Many people are initially drawn to meditation in hopes of finding a more peaceful, less stressful life. Science has proven that consistent meditation practice can reduce stress over time, but there’s a lot more to the practice than cultivating a relaxed mental state. Skillful mindfulness meditation brings us into intimate contact with the thoughts and habitual patterns of craving that are usually hidden from our everyday awareness, the very thoughts at the root of our suffering. This practice opens the door to a gradual release from the patterns that bind us; it is nothing short of the path to liberation.
Through meditation and awareness practices, most of us uncover habitual reactive thoughts of one kind or another, old conditioned patterns that are usually set into motion by specific events. Something may go wrong on the job, a loved one makes a critical comment, or a sensitive email or phone call isn’t returned. If one of these events hit a trigger point, we may find ourselves drowning in a flood of thoughts about our inadequacy, our failure to live up to some kind of standard we have set for ourselves, or what we believe the world “out there” expects from us. Without mindfulness, these self-referencing thoughts can begin to grow and strengthen until we fall into a state of intense anxiety or even depression.
This knotted, painful response occurs when we believe our self-critical thoughts are real. Unexamined, they can become an uncontested life narrative, something barely perceived because the thoughts are so ingrained and habitual, as regular and unnoticed as a steadily beating heart or the oxygen we breathe. Analyzing the conditioned roots of these patterns may help us understand them better, but that alone rarely frees us from their grip. One of the most effective antidotes is mindful awareness practices, strengthened and honed through daily meditation, which begins to act as flame to paper, at times strong enough to burn away these habitual narratives on contact.
For over a decade in my teens and 20′s I was in a chronic state of clinical depression. Some people, including myself , are prone to depression, and it can become a hole so deep that finding a way out seems impossible. During this time I lived in a well of unrelenting depression, drowning in the murky waters of unexamined grief and loneliness, never able to see them mindfully. Finally after of years of living in depression as a way of life, a crisis brought me to a point of desperation and I began committed meditation practice.
Initially during my meditation I experienced a flood of sadness and grief, staying present in the midst of strong emotion that I had tried to ignore for years. This was a great relief to me as it finally liberated me from my attempts to repress or escape the pain.
Gradually, through this process of mindful, compassionate awareness, my grief was released and my chronic depression lifted. But awareness of my habitual self criticism wasn’t yet strong; all too often a flood of negative thoughts were unleashed with seemingly minimal cause and I’d be tangled for days in a knot of self denigration. Trapped in the illusion that my thoughts were real, I’d find myself teetering at the brink of that old, familiar depression.
As my practice grew stronger, I could often see self-critical thoughts at their very arising, before they threw me into anxiety or emotional upset. At other times I might get sucked in for a while before waking up. But at any point along the way, my willingness to make mindful, compassionate contact with the tangle of thought/emotion grew into the very flame that burned the suffering away. This is the mind of awareness and insight that we all share, the mind that sees thoughts for what they are – transient, and eternally passing away.