Three Points on Optimism – Part One: It’s About the Heart

On May 18, 2015, I had one of my most memorable experiences. You may or may not be aware that my favorite band is a quaint little Canadian trio that goes by the name of Rush. Now, I am not one of these crazy, rabid fans that see them multiple times on every tour. That would be awesome, but I recognize that I have a thing called “a life”. Tickets are not cheap, and I need both of my kidneys, and don’t want to promise my first born as an offering. But I splurged and bought two tickets, for myself and good friend Chad Cooke, to Rush’s R-40 tour. This particular tour was also rumored to be their farewell tour, so it was kind of a moral imperative that I attend this event.

I was not disappointed. In fact, at the risk of sounding pagan, it was a religious experience. I had seen them 6 times previously. The first concert I ever attended was Rush, on their Power Windows tour in January of my junior year, 1986. I, along with my best friends Dwight and Rich and Monte, had 2nd row seats. We were spoiled from the beginning. Never again did a concert live up to this one. Well, almost never…

R-40 setlist began with Rush’s most recent album, Clockwork Angels, and ended with Rush’s eponymous album. This made for an interesting flow. After the 20 minute intermission, they started with Tom Sawyer, and honestly, from here on out was my favorite part of the show. In a way, this concert was a kind of worship for me. I know, borderline idolatry you are accusing me of right now, and I wholeheartedly agree. My heart was swollen in my chest, and my eyes were teary. Lump in my throat. The only thing I can think of that would justify this feeling, which some would condemn in me as sinful, is that this is just but a taste of what God has in store for me, for us, when we enter our final home. “Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more that all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” If I can watch a Rock and Roll band of the world, and have feelings of ecstasy and transcendence, just think of what God has in store for us!

There is one song that holds some special significance for me. On their fifth studio album, A Farewell to Kings, the third track. Closer to the Heart. A fan favorite that brings out the cigarette lighters and cell phone screens. Here are the lyrics:

“Closer to the Heart” by Neil Peart

And the men who hold high places
Must be the ones who start
To mold a new reality
Closer to the heart
Closer to the heart
The blacksmith and the artist
Reflect it in their art
They forge their creativity
Closer to the heart
Closer to the heart

Philosophers and ploughmen
Each must know his part
To sow a new mentality
Closer to the heart
Closer to the heart
You can be the captain
I will draw the chart
Sailing into destiny
Closer to the heart

 

Listen to Closer to the Heart by Rush on @AppleMusic.

https://itun.es/us/tHDwM?i=643423150

 

When I hear these lyrics, I think of a kind of unity, a kind of harmony amongst men and women of all stripes. The lowly and the lofty. The simple and the learned. All people living together, working toward good purposes. Together. “Molding a new reality.” A life lived closer to the heart. The heart is known to be the seat of the soul. It is where our mind, will, and emotions reside. It is our inner life. I could go on and on with spiritual allegories, and someday I will write about this at length. But for now, to set up the next post in this series, I just want to highlight the idea that society has for era after era attempted to create societies that reflect this kind of Utopia, many with disastrous results. But Rush hits on something that many philosophers and those in high places miss. It begins with the heart.

Keep that in mind when reading the next posts in this series. The next one will be about a “recent” (18 months) movie that closes with a scene that brought this idea to my mind. Until then….Pax.

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Why I Learned to Meditate

In an earlier post, I mentioned beginning a keystone habit – meditation. I would like to take some time to describe the practice a bit more the way I’ve experienced it, and its benefits.First of all, I want to clarify a few things. I am a Christian, a believer in Jesus Christ, and I am unapologetic about that. Some folks might voice some concern that I am being unfaithful to my devotion by practicing meditation. Although these folks are well intended, these claims are based on ignorance. What I practice on a regular basis does not invoke the name of any god or other religious devotion. Although some kinds of meditation have their origins in Buddhism and Hinduism, there are many meditational practices today that have no basis in these faiths. On that note, let me also say that I am in no way trying to discredit the meditating Buddhist or Hindu or any other devotee of another faith. Meditation has benefits for all who practice it, whether for religious or other purposes.

I have two intended purposes for my practice of meditation: Focus and Health.

When I meditate, I slow down. Way down. I don’t sit cross legged on the floor chanting a mantra. I sit in a chair. A very comfortable arm chair. I listen to a guided meditation by Andy Puddicombe called Get Some Headspace. I keep my eyes open for a few moments and softly keep my gaze ahead of me, being aware of my complete peripheral vision. I begin breathing deep breaths through my nose, and exhale through my mouth, for about 60 seconds. Then I close my eyes, becoming aware of the contact of the chair beneath me and my feet on the floor and my arms on my lap or on the armrests. I become aware of any sounds around me, any smells, and even any remaining tastes in my mouth. Then I begin to notice any physical feelings I might have, whether there is any discomfort in my body. Then I take mental note of my emotional state. Am I stressed, anxious, or sad? Then I take note of my motivations for doing this, especially today’s motivation. Why am I doing this, TODAY? Then I take note of who round me might benefit from my meditation. If I become less stressed because of my meditating, who around me benefits? Then I am reminded that this whole exercise is not one of intense effort, but gentle effortlessness.

At this point, I begin to count my breathing. Inhale, one, exhale, two…inhale, three, exhale four…and so on, until I get to ten, and then I start over at one. I focus on my breathing and my counting. I notice my chest expanding, I feel the rhythm. My mind begins to wander, thinking about some distraction. That’s okay. I gently draw my attention back to my breathing. A few moments later, my mind drifts again. I notice and gently reel my focus back to my breathing. Again and again this happens, but that’s okay. During this distraction/refocus sequence, I am actually strengthening my willpower “muscle”, (the subject of last weeks post). Being distracted and having a wandering mind have some creative benefits, but bringing the mind back to a focus, in this case, my breathing, strengthens my command center. Daniel Goleman, writer of Focus, The Hidden Driver of Excellence , wrote,

“Build up the mind’s muscle for focus through a daily session of meditating on your breath. This is the mental equivalent of working out in the gym. The battle tension between focus and distraction takes place in the brain’s circuits for resisting impulse. In the mental gym, the more often you catch your mind wandering off and return it to concentrating on your breath, the stronger your concentration grows – like bulking up your pecs on a Cybex.”

As I break this evening from writing this post, I open up the book I just began reading, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, by Maria Konnikova. Within minutes, I read this passage –

“The idea of [meditation]/mindfulness itself is by no means a new one. As early as the end of the nineteenth century, William James, the father of modern psychology, wrote that ‘the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgement, character and will….An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.’ That faculty, at its core, is the very essence of [meditation]/mindfulness.”

After about 12-17 minutes of focused breathing, I then allow my mind to wander for about 60-90 seconds, without any focus at all. Strangely enough, giving myself the freedom to wander usually gives me the the highest moments of clarity and focus of the session. After this small interlude, I begin to focus once again on my physical surroundings, the touch of my body against the chair and floor, the sounds, the smells and lingering tastes. Then I open my eyes, gently, and it is as if I am on another planet. The state of focus is indescribable. I can usually stay in this mode for about five or ten minutes, and I usually use this time to try to plan my day (if in the morning), or the next day (if in the evening). I might write for a few moments. But I try to take advantage of, well, that natural high that comes after “awakening” from the meditative state.

When I began the practice of meditation, many other tasks became “easier” for me. I became more “self-disciplined” in other areas of my life. Actually, what I believe was happening was that I was learning how to focus and exert my will in areas in ways that I had never been able to before. Exercise, cleaning, diet, study, saving money…all the areas were affected. A little focus went a long way.

My blood pressure has always been a little high, but after practicing meditation for about a month, for the first time ever, my blood pressure lowered into the “great” zone. Added to my regular exercise and improved diet, my heath and fitness was at an all time high.

Meditation (or rather, mindfulness, as it is commonly referred to today) is not a bunch of new age mumbo jumbo, (although in some circles, it has been hijacked into such.) It is a skill that has practical outcomes. Even small amounts of restful sitting without activity and a stillness of mind has shown to reap quick results.

I leave you with my usual question of application…Can you find a way to carve 2-5 minutes to sit quietly with nothing but your thoughts focused on your breathing? Try it for one week, consistently. See if you don’t benefit immediately.