Monday, December 21, 2009


This time of year can be crazy (I know I'm going nuts), and when my Uncle Gene sent me his latest article I thought the timing was perfect. Consider it a present, I do. Now, my Uncle Gene...

“These problems are intractable.” So spoke a former Congressional Budget Manager at a conference sponsored by the Petersen Foundation and aired on C-Span. “Intractable” means “difficult to deal with or solve.” The conference targeted the growing national deficit, with special attention paid to the ever-increasing costs of medical care.
After studying the finances of health care, my good friend and colleague Ed Greenberg concluded: “So I fear that the problem is unsolvable.”
The question then is, how do you deal with intractable, unsolvable problems? Do you throw up your hands in despair? Do you let them gnaw away at your innards? Or do you “take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them?” If you let intractable problems get to you, they can destroy your sense of well-being, your health, and your sanity.
It is not like intractable problems are new to the human race. They have always been around, and somehow, solutions have always occurred. In the meantime, there are long established spiritual and psychological techniques devised to help us cross the bridges of intractable problems. The one I want to mention is some form of meditation technique, recently popularized by various medical practitioners. (Since it seems that the medical profession is the source of some of our predicaments, it is fitting that the medical professionals should help us find the way out!) Meditation, in one form or another, has been practiced for thousands of years, for reasons religious, philosophical, healthful, and simply as an exercise in developing humanity.


What is meditation, and how do you practice it? Meditation is essentially a calming and quieting experience, a turning off of the noise and distraction of everyday, and attentiveness to what is basic and elementary. The simplest form of meditation is to find a quiet place, sit comfortably, and spend ten minutes paying attention to your breath. (Dr. Weil says there is no medical prescription more important than re-learning how to breathe!) When we are bothered, we tend to breathe shallowly. We can go days without paying attention to our breathing, or being aware of how shallow it has become.

Simply counting your breath can bring your attention back to this basic physiological function. Controlling your breath is the next step: breathe in for ten seconds, hold your breath for five, and then breathe out slowly and calmly, focusing your attention on the act of breathing.

That is the basis of meditation. You can do it many ways, but focusing on your breathing is the way to begin. You may make it a religious experience by incorporating appropriate imagery. It can be an aesthetic experience by meditating on the sunset or on the moon, or whatever natural phenomenon has a special appeal to you. It can be a calming and relaxing experience through the recitation of some “mantra,” some phrase that has particular significance for you.

Dr. Herbert Benson has documented that the regular practice of meditation lowers blood pressure. Dr. Dean Ornish claims that regular meditation reduces the risk of sudden heart attack. Dr. Weil maintains that meditation boosts the effectiveness of the immune system. Perhaps it does these because it brings us back to our basic self, puts us in touch with the roots of our consciousness, and helps establish a calm and tranquil center at the heart of our activity.

Among philosophers, Socrates had his meditative trances from which he could not be awakened. Plotinus had his transformative experiences of solitude, of being “alone with the Alone.” Thomas Aquinas was so transformed by his meditations that all he had written seemed like so much straw. Asian traditions offer parallel examples: Thich Nhat Hanh, perhaps the greatest living teacher of Buddhism, recommends the simple formula: Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. His books, Peace is Every Step, and Interbeing, can be great helps along the path to successful meditation.

By setting aside 10 minutes every day, you will open a new window on your own self-awareness, gain control over your breathing and your life, and come to sense your participation in the mystery of existence. The problems that seemed so intractable will be much less menacing.

Your material being is part of the matter of the universe, your thinking is part of the web of thought that covers the universe, and your existing is a participation in that wonder of all wonders, the capacity to stand outside nothingness. By setting aside time for meditation, you will be better prepared to be a contributor to the on-going-ness of existence.

The best cure for an encounter with problems that seem intractable is to set aside ten minutes of uninterruptible quiet time, when you center yourself, find your proper place in the non-everyday world, and encounter reality, and not just the appearances of things. The paradox of this experience is that, by setting aside a time for meditation, you will actually have more time to do things, and find greater delight in the doing of them…. even taking on the problems that appear intractable!

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