Mention the word meditation to a beginner, and almost always the response is the same “Oh I can’t meditate, I have too many thoughts!” In my mind, this is no different from someone saying that they cannot do yoga because they cannot, say, touch their toes. We know, don’t we, that with regular practice, a person who couldn’t touch his toes will eventually place his palms on the floor with ease? Then why the fear of meditation if there are too many thoughts? The whole practice is to help the mind calm down!
Many guided meditations and other forms of concentration are not really meditation because all they help you do is visualise something nice, or give the mind something to focus on – hence keeping it too preoccupied to engage in the disturbing thoughts that usually plague you. Such activities create a scenario of escape, where you can have a difficult day, and escape it all every evening with a wonderful ‘meditation’. Meditation is not escape – it is the act of coming face to face with reality, and eventually, making peace with it. It is something that can, and ideally should, be practiced in every moment, waking or sleeping.
Having said that, what is meditation then? Meditation is the state of witnessing everything there is – the thoughts, the emotions, the mind, the body. One can witness either one or all of these, depending on the level of practice. Here are a few ways to start meditating.
The Easiest: Ana Pana Sati
The easiest way to meditate is to simply watch the breath. Do not alter your breathing, merely watch it, as it enters and leaves your body. If you are the sort of person who tends to be creative but poor at execution, with a tendency for absent-mindedness, watch your breath in your belly – focus your attention on the way your belly rises and falls as you breathe. If you tend to be very practical and efficient, often frustrated about the inefficiency of everyone around you, meditating on the movement of air in your nostrils or the nasal passage is a good idea. This is taught as a precursor to Vipassana meditation, and it is a good idea to graduate to Vipassana once you are very comfortable with this method.
Vipassana takes the witnessing much deeper than ana pana sati. One observes the sensations in the various parts one’s body, one part at a time. One can start, for example, from the head, observing the sensations on top of the head, moving to the eyes, face, and so on, all the way to the feet, or the other way around. Some of the things to watch out for are the sensations of passing breeze, the texture of the cloth touching your skin, any aches and pains, tingling or warmth. One might feel much more, ofcourse, and these are just pointers to begin with.
One of my favourite methods is the way Eckhart Tolle asks us to be present. Become aware of the space around you. Become aware of the silence in the midst of the noise. Observe the spaces between the words, as you read. Or the gaps between your breaths. Or if you can, you could even just witness the stillness within your own body. Let this space, this silence, silence you. And rest in that silence.
We’ve talked about watching the breath, the body and the space around us. Another simple thing to do is just watch the mind. Simply witness the thoughts coming and going. Do not encourage the thoughts by thinking them, but merely acknowledge their existence and let them pass. Some thoughts stay longer, some go quickly. Sometimes we are witnessing merely thoughts and at other times we may need to take a step back and witness strong emotions. Always remember that you are not your thoughts, opinions or feelings – these things do not define you. Sooner or later, you will find yourself thinking, believing or feeling the exact opposite of the things that pass through you. These are transient and have nothing to do with your true nature.
Staying in the Heart
There are times when thoughts don’t seem to release their grip on us. When it is impossible to stop thinking, it may be a good idea to give the mind a little to think about. Imagine the energies in the heart radiating outwards. Imagine that these energies expand as you breathe in, and slightly deflate as you breathe out. Keep your focus in your heart, as if that is where you were located in the body. This process is especially helpful when you are being swept away by strong emotions. Take a few minutes and pratice this for some time to help center yourself.
Some things to bear in Mind:
Beware the Distractions:
When one initially starts meditating, the mind is uncomfortable. This results in trivial distractions, like an itch on the nose, for instance. One tends to want to touch or rub the face or hands on some pretext or the other. It is important to remember that these are just tricks of the mind. Be aware and watch the desire, no matter how intense it is.
It is important to keep the body as still as possible, as the body starts to heal itself during meditation. Energies start moving in certain directions, and moving the body often disrupts this flow. It is best to start with a comfortable pose, and try not to move for the entire duration of meditation. Ofcourse, this does not mean we do not move at all, even in the face of bad knees or backs. If there is a real need to move, move with awareness, slowly, and witnessing the feelings in the body as it moves.
Remember that Thoughts Come and Go:
It is the nature of the mind to think. Once we start observing the mind, we start learning much more about how it functions and slowly learn to ignore it’s antics. When thoughts come, gently push them aside and bring your attention back. Do not resist them. When thoughts or feelings are too intense, let them be, merely observe them. Resisting thoughts or feelings only intensifies the problem.
Think of the mind as the screensaver of a computer. Some days you have a quiet screensaver – clear blue skies and one daisy floating by every once in a while. On other days, it is an aquarium crazy with activity, fish swimming by in a frenzy and jelly fish popping up here and there. Irrespective of which screensaver it is, remember that it is still just a screensaver. It is not who you are.
Lastly… Meditation is not a ‘doing’, it is ‘being’. It is a way of life, something that is to be practiced in every moment, whether waking or sleeping. However, the practice of meditation itself when done right, can help your moment-to-moment meditation go deeper. Both are essential if you really wish to reach a balance in your life, and equanimity in all situations.