Meditation is different things for different people; reflection and contemplation, sitting still and quietly, calming and resting the mind, concentrating the mind, observing the mental processes, a trance like state, cultivating feelings of love and compassion. All these are part of meditation.
Meditation is best conceptualised as the process of training and purifying the mind. As a skill in development, an exercise, a practice. Just as physical exercises train the physical body, meditation is the practice of training the mind. A strong mind is far more important than a strong body. The mind creates our thoughts and behaviours and interprets our experiences of life. Where there is wrong understanding (avidhya), or falsely held beliefs, the mind creates problems for us, producing negative and unhelpful thoughts which lead to negative or unhelpful actions. The true nature of the mind is positive, peaceful, compassionate and happy. This is so for all living beings. It is due to the mental impurities of avidhya, to falsely held beliefs and wrong understanding, that the mind becomes ineffective, unhappy, angry, greedy, fearful and so on, producing the problems we experience in the world.
Developing the skill of meditation takes time and effort, but it is the most worthwhile of all the activities one could dedicate their time to. In the west, it is so common to spend many hours a week training the body, at the gym, performing yogasanas, jogging etc, but little cultural importance is given to training the mind. The mind is the root cause of all of the problems many people use exercise to relieve; overeating, low self esteem, stress, depression, sluggishness, hyperactivity. Why not take out the root cause of these symptoms and spend time exercising the mind instead?
Meditation is a skill which is developed overtime, by practicing, just like ones ability to run long distances is built up gradually. The benefits of meditation are felt from the first session. The more you practice (under correct instruction) the more skillful you will become and the more benefits each session will bring.
Anyone can learn to meditate. There are no prerequisites. There is a common misconception that to meditate properly one must sit in the lotus position, or cross legged. This is not true.
Posture (asana, or seat)
Only two things are required of a meditation posture, 1. it is comfortable enough to be maintained for a reasonable period of time, 2. the spine is straight. As long as the spine is kept straight, an explanation for which can be found in the section Anatomy of the Subtle Body, any position is suitable including lying down for those who cannot sit up, sitting in a chair or wheelchair for whose who cannot sit on the floor, kneeling (vajrasana), cross legged (sukhasana), lotus (padmasana) and other meditative asanas described in classic yoga texts (siddhasana, bhadrasana etc.) . Some positions are more conducive to success in meditation as they designed to harness the gross and subtle anatomy of the body, but success is possible in any position.
Most often, one sits on the floor in the kneeling or cross legged position, placing a cushion under the buttocks to tilt the pelvis forwards slightly. This helps to straighten out the spine. The chin is parallel with the floor to keep the cervical spine straight and balance the weight of the neck. The hands may be placed in any comfortable position, such as resting on the knees, clasped in the lap, or forming a mudra or seal (see The Anatomy of the Subtle Body). As many cushions as necessary for comfort should be used. It is possible to lean the back against the wall or chair if necessary, but not advantageous to learn this way in the long term. Maintaining an unsupported straight spine maintains some tension in the body, and helps maintain mental concentration and awareness. If we lean or lie down, we are more likely to loose concentration, fall asleep and waste our practice time.
The process of learning to meditate
- Finding a teacher and technique that is best for you
- Finding your meditation asana (position)
- Getting better at sitting still (relaxing and developing equanimity)
- Developing power of concentration (strengthening the mind)
- Developing awareness (insight)(expanding the mind beyond the physical body)
- Gaining wisdom and right-understanding (self realisation)
Finding your meditation asana
Experiment with different postures during the first few sessions. Legs crossed, kneeling, hands in mudra, hands in lap, 2 cushions, 4 cushions, round cushion, square cushion etc until you are comfortable. Once you have your comfortable posture, do not change it again; now you begin working towards staying in the same position without moving for extended periods of time.
Getting better at sitting still
Often, the first obstacle to overcome is a feeling of restlessness and agitation. A desire to fidget, to engage with some sensory stimulus. This is normal. This is OK. Your first goal with meditation is to stop this agitation. Listening to music of a frequency conducive to meditation before hand will help, such as mantras and the sounds of nature (see What is mantra?). Meditating straight after hatha yoga practice is ideal - this is what physical yoga exercies were designed for, preparing the mind for meditation (see the Hatha Yoga Method). It is difficult to meditate after eating food (leave at least 2 hours, preferably more) as well as too hungry, too tired, or intoxicated with caffeine, alcohol or other drugs. A quiet place where you are securely away from distractions is advised, you could wear earplugs and lock the door or warn others not to disturb you.
The body is not used to staying still. As the minutes pass by, tensions and unpleasant sensations may manifest in the body. Typically in the spine, knees, clavicles, shoulders and feet. It is important to remember that no physical harm can come to you by sitting still! The unpleasant sensations occur as the joints and muscles are slowly stretched into the new position with gravity, as old emotional tensions are released. They are psychosomatic and a product of the mind - no real harm is occurring. As these gross, pain sensations arise you are given the opportunity to develop your power of equanimity, your mental strength, your self-mastery, your stoicism. Do not change position in the face of discomfort. Do not react to the sensations. Simply observe. Sit through discomfort, reminding yourself the sensations are psychosomatic, a product of the mind, and no real harm is occurring. As you tell your self 'I will not move for the next 30 minutes. I will not react to sensations' and you succeed, you develop mental strength, you are training the mind. This will translate into your daily life.
With each practice session less gross discomfort is felt. This is for three reasons, the joints and muscles become more supple, the store of emotional tensions is diminishing, the mind is less attune to discomfort as it becomes more absorbed on the dedicated object of concentration.
Why is it important to sit still? Where prana moves citta moves. When the body moves, the mind is disturbed. Understanding of this will come with experience. As you are able to sit still for longer periods, you will be able to develop more intense concentration and self-realise more quickly. In fact, you may begin to feel like you could not move even if you wanted to.
There are so many techniques used to train the mind in concentration. An object of concentration is chosen. This may be a sound such as a mantra, a visualisation, a sensation, the breath, depending on your teacher. Relax and turn your attention inwards to the object and away from the outward reaching senses (hearing, smell, sensation, etc.) The mind will wander. Thoughts will appear in the mind replacing the object. That is OK. That is normal. Do not be bothered by this. Simply refocus your attention on the object again. Thoughts will appear in the mind and replace the object. That is OK. That is normal. Do not react to the thoughts. Do not follow the thoughts. Simply observe the products of the mind. Do not become frustrated with your self. This is the normal process of training the mind to concentrate. Relax, practice and all is coming. Each time the mind wanders, refocus your attention on the object. Initially, you will loose the object frequently and for long periods of time, unless you are reminded of it. This is why at first guided meditation with your teacher is helpful. Gradually, with practice, you can maintain concentration for longer and longer. After some days of progress, you may experience a session where you seem to have lost all your skill! This is ok, this is normal. Continue to practice and you will regain your skill. The measure of success of meditation is the degree of equanimity with which you experience it. At first, it takes a lot of effort to establish the mind in a one-pointed, focused state. After time, you will sit to meditate, close your eyes and instantly become fully aware.
Benefits of Meditation
During effective practice, the mind is rested and purified making it fitter and stronger, bringing many benefits to daily life.
- improved cognition - more clear headed, better memory and concentration span, critical thinking and learning ability.
- greater sense of wellbeing - better sleep, feeling more relaxed, more energy, relief of psychosomatic symptoms such as IBS, chronic pain, headache, rashes.
- know your self better, develop awareness of your emotions - recognise emotions as they arise in a detached way and choose not to respond with an unhelpful behaviour .
- control of emotions - rapidly put an end to unwanted moods or emotions by deciding to simply observe how long they will last.
- control of reactions - react to situations in a more useful manner. Less angry, less hurtful, less selfish, less greedy, calmer.
- develop compassion, feelings of love and care, for all living beings and receive more warmth, friendliness and compassion yourself.