Today’s Solutions: September 22, 2023

By Jurriaan Kamp, Editor-in-Chief
Just as Peter Russell is sitting down on the deck of his houseboat, a great cormorant lands on the tall wooden pole jutting up from the water nearby. Russell’s boat is moored in the Sausalito harbor, just north of San Francisco. The wind sighs as the water laps against the wooden boat; ropes and masts knock gently together. From the cabin comes the soft tinkle of clay-shell garlands bumping softly against one another.
Russell, a British physicist and meditation instructor, is a quiet man. He sits peacefully in his chair, calm and satisfied—and perceptive, as if he’s letting all the sounds around him sink in. “When the mind becomes quiet,” he tells me a few minutes later, “there is a lovely sense of emptiness. You’re still aware, you still notice the sound of the wind, but there are no thoughts going through your mind anymore.”
[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”1345499″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]At moments like these, you’re like the cormorant, he observes. The bird isn’t thinking; it isn’t doing anything. It’s just sitting on the pole. It’s alert; it’s keeping an eye on what happens around it, and if it spies a fish, it will dive into action. But once that’s done, the cormorant will return to its quiet roost on the pole.
Russell believes that in their natural state, people are like the cormorant: alert, but above all relaxed, satisfied, not distracted. But we’ve forgotten, he says, how to turn off our thoughts until something needs our attention. Instead, our minds run at high speed the whole day long. “We’re thinking, worrying, planning all the time, and most of it is unnecessary.” That puts us under stress, and it keeps us from making clear decisions. Meditation can help.
That observation is nothing new; people have been trying to find mental peace through meditation for thousands of years, and Western interest in the practice has grown over the past three to four decades. But Russell, who has 40 years of experience, says we’re operating under a huge misunderstanding: We think we have to work at it.
The meditation techniques we teach ourselves place too much emphasis on focus, he says. Focus on concentration, on a mantra, on a goal or on the technique we’re using. But meditation should be effortless and without exertion, Russell discovered. “A quiet mind is not a state of mind to be achieved. It’s the state we experience when there is nothing to be achieved.”
So Russell developed a method “to weed out and dissolve even the subtlest levels of wanting, effort and expectation in meditation.” His students uniformly embraced his new method with enthusiasm, saying they hadn’t even realized they were constantly trying so hard. Russell believes his “effortless meditation” has the potential to make the practice accessible to many more people. And that’s important, he believes. When more people “are coming from a more compassionate point of view—less ego-driven, less tense, less materialistic—then their contribution will be more in line with what the collective needs, instead of what their individual egos are dictating.”
Meditation makes you calmer, happier and healthier. Scientific studies have proven that. For example, neurological researchers at Harvard Medical School discovered through MRI scans that meditation leads to lower blood pressure, a slower heart rate and better circulation. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine and the author of several popular books on spirituality, concluded that after an eight-week course in meditation, patients needed fewer medicines and less care. In short, meditation is good for you.
But it seems so extremely difficult. You have to find time for it. You have to find a suitable location. Your mind wanders. If it isn’t working, you have to try harder. Concentrate even more. Offer even greater resistance to those thoughts about tonight’s menu that pop into your head. Focus on your breathing, some people say. Concentrate on a mantra, advise others.
Misconceptions one and all, Russell claims. “When I first became interested in meditation, I was repeatedly told that it took great mental discipline and many years of practice”—but that’s nonsense, he now says. “I’m a scientist, so my approach to understanding meditation is not to believe anything someone just told me. It’s to experiment with myself.” And what worked for him turned out to work for others, too.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

He has recently created a five-part online course in “effortless meditation,” in which he discusses three principles:

1. Accept your thoughts

“Not trying to stop thinking, not resisting it. Just let them be; don’t follow where they are going.” Only if you don’t concentrate, if you don’t try to focus your mind, can you become like the bird, the cormorant, he says. “Because only at that moment can you drop back into that natural state of contentment.”

2. Notice feelings of discomfort 

“We often resist discomfort,” Russell says. “We wish it weren’t there, we push it away. Or we think, it’s getting in the way of the meditation. But if you hear a sound, the sound itself is not the problem. It’s in your mind. When your mind says ‘that’s disturbing,’ you get disturbed. Try to be friends with the resistance. Be curious about it.”

3. Let it be

“We often think of letting go as getting rid of something, of a feeling or a thought,” says Russell. I rephrase ‘let it go’ as ‘let it be.’ We want to feel okay all the time, so if there’s pain or discomfort we want to get rid of it. But the easiest way is to accept it, and be curious about what it’s like. Then it doesn’t grip us so much. People find that in meditation if you open up to an itch, it often doesn’t matter anymore.”
Many of the principles Russell describes are also used in Transcendental Meditation and mindfulness meditation, but Russell thinks that with both techniques people can unintentionally fall into focusing: on the body, on a mantra or on one’s breathing. It’s perfectly fine if your mental attention keeps shifting from one thing to another, Russell believes. Let your mind wander from your breathing to a sensation in your hands or feet, he says. “When you focus on the breath, you create a slight tension, while the goal is really to relax your minds.”
Though much has already been written about meditation, Russell thinks he has something important to add. “What I’m adding is that I’m taking something away. I’m taking away any trying, any effort and expectation of how meditation should be. “In many areas of life, it’s good to do your best,” Russell acknowledges. But not in meditation, because “the harder you try, the less successful you’re going to be.”
Russell himself always meditates in the morning. The rest of the day, he tries to pause frequently and ask himself, “How am I doing? What am I feeling?” Mini-meditation, he calls it, maybe between an email and a telephone call. “I see the value of meditation not so much as how to stay present, but learning how to return to the present moment whenever you want to. That’s a skill: how to get back to it.”[/vc_column_text][vc_video link=”” align=”center” title=”Effortless Meditation, With Peter Russell”][vc_column_text]Peter Russell is a physicist-turned-futurist who has written several books on science, spirituality, and the possibility of change through increased communication and collective consciousness. He has held workshops with corporate leaders about becoming more environmentally responsible, more worker-friendly, and more aware of their impact on the planet. Russell is a fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, of The World Business Academy and of The Findhorn Foundation, and an Honorary Member of The Club of Budapest. To read more about Peter, visit his personal site.
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