Meditation in our Time
Interview with Tanis Helliwell by Verena Deeken
Question: Tanis, you will be holding a five-day retreat from May 25th to 30th in the Black Forest on various forms of meditation. Why is meditation so important for so many spiritual different traditions?
Answer: I think the question should be phrased differently, which is “Isn’t it interesting that meditation is central to so many spiritual traditions?” Surely this is no coincidence that so many great figures like Gautama Buddha or Jesus the Christ have of their own discovered the importance of meditation.
People who we deeply respect and who we think of as spiritual leaders meditate and say that this is the central most important thing that each of us could do to become fully conscious and to awaken to what is real and to what is merely an illusion.
Question: Meditation seems to come from the Eastern spiritual traditions. Does the Christian tradition also advocate meditation and if so, why do we see so little of it?
Answer: Christian monks and nuns from the earliest times, such as the Desert Fathers and Mothers who lived as hermits, have always stressed the importance of meditation, contemplation, solitude, quiet time and prayer.
However in Christianity there has been the distinction that either you are working and living in the busy world and raising a family and then you don’t do meditation, or you live in a monastery as a spiritual community, which supports meditative practice. What Christianity hasn’t done very well, but this is changing, is the integration of meditation in everyday life.
Question: Most retreats and workshops focus on one meditation practice only. Why are you doing a retreat covering various traditions? What is the uniqueness of your approach?
Answer: The reason I like to teach various meditations is because people are different. Just as some people prefer chocolate cake and others prefer vanilla ice cream, various meditation practices are more enjoyable and/or helpful to one person than to another.
In the Hindu tradition, for instance, there are three major paths to enlightenment. These paths, or yogas as they are called, mean union with the divine.
The first path is Jnana Yoga, which is the Path of Knowledge/Wisdom. It appeals to individuals who like to read, who are mental, who want to understand, who like to learn about the rules and laws and to hear and read texts from the different traditions about what various spiritual teachers taught.
The second path is Bhakti Yoga, which is the Path of Devotion. Its core is love and benevolence and this yoga often involves an individual living in a community. It is for people who need a deep connection with their teacher and who prefer an approach that is heart based.
The third path is Karma Yoga, which is the Path of Action. This yoga is concerned with service and practitioners include those who follow Jean Vanier and live in l’Arche communities together with mentally disabled people, or Mother Teresa who took care of the sick and dying in the streets of Calcutta. This form of yoga is good for the will, for people who are active and who need to do something. This, too, is a form of meditation.
So why are people drawn to these different directions? It is because some practices are better suited for them than others. In this upcoming mediation retreat I help participants to become familiar with various forms of meditation and to choose which one is in accordance with them at this point in time. Although over time our preference might change, it is important that we stick with one practice over months, maybe even years, to receive its benefits.
I started to meditate when I was in my twenties. I started with TM (Transcendental Meditation), like the Beatles. Then I studied Tibetan meditation, Kriya Yoga that was brought to the West through Paramahansa Yoganda and then Vipassana for some years. I found that different approaches worked well for me for a time but that sometimes I needed to change.
Question: Is it essential to have a teacher and meditate in a group under supervision?
Answer: I think when you start to meditate it is very helpful to have a teacher to demonstrate the various techniques and to do it in a group. There are several reasons. When more than one person meditates, more energy builds. This makes it easier for all the individuals in the group to experience a state of higher consciousness.
And with a teacher there is always time for questions and, additionally others might have questions that you haven’t thought of and that might be important for you, too. The group is supportive because you are part of the collective energy.
Let me tell you of something I experienced. I was taking a ten-day Vipassana retreat. We were meditating in silence for the entire time. We had one evening of lectures and could ask questions twice. And we were told not to bring anything with us into the meditation hall and to keep total silence.
I sat in one place and there was a woman sitting behind me. She would bring in a glass of water, stand up during meditation, come in late and leave early. She had a cold and was audibly struggling with it. First the person to the right, then to the left and eventually everyone around her left and took up a place somewhere far away from her.
I decided to stay and sat there with her for the entire time. Meditation is a tool. The purpose of meditation is to be free of attachment, and of needing to have the most pleasant circumstances around you when you meditate.
Some times during that retreat I became frustrated. Other times, when I regarded her as my teacher who was teaching me a valuable lesson, I was amused and saw the humor in the situation. After the retreat, when we could talk again, the woman came up to me and thanked me with heartfelt gratitude. She told me how much it had meant to her that I stayed beside her all the time and that she knew that I was there, not judging her and being supportive with my presence.
And others also came up to me and said I must be a saint to have stayed beside that woman all during the retreat. I explained to them that this experience was like the real world where we have to face plumbers, screaming children, difficult neighbors and demanding jobs. Sitting there with that woman had brought the real world into the room.
Question: Finding time seems to be one of the greatest challenges when starting your meditation practice. What would you recommend to a novice?
Answer: I would recommend that people go to a retreat so they get off to a good start. But even if they don’t have time for that they can still read different books about meditation. There are various studies that show the importance of meditation, such as a study on Alzheimer’s disease conducted by the University of Pennsylvania last year. for 12 minutes each day over 8 weeks participants did Kirtan Kriya Yoga, a chanting meditation involving hand positions. A control group listened to Mozart’s violin and piano concertos for the same amount of time each day and the meditation group improved significantly more.
Many studies have proven that meditation develops brain function. It helps to maintain equilibrium in that we have access to more of our brain capacity than the three percent studies show that we usually use.
Meditation leads to the integration of both hemispheres of our brain, which then creates more coherent patterns. This leads to both a rational and intuitive leap in consciousness so that we can bring together the small and the big picture, as well as the past and the future —and all in the present moment. All of these qualities are very desirable if we are to function well in the world.
One of the major difficulties with our daily practice in the Western world, though, is that we value doing over being. If we do not do we feel we are wasting our time. That is the central difficulty. Meditation is a being experience. And the Western world favors the Yang experience, the masculine principle, the doing and undervalues the Yin. We find it is more valuable to speak, which is Yang than to listen, which is Yin. Prayer, too, is Yang, because we are talking to the Creator (God) and usually asking our Creator to do something for us.
Meditation is Yin, it is listening to the Divine. With meditation we are in a state of being. As we turn to more balance between being and doing, the Yin and the Yang, we become more integrated. Meditation becomes part of our daily life, in every minute. It is the space between the words, the silence between speaking and listening, the still moments in our life.
Question: Is there any practical advice you would want to give to a reader who might be thinking about meditating or actually meditates regularly?
Answer: I think at this time in history when people feel beset by the difficulties that they are encountering in the world: environmentally, financially, in their families, not having enough time, having too much to do, being overwhelmed by the pressure, being confused about which way to go that it is important to get off the treadmill, to take time out for meditation. Being time is very important.
Meditation is a discipline like all else, it grows a muscle, grows qualities. It’s like mountain climbing, or canoeing. It helps people and it is more important than ever in our modern world.