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January 22, 2017

Meditation and Mindfulness: There's something in it for everyone

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Just a few meters from my home in Waterloo, Ont., a suburban clinic specializes in mindfulness. Its existence is evidence of an astonishing recent increase in businesses, organizations and non-profit groups whose sole purpose is to teach, or provide resources for the practice of meditation. In times of rapid change, people are realizing an unchanging truth: the ancient practice of mindful meditation is beneficial to our physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.

Perhaps the word “meditation” sounds austere and somewhat alarming, perhaps too bound up with religion to be palatable to the growing secularism of Western society. So, for many, especially millennials, the preferred term is “mindfulness” – a trendy way to embrace a centuries-old technique for harmonizing body, mind and spirit.

It’s regrettable, however, that the treasury of human religious tradition and practice has mainly been left in the hands of a few authorities who’ve made prayers uninteresting and attendance at mosques, temples, synagogues or churches boringly routine.

Even worse is the realization that for many, hardened and automated religious tradition has rendered the very idea of loving God too lofty for serious attempt by “ordinary” people.

Meditation, on the other hand, requires no official sanction, is accessible to all faiths, and can take on a variety of forms.

Basically, it consists of contemplating an item of faith, upholding it in silent or audible prayer, and addressing that prayer directly to God.

Above all, meditation and mindfulness are about opening the spirit to a full sensory awareness of how it feels to communicate with the Almighty as a citizen of His creation; breathing air, tasting food, smelling flowers, hearing sound, feeling the ground beneath one’s feet.

When I meditate, I ask God personally for guidance, strength, forgiveness, and blessings for my loved ones and myself.

As I do so, I try to engage the body, mind and soul together. Sometimes my needs are more than words can express, so I wait and listen for what God knows is best for me, both in this life and the hereafter. 

Anyone who regularly experiences meditation can affirm that this practice has become a great necessity today; unfortunately, many who could greatly benefit from this gentle discipline have little or no awareness of their need for it.

In Islam, typical daily meditation begins before sunrise every morning with prayers, calming yoga-like movements, and some inspirational reading.

These elements help focus on the revelations of our faith, inspiring one to try and be a saint … just for that one day.

Morning meditation is a reminder of the glory of God’s world that awaits over the next 24 hours.

I am not alone in realizing that the more regularly you meditate, the more impressed one is by the loveliness of the created world that surrounds us.

In this context, ancient mystics often exclaimed over the beauty of creation as framed by God’s hand and perceived through the insight of meditation.

Yet it is not simply God’s created beauty that leaves such a powerful impression on the mind, for there is also much to admire in human handiwork and accomplishment – even in simple acts of kindness, like a smile or greeting from a stranger.

By noon, a Muslim prays and meditates again, followed by similar rituals in the mid-afternoon, at sunset, and at night before going to bed.

Although much-studied and written about in our century, no one really knows exactly (or measurably) how the process of meditation works, physiologically, neurologically, or spiritually.

But the qualitative results are clear in participants’ greater happiness, fulfillment, success, peace of mind and strength to overcome life challenges, including anxiety and depression.

While the “how” of meditation has drawn many theories, I would like to address it from my own area of expertise – microchip design.

The human brain performs tens of thousands of computations every moment of day.

Some manage repetitive involuntarily functions like breathing; others are in charge of voluntary functions, like speaking, walking, playing the piano, and so on. Yet others control the instinctive “fight-or-flight” responses that ensured human survival in prehistoric times.

In order to replicate any of these computations using microchip technology, designers reduce very complex operations that the brain can do simultaneously into a finite set of much simpler operations. Only one simple set of operations can be executed at a time; the other operations must wait their turn.

One such set is called “If and Only If” operations.

Put simply, it means that a microchip delivers its output based on a huge number of inputs, where each one represents a parameter. By design, each input is given a weighting factor; the higher its value, the more influence it has on the outcome.

You could say that in this process, a microchip is technically in a state of meditation or mindfulness.

Taking the microchip’s style of meditation as an example, humans can train the conscious brain to achieve a higher state of mental acuity by focusing only on the present moment, not worrying about the recent or distant past (which can trigger depression) or about the immediate or far future (which can feed anxiety).

In other words, practicing meditation can teach us how to enjoy the moment.

Like the microchip, we have the resources to solve problems of the present, one at a time. In the words of Bobby McFerrin’s 1988 mega-hit song, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

It’s not about escapism, but the art of embracing the real; when you give any thought to the worst that could happen, you discover that life rarely follows that worst-scenario pattern. After all, the microchip is programmed not to worry!

Meditation is often misunderstood as a lonely, even isolating, exercise. But it’s actually just the opposite, reminding us that we are not alone, even if we at times feel like castaways on a desert island, surrounded by violent storms. The ocean, though vast, is also a beautiful blue and part of God’s creation.

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