I come from a long line of seekers, my mother’s side of the family known for trying on various spiritual traditions in a search for truth. My mother herself has been experimenting with meditation recently, and has tried several forms of guided meditation. The one that has worked best for her is Oprah Winfrey's and Deepak Chopra’s 21-day meditation challenge on the computer.
Last week she wanted to share with me a meditation she finds beneficial. It was a busy day at her house, with much of the family in and out, so we escaped to her office to follow the guided instructions. While I am glad so many people are following this program and finding relaxation in meditation, I found it too distracting to be truly mindful.
The meditation played over a picture of flowers on the computer. Difficulty in streaming the download made us hesitate and start and stop in fits. While the picture could have served as an adequate focus of attention, Dr. Chopra added new age music, birdsongs, and a mantra to his narration. The periods of silence were anything but. I found the whole experience too full of noise to be an exercise in mindfulness. When I should have been simply aware of the present moment, I was distracted by the soundtrack playing from the computer. Distracted by the computer itself.
Evidence of our distraction came when my daughter entered the room with my wife. She had fallen and hit her head and wanted Daddy. Lost in the barrage of attempted meditative bliss, my mother and I shooed them out of the room to return to the birds and the music and the comforting voice. If I had been truly mindful, I would have dropped everything and attended to my upset daughter. Instead of making me more self-aware, this meditation had made me more self-absorbed.
A teacher one can depend on is invaluable, and guided meditation can be very beneficial. Yet mindfulness meditation remains a simple practice. A dignified position and a focus on the breath is all that is necessary to release thoughts and remain present. But done without the right intention, discipline, and patience, it can be very boring. So many practitioners turn to CDs and mp3s and apps to help focus their attention. While they can be helpful, they risk contributing to the noise that distracts us from our true self, and from our quest to be present. Mood regulation, self-discovery, and empathy are all found silently within each of us. Music, images, and ambient noise can result in a great relaxation or positive imaging exercise, but mindfulness is not about relaxation and imaging. It is about falling awake and realizing the possibility and fullness of the moment. Yes, relaxation can be a result, but so can the awareness of difficulty.
What results from mindfulness as I practice and teach it is a more complete, realized individual. I believe that to achieve this, one needs significant periods of silence. Anything else just distracts from the work. This said, as I build the Practicing Mental Illness website this spring and summer I do want to add a few guided meditations. I‘ll just need to keep in mind that they must include guidance toward silence, and should never be construed as replacement for the hard work of just sitting, focusing on the breath.