Thirty-five years ago, a well-heeled French scientist, named Matthieu Ricard, left it all behind to become a Buddhist monk.
So there I sat at the end of Ricard’s presentation at a recent coaching conference, both moved and immobilized. Sitting next to me, a man named Chuck brought me back when he said something like, "So, are you going to meditate?" That simple question led to some provocative conversation. When we got up to leave we were the only ones seated in a hall that held 1,500 people twenty minutes earlier. How nice it was to be present in dialogue and oblivious to the conference pace.
You know how conferences go. Learn. Explore. Connect. Go. Go. Go. We barely and rarely assimilate the learning. Ironic, isn’t it? It’s just like us non-monks who practice meditation; we’re often "hurrying" to do so, when our intent is to still our body and mind. Ah yes, we have more to learn.
What is meditation? According to Wikipedia, "Meditation is a mental discipline by which one attempts to get beyond the conditioned, "thinking" mind into a deeper state of relaxation or awareness."
From dictionary.com, "To train, calm, or empty the mind, often by achieving an altered state, as by focusing on a single object."
Understandably, there are as many definitions as ways to practice, given meditation has been around for 5,000 years. Speaking from experience, it does not require "Gumby" limbs, hippy clothes or special abilities, just an open mind, a little time, and a lot of patience. I was struck by what Matthieu Ricard had to say about meditation.
Ricard starts by saying that mind training is a more useful term than meditation. Mind training changes the brain. It determines the quality of every instant of our lives by changing our base lines, conditioning the way we experience things. Ricard uses the example of a light that illuminates a beautiful diamond or a pile of garbage. The light is unchanged, regardless of what it illuminates.
Most of the things we believe make us happy are limited, temporary and illusory. They depend on circumstances. As Ricard says, they "give a hint of what life could be like, if we changed the balance of the mind, instead of altering external circumstances."
It turns out that becoming truly happy is a skill to be learned, the goal being to change our minds versus our circumstances, and become more like the light. So much for beauty, fame and fortune!
Does it mean we lose interest in the things that make us tick? Ricard says, "That’s one of the mistakes people make: that a serene, balanced mind is a dull mind." Engaging and humorous, I assure you, there is nothing dull about Matthieu Ricard.
Are you afraid of being dull? Caught up in the "Go, Go, Go," we run on adrenaline, often addicted to it. Yet we might yearn for a slower, calmer lifestyle – an interesting dichotomy.
It is my belief that it is often self-image, or ego, that prevents us from slowing down. We find it difficult to accept ourselves doing or achieving less. Our society often rewards those who do more. This comes at a cost. If we pay attention to our behaviors, listen to our bodies and connect with our values we might get a different message about our need for speed. Living life continually on red alert eventually wreaks havoc on our health.
What difference does mind training make? Ricard is heavily involved in research on the effect of mind training on the brain. MRI and fMRI (video) results show Ricard and other highly experienced meditators were well beyond the normal curve, showing heightened activity in the left cortex of the brain associated with pleasant emotion. For this reason Matthieu Ricard has been dubbed "the happiest man in the world."
There is also plenty of evidence that meditation is also good for our physical well being, reducing stress, blood pressure, and more.
What is achievement, anyway? How do we define ourselves if not by what we do? How do we slow down, become fully present and change the patterns in our brains, short of walking away and taking an extended vacation east? Like everything else we do, by making a commitment, then taking one small step and one deep breath at a time.
"It was very nice to meet you, Chuck. I’m just wondering, are you still meditating?"