To Sit or Not to Sit: A reflection on life after a meditation retreat

By Andrew Johnson

It seems that – akin to the resurgence of yoga – meditation has seen recent growth as a popular addition to people’s days, and even the center point to many vacations. I’d like to think it’s a positive sign of the times; one in which Americans are once again tuning into themselves to discover what makes them happy. Meditation certainly holds that key, as it can be used to break the bonds of what the Buddha considered the shackles that create suffering: craving and aversion.

Now don’t be scared off by the mentioning of the Buddha: One need not drop their current belief system and shack up with a new religion. In fact, it would be difficult for any religion to argue with the benefits of adding meditation to your daily life. As a practice, it helps one to gain control over their mind and focus on the physical moment instead of the mental moment. Continued work on this can lead the practitioner to remain at constant state of peace, no matter what events they are put through.

It is the position of the Buddha (and this writer) that mental formations are caused by physical reactions to input. If you see a tiny kitten riding on the back of a Great Dane, chances are you react by saying “Awww” before you even realize there was a feeling of lightness created in your chest, or a tingling that passed over your skin, which led to the positive feeling in your mind. The same goes with the negative. Driving along the highway and passing an unfortunate animal who didn’t make it across the road in time may elicit your thoughts of pain, suffering, or sadness without you being aware of the cold chill you felt, or the tightening of your stomach. These physical reactions are just examples, and you may experience different sensations, but the idea remains the same: It is not the image we see or the words we hear that cause happiness and desire or pain and aversion, it is our mental reaction to the physical sensation that create these feelings.

Meditation teaches you to quiet the mind and listen to the body with equanimity. Whether you feel something pleasant, something painful, or something neutral, you learn to see them all as they are: an impermanent sensation that will not last. Therefore you can prevent the desire to continue the pleasant sensations, and the aversion towards the negative ones. Everything in this world arises and passes, from you and me to the great Himalayas. Physical sensations are not spared from this truth. For example: If you take to sitting cross-legged while you meditate, chances are your hips or knees or back will hurt. If you can witness this pain on the physical level, realize that it cannot last forever and create no negative mental reaction to it, you will find that there is no need to feel aversion towards that pain. Like everything else, it will pass, and it is not preventing you from being at peace.

After much time, it becomes possible to expand this approach into everyday life with friends and strangers alike. You learn to react to all situations with nothing but love and compassion, as no insult or disparagement can harm you. After all, if someone is acting with negativity, surely they must be suffering in some way that causes this. Therefore they are in need of your compassion, and you should give it freely. Can you imagine a world where traffic jams lead to peaceful conversation between drivers, instead of expletives and birds being flipped? I don’t think I can, but I certainly dream to see it.

With meditation, it is possible for you to become the master of your own emotions, taking the reins away from those around you. Who can deny the benefit of that?

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