I am not a meditation teacher – or any kind of teacher for that matter. However, I strongly believe that meditation is one of the most powerful tools for clarifying the mind, strengthening your sense of self, and increasing your awareness on many levels: physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. I meet so many people who, although they have heard of meditation and vaguely like the idea of it, never go near it. There’s something cool and mysterious about meditation, as though it’s something reserved for monks, or people that have special serene sanctuaries in which they can go and practise it. Or, even if it’s something quite ordinary, it’s something they “don’t know how to do”. In the next few blog posts, I want to look at meditation as part of an ordinary modern life.
I’ll use some questions to structure this: What is meditation? How do you do it anyway? Where do you do it? Isn’t it boring? What about if I LIKE thinking and don’t want to clear my thoughts? Is it some sort of New Age or Eastern religious thing? If there are any other questions you think I’ve left out, please leave comments and I’ll happily respond.
1. What is meditation?
I have an admission to make: I meditate sporadically. I do it when and where I can, or when and where I remember to. I don’t follow all the precepts taught by my various meditation teachers, simply because if I only meditated in the way they advised, I’d never get round to it. Sure, the more regular my practice, the stronger my sense of equilibrium, my peace of mind, my connection to the simple flow of human experience that brings an uncomplicated joy in daily life. But even an irregular practice is significant.
How, though, shall I define meditation? What do I mean by ‘practice’? And why isn’t sitting still simply a waste of time that could be better spent doing other productive things?
Here are a selection of some broad definitions of meditation from various internet sites that talk about meditation:
- a state of focused attention through which one emerges into an ever-increasing clear awareness of reality
- techniques that focus the mind and promote a state of calmness so that the mind and body can be brought into greater harmony to facilitate health and healing
- the act relaxing the body and focusing one’s mind on a specific target or goal
- a means of focusing the mind to reduce or eliminate conscious thought, to bring the mind to stillness or rest
- to contemplate or reflect in a state of relaxed focus
You will notice an immediate contradiction in these definitions. Meditation is both relaxed and focused. This is the first of many contradictions raised by meditation. Another contradiction: meditation deals with clearing the mind, and yet, through doing so, we bring the mind to sharper awareness.
Don’t worry too much about the contradictory nature of meditation. These contradictions are the first of many that you will start noticing as you meditate, and in fact, accepting the difficulties and the contradictions of the world around us is one of the reasons to meditate in the first place. Which brings me to the next topic:
2. Why meditate?
Ah, the crunch. What can it do for you? Well, meditation raises your sense of awareness. It is a a way of practicing recognition and acceptance of yourself and the world around you. This may sound a little odd; after all, most of us believe that we already recognise and accept ourselves and the world around us. But a lot of the time, we live in our thoughts – either our memories of the past, or our projections of the future.
Where does tension come from? Where do your anxieties and worries come from? Are they located in the present? Hardly. Most of our anxieties come from conjuring up various pictures and thoughts of the future, and worrying What if… And those that don’t come from the future, come from the past: we recall negative experiences and events and chew over them, on and on. Because meditation brings our awareness to the present moment, it allows us to let go of the past and the future, and in doing so, to realise that we are not living in the grip of their phantoms.
Meditation is a little like exercise: you can’t really locate exactly when and how it’s benefiting you. When you think about doing it, your mind will produce lots of excuses, lots of better ways you could spend your time. When you actually get round to doing it, you might spend a lot of time having thoughts like This is difficult, This is pointless, I’m not good at this, I’m not doing it properly. And when you’ve done a bit, you might wonder what all the fuss was about, and whether it’s made any difference to you at all. The trick is just to do it and to trust that the benefits will creep up on you gently and slowly. Of course, if you want proof that it’s going to benefit you, I can go into all the evidence – some studies, some anecdotal evidence – but perhaps let’s leave that for later. For now, let’s look at:
3. How do you meditate?
The definitions above may make meditation sound quite obscure. You may also notice that while some definitions consider meditation a state of mind, others consider it an activity or technique. There are lots of ways of meditating, just as there are many ways of preparing a meal.
The simplest way I can suggest is: sit somewhere quiet, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. You might be parked in your car, sitting on the tube, waiting for someone on a park bench; you can give yourself a few minutes of meditation. Or perhaps you have given yourself ten minutes, or maybe 20, in a quiet place at home. It doesn’t matter. Sit, quietly, and relaxed, and listen to yourself breathing for a little while. That’s all there is to it, really.
You don’t believe me, do you? That’s why you’re still reading. You want a more detailed guide. OK. Here’s a bit more detail:
- Sit somewhere quiet. It can be in the bedroom, the garden, the living room, the balcony, it doesn’t matter. The traditional posture of meditation is to sit cross-legged on the floor, on a cushion or mat. If this is comfortable for you, great. But you don’t have to sit on a mat or a cushion or a hard floor. If you prefer, sit on a chair. You do, however, want the position to be both relaxed and focused, so make sure your spine is upright, your head facing forward and your shoulders relaxed.
- Close your eyes. Again, this isn’t a hard and fast rule; some illustrious yogis meditate eyes open. But for newcomers to meditation, closing your eyes is a sure way to bring your attention inward.
- Focus on your breath. Again, there are millions of ways of doing this, and numerous books are available to tell you marvellous things to visualise, ways of breathing, different patterns of extending either the incoming or the outgoing breath. Again, I think for anyone that hasn’t meditated before, it’s important to know that none of the theory matters. Listen to your breath. Feel it travelling in and out of your body. Visualise it if you like.
- Notice any physical sensations in your body. Notice which parts of your body are warm, and which are cold. Perhaps a leg is uncomfortable or stiff. Notice your body as though you are observing it impartially, gently, the way you would watch a playing child. Don’t fight or resist your observations, but don’t wallow or rejoice in them either. Remind yourself that you are increasing your own awareness of each cell in your body.
- Extend your observations to the world around you. Notice sounds, subtle changes in the temperature, the movement of the air around. Keep bringing your attention back to your own breathing.
- Observe your thoughts. Quite soon, you will find your mind wanders onto some topic you want to think about. Your next meal; that thing your mother said; what time the football is on. For many people, this proves to them that they are not meditators. No! The trick here is to notice that you are having thoughts. Notice and observe them. It may sound corny, but for each thought, observe it the way you would observe a child getting fixated on a small object: Look, my mind is wandering towards the football. Picture yourself putting the thought down the way the child would eventually put down the small object. And bring your attention back to your breath.
4. Where do you meditate?
You don’t need a special meditation room, a Zen garden or a Buddhist temple in order to meditate. A quiet place at home will do just fine. And as I said before, there’s nothing to stop you meditating sporadically in the space of a normal day.
It does help to make sure that you’re somewhere that pets won’t come bounding up to you and curiously licking your nose, but if you choose to meditate in your garden, don’t worry if they do. It can also help to set an alarm clock that will let you know after your 5 or 10 or 20 minutes has passed, as you don’t want to sit for your whole meditation wondering whether you’ve been sitting for a minute or an hour. (Sometimes your mind will wander down this How long has it been already? avenue. Observe the thought with the same gentle recognition that you observe other thoughts, and bring your attention back to your breath.)
5. What about other activities that I might find meditative?
There are many activities we might describe as relaxed (sleeping, watching TV, lying in the sun) but which are unfocused. They are not meditation. Similarly, activities that require us to focus (thinking, working, making things) are not necessarily both relaxed and focused They are not necessarily meditation either. Yet it is possible to DO things in a meditative way. I think of this as meditation in action.
Say you are washing the dishes, or chopping vegetables, or changing a plug. While you do it, focus on your breathing. Once you have brought your attention to your breath, notice the details of what you are doing. Notice the weight and texture of the items you are working with. Observe the particularness of the task the way an artist observes the particularness of an apple or a pear as he draws it.
Some repetitive activities, such as running, swimming, and even housework, lend themselves to this kind of meditation in action. The activities themselves are apparently dull – nearly as apparently dull as just sitting. This makes them perfect for focusing your attention on your breath, your body and your surroundings. In fact, even in each mundane everyday task – brushing your teeth, washing your body, preparing meals, you can find many meditative moments.