, and so forth. Often when people begin to meditate, I find that their lives become more clarified and simpler. And in that clarity and simplicity we begin to approach what you could say is the heart of the spiritual path, which is to appreciate oneself and to appreciate others.”

“While we’re busy thinking about something else and lost in fantasy, we lose what’s here. We’re talking to people sometimes, but our mind is somewhere else — we’re not with the conversation. ‘Nowness’ is this very simple thing of fully being where we are with our senses and our emotions.

Whetsell  says athletic and artistic pursuits offer a similar experience — welcome distraction from worry.

“Meditation is training specifically for being here,” Whetsell  says. “So much of mindfulness meditation, which is one of the different kinds of meditation, offers people some simple object of meditation; often just the movement of breathing. That gives people something to come back to. What people often report is a great sense of relief and joy at being able to just be in the present moment. It’s really very simple. There is nothing esoteric or complicated about it at all. If we don’t do that (take time to meditate), very often it’s that we’re worrying about what’s going to happen in five minutes. Can we just get this, this, and this done? High stress. Whereas if we just take things one moment at a time that’s much simpler, and the meditation is training for taking things one moment at a time. That simplifies our lives. Although 20 to 30 minutes a day would be recommended, my teacher says that it’s fine to begin with 10 minutes a day.”

By taking a little time to practice “our whole life takes on the quality of meditation,” Whetsell  says. “When we’re driving the car, we’re driving the car. When we’re with our children, doing the laundry, whatever it might be…we do just that. And then we’re not worn out so much at the end of the day. It’s because we haven’t been ‘driving with the brakes on,’ so to speak. Meditation is life training. It’s not zoning out or taking a break from life, but rather it’s training to be more fully immersed in life but in a way in which the very engagement with life recharges our batteries.”

6 Responses to “The Space Between the Breaths”

  1. Excellent information-especially about living in the here and now present moment. Good well defined history of the process moving into Western culture. Sounda like good teaching.

  2. Jimbo White says:

    Good article! Very informative!

  3. Thank you for a beautiful article, Kurt and Edward! It’s a great presentation of the essentials of meditation, and the Birmingham Shambhala Center appreciates a chance to meet your audience.

  4. Carie says:

    Great article! I have only been to the center once but would love to experience it again!

  5. John Karna says:

    Thanks for the opportunity to get the most out of meditation. Great article…great group!

  6. Loraine Beyer says:

    Terrific article! Very engaging.

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