How to meditate and practice mindfulness, no really…
What is meditation and mindfulness? Isn’t it just for hippies or people who follow a more Eastern religious tradition? Isn’t it non-religious? What’s the link with yoga? Is it something I have time for? So many people have so many particular ideas about it, who is right? Do I need to sit in a possibly painful cross-legged position (a.k.a lotus position)? Do I need to have my eyes open or closed? What should I be doing with my hands? Should I be focussing on something, or trying to empty my mind of thought? And so on and on and on!
Well, actually, the truth is going to surprise you!
To understand it, as is the commonsensible.org way, we have to go back to the fundamentals and to look back at history. We could say the first written records were from the Hindu Vedanta tradition around 1500BCE (Before the Christian Era). We could also argue, as some Hindu traditionalists do, that it originates in the third or fourth millennium BCE, as this is the date they attribute to the Bhagavad Gita: a Hindu text that expounds meditation. If we argue that the people who eventually spawned Hinduism and its associated texts (both of which have no clear origin, being a synthesis of different ideas and beliefs), logically, they would have had some of its ideas in their minds already (and not worrying about when they wrote it down, or when we can date surviving texts to), then we can place the possibility of ideas about meditation to even earlier; perhaps up to 9000 years ago. But, if we expand our understanding of meditation more widely (more on this later) then we can say it existed across prehistory. What we can take from this history is that meditation is a large topic with a long history. But, thankfully, we can also see that there are unifying themes. To see those, we have to know what we mean by meditation.
So what is this thing called meditation? What are we looking for when we say ideas about meditation? That answer is the simplest one, although many have a different system to get there and some might even argue against this answer. There is one thing that unifies the meditation across history, it’s going back to who you really are, to your core. It’s forgetting the individual who has been born and has lived and has decided who they are. It’s going back to the real you. You may feel really strongly that you are (for example) John Smith, 33, an accountant, like chocolate, hates spiders, is good at math but not good at geography etc. But who was there before you were named, before you tried chocolate, or had that experience with the spider? This is the real you. I’m not talking about the soul, though I will get to that. I’m talking about the baby that came out of its mother’s womb. The baby, that might have hated chocolate, loved spiders and been an artist, had things gone different and the baby taken a different path. It’s going back to the observer, ignoring all that it has observed.
That’s important because observations change the observer. If this “seer” of things saw a bad experience with geography, then it won’t want to look at geography again. It would now be an observer without geography; it has now changed. This is how the self is formed. But meditation seeks to go beyond that self, to transcend it. And reality for that matter (more on this in another article!).
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To do this “going back” I can use a number of tools. I can sit in a room and try to let the “created me” disappear (by not paying attention to it or its thoughts). This is where body postures and the other things we associate with meditation come in. If I sit cross-legged and with a straight back, with my head slightly down, my tongue on the roof of my mouth, trying to focus on my breath and just letting my thoughts go by; all this serves to negate the self. I can focus intently on an object or point, like the end of my nose, perhaps in corpse pose, to a similar end. I can chant, over and over, to a similar end. I can focus on something I am doing (mindfulness), to a similar end. I can move my body in a certain way to try to forget it is there and find the real me (yoga). I can be devoted to something or someone else and forget my false self that way. There’s loads of ways. All paths up the same mountain, as they say.
This is very important: when a language ages it increases the number of words to reduce ambiguity and enhance precision. So, in English, we have 120 words that are synonyms for the word drunk and over a million words in the vocabulary. Ancient languages, the further back we go, use the same word for multiple meanings. This is why translating ancient texts, like the Bible, is so hard and ambiguous. So, for example, Latin, has only 200,000+ words. Ancient sanskrit, back in the day wasn’t much different to Latin (although it is different now). They could therefore mean many different things when they said meditation. And as history progresses it gets even more complex.
We have meditation as “Dhyana” which could be sustained attention, focussing on the chosen point of focus, or contemplating or reflecting in the Vedanta traditions. We have instructions for controlling the mind, detachment, self-realization and tranquillity of the mind in the Bhagavad Gita. We have conscious awareness leading to a settling of the mind in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. We have ideas about detachment and the absence of thoughts in more modern versions. We have a thousand (or more) ways to understand this word, all slightly different, with different practices. So how to navigate through this? Again, this is easy, but it will really jar with your western epistemology (or system of thinking). There will be an article about this particular point to come, but for now I can say this: in the western system, we want to categorise everything, to know what everything is, and so we label and name and decide. This is black, this is white and so on. It’s a good system and it works. But it has a major problem; reality is often not black or white, it’s mostly all grey! So, if you follow the western system, you really want a one word or sentence (or at most a limited) answer to what meditation means. But, as I hope you are starting to see, that’s just not possible, not with many things, like meditation. What you can do is have a list and know the “emphasis’ of this list, what unifies it, what it is not and what it mostly is.
If you follow this approach, as we do at commonsensible.org, then our answer about what meditation is; stands. It is mostly about going back to your source or core, ignoring the self and the world, using tools to get you there. So, for our scientists, we mean the baby born. But for our more spiritually minded readers, we could say the soul. Or what the soul is. Either way, the benefits of meditation to the human have been well researched and studied; we think beyond doubt. And the benefits to the soul? Well, going back to the core is the essence of enlightenment or samadhi or nirvana or even heaven too.
Did you know that there is lots of references (to this wider understanding of) meditation in the Torah and Bible? And in the Quran. And most of the other religions. And across the Egyptian, Roman and Greek ancient worlds. And across prehistory. If we accept that focussing on something is meditation, then drawing or art is meditation. That means we were doing it when we were painting on caves. When we were dancing that ancient dance or chanting that ancient tune. Indeed, rhythmic and repetitive chanting (which we call mantras today) is a key feature of prehistoric religions. Therefore, amongst all these difference, there is a unifying theme, meditation is good for the soul or it wouldn’t appear in all the spiritual traditions in one way or another.
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So what is the best meditation? Buddha was able to teach enlightenment to many people in a few days. He supposedly looked visibly enlightened, with a glow around him. Yet today, we have people who meditate, their whole lives, and get nowhere. Or certainly not to enlightenment. I mean, where are all the people with halos around their heads if we aren’t doing something wrong? Therein lies the crux. There isn’t A way, there’s lots of ways. The answer isn’t outside of you, it is in you. You cannot realise enlightenment by following anyone else. You are on your own. That’s why people are not getting anywhere. They are all seeking an answer to the problem from someone else’s self, someone else’s system, someone else’s understanding or (even) someone else’s attempt to make a living. You can’t get to your true self that way, there’s too many people standing in the way.
So what does that mean for your meditation? The right way, is your way! Listen to all these different ways, find out about them and then forget them and find out what it means to YOU! Go with what you like, that’s what resonates with the real you. If you like yoga followed by savasana, do that. If you can really get into the moment by painting, writing, driving or cleaning your house, do that. If you can truly focus on who you are by sitting in lotus humming mantras, then do that. But above all, find what helps YOU forget you, that is the right meditation. Personally, I like to stare into the middle distance, don’t know if Osho would approve, but people do tell me I glow though! Try it for yourself, find something you love doing and while you are doing it expand your awareness. The awareness is the most important bit and you can (should) increase your awareness across all the facets of your life. The awareness is also the stillness, so you can do it with a still or an active activity. Then, bit by bit, try to find the bit that is this awareness, the observer. Then try and stay with that and cultivate it. Then get ready for some magic!