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What is Meditation?

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Mindfulness Meditation

          There are many different kinds of meditation, and people practice a wide variety of meditation exercises for many reasons.  However, in the context of this website, we’re using "meditation" specifically to mean the process of drawing your scattered attention back from the rim of your wheel of awareness to the center of the wheel (what we refer to as the pure awareness at your "core").

          Once your attention is focused at the core, you can do one of two things.  You can rest there quietly for a seated meditation session. Or you can go about your life, keeping your attention anchored in the core – a kind of meditation in action.

          Seated meditations are a wonderful way to develop the skill of focusing inwardly without the added challenge of having to deal with the distractions of life.  They’re also an excellent way of periodically renewing and stabilizing your inner focus.  

          However, to live a balanced life, you need to be able to maintain that inner stance even amidst the activities that tend to pull you out of balance.   

          The process of turning your attention inward to the core is the heart of what this website is all about. It’s what we’ve been referring to metaphorically throughout the site as “remembering to breathe.”  And it is key to developing the self-awareness and self-mastery that make it possible to live a balanced, purposeful life, content within yourself and harmoniously attuned to others.


          “Mindfulness” or “mindful meditation” has become, in recent decades, one of the more popular forms of meditation.  These terms have been used to describe several different styles of meditation, but we use them to refer simply to the ability to calmly observe whatever’s happening on the rim of your wheel of awareness without getting caught up in the drama – in other words, “remembering to breathe.”

          Normally, we perceive things on the rim filtered through thick layers of memories, hopes, desires, fears, and shaped by our habitual way of making sense of what we experience.  These filters tend to distort our understanding of what’s actually happening, leading us to react in ways that aren’t always helpful or appropriate.  

          But to the extent our attention is anchored in the core, it becomes possible to observe the happenings on the rim more clearly, with less bias and pre-judgment. Rather than reacting on automatic pilot driven by our past experience, we’re freer to respond in new ways that are more appropriate and beneficial to the present circumstance. 

In the past decade, there has been an explosion of research showing the far-reaching effects of simple, mindful attention:

  • Consistent practice changes the physical structure of your brain:  Brain scans of people who practice mindful meditation show that the size of their mid-prefrontal cortex (MFPC) actually increases (the MPFC is the part of the brain that’s in charge of integrating and balancing the different parts of the brain and body).

  • When people suffering from intractable chronic pain practice mindfulness, their pain is reduced and, in some cases, they experience a full cure. 

  • Mindful meditation practice has also been found to reduce anxiety and depression, help lower blood pressure, improve relationships, make it easier to develop and maintain healthy habits, and increase overall mental and physical well-being.


Meditation in Action

          There are a number of different meditation exercises on this site, and we invite you to experiment with them to see which ones work best for your needs.  However, keep in mind that the ultimate goal is not to become skillful at sitting quietly with your eyes closed, basking in the calm contentment of your core.  The ultimate aim is to be able to do all that you do mindfully – that is, to be able to remain anchored in the core as you go about your day’s activities.  

         Or, to use our metaphor, the ultimate aim is to “remember to breathe” throughout your day. 

          Can you imagine what that would be like?  

          If you looked at our Concentration page, you may remember reading football player John Brodie’s description of moments he sometimes experiences during a game when “time seems to slow way down… as if I have all the time in the world to watch the receivers run their patterns and yet I know the defensive line is coming at me as fast as ever…[T]he whole thing seems like a movie or dance in slow motion.”  

          This ability to act in a state of harmony and ease is, by all accounts, a deeply satisfying and joyful experience. For Brodie and others who have reported similar experiences, the state of effortless action arises mysteriously – it’s not something they’ve cultivated or can make happen at will.   

          But wouldn’t it be nice if it were possible to cultivate this ability to act from the core even while engaged in intense activities like competitive sports? 

       Psychologist Les Fehmi (whom you may remember from the Concentration pages) teaches a form of attention training he calls “Open Focus.”  Essentially, it involves developing the ability to flexibly shift your attention in a way that is appropriate to whatever situation you happen to be in.  

       As Fehmi describes it, Open Focus is a kind of neutral stance from which you can calmly observe both what’s happening in your mind and what’s going on around you.  What Fehmi is describing is basically a form of mindful meditation:  sitting in the “hub” of the “wheel of awareness” and from there, actively choosing what form of attention would be most appropriate for the task or situation at hand.

       “Open Focus” training has been found to be so powerful that Fehmi is often called upon to coach Olympic athletes.  The U.S. Olympic Development Committee engaged him to conduct performance enhancement sessions for 22 world-class runners who were in training for the 1980 Olympics. The runners trained for three days using biofeedback instruments that measured muscle tension, sweat gland activity, body surface temperature, and brain wave activity.

       After this introduction to Open Focus training, one of the runners recounted how he had previously experienced this kind of attention spontaneously.  In Fehmi’s account that follows, you’ll see that at a certain point, the runner makes a shift from being caught up in feelings of illness and fatigue on the “rim” of his awareness to a more “open style of attention” (the state we call, “meditation in action”), with very beneficial results.

“One day he felt mildly ill at a track meet and didn’t feel like running. But he entered the race anyway.  After the starter’s pistol sounded he dropped back in the pack to avoid the jostling, and ran last for a while. This was not, he thought, going to be his best run. Along with his ill feelings, however, he noticed he was starting to slip into what seemed like an altered state.  He was simultaneously aware of the symptoms of his illness, the sound of his footfalls on the cinder track, the wind on his face, and other sensations he usually ignored.  His effortful, goal-oriented focus fell away, and his internal monologue quieted.  At the two-thirds point in the race he thought that if he was going to have a shot at winning the race he would have to “kick” into a sprint pretty soon.  Then it happened, but without his having to exert extra effort. He was loose and suddenly found himself running so fast that he won the race in record time.”

          Several aspects of this account are common to the experience of “open focus” as many have described it.  

          One is the “simultaneous awareness” of various aspects of experience. You’ll find that the more practiced you become at being mindful, at being able to calmly observe your experience without bias or judgment, the more you’ll naturally become aware of different aspects of your experience all at once.  

          Thoughts tend to become quieter. As the runner described it, his ‘internal monologue” – that is, the story our minds constantly concoct about everything that’s happening  – quieted down.

          And actions take on a quality of lightness.  They feel less forced, more natural and spontaneous (“it happened without his having to make extra effort”).


         There’s another, very powerful thing that happens when we become quietly mindful. Our heart begins to soften and we begin to feel more open to others and the world around us. 

          You may recall, from the Concentration page, the heartful quality in Helen Keller’s description of being mindfully present to the wonders of a forest:

"I find hundreds of things to interest me through mere touch… I pass my hands lovingly about the smooth skin of a silver birch…. I feel the delightful, velvety texture of a flower, and discover its remarkable convolutions; and something of the miracle of Nature is revealed to me. Occasionally, if I am very fortunate, I place my hand gently on a small tree and feel the happy quiver of a bird in full song. I am delighted to have the cool waters of a brook rush through my open fingers…

          Although your heart will tend to open spontaneously as you become more mindful, there are also specific heart meditation techniques that can help you to open your heart to feelings like happiness, kindness, appreciation, and love.  

          Cultivating these heart qualities activates your heart brain, which works “hand-in-hand” with your MPFC to strengthen your connection to the core of calm, ease, and contentment.

          Activating your heart brain in this way provides another powerful means of integrating and balancing your brain, body, and emotions, leading to greater attunement to others, and a more balanced and harmonious way of being in the world.

The Science of Heart Connections

       In 1665, a Dutch scientist named Christiaan Huygens, did an experiment with two pendulum clocks. He hung them next to each other on the wall. 

       At first, the pendulums were swinging randomly.  But after several days, their swinging began to synchronize.

       From this simple observation and further experiments, he eventually came to realize that whenever things that pulsed or oscillated were placed near each other, they had a tendency to synchronize – or as it is now called, become “entrained.” 

          Since the days of Huygens' experiments, this process of synchronization has been observed in many different situations – from speech and body patterns to heart cells that are placed near each other.  Here are just a few examples:

  • Women living together often find that their menstrual periods begin to synchronize.

  • In one experiment, two people having a conversation were wired to an EEG machine in order to compare their brain waves.  As they talked, the recording pens began moving together as though one brain were controlling both pens.  However, when a third person outside the conversation distracted one of the individuals by calling out to them, the pens lost their synchrony.

  • Crowds of people flock daily to a small antique clock store in Massachusetts where they witness the spectacle of its dozens of clocks chiming together in perfect synchrony every hour on the hour.

  • In the early 1960s, a student of anthropologist Edward T. Hall filmed children playing in a playground.  When he looked at the footage carefully, he discovered a beautiful synchrony amongst the children who were playing there.

    He wondered if perhaps he was imagining the connection between the children who were playing different games in different parts of the playground.  He checked this by playing a strongly rhythmic piece of music while watching the video.  He was astonished to see that for more than four minutes, the movements of all of the children were almost perfectly synchronized with the music.

          Within our bodies, there are numerous processes that also synchronize with each other. For example, when we experience a positive emotion, it generates an electromagnetic field that tends to bring about widespread harmonization throughout our brain and body, increasing coherence between the left and right hemispheres of our brain, between the different parts of our autonomic nervous system, and harmonizing our thinking, emotional, and instinctive brains.  

          This kind of “whole brain-body” harmonization can bring about a very strong experience of the core of calm, ease, and contentment, of being at the hub of your wheel of awareness.  Each time you do a heart meditation to evoke a positive emotion, you are helping to integrate and harmonize your brain-body, making more available the experience of joyful well-being and the sense that life is rich with meaning and purpose.

To explore meditation further, check out:

Mindfulness Meditation