- What is meditation really?
- Why do we need meditation?
- How is meditation done?
- Excerpts and quotes from masters
Ray Dalio is the founder and manager of the world’s largest hedge fund. He says the single greatest thing to which he can attribute his success is Meditation.
There are a lot of misconceptions out there regarding meditation. The word has become very common in the Western world, where as just a few decades ago this was not so.
So as I begin this article, I ask that you put down your preconceptions about meditation. We are going to explore what meditation is as if it were something we have never encountered before. In this way, we can strip it of all its misrepresentations and examine it in a different light.
What is Meditation? Why are we talking about Meditation?
Meditation is self-observation. It is a tool to learn about yourself. You start by taking a look at yourself and ask “How am I running this marvelous piece of biological machinery called my body? What is my mind? How does it work? Can I see it more clearly? Can I see what is behind that? What else can I learn about this?” And it ends with pure, non-dual awareness.
Meditation is self-observation with the commitment to discover the truth no matter what it is.
To learn about yourself and your world, NOT to look for evidence to support what you already believe, or to pass judgement on your self whether positive or negative.
You might be thinking now “That’s easy, I observe myself all the time.” But the truth is you do not. We coast through most of our life on auto pilot.
If you are honest with yourself you will admit that you are not even in control of your own thoughts. Your thoughts jump around aimlessly without your awareness. 90% of your thinking is repetitive and dysfunctional, and you are not even aware of it.
If your thoughts are aimless and dysfunctional, don’t you think your words are sometimes aimless and dysfucntional too?
If your words are aimless and dysfunctional, don’t you think your choices and actions are sometimes aimless and dysfunctional too?
If your choices and actions are aimless and dysfunctional, don’t you think your habits are aimless and dysfunctional too?
If your habits are aimless and dysfunctional then your character, your destiny, and your whole life are to some degree aimless and dysfunctional.
So what allows some people to achieve such clarity and genius level success while others do not. Is it their brains?
You’re brain is pretty much the same as Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon, Julius Ceaser, Marcus Aurelius, Buddha, and anyone else that existed on the face of the earth. If they were a human, your brain and their brain are very, very similar.
Some of these people have left us with some wonderful insights how to conquer that idiocy in ourselves. Their answer: Meditation.
In case you want to know some of the benefits that modern medical science has recognized from meditation, here are some of the findings:
It has been found to correlate directly with
- decreased anxiety and depression
- increased pain tolerance
- increased memory, patience and empathy.
- improved general functioning of your immune system
- reduced blood pressure and stress levels
Meditation has been shown to change the size, shape and density of your brain, as well as the patterns and frequencies of your brain waves. There have also been benefits related to diabetes and cancer. Just like exercise can increase your overall health, meditation can increase your overall health as well.
Today’s modern business leaders also promote meditation for its benefits on
- decision making
- emotional intelligence as it relates to your personal relationships
- your ability to lead others
- peace of mind
- job satisfaction
- and fulfillment.
So don’t think of meditation as an ancient religious practice with vague benefits. Just like exercise, is a practical tool for improving your life.
How is Meditation done?
Meditation has some similarities to exercise.
When you exercise you learn your limitations very quickly. You learn how far you can run, or how much weight you can lift. The goal of a healthy and strong body may seem far away at first. But if you continue in an intelligent manner, over time you will be able to run farther and lift heavier weights and you will slowly realize your goals. Great benefits come from consistent exercise applied intelligently.
We want to apply the same principles to meditation.
We begin by finding a quiet and comfortable place. Why is it quiet and comfortable? because we want to start with as few distractions as possible. When you get more experience you will be able to meditate effectively any place and at any time.
So get on your mat or your cushion in a quiet place where you wont be bothered by people talking to you or your phone ringing or anything like that.
You want to get into a sitting position that is firm, stable and comfortable. Strictly speaking, you can meditate in any position, but there are certain sitting positions that have been traditionally favored. Try cross legged with your back straight and your shoulders back with your hands resting on your knees, or folded in your lap. The main thing is to be comfortable and stable without being too tempted to sleep.
Take a few deep breaths. Breathe in your nose, hold for a moment, then breath out your mouth. Breathe in through your nose for 4 counts, then hold for 3 counts, and breath out of your mouth for 5 counts.
Just relax and let your breathing happen on its own, don’t force it.
Listen to every single noise that is going on around you. And don’t name the noises or identify the noises, just let them play with your eardrums. Watch your breath, and listen to all the sounds. Feel the weight of your clothes on your skin. Observe every sensation in your body as you continue to breath naturally.
Very soon you are going to have thoughts that come up in your head. That is perfectly ok. Listen to your own thoughts just as you are listening to all the noises around you. Listen to your thoughts as you would listen to birds chatter, or dogs barking, or water splashing. Let the thoughts come, and let them go. Do not force them out of your head. Watch your thoughts like watching cars on the freeway, watch them come and watch them go, they don’t stay long! And breathe.
Then observe your mind. Watch your thoughts without judgment. Bring your attention to your breath. Listen to all the sounds around you without judgement, let them play with your ear drums. Listen as if someone might be calling your name in the distance. And breathe. If you find yourself distracted by thoughts, do not be bothered by them. Gently bring your attention back to your breath. Awareness is the goal.
So watch your breath, watch your posture, watch your thoughts, and be aware of the sounds around you.
Leave your front door and your back door open. Allow your thoughts to come and go. Just don’t serve them tea!
That is all!
Is it really that simple? YES!
In meditation the goal is to observe yourself and get underneath your conditioning – your unawareness.
Get in position, and observe your breath, observe your posture, and observe your mind.
Our difficulty with this simple progression is that most of us are unwilling to accept that we need so little to make gains. We are geared to expect instruction, teaching, guides, masters. And when we are told that we need no one, we don’t believe it. We become nervous, then distrustful, and finally angry and disappointed. We think that we might be doing it wrong, or that we are doing nothing at all and it is useless.
Here is an excerpt from a wonderful, amazing, profound book on Meditation called “Zen mind, beginner’s mind” by Shunryū Suzuki. He was a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk who was one of the first to bring Meditation to the Western world. His book is a great place to find casual and authentic teachings about meditation practice.
People say that practicing Zen is difficult, but there is a misunderstanding as to why. It is not difficult because it is hard to sit in the cross legged position to attain enlightenment. It is difficult because it is hard to keep our mind pure and our practice pure in its fundamental sense.
The most important point is to own your own physical body. If you slump, you will lose your self. Your mind will be wandering about somewhere else; you will not be in your body. This is not the way. We must exist right here, right now! This is the key point. You must have your own body and mind. Everything should exist in the right place, in the right way. Then there is no problem.
When we have our body and mind in order, everything else will exist in the right place, in the right way.
But usually, without being aware of it, we try to change something other than ourselves, we try to order things outside us. But it is impossible to organize things if you yourself are not in order. When you do things in the right way, at the right time, everything else will be organized. You are the “boss”. When the boss is sleeping, everyone is sleeping. When the boss does something right, everyone will do everything right, and at the right time. That is the secret of Buddhism.
So try always to keep the right posture, not only when you practice zazen, but in all your activities. Take the right posture when you are driving your car and when you are reading. If you read in a slumped position you cannot stay awake long. Try. You will discover how important it is to keep the right posture. This is the true teaching. The teaching which is written on paper is not the true teaching. Written teaching is a kind of food for your brain. Of course it is necessary to take some food for your brain, but it is more important to be yourself by practicing the right way of life.
That is why Buddha could not accept the religions existing at his time. He studied many religions, but he was not satisfied with their practices. He could not find the answer in asceticism of in philosophies. He was not interested in some metaphysical existence, but in his own body and mind, here and now. And when he found himself he found that everything that exists has Buddha nature. That was his enlightenment.
So we keep good posture when we meditate. Just do it. You can read for a hundred years but will learn nothing if you don’t put it into action.
If we need help, it is not in rules, but in emphasis.
And there is plenty of help out there for you in the form of books and articles, YouTube videos, and real world meditation centers near you!
Here is more from Shunryū Suzuki to give you some more perspective on the breathing and observing that is meditation:
When we practice zazen our mind always follows our breathing. When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say “inner world” or “outer world” but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think “I breathe” the “I” is extra. There is no you to say “I”. What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale ad when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement there is nothing: no “I”, no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.
So when you practice zazen, there is no idea of time or space. You may say, “We started sitting at a quarter to six in this room.” Thus you have some idea of time (a quarter to six), and some idea of space (in this room.) Actually what you are doing, however, is just sitting and being aware of the universal activity. That is all. This moment the swinging door is opening in one direction, and the next moment the swinging door will be opening in the opposite direction. Moment after moment each one of us repeats this activity. Here there is no idea of time or space. Time and space are one. In your mind you create an idea of place separate from an actual time.When you separate the idea of time and space you feel as if you have some choice.
When we become truly ourselves, we just become a swinging door, and we are purely independent of, and at the same time, dependent upon everything because without air we cannot breathe.
If you have this kind of experience, this kind of existence, you have absolute independence; you will not be bothered by anything. So when you practice zazen your mind should be concentrated on your breathing. This kind of activity is the fundamental activity of the universal being. Without this experience, this practice, it is impossible to attain absolute freedom.
To live in the realm of Buddha nature means to die as a small being, moment after moment.
If you want to discover the true meaning of Zen in your everyday life, you have to understand the meaning of keeping your mind on your breathing and your body in the right posture in zazen.
When you are practicing zazen, do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. If something comes into your mind, let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything. It appears as if something comes from outside your mind, but actually it is only the waves of your mind, and if you are not bothered by the waves, gradually they will become calmer and calmer.
The only effort that will help you is to count your breathing, or to concentrate on your inhaling and exhaling. We say concentration, but to concentrate your mind on something is not the true purpose of Zen. The true purpose is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes. This is to put everything under control in its widest sense.
It will take quite a long time before you find your calm, serene mind in your practice. Many sensations come, many thoughts or images arise, but they are just waves of your own mind. Nothing comes from outside your mind. Usually we think of our mind as receiving impressions and experiences from outside, but that is not a true understanding of our mind. The true understanding is that the mind includes everything; when you think something comes from outside it means only that something appears in your mind. Nothing outside yourself can cause any trouble. You yourself make the waves in your mind. If you leave your mind as it is it will become calm. This is called big Mind.
And here is a transcript of part of a guided meditation by Alan Watts, the link to this YouTube video is here on the right, and there is a much longer version that is really great too.
Guided meditations are great for beginners and you can wean yourself off of them slowly. In the early stages of practice it can really help to have someone speaking calmly and directing your mind to the practice. You can find lots of great guided meditations on YouTube, some of my favorite are by Alan Watts, Eckhart Tolle and others.
Lets read this transcript of a guided meditation by Alan Watts for even more perspective on what the breathing and observing that is meditation is all about:
The easiest way to get into the meditative state [stopping the world] is to begin by listening. If you simply close your eyes and allow yourself to hear all the sounds that are going on around you. Just listen to the general hum and buzz of the world as if you were listening to music. Don’t try to identify the sounds you are hearing. Don’t put names on them. Simply allow them to play with your ear drums. And let them go. In other words you can put it: let your ears hear whatever they want to hear. Don’t judge the sounds. There are no, as it were, proper sounds or improper sounds. It doesn’t matter if someone coughs or sneezes or drops something, it’s all just sound.
And if I am talking to you right now and you are doing this, I want you to listen to the sound of my voice just as if it were noise. Don’t try to make any sense of what I am saying because your brain will take care of that automatically. You don’t have to try to understand anything, just listen to the sound. As you pursue that experiment you will very naturally find that you can’t help naming the sounds, identifying them, that you will go on thinking that is to say talking to yourself automatically.
But it’s important you don’t try to repress those thoughts by forcing them out of your mind because that will have precisely the same effect as if you were trying to smooth rough water with a flat iron. You’re just going to disturb it all the more. What you do is this: as you hear sounds coming up in your head, thoughts, you simply listen to them as part of the general noise going on just as you would be listening to the sound of my voice, or just as you would be listening to cars going by or to birds chattering outside the window. So look at your own thoughts as just noises, and soon you will find that the so called outside world and the so called inside world come together—they are ‘a happening’. Your thoughts are ‘a happening’ just like the sounds going on outside and everything is simply ‘a happening’ and all you’re doing is watching it.
Now in this process another thing that is happening that is very important is that you are breathing. And as you start meditation you allow your breath to run just as it wills. In other words don’t do, at first, any breathing exercise but just watch your breath breathing just the way it wants to breathe. And then notice a curious thing about this. You say in the ordinary way that “I breathe” because you feel breathing is something you are doing voluntarily just in the same way that you might be walking, or talking. But you also notice that when you are not thinking about breathing your breathing goes on just the same. So the curious thing about breath is that it can be looked at both as a voluntary, and an involuntary action. You can feel on the one hand “I am doing it”, and on the other hand “it is happening to me.”
And that is why breathing is a most important part of meditation, because it is going to show you, as you become aware of your breath, that the hard and fast division that we make between what we do on the one hand and what happens to us on the other, is arbitrary. So that as you watch your breathing you will become aware that both the voluntary and the involuntary aspects of your experience are all one ‘happening.’ Now that may at first seem a little scary, because you may think “well, am I just the puppet of a happening, the mere passive witness of something that’s going on completely beyond my control? Or on the other hand am I really doing everything that’s going along? Well if I were I would be God, and that would be very embarrassing, I would be in charge of everything, that would be a terribly responsible position.” The truth of the matter, as you will see it, is that both things are true. You can see it that everything is happening to you and on the other hand you are doing everything.
For example it is your eyes that are turning the sun into light, it’s the nerve ends in your skin that are turning electric vibrations in the air into heat and temperature, it’s your ear drums that are turning vibrations in the air into sound and in that way you are creating the world. But when we are not talking about it, when we are not philosophizing about it then there is just this happening, this [sound]… and we won’t give it a name.
Now then, when you breathe for a while, just letting it happen, and not forcing it in any way, you will discover a curious thing: that without making any effort you can breathe more and more deeply. In other words, supposing you simply are breathing out, and breathing out is important because it is the breath of relaxation, that’s when you say “whooo” and heave a sigh of relief. So when you are breathing out you get the sensation that your breath is falling out. Dropping, dropping, dropping out with the same sort of feeling you have as if you were settling down into an extremely comfortable bed. And you just get as heavy as possible and let yourself go, and you let your breath go out in just that way, and when it is thoroughly comfortably out and it feels like coming back again, you don’t pull it back in, you let it fall back in. Letting your lungs expand, expand, expand, until they feel very comfortably full, then you wait a moment and let it stay there and then once again you let it fall out
And so in this way you will discover that your breath gets quite naturally easier and easier, and slower and slower and more and more powerful. So that with these various aids: listening to sound, listening to your own interior feelings and thoughts just as if they were something going on—not something you are doing but just happenings, and watching your breath as a happening that is neither voluntary nor involuntary, you are simply aware of these basic sensations, then you will begin to be in the state of meditation. But don’t hurry anything, don’t worry about the future, don’t worry about what progress you’re making, just be entirely content to be aware of what is. Don’t be terribly selective, in particular don’t think “I should think of this and not of that,” just watch whatever is happening.
– Alan Watts
I hope this has given you some modern into the benefits and practicality of meditation, as well as some insight into it’s ancient origin, its purpose and methods.
TRY IT! Try it over and over. Don’t give up! The benefits are really amazing, and you will get better at meditating with time. Don’t get frustrated! It is completely natural to want to give up, just hang in there!