Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Meditation Without Beliefs

       I'm convinced through life experience that most people I meet want their lives to be better, especially happier and more peaceful, and that many of them look for ways to do that, usually through means that are more external than internal.  Many avoid or shy away from almost any internal method they hear about for achieving happiness and tranquility simply because it might require accepting some belief.  They often see people who, indeed, seem to have really experienced these life fulfilling objectives, but still they hesitate because they're suspicious of some hidden gimmick or belief that would entrap them.     
      After all, most of us who have reached adulthood and then some have answered the door to find people promising happiness and peace if you will just buy into their particular religion’s beliefs.  Even well-intentioned relatives, friends, and acquaintances invite us to experience their spiritual practices.  But if we’re satisfied with our religious tradition or just don’t want to try another one, we do our best to tell them “no” politely and then change the subject or close the conversation so they’ll leave our home.  All the while, however, we would still like to find something simple, a practice or technique or process not requiring us to accept any belief but offering the opportunity to find our own way to more happiness and tranquility.  I was one of the lucky ones to find such a practice with meditation many years ago while I was studying for a bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
      I was in a psychology class taught by Dr. Gordon Becker, a clinical psychologist, and one of the objectives was to write an essay on a subject that had been presented to our course group by one of the presenters who had visited our class.  Just recently, one of the economics professors in our university, Dr. David Shultze, had made a presentation on meditation, which interested me, and extended an invitation to the students in our class to visit his group on campus.  He had also indicated that meditation didn’t involve accepting any beliefs other than just trying the techniques to find out if one experienced any beneficial results.  Nor were any of the techniques of silent meditation deemed a religion.  Since I was one of those people who wanted my life to be happier and more tranquil as well as to have material on which I could write a paper, I decided to take David up on his invitation.  During the following week, I participated in his group, benefited from the forty-five minutes of silent meditation I learned to practice, and found there were no beliefs I had to accept.  Consequently, I wrote the paper and continued to attend his group because I had felt some of the peace and tranquility I wanted in my life.
      Ever since that autumn evening long ago in 1975, I’ve been practicing meditation without having to accept any beliefs and my life has become progressively happier and more tranquil.  Have there been absences from the practice along the way?  Certainly, and they’ve helped me to experience the loss of contentment and peace I needed to return to my practice and  to attend meditation retreats, study, and read to improve my ability to continue opening to the insights that  come my way.  I’ve practiced and studied with various meditation groups.  None of them have ever done anything more than try and help me in my own training while reinforcing the fact that nothing is to be believed unless you experience it to be true for yourself.
      As a result of my familiarity with meditation over the years, some things have become very clear to me.  For example, I’ve learned that one can continue practicing his or her chosen religion while carrying on meditation; in fact, it may very well improve one’s experience of spirituality in his or her faith, whether it is Protestant, Catholic, Judeo, or Buddhist.  One’s ability to focus, for instance, while praying, singing, or chanting may be enhanced.  Furthermore, your compassion to act in reducing the suffering of others may well be increased.  One of modern day life’s best models for working compassionately day in and day out, Mother Theresa, upon being asked how she prayed, responded by saying that she just listened.  When the reporter heard this reply, he asked her what she meant, and she told him that if he didn’t “know”, then there wasn’t any way she could explain it to him whereby he would understand.  However, anyone who practices mindfulness meditation would know that her method of praying was closely related to the technique of focusing on silence.
      Another insight that has come to me through meditative experience is respect for all life, specifically that of not harming other living beings.  I’ve learned that such a realization is not an idea but a “knowing” that one feels internally, throughout his or her core.  Whereas I grew up on a farm and was accustomed to killing animals such as chickens, rabbits, squirrels, pigs, sheep, and steers for food and later on had a career with the United States Air Force, I wasn’t prepared for the revelation I was about to experience during a meditation retreat in 1992. 
      Having gone outside to walk one day after lunch, I discovered myself to be automatically stepping over an army of ants crossing the path on which I was walking.  It was such a surprise to find myself doing that, for I’d never really cared anything about the life of insects before that occasion.  Moreover, if I’d stepped on them or not, it wouldn’t have mattered to me, but now I saw that it did and deeply so.  Since that time, I’ve found it really difficult to see anything being killed by others and have felt deep regret for the slaughter I’ve committed of helpless animals and insects in the past. 
      Furthermore, other things have occurred in my experience through the years to promote better happiness and tranquility as a result of practicing meditation without beliefs.  Whereas I used to become quite angry over things going wrong in my personal and professional life, this emotion seldom overwhelms me now.  Second, I find it much easier than ever before to let go of the inconsistencies that come up with English language students—what a relief!  Next, I find it rewarding to take more time to think through whatever I’d like to do before taking action.  Fourth, I’m much less ready to confront another person than I used to be, and when it’s necessary, I find myself doing it with a lot more tact, having already placed myself in his or her shoes.  Last, but most importantly, I’m much more consistent in personal relationships which has not always been the case.
      In conclusion, what has really made a difference in my life, as mentioned above, has been the practice of concentration, mindfulness, and loving kindness in meditation sessions.  Moreover, I’ve integrated them into my daily affairs and not just left them on the cushion as so many people, who don’t meditate, would probably think.  Also, one of the aspects of meditation that I really love is that it’s like the exploration of inner landscapes—you just never really know what you’re going to discover next.  Learning and employing meditational techniques does not mean blindly accepting the beliefs of any tradition; rather, it’s using what you “know” as a result of practice to function more happily and tranquilly in your everyday life.  It’s a demonstration of common sense.  One doesn’t have to become a Buddhist to improve your life through the use of meditation; even the Buddhists might prefer that you didn’t!

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