If you have never seen the movie, “A Beautiful Mind,” I would highly recommend it. It is a biographical drama about a brilliant mathematician, John Nash, who has schizophrenia. The movie does an amazing job of capturing the long, slow process by which Mr. Nash finally comes to understand that his hallucinations, which are as real to him as this is to us, are not, in fact, objectively real. Slowly, he comes to accept that he does indeed have this serious mental illness that causes these vivid delusions. Once he comes to understand this, he goes from living inside the content of his hallucinations, to eventually being able to notice them playing out, but allowing then to remain on the periphery of his life, noticing them on the edges, but no longer having to live as a character within them.
This movie really impacted me because to a far lesser extent, I think it is the story of most of us. Most of us, while not schizophrenic or dealing with psychotic hallucinations, still tend to build thought created scenarios that may or may not be “objective reality.” We can, for instance, misunderstand or take personally something innocent that someone says, and maybe then get to thinking about something they said a week ago, and pretty soon we can work it up into a whole “situation.” We may assume motives or misunderstand non-verbals, and create a reality that isn’t actually there.
I have lived inside one or two or a hundred of these self created scenarios in my day, and for a long time, had no idea I was doing it. Now sometimes I notice. Now sometimes I am able to observe that my mind just might be doing it again, and sometimes I am even able to step out of it. Like John Nash, I can observe my mind’s tendency from a bit of a distance, and am no longer trapped inside, or at least not quite so tightly.
That, in a nutshell, is what meditation has done for me. It has taught me sometimes, at least, to notice, without judgement or resistance, the rise and fall of thoughts and feelings, to notice the mental and emotional scenarios that we all tend to run, without having to take up residence and live within them all the time. I have gotten better at doing this in my life as I have practiced it in daily meditation. Meditation is just a more focused and intentional version of it. It’s the mental version of doing push ups, not for the sake of doing push ups, but so you have stronger arm muscles to use all the rest of the day.
In my version of meditation which is an eclectic amalgam of things I have learned, I start with a focus or a still point, either my breath or a single word like love or shalom, and I try to just stay put with it. Until I become aware that for the last X number of seconds or minutes, I have followed my squirrel like mind down some random path, and am once again living inside some scenario. When I become aware of this, I try to just gently, and without judgement, press the reset button and return again to the breath or word. No name calling, no sense of failure, maybe even an affectionate smile at the rascally nature of mind, but a firm “return again” in any case.
For me, meditation is precisely this “wise concentration” (Number 8 of the 8fold path.) As I practice it in an intentional, daily way, it has slowly begun to free me up from the tyranny of taking my mind created scenarios too seriously the rest of the day, too; and has created space around them so I can move from living inside of them to observing them. Noticing how they rise and fall, allowing them to come and go. In other words, the wise concentration of meditation has made space for an increased level of wise mindfulness (#7 in the path) in the rest of life. If I am not wrapped up quite so tightly in my own noisy brain, its opinions and reactions, I am freer to be more present to what is actually going on in any given moment. I don’t miss as much of the good stuff and I don’t overreact nearly as much to the other stuff.
I decided to have us sing “Return Again” again this week, because I noticed when we sang it last week that it really does, in a way, sum up the last two steps of the eightfold path. Return again, over and over, to the stillpoint at the center. Return to who you are outside of all the over thinking and reacting and the thought created scenarios. When we free the mind from all of that, then it is available to be used more quietly, helpfully and efficiently for whatever the moment actually requires. Wise concentration (meditation) leads to wise and fuller mindfulness in life. Return again. Return again. Return to the home of your soul.
Hymn Return Again #1011 Teal