I’ve been a regular meditator for almost 10 years now and over that time I’ve realized that there are a lot of misconceptions about what meditation is and why one might do it. Meditation is much richer and much more practical than the common image of aging baby boomers sitting on cushions with their eyes closed trying to find some counterweight to the stress of their day-to-day lives. While the focus is often on relaxation and stress reduction, this is not the whole story. In fact, this is only the very, very beginning.
Of course, there’s no denying that meditation is having its moment. Mindfulness practices are quickly following on the heels of yoga as doctors, school students, and executives all learn the benefits of gaining the skills and perspective of mental training. In most contexts the primary focus of meditative practice is still on relaxation, on reducing stress. For many groups – such as doctors and students – this alone is a great win.
But what about community builders? Should they meditate too?
I think the answer is a clear “yes”.
I recently attended a 10-day retreat in southern Germany that focused on the practice of concentration meditation. And that experience gave me a lot of opportunity to think about the practical benefits of concentration meditation for community builders.
A gym for the mind
You see, I think of meditation as a gym for the mind. Like going to the gym, meditation does not produce overnight results; it’s a long game. Like going to the gym, it builds overall strength and endurance, which have a range of applications outside the specific exercises in which one trains. And, like going to the gym, meditation has several disciplines. But instead of cardio and weights, we have concentration and insight.
If someone asks, “Why should I go to the gym?” they may not be helped by simply responding, “To get healthy”. “But I feel fine,” they retort. “I don’t go to the doctor more than average. Last check-up, she said I was ok.” For most people it’s more helpful to explain about the effects of aging on the cardiovascular system, and how endurance training can help combat them over the long term. And it may be helpful to explain how muscle mass decreases over time, requiring an increasing amount of exercise to maintain what’s there, helping prevent back pain or the likelihood of dangerous falls, etc. In other words, it’s often helpful to understand in a general way why the different disciplines are conducive to health.
Fortunately, much of this knowledge about physical health is now common knowledge. Most of us understand perfectly well why we should get regular exercise, whether we do it or not. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of meditation.
The result of this ignorance, I believe, is confusion and misunderstanding.
The disciplines of meditation: concentration and insight
In a very general way it’s possible to divide meditation into two disciplines: concentration and insight. In concentration meditation one learns to maintain focused awareness on a chosen object (mental, physical, visual, auditory, any object). That requires learning to place one’s awareness on an object, to notice when the mind has wandered, and to bring it back to the chosen object. Over time the ability to stay with an object strengthens, distractions fall farther into the background, and the object itself becomes much more vivid and stable. With enough training, the mind gains the ability to concentrate on a single object for long periods of time to the complete exclusion of all other experience. This is the end point of training in concentration.
Insight meditation is very different. While it too comes in a variety of flavors, in practicing insight meditation one learns to remain aware of experience itself as it is occurring. This is in contrast to our normal state of affairs in which we are “lost” in our experience, ever remaining the experiencer. In insight we make one step of remove to see that we are always standing in this stream of experiences rising and passing away. And, while the development of concentration meditation can be defined quite easily, the development of insight is much more varied. This is because we learn to see all the varied aspects of our experience – sense perception, categorization, emotional processes, thoughts, planning, dreaming, remembering, intention, liking & disliking, even bare consciousness itself – and this is quite a complex field. Thus the end point of insight could be said to be similarly complex as we slowly learn to see all the magnificent diversity of our own experience.
Focus on concentration
So, focusing just on the mental discipline of concentration, the question remains: what’s the use for community builders? Here are three ideas.
- Concentration skills are a powerful aid in deep listening
Community builders spend a lot of time listening to people, but true deep listening means emptying the mind, the heart, and the will. When we listen to people we often hear very little of what they’re saying. We’re critiquing something they said, waiting to ask a question, getting ready a retort, and so on. All of this is not listening.
Of course listening without any of this mental chatter is a tall order, but by practicing concentration meditation we strengthen precisely those mental muscles that help us put the thinking mind on pause. This builds on our ability to be truly, fully present for the person who is speaking. It is hard to exaggerate the power of this skill and the healing/connecting that speakers feel when they are really heard.
- Staying with emergence
As a helpful simplification one can observe two contrasting mind states: the active vs. receptive. In the active mind state we take in our experience and then proceed with the chains of activity that seem to follow on its heels. For instance, someone tells us a story about a gathering and we analyze the details and finally categorize it as an example of open space. Then, perhaps, that categorization turns into an intention to tell the person about our insight, so we formulate a sentence, observe when there’s a break in the conversation and launch into our speech. The active mind is extraordinarily useful in getting things done. I wouldn’t recommend trying to cross the street without categorizing experience according to its potential risk. But it’s not the whole picture.
The receptive mind, on the other hand, tends to stay with the flow of sense experience and not get caught in the rivers of analysis, categorization, intention, action, etc. This is particularly useful when trying to remain present with a person, with a community, or with any living process that is trying to emerge. This is because emergence is always a verb, a process that is disturbed, done violence to when it is categorized. In concentration meditation one practices focusing on one object, most often the breath. But this skill is transferrable. And that means that community builders who have developed this skill are also better able to stay with emergence as it unfolds.
- Modeling openness
Finally, our own comportment has a strong impact on those around us. If we are stressed and busy, others will pick up on that and tend towards the same. Similarly, if we are relaxed and open, then that comportment will resonate with those around us. In concentration meditation we quiet – although not silence! – the mind as it learns to stay with a single object. The quiet affects more than just our mental chatter. It also affects our breathing, our posture, our emotional activity, and more. And through this quieting we become more open to what is arising in any given moment.
Thus, through concentration meditation we learn to be open to the mystery, joy, and surprise of the moment. And we can do the same when we’re with others telling their stories, having discussions, or moving toward engagement. Moreover, the more we model this comportment, the more it spreads to others.
So much more to say
I struggled with writing these notes for one primary reason – there was so much more I could say. I think there are myriad other reasons why community builders can gain essential skills through meditation. The points here only begin to touch on the benefits of concentration meditation. Much more could be said about insight meditation and loving-kindness meditation. But hopefully this can spur on more discussion about meditation as a modern practice and call out from the shadows others who can speak to the thoroughly practical value of mental training for community builders.