The many psychological and physiological benefits of meditation are becoming increasingly studied and known. They range from lowered blood pressure and strengthened immune systems to less anxiety and anti-aging effects. Science has taken to task the study of these many effects, and the results are impressive.
But, for me, these benefits are the bi-products of a much more profound, life-altering, path-changing “benefit” of meditation. That benefit is meditation’s impact on relationship.
Relationship in that full, rich sense of being this dynamic, ever-changing field of interaction between you and the world around you, you and your friends and family, you and yourself. And it’s really here in the field of relationship where I’ve found the richest treasure from this practice.
Years ago – right before meeting my husband and uprooting my life in the US for one in Switzerland – I had a steady meditation practice. It wasn’t rooted in a religious tradition. It was inspired in part by an author and teacher, whose teachings deeply resonated with me. And it was really consistent.
I was single at the time, and would retreat to my bedroom early most evenings to read, write, and meditate. In the beginning, an underlying anxiety would accompany me every time I started to meditate. I felt anxious not knowing what I’d encounter in the uncharted territory of my inner world. It didn’t take long, though, before this anxiety was transformed into a sublime familiarity. I began to so deeply relish these opportunities to be there, with myself and my own experience.
One evening in late October, while I was lying on my bed staring into the darkness of my room, a new sense came over me. Out of nowhere I said to myself: I’m not alone. I realized that what I was experiencing was far from mystical, and that this sense of presence was my own awareness. Of being fully present.
Mindfulness is the act of being present to one's experience with kindness and a sense of curiosity for what we are experiencing.
A well-known mindfulness researcher once described how patience, kindness and compassion are cultivated in the act of meditation. Every time we wander off during meditation we learn to gently bring our focus back to the object of our attention (our breath, our seated butt against the cushion or chair, our hand resting on our knee). We do this endlessly and without evaluation (Is this a good meditation or a bad meditation?), without berating ourselves (Why can’t I stop my mind?!), with patience (toward our wandering minds), with kindness (for the fact that that’s what our minds do, they wander), and compassion (for the evaluating and berating we do anyway).
It didn’t matter what I was doing after that experience – sitting in a meeting at work, going out with friends, driving in my car – it felt as though someone was with me constantly observing and attending to every moment I experienced.
It was potent and radical and lovely beyond words.
But what was perhaps most beautiful was the depth of caring, kindness and compassion that emanated from this presence. It was as if I had a friend, and that friend attended to me in the way a good friend does. It was as if a constant, silent and unconscious dialogue was taking place between us.
It didn’t result in some permanent state of bliss. Rather, in every moment, regardless of what I was experiencing, this friend was there like all-encompassing hug. What came from that was a sense of unspeakable calm.
Cultivating such a relationship to yourself is like having a personal steward of the mind and heart.
In a very real way in the act of meditation we cultivate, nourish, and grow the qualities of patience, kindness and compassion within our practice. And these qualities invariably spill out into the world and into our relationships. We can't help it because they begin to form the background of our experience and shape the way we perceive ourselves and others.
Cultivating these qualities time and again in a dedicated practice is the foundation upon which we build this relationship – this friendship – to self and keep it flourishing. Occasionally we're thrown into chaos. Maybe we find ourselves surrounded by a lot of newness, within which we don’t easily find the space for a meditation practice. Perhaps some trauma or accident occurs, an illness or death. Sometimes the internal chaos becomes normalized and therefore harder to sense when we’re not paying attention. For me, it’s during this habitual chaos – being busy, busy, busy – when the relationship is most susceptible to neglect.
But the beauty in all of this is...the opportunity to reconnect is always there, in every single moment. We never have to worry about losing it, because as soon as we realise we've "lost" it, we come back.
And in moments during the habitual chaos – while washing the dishes or putting away my kids' toys – when I have lost contact for a time, I’ll suddenly have this sense, like a call out of the blue from a dear friend, that seems to say, “I’m still here.”