More Than Your Thoughts: How Meditation Can Expand Your World
An Interview with Mindworks Chief Meditation Officer Bart Mendel
Having studied and taught meditation for over 35 years throughout the US, Canada and Europe, Bart Mendel founded Mindworks, an online meditation system, to help a wider audience experience the transformative benefits. We talked to him about the mental and physical power of developing a regular meditation practice – and the power it has to increase clarity, mental acuity and positive self-image for those in later life.
How did you become interested in meditation, and what has kept you in this space for over 35 years?
My interest in meditation started when I was a teenager. I felt like there was something missing in my life. I don’t know why but I had a kind of inner barometer even at that age for something that was going to give my life meaning. I think everyone without exception has that need to find a deeper meaning in life, the issue is how much it is veiled by the pursuit of external things. There’s no problem with money, or having fun with social media or any of the other pervasive influences of modern life. The problem is if we let them bury the light within us and stop us from looking for something that gives real value and meaning to life.
I met some of my first teachers back then, and what really impressed me about them was not just that they were “great meditators” – but that they were spectacular human beings. They radiated kindness and wisdom and it made me think; ‘I want to be like that. I want to be the best human being I can be.” What has kept me going since is the fact that meditation practice…works! It transforms life in a very powerful and positive way.
What is the essence of meditation for you?
Meditation is first and foremost the ability to focus the mind on what is happening in the moment. In popular culture that is talked about as mindfulness and it is used in many different ways to increase wellbeing. But the ability of the mind to focus on what it’s doing in the present moment is where it all starts.
“A senior has the moment of here – right now, just as a younger person does – the moment of ‘nowness’ is not different. Meditation is a training to focus your mind on being in the moment”
At Mindworks, we talk about mindfulness as the first stage – and awareness as the second stage. You use the focus and clarity developed through mindfulness as a stepping stone to go even further. Through awareness you can begin to unwind all of the barriers such as negative habitual patterns you have when relating to a person or a situation properly by experiencing a more spacious state of mind. You become a better, kinder human being.
Mindfulness is very powerful in itself, but the second step – the awareness – is where you begin to soar – and live a full human life, benefiting others and improving your own situation at the same time. And this is what to me gives life meaning.
How can regular meditation practice improve people’s experience of later life?
Well first there is no fundamental difference between a senior and junior – everybody has a mind, and you start where you are! It’s never too late – nor too early – to start, because you’re dealing with right now – that’s the topic of mediation practice.
A senior has the moment of here–right now, just as a younger person does – the moment of ‘nowness’ is not different. Meditation is a training to focus your mind on being in the moment.
Working with your mind is one of the best things you can do for yourself. A lot of people have a fear of aging, and also a fear of getting sick in later life and dying and meditation practice can help make you more at peace with the process. And that benefit is universal to all ages, because meditation reduces fear and anxiety in general. Importantly you can meditate anywhere too – so you could be bedridden and still do a meditation practice.
What are the physiological benefits of meditation?
Many people are concerned about memory loss and dementia such as Alzheimer’s, and many studies on meditation practice have concluded that it reduces your chances of developing many memory related problems. I don’t think the science is conclusive at this point, but from my experience I can definitely say that meditation improves your mind. It’s analogous to going to the gym for the body – you exercise certain muscles and they get stronger and you become more resilient and less prone to sickness.
When you meditate you become calmer, it has physiological effects of lowering blood pressure and you’re able to deal much better with challenges. The stress of life becomes more workable and something you learn from. This makes your mind more resilient and focused at any time in your life.
Are there any barriers or downsides to meditation?
The only one I can think of is that it’s not that easy! It takes commitment to sit down regularly and work with your mind. I think that people primarily experience meditation as something ‘difficult’ because of its inherent simplicity. You’re doing so much less than you usually do. Normally, you’ll be thinking about this and that and starting a grocery list and eating breakfast at the same time while the TV is on …and then the phone rings.
“When you improve your sense of self worth your whole world changes; instead of the world trampling you, you are an active participant in it. This is important for people in later life as there are disturbing messages perpetuated in society about aging and the ‘value’ of older people”
Meditation is the opposite of that: sitting and just relating with one thing – usually your breath. And so it is simple. But you have to get used to ‘doing nothing’, if you will – and that takes time. The benefits are so powerful, both for yourself and others, though, that there is no reason not to try.
Is meditation a way to help realize you are more than your thoughts?
Absolutely. In modern western culture, our ‘faults’ are often being magnified through many sources. If you watch a commercial your brain automatically compares yourself to that person and thinks you’re ‘less’ than them – and that’s why you need that shampoo, for example. That’s how advertising works – by making you feel that you need something. If you don’t need anything you’re not going to go and buy what’s being sold.
Low self image is one of the major problems today, exacerbated by media and advertising and negative messages we receive from society. We are all incredible human beings and we have this basic goodness or light inside of us. Society’s messages can sometimes focus on what is “wrong” with us. In meditation practice you focus on what is right, on your inherent qualities of kindness, compassion and confidence.
When you improve your sense of self worth your whole world changes; instead of the world trampling you, you are an active participant in it. You are engaged and not a victim. I think this is particularly important for people in later life as there are disturbing messages perpetuated in society about ageing and the ‘value’ of older people – when the wealth of experience and knowledge that seniors have is something to be honored and cherished.
Meditation helps us to avoid or not take so seriously the negative messages that the world throws at us, and that we echo at ourselves. When you meditate and watch your breath, inevitably a thought will come up, you can notice it and then return your attention to the breath. Each time you do that you notice you’re ‘thinking’ and then come back to the breath.
What happens is that the ‘nowness’ of the breath becomes more important than the topic of your thoughts. So over time you don’t believe them so much. We talk to ourselves all the time through our thoughts and if you can stop believing so much in your thoughts you’ll have more confidence in who you really are – a genuine and good human being – and that’s very freeing.
Why did you set up Mindworks and what is your goal?
About five years ago, my wife, son and I and some close friends all discussed how we had had experienced tremendous benefits from meditation practice, but that we felt that in some way the very traditions to which we’ve learned meditation – I have been a Buddhist teacher for example – are an obstacle to some people. There is of course no problem with the tradition itself which is truly marvelous, it is simply limiting to certain people because of their upbringing and background. We felt that we needed to find a way to present meditation to the world that was accessible and free from the baggage of religion, jargon and culture.
So we created Mindworks, a system of meditation training without those things. We currently have a free app and are launching a set of online courses, some of which will be specifically for seniors, to take people from where they are now and help them to build a successful daily practice.
What is the best way to start meditating?
A lot of people think they have to sit for 30 minutes and try to meditate – and they get so bored that they don’t even want to do it again. Short sessions, even five minutes, done more frequently are the key. I recommend starting with guided meditations and we have many available on our Mindworks app.
Do you feel that meditation can positively affect every part of your life?
We experience our entire world through our mind, even if we don’t think about it that way. Even physiologically speaking when you see something that information goes from your eyes to your brain and then your mind will then interpret that into “that’s a beautiful flower” and so on.
So if you’re purifying and cleaning up your mind, what you’re experiencing in life will be different. This doesn’t happen after sitting down for one week, but after a period of time your perception of the world tends to change. If you’re an angry person and you see the world through your lens of anger, then everything is irritating and people are attacking you. If you release or remove at least some of that filter of anger through meditation practice, then you look at people in a different way – and they’re not longer irritating or attacking you. That’s a total revolution in your mind – and it’s all possible through meditation.
This article was an interview by Anna, features editor, published in Elder Magazine.