Yesterday I had time between meetings, and chose to talk a walk. Norway has a plethora of places to escape to if you need some peace and quiet, so I went into the woods. A lot of people were out, since the sun was shining and that does not happen to often in Bergen.
I had no rush, an hour was at my disposal, so I could choose the pace I wanted. That suited me perfectly, because taking your time means being in the here and now. I saw the trees more clearly, and smell how they were preparing for spring. The road in front of me went in all directions, and it felt like a privilege that I could go wherever I wanted.
After a while I came to a small lake. It had a little sand beach, that was shining in the sun. Clear water licked the sand away, and the soothing movements brought my mind to rest. I also saw a lot of dogs, eager to smell and explore their surroundings. How free they were, how simple their lives seemed. I realized that sometimes it is that simple. You only need to look around you, take the world in. Even if my head sometimes tried to lure me into planning or worries, I would not let it. Instead I continued walking, one foot in front of the other. Feeling my feet touching the earth underneath.
Usually I am not very good at being in the present. I have thought that mindfulness is not for me. I am too busy and can`t be bothered to just sit and stare into the air. Even if I have discovered time and time again that doing just one thing at the time gives me pleasure and enjoyment, I so easily forget it. Because there is another email I must answer, another task I have to do before my next appointment.
When you think about it, there really is no rush. My roommate tells me that what you don`t manage to do, should not be a concern of mine. They are just small annoyances, and the world will not fall apart.
While I walked, letting the sun touch my face, I realized that he was right. The world is very much where it should be. And nothing that I have done or will do can change that. The world is always close to us, ready for us to explore it and enjoy.
We have reached the top of the mountain, and are preparing to walk down again. There is only one problem: Fog is enveloping the mountain, making it difficult to orient ourselves as we start making our way back. We have to turn around a lot of times, and try new paths. Me and my best friend, do our best. We ask people walking upwards, where they come from and continue optimistically. But still, we get lost. A sign points us in a direction that goes nowhere. Suddenly we are surrounded by threes, and my friend remarks that this is what she loves about walking in the mountain. The unrealistic and somewhat dreamy quality of the landscape. The fog makes it even more beautiful. I nod in agreement. It is truly mesmerizing, and I feel alive even if I am a bit afraid that we won`t find the right path and eventually arrive somewhere far away from where we started walking. We pull out our cellphones, and try to let the GPS point us in the wrong direction. After walking around in a circle and through some muddy waters, we finally find a path. And as if in a miracle, we come down not where we started, but a bit further to the right. As it happens, this is actually closer to where we had parked the car, and we sigh in relief. I tell her, that this was the best thing that could happen: We got lost, but found a new way that was actually better. She tells me it was a great trip. For her, mediation is walking.
It is noticing all the small details around her, and I agree. I have tried Yoga, but somehow it does not appeal to me. I like reading, I like walking and I like having time to think while also doing something else. Some people say that walking in the mountains and listening to music at the same time, is not really relaxing. But who can decide what is relaxation? People are different and have different needs. After the trip, I felt great. Like some part of me had awoken from a slumber. The fog did not confuse me. It reminded me that being lost means having a opportunity to find new paths. To arrive somewhere we could not imagine before we started. Being shrouded in mysteries, gives us perspective. By feeling confused, our brain have an unique opportunity to look at things a different way.
And we found our way. Just not in the way we imagined.
We are walking in the woods. The wind is blowing, rustling the leaves. The smell of pine trees envelops us. It reminds me of my past: Sitting under a red-leaved tree, looking up at the sky, feeling happy. The wind tries to blow off my cap, so I press it down. My ears are cold, so I put my scarf up. I am breathing through the fabric, watching him from the corner of my eye. He is smiling and talking about the future he wants to build.
I see the trees around me. Some are thin, swaying calmly back and forth. Some are thicker, with green needles drizzling down on us. He gets something in his eyes and has to stop. His eyes are tearing up and he starts blinking several times, but it doesn`t help. After a while, he gives up and continues walking. I start to say something else, and after a while asks about his eye. He smiles and tells me everything is alright now, the irritating object is gone. Funny how things suddenly stop being irritating when you stop bothering about it.
We have already walked far, and he has told me more about himself. He talks about his father, who in spite of trying to protect his children, made things worse by not letting them explore their world on their own. Suddenly I remember a psychological experiment where people in a nursing home could push a button if they needed a nurse. One group did not get this option, and had to wait and see what happened. The group that could choose when to push the button, and thereby control their environment, soon became more independent in other aspects of their lives. They wanted to decide what they should eat, and found more meaning in their everyday life. How can a little thing like that, change so much?
Humans crave freedom. Nothing is more important.
When the wind is blowing, bending trees this way and that, they can do nothing else than stand there, letting the wind decide what happens next. Some stems are weaker than others, but also more beautiful when they sway back and forth. They are dancing, free like birds even if their stems ground them. A realization hits me: No matter your circumstance, you can adapt. Sometimes the gushes of wind will be strong and scare you. But if you go with the wind, letting it carry you without fear, you might just be stronger than you think.
Have you ever stood in the wind, feeling the force of it? Your hair flying, your clothes dragged backwards. Maybe you are trying to go forward, but the gusts are too strong. So you just stand there, close your eyes and feel the air on your skin. If you turn around, the wind will shove you forward. And you are the one to decide where to go next.
Right now I am struggling to adjust. A new job means thousand small differences that all must be brought together in a new way. My room-mate told me: the people who manage to survive, are those who are able to adapt. Some of the differences I have to adjust to, is more tasks of a different kind. I also must learn to work with children and the system, instead of long-term therapy with traumatized adults. I must learn to remember more practical information, like when the children got extra help in class and which subjects they like and dislike. I must learn to use different types of questionnaires and tests and focus on school instead of how they suffer psychologically. This also mean that I must put aside time to reflect and rest my head, like I do when I write. Instead of rushing from one task to another, making mistakes along the way as I forget things, I must take a breath and ask myself questions: what did I just learn? How can I remember the phone call I will have to take? How did it feel to feel a bit stupid since I couldn’t answer a question about what a dyslexic child needs?
By giving myself time, I am able to enjoy what I’m doing. I can appreciate the newness of it all by realizing that this is a chance to broaden my knowledge-base and understand even more about the complexity of our minds. Learning new things can be so frustrating, but the reward when we finally get where we wished we were from the begin with, is even higher since we had to struggle a bit with it. And the best of all: by being mindful about the process I’m going through, I’m more able to understand how it must be for children with different cognitive disadvantages to learn something new.
June 6 at 9:04 PM
Inside the newly opened Meditation Museum in Silver Spring, exhibits refer to the pursuit of “God,” the “Supreme Soul” and often “The One.” A constant visual theme is orangeish-reddish light emanating from a vague, otherworldly source. The message is clear: Meditation is about connecting with the divine.
“If the mind can be in a state of experiencing the energy of God’s light or presence,” said Sister Jenna Mahraj, a nightclub owner turned spiritual teacher whose organization opened the museum this year, “it’s like everything we tend to find so disheveled — it starts to find its own purpose.”
Yet in gyms, businesses and public schools in every direction from the museum — which sits on busy Georgia Avenue — meditation is often presented as something akin to mental weight-lifting: a secular practice that keeps your brain and emotions in shape. Gyms list it alongside Zumba classes, and public schools say it can help students chill out before tests by calming the mind and training it to look upon disruptive thoughts from a non-judgmental perspective.
This rough juxtaposition between the religious and secular versions of meditation epitomizes a key debate about the ancient practice as it explodes in the United States: What is the purpose of meditation? And who decides?
To Mahraj and her community, called the Brahma Kumaris, promoting the religious component is part of the purpose of the Silver Spring center, which is more about spiritual advocacy than a museum in the classic sense.
“This country needs to stop thinking meditation is about emptying your mind,” she said during a recent tour. “I respect all meditation practices, but I don’t necessarily believe in a practice that tries to ‘empty’ your thoughts. . . . I don’t think that’s normal.”
Mahraj is not alone in her concern that meditation might be getting too secular, which can be shorthand for saying that today it is often taught value-free — unattached to a philosophy or worldview. Hindu and Buddhist leaders in particular have raised concerns that meditation may be going the route yoga has in the West, where it has largely morphed from being a tool for enlightenment to one for a firmer tush.
“What are we teaching? That’s a very serious question for anyone who is taking these techniques out of a religious context and into the secular world,” said Clark Strand, a former Zen Buddhist monk who now writes and lectures on spirituality and the way Eastern philosophies are transformed in the West.
“Once you remove them from the spiritual context, then goals default to those of the culture, and that could be to win a war, or make money, or to self-medicate so you can do a job you hate or for which you aren’t paid enough,” Strand said. “Who does [meditation] serve today? Who does it belong to? Is its purpose spiritual or just a commodity?”
Ironically, when meditation began its expansion a decade or so ago from Buddhist retreats and alternative communes to the American mainstream, institutional religion was wary that the practice was too religious — but not in a sufficiently monotheistic Judeo-Christian way.
“The biblical worldview is completely at odds with the pantheistic concepts driving Eastern meditation. We are not one with an impersonal absolute being that is called ‘God.’ Rather, we are estranged from the true personal God” because of our inherent sin, evangelical philosopher Douglas Groothuis wrote in Christianity Today in 2004 — a piece typical of what was found in religious media as meditation began its ascent. “The answer to our plight is not found in some ‘higher level of consciousness’ (really a deceptive state of mind), but in placing our faith in the unmatched achievements of Jesus Christ on our behalf.”
But meditation has spread too far and too successfully into areas such as the treatment of depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder for the debate to remain simply: Is it too secular or too religious? This is because meditation’s boom comes at a time of remarkable openness to questions about religion itself, with people — particularly young ones — probing much more about what, exactly, constitutes a “religious” practice, belief or prayer.
For example, while some say meditating for stress relief is “secular,” doesn’t that address a very modern-day type of suffering? Or is something else theologically meant by the word “suffering”? If you practice a type of focus meditation that involves, for example, chanting a basic word such as “love,” is that secular or religious?
And what is really meant by meditation leaders who tell students to practice “emptying their mind”? People such as Mahraj would see such a phrase as devoid of any philosophy, but others would say secular-sounding phrases aren’t necessarily “empty.”
“That’s a straw man,” prominent brain-science writer Daniel Goleman said of the idea that secular practice teaches nothing in particular. “It pays to stop your stressed-out mind state, let your psychology calm down and your mind clear, that’s just human engineering. In the Buddhist context that’s a preliminary state to a spiritual journey.”
Goleman is the author of “A Force for Good,” a book due out this month about pragmatic — one might say secular — applications of the Dalai Lama’s teachings.
The blurry lines between religious and secular are at play in Mahraj’s work, too. The Brahma Kumaris, an 80-year-old spiritual movement with roots in India, teaches that meditation and prayer are about coming closer to God and “that each one of us is an eternal spirit or soul.” In an effort to spread its teachings in the Washington region, the group opened its museum in downtown Silver Spring six years ago. It relocated to the new space in April.
But in addition to espousing the beliefs of those behind the center, the museum offers a broad range of more secular self-help activities such as courses on vegetarian cooking and budgeting. Mahraj, whose parents were Hindu and Catholic, speaks in area schools, to challenged youth in particular. She hosts a Web-based talk show called “America Meditating.”
But Mahraj says that the purpose of the meditation her group teaches is religious. The regular practice of the Brahma Kumaris is to meditate at home for 45 minutes at 4 a.m., then attend a class together at 6 a.m. that is part silent meditation and part teaching, she said.
“We’re not teaching people to empty their minds,” she said. “We’re teaching them to fill their minds with the right kind of things.”
The soaring interest in meditation has prompted many religious groups to revive their own ancient meditative practices. Jesuit meditation retreats and church-run classes on “centering prayers” — a contemplative Christian practice — are popping up everywhere, as are programs on Jewish meditation. Muslims are discussing more if the classic practice of reciting many names of Allah is a type of meditation.
But the secular-religious debate is appearing among faith groups, too. Some find centering prayers — which call for the practitioner to focus on a general word such as “mercy” rather than liturgy — too secular, said the Rev. Jim Martin, a popular Catholic writer on spirituality who leads retreats in Catholic contemplative practices.
“Some Catholics are suspicious about centering. They’ll say: ‘That’s so Buddhist, is that a mantra?’ ” he said.
Martin and others see meditation as perhaps a secular society’s way of tiptoeing back to God.
“Some say the Christian of the future will be a mystic or not a Christian at all,” he said. “You have to have a spiritual life.”
Anout the author:
Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
Self-blame is a human dilemma. We may blame ourselves for shouting at our kids or not protecting our siblings from abusive parents when we were young, or hating ourselves for something we wish we hadn’t said. But blame creates a destructive amount of continual stress that holds us back from learning from our mistakes and also uncovering a real happiness.
So, assuming many of us agree that forgiving ourselves and learning from past mistakes is important for our health and well-being, the next question is how do we actually go about forgiving ourselves?
Know that you are not the first or the last
One of the first things to do is understand that you are not the first person who has made this mistake; it has likely been made thousands if not millions of times before you by other people. I am not condoning the action, but simply letting you know that you are not alone and that many people have made this mistake in the face of common human challenges. One of the common things we do as humans is taking things personally to a fault. When we come to understand that no one is immune from being unskillful, we can begin to take it a little less personally. This helps us in the process of forgiveness.
Understand that it’s in the past
Another thing to remind yourself of is that this act you may have committed is now in the past, it is not present, and you are not currently doing it. Notice when the mind trap of blaming yourself for past events arises, see if you can acknowledge its presence and the remind yourself that you did make mistake, but that was the past and you are going to learn from it. This practice of blaming does not support you or others in any way at all. Allow the process of forgiveness of this past event to surface and begin to see it as something that you can learn and grow from moving forward. This will free you up to be more skillful in the present.
What we might do is say “In the past, I had done or been xyz, and now I am (connect with positive intention.” For example, “in the past I had an affair, today I am a loving and committed husband/wife and the love I feel for my children sustains me.”
Adopt a learning mindset
We are always going to make mistakes in this life. Everyone does. But the key mindset that turns on this on it’s head and catalyzes growth and happiness is the learning mindset.
Every single experience in life contains information to help us get better and better with our intentions in life.
So forgive yourself for the past, but investigate how you made this error or if it was even an error on your part at all. If it was ask yourself, “What might I do differently next time?” Then invite yourself to begin again.
This is a practice I call Forgive, Investigate and Invite.
We can begin to let go of our grievance stories of the past and begin to build new ones with more conscious intention on how we want things to be moving forward. This will be a process and will take patience, determination, and persistence as the old stories and habits of self blame will keep creeping back into the mind leading us back toward our old unforgiving ways that don’t serve us. See if you can notice when this happens and then invite yourself now to begin the process of self-forgiveness again.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 31 May 2015
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
Two monks were washing their bowls in the river when they noticed a scorpion that was drowning. One monk immediately scooped it up and set it upon the bank. In the process he was stung. He went back to washing his bowl and again the scorpion fell in. The monk saved the scorpion and was again stung. The other monk asked him, “Friend, why do you continue to save the scorpion when you know its nature is to sting?”
“Because,” the monk replied, “to save it is my nature.”