People are often confused by the term “meditation” because they connect it to mysticism and Asian religion. My work in Gestalt Psychotherapy and my many years as a patient, taught me to view meditation in a different way. To me meditation has two basic components: Awareness and “staying in the present.” Awareness is reaching out with all your senses to allow them to perceive your environment. Awareness is allowing all the input from your senses to be perceived into your consciousness open to all the information you are receiving, without first judging the information. For instance as I write this I’m hearing my radio; feeling the breeze from a ceiling fan; feeling my ass on the couch; numbness in my toes; my breath in my chest; and mild excitement associated by my breathing. Of course there are many other feelings like the dryness in my mouth and the taste of toothpaste, but you get the idea. Awareness though is the easy part of meditation. The hard part is letting your consciousness remain in “the here and now”, or letting your consciousness remain in the present. Let me explain what I mean.
First to define terms. The Gestalt view of human consciousness is holistic. What that means is that Gestalt Therapists, such as me, view ourselves as a complete organism, not as a “mind” separate from a “physical body”. This refers to is the “mind/body” split that has been prominent in European philosophy for perhaps 700 years. The mind/body split was important religiously in Christian thought that postulated a soul, a mind and a “separate” body containing a human’s base instincts. This way of looking at a human being allows one to blame their “sexual sins” on their body overruling their mind. It allows us to excuse our “failings” as our weakness in allowing our emotions to “rule” over our “rational” minds. How many times have you heard someone say in effect “it’s not my fault…The devil made me do it”, as an excuse for their bad behavior? This works well in a religious belief that sees the duality of “God vs Satan”. Especially, with the concept of Jesus forgiving sins. My own perspective is that this belief is dysfunctional in humans because it allows us to avoid responsibility for our actions. So I’ve learned to consider myself as a “whole”….an organism. As an organism I have to take full responsibility for my actions and can’t blame my errors on some “evil” side of me that I can’t control.
Seeing yourself as an organism puts you in control of your actions, for good and bad; positive and negative. Where this intersects with meditation (I.e. complete Awareness without judgment interfering with data input) is that people have trouble shutting off their constant thinking. If you notice in your own thought, usually you become involved with either the “future” (planning, anticipating, etc.) or in the “past” (memories, comparison to past experiences, etc.). It often becomes quite difficult for us to remain in the “present”, just allowing the data from our senses to enter our organism. Much human anxiety stems directly from immersing ourselves in sadness from the past, or in anxiety about the future.
In a meditative state you remain in the present, reacting authentically to the sensory input you receive, rather than playing a preconceived “role” that we’ve invented for ourselves, or have had imposed upon us by our socialization as children from our parents, other adults and our peers. A host of these cues from our environment tends to divorce us from our emotions and trains us to approach life living in the straitjacket of our past and/or the anxiety of anticipating and planning for the future.
Divorcing ourselves from our emotions deprives us from the essence of our life. In our modernity and in the myth of the mind/body split, we downgrade and ignore our emotions. One of the basics of Gestalt Therapy is the phrase: “Trust the wisdom of your organism”. To explain what that means consider this. An age old cliche of humans everywhere is the phrase:”He or she gives me a pain in the ass”. Variants of this are used so often, that as a cliche it becomes detached from what it is really being stated, which is that being with a particular person literally is giving someone a pain in their ass. This pain is a feeling and if you search your memory I’m sure that you’ve engaged in conversation with someone and you have literally felt a pain in your ass, your neck, or wherever. Socialization often prevents us from acting on our feeling, for example perhaps you’ve had a boss who gives you a pain in the ass, or perhaps a parent, spouse or child? If we train ourselves to pay attention to the wisdom of our organism I believe that it will enrich our lives and let us understand how to properly deal with our environment and those that are in it.
Which brings me back to meditation. Meditation is simply clearing away the ongoing noise of our constant thinking and allowing ourselves to live in the present moment, guided by the effect our sensory input has on our emotions. Now while it is true that meditation can benefit from quiet and Zen like surroundings, we can actually meditate almost anywhere. Many years ago I remember being introduced to “walking meditation”. I’ve discovered that as I’m walking anywhere, by clearing my mind, letting my emotions wash over me and staying in the present, I can feel a profound sense of peace. This doesn’t mean that I don’t see the colors around me; feel the ground under my feet; smell the vegetation; and sense the presence of living things, all of those inputs and more are observed and felt as I walk and meditate. With my thought processes and planning shut off, my awareness reaches it’s optimum level. If danger, for instance is lurking, I am more likely to sense it quickly. Sans danger though, the experience of not thinking about the past, or planning for the future, allows me to enjoy the moment just being alive.
Some time ago during an hours long, late night drive coming back to home, I had a sudden realization about my driving. I’ve been driving a car now for more than 54 years. Driving, particularly long distance driving, has always been among my favorite, most pleasurable pastimes. When I drive I’m aware of everything around me, the feel of the car; the spacial conditions of the traffic around me; the touch of the wheel; vibrations of the road; and most especially the characteristics of those driving the vehicles in front, behind and to the sides of me. I drive defensively, divorced from ego and macho. I move out of the way of tailgaters. I stay away from those driving erratically. Most importantly I am at peace in the present and in a state of perfect meditation. Perhaps others feel this way, but the only time I remember discussing it was with my long gone friend Mr. Toast, who compared driving to a dance. “Mr. Toast”, Elliot, was an artist and a man of superb artistic sensibilities.
One long night as we were driving from New York to St. Louis, high on pot, he started talking about how he was perceiving the road in front of us spatially. Typically, I was at the wheel of an old Dodge Van, weaving in and out through the late night truck traffic, on Interstate 80 going through the hills of Western Pennsylvania. Elliot started observing how I was “dancing” in and around the behemoth trucks, flashing my lights as I passed and making sure I was not cutting anyone off. He had named the experience and I who was in the middle of my Therapist Training, went further and opined that it felt like I was meditating. since in his own religious practices he was well versed in meditation he saw the similarity.
Life can be brutal and short. Even if it is long, there are always ups and downs for everyone of us trapped in it. It is important that we find respite from whatever causes us problems and meditation is a human mechanism that allows this, by allowing us to just exist in the present moment, being in touch with ourselves, as we are simultaneously in touch with our environment. There are many mechanisms that allow us this release from the woes of our thought processes and just to be. For me one of the important ones is driving a car and I believe I’m a better driver for it.