Sept. 14, 2014
What is meditation?
There is a lot of mystery and mysticism associated with meditation. Buddhist, Taoist, Yogis, Gurus, mystics, New Age people. They all seem to have a lot of pomp and circumstance surrounding them. Special cloths, special diets, chanting, singing, dancing, incense, bells and singing bowls. The list goes on and on.
They have rules about how to meditate. Sit this way or that way. Posture this way or that way. Chin up or chin down. Focus your mind or let it wonder. There are certain “levels” one must attain before moving onto deeper levels, and only with approval from your master.
With all of the rules and fluff, it is amazing anyone figures out what meditation really is and how to do it. Some Buddhist monks never reach meditative states beyond the high level experiences. They are carrying too much of a load in rules, traditions and ancient cultures. They teach that one should not cling yet they cling to their traditions, ancient texts and masters.
I’m a very technical minded person. If you give me a diagram and a set of equations, I’ll get it. I have spent years reading material about meditation but rarely did I find anything that laid out in plain terms what meditation really is. Far too much of the material is cloaked in metaphor, mysticism and poetry. They never straight up describe what exactly is going on.
There are two books that really helped me “get it”:
Buddhism without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening , by Stephen Batchelor (April 14, 1997)
This book appealed to my skeptical side. I don’t buy into anything presented as supernatural. It helps lay down how you don’t need to be a mystic to see that there are some universal truths that resonate with humans at a deep level. “Have compassion for everyone. Help those who are in need.” are some examples of what I’m talking about.
Humans are born with an inherent understanding of compassion and a desire to help those in need. We don’t need a deity to tell us this through ancient writings found in a cave.
This book also has some excellent instructions on how to meditate. The rules are few and flexible. The book is soothing to read and draws the reader in. It provides a skeptic or technically minded person with a basic spiritual sense without depending on the supernatural.
Meditation For Beginners – A 22 Day Course – Vern Lovic
This book is meditation distilled down to its most simple components. No nonsense and straight to the point. It confirmed to me what I was feeling but couldn’t quite nail down: There is no mystery to meditation. If you do x, y and z you will be very successful at meditation. There are almost no rules. Throughout the book the author would frequently tell the reader not to worry to much about doing it exactly so. Just find what works for you. There were only two hard and fast rules:
– Keep your mind completely focused on your breath as you inhale and exhale. Intently focus on your breath. Experience the sensation of breathing.
– If you notice your mind wonder, bring it back to focus on your breath.
If you want to meditate you must first learn to focus your mind. Begin with a simple exercise:
- Get comfortable. It doesn’t matter how you do this. Sit in a chair, sit on a cushion or a meditation bench. If your hips are flexible, do the half or full lotus sitting on the floor. It doesn’t matter. Just get comfortable so you can relax.
- Close your eyes, take a few slow deep breaths and allow your body and mind to relax. When you are first learning meditation this can be difficult as the mind tends to remain active thinking about this or that. You might be angry about something. You might be anxious about something and your mind just keeps running through thought after thought. Sometimes the mind will fixate on a memory or some other matter and run in circles making you even more angry or anxious as the thought reinforces itself. You will even find yourself thinking about meditating and what you should be doing. The greatest challenge is to just let go.
- Turn your attention and focus to the fact that you are breathing. Don’t try to change or control how you are breathing. The human brain contains a region aptly called the Respiratory Center. This region of the brain ensures we are breathing even when unconscious. So don’t worry about how you are breathing. Just allow it to happen however it happens. Your brain knows how to ensure you have enough oxygen.
- With all of your focus and attention, notice the sensations of breathing. The sensation of air entering your nose or mouth. The sensation of the air entering your lungs. The feeling of your chest and abdomen raising and falling.
- Now comes your next great challenge in meditation: Keep your entire focus on your breathing through an entire inhale and exhale. Feel the sensation of breathing and stay focused on this sensation through the entire course of an inhale, a brief pause, and then the exhale.
Most people will find that their mind will wonder during this first breath. Within one second of starting to focus, the mind has already wondered off to wherever. If your mind wondered, don’t worry about it. Recognize that your mind has wondered and simply let go of the thought and the thought will vanish on its own. Do not cling to the thought or the matter of the thought; allow the thought to vanish as you turn your focus back to the breath. At first this can be a surprisingly difficult thing to do.
Some people become frustrated and berate their self with thoughts of disappoint. “Why can’t I do this simple thing?”
Part of meditation is forgiving yourself and having compassion for yourself. Let go of the judgement of yourself. Let go of the frustration. Just be in the present moment with no opinions or judgement.
Now try again. Place your entire focus on your breath and stay focused on the sensation of breathing. Some people find it useful to focus on one part of the body involved in breathing. Focus on the end of your nose and experience all of the sensations of the air entering and exiting. Some people prefer to focus on the rising and falling of the chest or belly. Just find that one point on the body where you can direct all of your focus and attention.
Keep trying this over and over. Eventually you will get through an entire breath, inhale and exhale without your mind wondering the least bit. For that moment your entire conscious experience will be nothing but the experience of the breath.
This can take many sessions of meditation to master. Be patient with yourself. Forgive yourself when you fail. Have compassion for yourself in your failing. Let go of the judgement of yourself.
Is that it? Is that meditation?
Yes. That’s it. At this point one could continue to practice meditation without further guidance.
From this point on your only goal is to gradually increasing the number of breaths one can stay focused on before the mind wonders.
With that said, I will continue to add more content to this page as I feel inspired to do so. There are different areas of meditation theory I would like to cover, such as the concept of the 9 Jhanas, or levels of meditation. This is something that comes from Buddhism, so there is some mysticism that I’ll have to dig through to get at the core of what the levels are.