Why meditate?

Five longtime practitioners offer their insights

Amos Clifford

Amos Clifford

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

The health benefits of regular meditation are widely known: slower heart rate, lower blood pressure and greater calmness. If that were all meditation provided, it would be well worth doing.

But longtime meditation practitioners will tell you there is much more to it. Regular practice maintained over time brings subtle benefits that transcend meditation’s value for physical health.

With that in mind, we asked four local meditators to pen short essays on the subject “Why I meditate.” As you’ll see, their reasons for doing so are varied but also have a deep commonality.

Amos Clifford
Amos Clifford is resident facilitator at the recently opened Sky Creek Dharma Center, a retreat facility just north of Chico (www.skycreekdharmacenter.org).

I started meditating about 16 years ago because I sensed that there was a deeper dimension to life that I rarely experienced. At that time I was working as a counselor. I was interested in exploring dreams and working with them as a therapeutic tool. Nighttime dreams were interesting, but it seemed very possible to me that waking life was in some sense also a dream. What would it be like to wake up from that dream?

Meditation was a way to try to wake up.

Although I had the guidance of a very experienced meditator, for several years I was attached to the notion that “successful” meditation would confer upon me extraordinary insights and possibly paranormal abilities. I imagined that through meditation I would shed my personality, acquire mystical insights, and become something like Yoda, only sexier.

That didn’t happen.

Something better did.

The first clue occurred one day when I was driving and traffic came to a standstill; my view was of the back of a garbage truck perhaps eight feet away. There was a banana peel pasted over a dent, next to a smudge of some dark filth, embedded in a landscape of dents and scratches in the yellow paint.

And there was a momentary break in the habitual chatter of my mind, and I saw: How beautiful!

It was the first pointer to the true power of meditation. I began to realize that meditation is not about acquiring anything; it is about becoming free of what has been acquired. Years of meditation have slowly eroded some of the rigid views and beliefs I previously held, ways of thinking that have limited my capacity to be in contact with the power and beauty of the ordinary, everyday world.

Meditation has opened me to a type of intimacy, primarily with myself, with the essence of my own being. It has helped me deepen self-knowledge. And simultaneously there has arisen a deeper intimacy with the world. Slowly I have gained an ability to be more present to the people around me and the circumstances life presents.

Sometimes there appears within a calm silence that allows me to see more clearly the ways in which everything is always changing, like a grand, slow dance. I have a more authentic connection with the beauty and the sorrow and the joy of life. This is what I mean by intimacy, and it is a great gift, always available, right here, right now. That’s why I return again and again to the cushion.

Vita Segalla

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Vita Segalla
Vita Segalla is a meditation teacher, a facilitator for the Complete Self Attunement Process, a teacher of the Alexander Technique, and a massage therapist. She has a private practice in Chico.

When I was a young girl, I yearned to be touched by God. Religious teachings and spiritual writings spoke of a bliss, peace and joy that sounded so satisfying. Sadly, no religious ritual delivered the sweetness I craved. No amount of time spent following my breath, chanting a mantra, watching my mind, or doing other meditation techniques produced fulfillment. I was a dedicated doer, and everything I did reaped only strain and effort.

In 1980, I was introduced to Don Kollmar and the Complete Self Attunement Process. Through it, I learned to access the part of me that relates to all of life as energy—my seventh sense (the sixth being intuition). The seventh sense is an organic natural faculty. It’s what makes us experience the sunrise or the ocean or a giant redwood. Our seventh sense is the part of us that uses our body as awareness, to “listen,” to feel, to relate. This shift from mind-based to body-based meditation dramatically changed my journey.

Effort was replaced with allowing. Spiritual concepts became reality.

Why do I meditate? Because it sensitizes me and creates more room within me for something bigger than my person to express into my life. This is so wonderfully therapeutic and healing, so uplifting and affirming, and so practical. It gives me a lifestyle based on consciousness, truth and goodness.

I’ve learned to actively allow and receive. Through meditation, I know an intelligence beyond that of the mind where true knowledge, wisdom and guidance abound. I have an authentic, intimate relationship with my higher self, with nature and with divinity. This amazes me constantly. And finally, because I meditate, I can actually feel and participate in the joy, bliss and peace that eluded me for so many years!

Lin Jensen

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Lin Jensen
Lin Jensen is senior Buddhist chaplain to High Desert State Prison in Susanville, and founder and teacher of the Chico Zen Sangha. He is the author of Bad Dog!—selected for Best Buddhist Writing 2006. Wisdom Publications will release his upcoming book, Pavement, in March 2007.

A Buddhist’s life is as active as anyone’s, yet we Buddhists do a lot of traveling while seated in meditation. We call this stationary mode of travel zazen.

Every house needs the support of a foundation. For the Zen Buddhist, the foundation of the Buddha’s house is zazen. Zazen is also the foundation of a Buddhist’s mind and has the power to bring one to a place of stillness. The mind of zazen opens on a field uncluttered by opinion, judgment and belief. When I enter that mind I recognize it as home.

Thus, zazen is a practice in not abandoning my home ground. It offers no escape, but teaches me to stay put in my life. Zazen is not different from present circumstance; it’s not some advanced mental state beyond ordinary reality. If I am brought to some sort of peace and calm by zazen, it’s precisely because I have settled into my actual life.

It is when we quit looking elsewhere and allow the self to settle in itself that we discover that we’re perfectly whole and adequate as we presently are, and that there’s no need to go looking for more of ourselves elsewhere. The self settling into itself is a deeply felt reality that constitutes our only true refuge.

You may find it disappointing and be quite skeptical of the contention that you are your own refuge. You can try reaching outside yourself if you like, grasping at those grand conceptualizations of Buddha nature, enlightenment, God, salvation, heaven, nirvana and such, but the truth is emptier than that, and all that grasping ever manages to get hold of is your own contrived ideas.

Zazen, the self settling in itself, can’t be encompassed by any thought of mine. It’s the living pulse of my own being that has nowhere it needs to go and is always at home. Zazen awakens me to the present wonder of being human, and welcomes me into the Buddha’s universal household.

Steven Flowers

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Steven Flowers
Steven Flowers, MA, MFT, provides weekly meditation groups and conducts the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic at Enloe Outpatient Center. With his friend Bob Stahl, he conducts Mindful Living Programs (www.mindfullivingprograms.com), an accredited retreat program for medical and mental-health professionals.

I meditate to be present, here and now in this moment of my life. Of course, there are many practical benefits, such as knowing where I last set my glasses or car keys, but I don’t meditate for that reason. Meditation isn’t just another version of the get-that-goody game that has already filled too much of my life with striving for goals and all the ensuing judgments. Meditation isn’t another self-improvement gig. Just being here is reward enough.

In fact, I don’t know of a greater gift than now, this moment, as I dot this period. In this moment I feel the sun on my shoulders. I am aware of the whoosh of the nearby wood stove, the presence of our kitty on the cushion at my back, the clang and splash of pans and dishes in and out of water and sink as Mary cleans up in the kitchen, and soft melodies suddenly arising from the wind chime in the garden.

I meditate to know who I am, what I am and where I am, and to live here in this moment, which is as precious to me as life itself. Maybe precious because I have not been here for most of the moments of my life, but surely precious because this is the only moment I can actually live my life in. In this moment I can touch and be touched by the miracle called life, and for this moment I know what is most real and feel myself to be a part of this miracle.

Right now I am aware of a tug from an internal editor with thoughts about how I should be writing something more down-to-earth. As I notice that, I discover I’m back again in this place I love—now—right smack dab where I am, here.

I once again hear the wind chimes that have been playing all along somewhere outside my awareness, which has now returned like an old friend. I realize that leaving here is OK because it is such a joy to come home again. If my teacher were calling roll, I’d say, “Here for now.”

Tracy McDonald

CN&R File Photo

Tracy McDonald
Tracy McDonald, along with Jeff Wilfong, leads Heart of the Lotus Meditation Group, which meets Tuesday evenings, 6:30-8:30, at the Unitarian Fellowship (893-3438). A professor in the College of Business at Chico State University, she has spearheaded the college’s Managing for Sustainability Program.

The bare birches are swaying in the wind outside my window at the Forest Refuge in Barre, Mass. I have just completed a 10-day silent retreat. I am at peace, my heart wide open.

Over a decade ago, I was paralyzed by existential angst, intuiting that there had to be more to life, so I embarked on a spiritual search. Given my scientific bent, I knew a faith-based path wouldn’t speak to my heart. “Do not take my word. Find out for yourself.” Buddha’s words, spoken more than 2500 years ago, rang true.

I wanted to experience the Great Mystery, the Eternal, the Unnamable deep in my bones. Luckily, Buddha left detailed instructions. I became a retreat junkie, sitting as many silent retreats as I could. On retreat, you alternate periods of sitting and walking meditation from early morning till late night. Difficult, but doable. After a few days, a vast silence opens up, and you “get a taste.” I found what I wanted and more.

You collide with your own suffering and develop compassion for yourself. Realizing that everyone is subject to suffering, compassion arises for all beings. Your most deeply-held values become clear. You discover the interdependence in the world and realize that any action by a person, a company, or a country can have far-reaching effects on the rest of the world.

Back in your own world, you discover empathy for people you previously disliked. You deliberate before acting, and it becomes more difficult to cause harm to others or the planet. You more fully inhabit your life. Instead of being lost in your thoughts, planning, mulling over past injustices, fantasizing, you begin to live in the “now,” appreciating the sacredness of each moment.

Five years ago, John Travis, a founding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, asked me to start a meditation group in Chico. Heart of the Lotus Meditation Group has been meeting for more than four years. We have witnessed deep changes in each other and feel a strong sense of community. Our commitment to each other’s spiritual growth runs strong.

Why do I meditate? I meditate for my children, for the generations to come, for the planet, for all beings. I meditate for peace. In the words of Paul Hawken, the real goal of spirituality is “the transformation of each of us into a person who will help save the world through acts of kindness, compassion, and generosity.”