Does meditation make you docile? Or powerful?

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Over the past decade in the U.S. the teaching of meditation has been tried and found valuable in the workplace, in prisons and in schools. It is recommended by doctors and taught in hospitals because, as shown on this chart, it has been proven to have many physical health benefits. Recently one of my teachers, author and Spirit Rock co-founder Jack Kornfield was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. And this week’s Time magazine cover article is ‘The Mindful Revolution’. Meditation has definitely become part of the mainstream American experience.

More and more people are taking the opportunity to turn off electronics and find some alone time to center in and savor the spacious silence. Before radio, television, computers, iPods, etc., our ancestors had easier access to natural periods of quiet solitude, fulfilling a basic human need. Now with every waking moment plugged in, that solitude has to be purposely created. So it’s not surprising that meditation has been fully embraced at this time in history.

At the beginning of this trend in the West, some religious leaders thought the practice of meditation was a foreign religion that would, by its nature, turn people away from God. Since in practice it can actually deepen one’s understanding of whatever spiritual tradition one follows, that concern has died down considerably, and the more contemplative aspects of Christianity and Judaism have been enlivened by a new understanding of their value.

But still, ‘new’ things are scary, especially for those who hear about them but don’t try them to see for themselves. So the latest concern making its way around the blogosphere is whether meditation is being offered and encouraged by corporations in order to make workers docile.

Well, good luck with that! Meditators are doing an active practice that increases awareness of the natural moral compass within each of us. They are the least likely people to mindlessly do someone’s bidding, especially if that bidding encourages them to violate that moral compass.

It is part of the meditation practice to notice, question and calm our reactivity to external experience. So is meditation sedation?

Hardly! At the same time that we are less reactive to external experience, meditation also creates awareness that empowers us. We see how in each moment we have choices. By training our minds to stay present, we develop mindFULLness, not mindLESSness.

We actually have the power when we are being mindful to change the energy in a space, to awaken others to the present moment and to a sense of loving-kindness based on common bonds and interconnection. From this sense of ‘all in this together’ and no sense of ‘us against them’, we as a community are able to accomplish things that benefit all life.

I have seen it happen first-hand in my own community. It is fairly typical to say you can’t fight city hall, but the citizens of my neighborhood had decided to try. The first meeting descended into rancor with one neighbor storming out in the middle because he didn’t feel his position was being heard. While speaking with the meeting leader afterwards, I suggested she might want to be more inclusive and less angry. So she put me in charge of the next meeting. (You’d think I would know when to be silent!)

The purpose of that next meeting was to prepare ourselves to speak to the town council about our concerns. It was important to represent all the concerns, but not repeat them, causing the mayor to feel they had heard enough, and end the session. So as neighbors arrived for this preparation meeting they were asked what their main concern was and what experience, skills and resources they had to address that concern. Then they were sent to the table that matched their primary concern. Each table then brainstormed to come up with compelling facts, create brief statements; then they chose the person at their table best equipped to represent that idea to the town council, and made sure that person had everything they needed to do a great job.

The city council was impressed by the well-coordinated, clear-spoken, friendly and civilized nature of our presentation, and they let us deliver it with a thoroughness that would not have otherwise been possible. I was delighted to see democracy in action in the way it was meant to be done.The council decided to delay the vote, do more research and meetings within the community, and eventually most of our concerns were met and compromises were made. We each have this capacity to make a difference in this way, and the responsibility as citizens to do so.

The electronics of our age may distract us from quiet time, but they also activate our awareness of our intrinsic interconnection. And, while electronics can be seriously misused, we are also, and I believe more often, able to respond with loving kindness, sometimes in a very big way. I love all the flash mob musical and dance events that seem to erupt and delight spontaneously! And remember a few months ago when when the whole city of San Francisco came together and recreated itself as Gotham to give a Make a Wish Foundation child a unique and special experience of being Batkid for a day? There were more beneficiaries than just that child. All who participated in making his dream come true felt empowered and enriched by the experience. All of San Francisco felt the awe and wonder of being part of something so purely loving. All of the world could stand witness to the power of love and collective imagination.

As more people become mindful, and have their fears of ‘other’ replaced by an understanding that we are all expressions of the same life force, whether we call it ‘God’ or energy or don’t name it at all, then we are more empowered to face the challenges of our times with a life-loving enthusiasm.

I imagine there are people who believe that meditation is a means of escape from the challenges of worldly life. They go off into some dream-world and find rest. But this is not the form of meditation that we do, and escape is not the purpose of Insight Meditation. Quite the opposite! We challenge ourselves to be fully present for whatever arises in this moment. Sometimes that is very difficult because we find ourselves squirming and uncomfortable in our body or mind. Sometimes it may feel impossible. In a moment of major crisis, we may feel like we are falling apart. But then, as crisis-mode passes, we have our practice of compassion to rely on as we tend our brokenness with loving kindness, and find we are able to come face to face with what is going on in this moment, again and again. We reset our intentions to be present, anchored in physical sensation, to be compassionate with ourselves when we find we are not, and to be compassionate with others when they seem to be caught up in reactivity and fear.

This is not mindlessly chewing our cud, ignoring what is going on. We are fully engaged but in a way that takes into account the understanding that life is impermanent, that we are all interconnected, and that we create suffering through clinging, grasping and pushing away.

The Moral Compass
Another way to recognize that meditation is not docile, is to look at the last three aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path that we just finished exploring. Wise Action, Speech and Livelihood, are pretty specific as to what is okay and not okay. These three constitute the moral component of the Eightfold Path, and of the Buddha’s teachings in general.

If we have a regular practice of meditation that allows us to access our intrinsic sense of connection so that we care about the well being of all, and if we include this moral component to our inner investigation of the way of things, then we find we have a moral compass, or if you prefer, a pitch-perfect tuning fork, to recognize when something is harmful. In fact, our bodies register when something feels wrong — whether we have said or done something unskillful, or whether we are able to see that our work is not wise livelihood. We can physically feel it if we are paying attention!

Docile? I don’t think so!

Any company that provides opportunity for meditation to its workers will ultimately be glad of it. Although it’s impossible to define common traits of any group, people who meditate regularly are more likely to enjoy teamwork than if these same people did not meditate. They are less likely to whine, gossip or sabotage. As mentioned earlier they have the capacity to change the energy in a meeting or in a company from rancorous to collaborative.

Regular meditators are healthier than the average person so they will be on the job. They are steadier and more balanced than they would be without meditation, so the climate of the workplace is more conducive to reaching clear and reasonable goals. I mention reasonable, because a meditator is unlikely to be driven by fear, or the belief that some future moment will create personal happiness. A meditator is more likely to be present, to question assumptions, to be an active listener, a creative problem-solver and a clear-sighted leader (though it might help if they are a Toastmaster too!) If the company is providing a useful product or service, has fair business and employment practices, then offering meditation practice to its employees is indeed a very wise move. But please, don’t expect docility!

Now let’s talk what everyone is talking about: The weather!
Mindfulness empowers us to cease suffering. We begin by noticing it in the first place. 
For example, we are in drought here in the Bay Area, and the hills that usually turn green in the winter are brown because we have had hardly any rain, and what little we did was way back in the early autumn. I have noticed that I suffer this drought. I suffer seeing the dryness. I suffer worrying what this will mean, how long the drought will last, and how our garden will survive, etc.

In the meantime, the sky is blue, fruit trees are blooming, the sun is shining and the air is delicious. There is nothing I can do to make the drought stop. I have the power to conserve water more consciously than ever, but nothing I can do will make the rain come any sooner. I heard someone on local news refer to this warm pleasant weather as ‘a guilty pleasure’.

I do feel guilty, and so many people I talk to during the day seem to feel it as well. As beautiful as the weather is, we get caught up in this sense of distress. What causes me distress is my fear of the future. When I am purely in the present moment, I am mindful of limited resources, but also enjoy the weather while it lasts.

If you live in Marin County, CA, here’s a link to the MMWD 25% voluntary reduction request.

If you live in an area that has been experiencing record cold or record heat, I send you metta (loving-kindness)! Be mindful and take extra good care of yourself.

The Wisdom to Know the Difference
The power is in doing what we can, accepting what we can’t change. Hey, that sounds like the beginning of the AA serenity prayer: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’

Our practice of meditation and our exploration of the Buddha’s teachings helps us to understand the difference between what we are empowered to do and what conditions we learn to accept with grace.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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