I decided to do a post about meditation because there seems to be a lot of confusion concerning what it’s all about. The most common thing I hear is that it’s about ‘stopping’ the mind, or not thinking. Now I’m the first to admit that it would be awesome if that were possible but it’s not. Not even people who have been practicing intense meditation for much of their lives have a completely quiet mind.
So what’s the point? I’ll tell you in just a minute, first allow me to explain how I came to it.
I began experimenting with meditation in my first year at university; leaving home had made my anxiety levels rise to new peaks and I was constantly stressed out. I read somewhere that a good place to start was to focus on a candle flame and try to keep your attention on the flame. You are then not thinking per se, but simply intensely aware of the flame. I quickly discovered that this is far harder than it sounds, and that my attention span was limited to about 20 seconds.
I tried again and again, and discovered that if I played John Frusciante’s “23 Go Into End” whilst doing it I found it easier (link at end of post). One night I ditched the candle and just sat with my eyes closed and sank into the music. I found myself in an icy landscape with a muted silence and a vast tide of peacefulness washed over me. I had always been afraid of this kind of endless nothingness and yet curiously I felt completely right there. Gratitude welled up in me and overflowed in light tears onto my cheeks. Six minutes of escape and peace, finally.
That was really my first experience of quieting my mind, and it taught me that whatever might be going on outside I could always turn inwards for peace and comfort. After that I attended a few guided meditation sessions, and a few silent meditations; guided meditation can be a wonderful thing, but if you have an inherently rebellious mind like I do it can be challenging to let go and accept someone else’s instructions. Silent group meditation is always very powerful – the strong peaceful energy of the group helps you to deepen your focus and work on your intention for the meditation more intensely.
Meditation has given me countless insights over the years that have changed my life; and yes, I might have come to know these things without meditating but I am sure it would have taken longer. The first and most important realisation was that I am not my mind. This was said at the start of a guided meditation one rainy evening in the south of Germany, by an unassuming young German man, and as he said it I clearly saw my mind as a separate entity from me; part of me, but not all I am. This realisation is the key to freedom;
Premise 1: All suffering arises from the mind
Premise 2: Meditation leads to dis-identification from the mind
Conclusion: Meditation is the first step on the path to freedom from suffering
Buddhists practice meditation as the path to enlightenment, as this is how the Buddha came to his understandings into the nature of existence and ultimate freedom from his mind (to clarify, when speaking about the ‘mind’ I am referring to what we in the West often refer to as the ‘ego’, not the general capacity for thinking).
Meditation has also helped me to ground myself, re-center myself, release emotions I was not consciously aware of having, gain insights into my nature and beyond, to build gratitude and compassion. The miraculous thing about it is that in holding the intention to sit quietly and listen, whatever lesson you need to learn, whatever emotion you need to let go, whatever insight you need to have at that precise moment will come up. It’s really pretty awesome :)
Clarifying – The 2 Forms of Meditation
“Inner peace leads to world peace” – H. H. The Dalai Lama
Meditation is really all about awareness; being able to control it and use it in whatever way is most useful to you. Awareness can also be thought of as presence – because when you are fully aware you are fully present.
There are two main forms of meditation:
1. Focus/serenity meditation involves single-pointed awareness, for example on a candle flame or the breath.
2. Insight meditation involves balancing concentration on the object of inquiry with openness; this leads to focussed awareness, which allows us to contemplate expansively without losing sight of the object of contemplation.
In The Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment the Buddha distinguished between effort, mindfulness and concentration. Effort and concentration must be balanced with mindfulness – think of the Doutreval of Dijon quote from Scaramouche: “A sword is like a bird. If you clutch it too tightly, you choke it – too lightly and it flies away.” Concentrate too hard and you strangle intuition; not enough and your mind wanders.
Focus/serenity meditation is amazing for stress-relief, for calming anxiety, for quieting the over-active mind, and pacifying the judgmental mind. Insight meditation can be used for gaining understanding of anything; to get answers to questions from the mundane to the majestic, for deepening your self-knowledge, for realising the deep truths of reality.
In my experience both are invaluable tools for a self-aware life.
Practical Issues – 6 Pointers
1. Thought-stopping. The most common problem people have when trying focussed meditation are the incessant thoughts that the minds churns out, which interrupt the focus. The best advice I was ever given about this is to regard the thoughts as though they were trains drawing into a station (your awareness) and pulling out again without stopping (i.e., you do not ‘attach’ to them). In this way you do not fight them (which is futile), you do not get annoyed by them (which gives them more energy and further distracts you), and you do not start a “thinking process” about them. Basically you ignore them the way you ignore bad background music; you know it’s there but choose not to focus on it.
2. Wandering Mind. It can be helpful to think of your wandering mind as your teacher, rather than your enemy. When the mind wanders and you notice it, that moment of noticing is meditation (=awareness). It also helps to remember that having a judgmental attitude towards one’s meditative practice is unhelpful because this strengthens the ego – true awareness does not reside in ego but beyond it; so when you judge you take a step backwards into ego.
3. Attitude. It is also important to have a gentle attitude towards your learning process as this is the basis for compassion, both for ourselves and towards others. It is very beneficial to become conscious of how we relate to our own mind – an attitude of loving kindness towards it will support your growth, as it will that of others (and what is life if not one big school where we are all learning all the time?).
4. Expectations. Many people think that they should instantly feel Buddha-like simply because they are sitting in a meditation posture, or that they should find it easier to control their minds – this often leads to dissatisfaction and disappointment, sometimes to abandonment of the endeavour altogether. This expectation is unnecessary and unhelpful; expectations are an example of the type of attachment that Buddhists aim to release. Expectations are necessarily projections into the future – so for someone who is trying to practice being aware and fully present, they are a great hindrance.
5. Practice. Bear in mind that the phrase “to practice meditation” is not without implications; whether focus or insight, meditating does require a bit of practice in order for your mind to stop questioning everything you do while you’re sitting. Another useful thing to remember is that the ego does not like to be reduced in importance – watch out for it rearing its ugly head when you’re not expecting it and don’t take what it throws at you seriously.
6. Ego. Transcending the ego through meditation is great, but the ego doesn’t appreciate being ignored – be prepared for some unexpected curve-balls as it tries to get your attention back. These often appear in the form of fears that seem to come out of nowhere. Acknowledge them and then let them go; don’t take them seriously.
I would love to discuss thoughts, insights, or questions if anyone has any :)