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Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, April 22, 2007

Meditation Can Open New Awareness on the World

Do you remember those endless summers when you were young? Why is it that time speeds up as we grow older? Could it be because we were paying more attention when our experiences were fresh?Wouldn't it be great if we could get that feeling back again? Perhaps there is a way to slow things down. It is called meditation.

You don't have to be a Buddhist or a mystic to meditate, though the Buddhists have much to teach us about how to do it. They have been doing it for 2,500 years.

Meditation is often called mindfulness. It cultivates an awareness that can become a way of experiencing the world.

That's the goal, but it is not easy to make the time to meditate. If you think your childhood summers crept by, if you are a beginning meditator, like me, try sitting to meditate for 20 minutes.

But hopefully, it gets easier as you practice. Here are some books to help you get started.

Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana.

If you were to choose one book to teach you how to meditate, this would be it. The author doesn't lie when he says it's written clearly.

Bhante G., as the author is called, has a gift for straightforward communication. How he developed this gift is explained in his Journey to Mindfulness: The Autobiography of Bhante G.

Bhante G. turns 80 this year. He heads a monastery and retreat center in West Virginia, but it's been a long way from Sri Lanka getting there.

Born in humble circumstances in a place too small to be called a town, Bhante G. was attracted to the monastic life early and was ordained a novice at the age of 12.

The refreshing thing about his autobiography is how he shows his own weaknesses and those of his teachers and fellow students. The one constant in his story is his desire for education.

This was to lead to his getting a doctorate in comparative religion and philosophy from American University in Washington, D.C.

Meditation was not particularly encouraged for young monks in Bhante G's order. It was only after he lost his memory as a result of an orgy of extended chanting that he took up the practice. The photographic memory he boasts of never returned, but meditation did work wonders for his health.

Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

How meditation can help one overcome medical conditions is also the theme of Kabat-Zinn's first and, I think, best book.

At the time he wrote this, he was founder and director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. In this book we see how he worked with people with heart disease, cancer and even AIDS to help them live with pain and often experience healing through the intensive practice of meditation.

Kabat-Zinn makes the point that by lessening their fixation on thoughts of the past and future, meditation alleviates his patients' stress. It is all about living in the moment.

Kabat-Zinn has a doctorate in biochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation by Larry Rosenberg.

The author was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn from a long line of rabbis. Influenced by the skepticism of his father, he went on to get a doctorate in social psychology from the University of Chicago and teaching posts at that university and Harvard.

The pull of those rabbis was too strong, however, and Rosenberg left academia to pursue spiritual studies in monasteries in Thailand and Japan, before founding the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Cambridge, Mass.

Larry Rosenberg is a wonderful down-to-earth teacher of meditation. He stresses how the meditator becomes an investigator of the way his own mind works.

This is how it seems to happen. You carefully observe the thoughts your mind throws at you while you are trying to concentrate on your breathing. After a while, you see patterns, and you get tired of the same thoughts.

If you think you might be interested in learning more about meditation, North Park Branch Library has invited local meditation teacher Mary MacGregor to instruct a class for beginners Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.

Admission is free and no reservations are required.

Mary has studied with Matthew Flickstein, who co-founded Bhante G.'s monastic center in West Virginia and also co-edited Bhante's Mindfulness in Plain English.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.