Guest post by Pura Vida facilitator Nikolas Konstantin
Meditation is the science and art of exploring your mind. It provides you with the tools to treat your mind with the dignity and respect it deserves. Think of it as the most radical thing you can do for yourself and your environment.
(Or your minds marvelous capacity for change)
Fortunately your mind can be trained to a degree that was unknown to us. Until recently scientists believed that our mind stays largely rigid after successfully surviving your teenage years. It turns out that they were wrong. Our mind can be shaped in ways we never thought possible - our plasticity knows no expiration date.
The scientific term for your mind’s ability to change is called neuroplasticity. Plasticity is a fancy way of saying that we can significantly change the fabric of our perception and wellbeing. In the same way that we can train a muscle we can train and change our minds.
The most effective way to train your mind is through meditation. Think of meditation as sport for the mind. Meditation = mental training for mental wellbeing.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise: Meditation is not one practice - it is a term that explains different ways to train your mind to live a reflected and happier life. Even intermediate and experienced meditators are not aware that there are multiple ways you can train your mind, they should be.
Why you need to train different techniques
Many meditation teachers will tell you to train only one technique. They are wrong; you wouldn't go into the gym to only train your arms. In the same way, only training one form of meditation will only train one part of your mental fitness:
A framework for training your mind
To get a better understanding of the different ways to train your mind you need to understand the different categories of mental fitness you can train.
Looking at meditation from a neuro-scientific and an advanced meditators point of view we can distill four main qualities we can train:
Capacity for Awareness, Meta-awareness & Interoception
If you don't know what you are doing, you can't have control over what is you want. Training your mindfulness, aka your ability to nonjudgmentally become aware of your perceptions in the present moment, is a bit like Neo stopping the bullets flying towards him in the Matrix. Taking back control from the autopilot mode can be eye-opening. Instead of jumping from one space, like a chunky monkey from funky town, we can remain at the center of awareness.
Mindfulness Training has a hundred faces: A simple body scan, counting the breath, Tai Chi, Yoga Asana Practice. All of those are practices to gently collect your attention & become aware where your wandering mind is. One of my favorite ways to train mindfulness and thus awareness, meta-awareness & interoception is the wheel of awareness meditation developed by Dr. Dan Siegel.
Capacity for compassion, prosocial motivation & emotional regulation
Cultivating an accepting, kind, and compassionate relationship towards oneself and others is one of the best presents you can give to yourself. The relationship to yourself and others is a vital part of mental fitness and happiness. This is why most traditions put great emphasis on cultivating your mind’s capacity for connection and relationships.
Training your relationship muscle or getting in resonance with others might be different from what you know. To train your empathy I suggest chakra meditation (Yoga), Tonglen meditation (Tibetan Buddhism), Metta or Loving Kindness meditation (Theravada).
You will fast see how your perception of the world will change. Training your resonance opens up new ways to train and promote prosocial behavior. It also has a huge influence on positive affect and resilience, which in turn fosters better coping with stressful situations.
Capacity for meta-cognition, changing perspective and deconstructing perception
Self-reflection is the domain of taking perspective. Sharpening your ability to reflect on your sense of self and perception is the path of kings: Having this overview effect is like looking onto earth from a spaceship; You are gaining an perspective and stillness that is awe-inspiring to most that have the luck to experience it.
Dedicated self-reflection training can be found in all contemplative traditions. If you want to train the traditional way you can try analytical meditation (Buddhism), Dzogchen Training ( Buddhism) or Ramana Mahrshi’s self-enquiry. Modern approaches can be found in the perspective training of Prof. Tania Singer’s Resource Perspective Training or Prof. Richards Davidson’s Insight Module. Especially in this advanced field of mental training working with a teacher will be extremely helpful.
Connect your values with your actions
Interdependence and alignment of personal meaning, values and actions
Why do we wake up every morning? Do we feel that we have a mission? Aligning your life from roots to fruit of your work has drastic effects on your mental wellbeing.
Meditation was never only practiced to regulate stress and attention, but always to reach a deeper purpose and sense of flourishing. In secular buddhism we speak therefore of three pillars leading to a deeper purpose - ethical conduct (sila), mental discipline (samadhi) and wisdom (panna).
Most traditions have forms of purpose finding at the core of their mental training. Memento Mori - pondering on the short span of life can be found in almost all contemplative traditions; the path of karma yoga - is the dedication of one's life for the benefit of others. Even in traditional sufism it was customary to dedicate three years of service before even being considered as a sufi. To train your purpose muscles I would suggest working with a teacher through contemplations on wisdom, ethics and impermanence.
Choose your practice to make use of your brain’s capacity to change
Very few people train their mind holistically. While you might already train one thing, you are probably missing out on other vital parts. Meditation is the training of your mental capacities. Training those is never an end in itself. Instead, the four building blocks of meditation - mindfulness, resonance, wisdom & purpose are pillars of a rich life well lived. The world is just full of magic things waiting for your mind and senses to grow sharper.
We might need to train our attention to get the airplane of awareness of the ground, but only training your sense of resonance with ourselves and others, and strengthening your ability to reflect on how you and others differ in perceiving the world will have groundbreaking effects.
Here are a few guidelines that will drastically improve the quality and joy in your training:
Now that you know what we know – get out there and play. The health of your mind matters. It matters to your happiness. And it matters even more to the people in your proximity.
An art form and “social technology” that brings together social change with creative expression.