- What is meditation really?
- Why do we need meditation?
- How is meditation done?
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 leave behind 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.
I will alternate between modern science and ancient science to give a greater and more modern understanding to meditation. I hope to make it feel less foreign to our modern lifestyles and understanding.
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?"
Meditation is self-observation with the commitment to discover the truth no matter what it is.
This may sound easy, but there are some great pitfalls.
You are probably aware that human beings are capable of lying to ourselves. We also have selective memory and selective attention. All of this and more is why any logical person will admit that their un-examined attitudes and choices are less than perfect.
So meditation is a commitment to learning the truth - about yourself and your world - no matter what it is. It is 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.
Welcome to the club! Those statements describe all of us. Literally, all of us. All humans since the beginning of time. 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 were able to master themself and turn their life into a powerful masterpiece, and that means you can too.
Some of these people have left us with some wonderful insights how to conquer that idiocy in ourselves. Their answer: Meditation.
In case you werant to know some of the benefits that modern medical science has recognized from med
Recently, Western science has begun to study the benefits of 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? And why do we do it like that?
Lets continue the comparison 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 are going to start out easy and then grow into powerful meditation that will change your life. Just like in exercise, there will be obstacles, you will feel the urge to quit and give up, but you must continue in order to realize the benefits.
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.
If you have small cushion or a small carpet or mat that you can use each time, do that. Is this necessary? no. Will it help? maybe. Its psychological. Over time a meditation mat can give a sense of peace just by seeing it or sitting on it.
If you want to go a step further on the "not necessary but could be helpful" list then you can light some incense and try to light the same incense every time you meditate, and only when you meditate. This will help your brain. Our sense of smell is often overlooked and ignored, but it is powerful in stimulation the brain. That's why most churches or temples or synagogues that have ancient rituals and traditions usually use incense or fragrances as part of their ritual. Over time the incense will stimulate your meditative mood naturally.
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. The main thing is to be comfortable and stable without being too tempted to sleep.
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.
Once you are in this position the meditation can begin. Take a few deep breaths. and relax every muscle not directly supporting your back. 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.
Now listen. 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.
And 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 random 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. Just return your attention to your breathing and all the sounds that you can possibly hear. Watch your thoughts like watching cars on the freeway, watch them come and watch them go, they don't stay long! And breathe.
Leave your front door and your back door open. Allow your thoughts to come and go. Just don't serve them tea!
So watch your breath, watch your posture, watch your thoughts, and be aware of the sounds around you.
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.
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
That is enough for now. 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.
Please, please, please 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!
Before I sign out, I am going to include a critique of modern society, and why meditation is so difficult for us in today's world. If you only wanted to learn about meditation you can consider this article through. What follows is commentary on today's culture, and below that are some meditation memes!
We live in a world of rapidly changing technology. Today's generation has been raised with multiple channels of television, internet access, mobile phones, social media and other relatively new inventions.
This technology has influenced us in many ways.
We have a terribly short attention span. In marketing, the attention span of an average person is known to be around 7 seconds long, almost like a goldfish.
We have been accustomed to instant gratification. We can use our mobile devices to find any content, watch anything, and immerse ourselves in anything but reality INSTANTANEOUSLY!
With social media we can feel connected no matter where we are or what we are doing. We can post where we are or what we are doing on social media and get attention for it. Our brain equates "likes" and "views" with social approval, and we equate our own "likes" and "views" with social interaction. We unconsciously judge ourselves through this lens of social media no matter what we are doing. We compare ourselves to billionaires and supermodels and we feel dissatisfied.
In fact the entire economy is based on creating dissatisfaction. It is dissatisfaction that keeps us buying and consuming. Some would even say that you cant sell a product without first making people feel bad because its a substitution game, you have to remind them something is missing in their life so they buy it. Imagine all the industries that would go out of business if we woke up and decided that we are good enough just the way we are...
Read this excerpt from Matt Haig's book "Reasons to Stay Alive"
“The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an anti-ageing moisturizer? You make someone worry about ageing. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind. To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.”
― Matt Haig,
So along with getting us addicted to instant gratification, taking away our solitude, and creating insecurities by forcing us to compare our lives to millionaires and supermodels, AND marketing to every second of the day us by creating false needs and wants, we are now left with a view of ourselves that is lacking.
The whole culture gives us a picture that we are not good, so we don’t want to look inside. Everyone wants to look ou the window, but nobody wants to look in the mirror. So we created distractions to prevent us from looking inside, because somehow we know that's where all the contradictions come together, and the way we spend our lives on meaningless activities can not stand up to scrutiny.
We then go on to mess up our lives because we don’t know ourselves, we don’t know what we’re really like, we don’t know what we really want, we don’t our resources well and we make mistakes.
Corporate culture has effectively banned meditation. But we are also lacking the skill to of meditation. We aren't taught anything remotely close to it in school. And economic influences have made it even harder for us... we find it hard to concentrate. When we try to meditate we usually drift, get confused, and distract ourself again
We need to systematically observe our own minds, and take our lives back from the money hungry culture creators who want to turn us into half baked morons mindlessly consuming unnecessary goods manufactured from a dying planet!
and here is some good advice for your meditation practice:
AIM HIGH - There is no reason you can not clear your mind completely and return to clear intuition, original mind, seeing the unseen
GET STARTED - You have to get started to make a change in your life. Drop the excuses, get started today!
DON'T STOP - Don't let the obstacles on your path stop you. Consistent effort will give you the results you want. Keep at it! Be consistent. In one year you will be glad you started today, in 5 years your life will not be the same at all, if you keep at it.
Check out the related links for more great information.
But when we really get down to the crux of the matter, prayer, meditation and stopping the world is essentially about one thing that can be broken up into a myriad of things: Presence. Being present to the moment is the umbrella that all things mindful fall below. All of life is a moving meditation. The universe itself is a vibrating orchestra of varying frequencies (or collapsing wave functions) all in superposition with each other. Essentially, meditation is the act of familiarizing, or re-familiarizing, ourselves with our own unique contribution to this orchestra. Learning how to meditate is nothing short of becoming present to the interconnectedness of all things. When we meditate we come to realize that we are both the seer and the seen. We are an extension of the universe becoming aware of itself. This is the importance of presence. Being in the moment, and especially being quiet and listening to what the moment has to say, is the foundation of healthy, mindful meditation
We do it by finding a sacred “place” to “perform” our meditation. It can be anywhere. It can be in a peaceful, natural setting or a quiet room. It can be in a crowded mall. It can even be in a schoolyard with a thousand kids screaming their little-kid head’s off. Obviously, if you’re just beginning, a quiet place is preferable, but it can be done just about anywhere. The point is the meditation place is inside us. The key to mindfulness isn’t necessarily about discovering peace and quiet “out there.” It’s primarily about discovering peace and quiet “in here.”
The main purpose for resonating with this sacred vibration is to nix the overreach of the Ego and stop the world. When we practice mindful meditation we are practicing getting out of our own way. When we nix Pride and small-mindedness, we free ourselves to kick open the mysteries that have been hiding within. Having done this, we open ourselves up to a torrent of creative energy that comes pouring down into our pineal gland. A super-flow experience occurs that takes us out of small mind and launches us into Big Mind.
At the end of the day, meditation helps us to take a step back and get a different perspective. It helps us realize that we may not be able to change everything, but we can change the way we experience things.