Many years ago when I first started learning about meditation I had a lot of misconceived notions of what meditation really “was”. Honestly, I didn’t know WHAT to expect when I first started. I just knew that it sounded mysterious and esoteric, and that every “Wise Man” I ever read about engaged in a daily meditation practice.
Back then I fantasized that meditation would lead to “enlightenment”, that it would unlock the meaning of existence and shed light on the mystery of death. So far I’ve had none of those revelations. But what I have learned is much more practical, and you can learn it too.
Meditation has given me a method of harnessing my mind and being able to direct it rather than having it control me. Think of it like this: if you observe your daily actions acutely you may notice that most of the time you are running on autopilot. Your brain is “thinking” but you are not. That is a profound statement if you really exam it. Your brain produces thoughts, but you are not the one producing those thoughts. If you understand this as true then it opens the door to many questions.
If you are not the one producing the majority (or possibly all of your thoughts), then what mechanism does the thinking? And more importantly, if your thoughts are not truly “yours” then is it worthwhile to get attached to any of them? This is the central theme in meditation.
Have you ever been in emotional state, and regretted a decision later while you were in this state? Maybe you were mad, and said something hurtful that you didn’t mean. Perhaps you were excited about a big purchase and spent money that you shouldn’t have. You might have even been lost in thought while driving and gotten into an accident.
All of these are examples of the mind being on auto-pilot and running your life. A meditation practice will help you to recognize when the mind is running away on it’s own so you can make better decisions. By practicing the process of bringing awareness to our breath we find ourselves less often the slaves to our auto-pilot thought process.
One point of special interest to me is learning how to wrestle down the internal negative dialogue that we all share. I’m convinced that a large reason that I, and others, often miss the mark when reaching for our full potential is because of our negative internal dialogue. Everybody I’ve ever spoken to about this has had the same experience. When attempting to grow beyond their comfort zone the little voice in our heads will push back with thoughts like “you’re not good enough to do that”, “you’re too old”, “you’re too young”, and on and on.
If we don’t actually “think” our thoughts, but rather our thoughts are manifesting on their own, then none of this negative self talk is indicative of the truth of who we are.
Meditation can give you a mechanism for noticing when that is going on so you can stop it, ignore it, change it, whatever it takes. Neuro-linguistic programming has methods for helping with this as well.
I’ve read a lot of books on meditation, talked to many people, and read many websites on the topic. For me the best resource I’ve seen is a book called “The Mind Illuminated” by Culadasa John Yates. It’s straight-forward, devoid of any “woo” and clearly outlines the stages that you go through as you progress in your meditation practice.
The author is actually a neurosciencist, and in the book he blends what he knows about the brain with his many decades of experience meditating. There is a lot of great detail in this book, but it’s advice can be boiled down to one statement: keep re-focusing your attention on the breath while staying peripherally aware of your surroundings.
How to Meditate
When you sit down to meditate, find a comfortable place, free of distractions (though ultimately being free of distractions isn’t as important as it may seem initially) and set a timer for the length of time you want your session to be. If you’ve never meditated before I’d recommend starting with 10 or 15 minutes, and working up from there. My goal is to reach an hour of meditating in a session.
He doesn’t suggest using a mantra, instead he recommends that the breath be the object of meditation. When you begin your session, or your “sit” as it’s known in meditation circles, begin with a deep inhalation through the nose, followed by an exhalation through the nose. You’ll be doing all your breathing during your meditation through your nose, as you’ll focus on the sensations of the breath in the nostrils as part of your meditation. Start with counting your first 10 breaths.
After your first 10 breaths simply sit and focus all your attention to the sensation of the breath entering the nose. If your mind wanders simply direct it back to the sensation of the breath. That’s it. Do that over and over. You are training your mind to become ever more aware of when it goes into auto-pilot by gently redirecting it back to the sensation of the breath again and again.
Once the meditation session is over I would suggest just sitting for a few minutes doing nothing. It’s nice to kind of bask in the afterglow of meditation, and I’ve heard that it’s actually beneficial to the practice.
Since the breath is the meditation object you can practice this anywhere. If you are sitting at the doctor’s office you can do a few minutes of this practice. If you find yourself getting emotionally overwhelmed about something, just bring your attention back to your breath. It’s a valuable tool that is always with you and gets stronger the more you use it.
G.I. Gurdjieff had a similar method of learning to re-focus your mind. He suggested that as you go about your day, choose one part of your body to always keep your mind peripherally aware of. For example, choose your pinky, and always keep one part of you mind focused on the pinky. If you’re out talking to someone keep part of your attention on your pinky, if you’re doing dishes keep part of your attention on your pinky. If you find yourself not thinking of your pinky, just redirect your attention to the pinky.
One thing that “The Mind Illuminated” cleared up for me was the wrong idea that meditation is supposed to “take you someplace”. Before reading that book I would sit and meditate expecting to be taken away into a mystical state, hoping to see some sort of auditory or visual hallucination. This is not the focus of meditation (though those things sometimes happen). The main goal of meditation is simply to continue to bring your thoughts back to your breath.
If you need examples of people that meditation has helped, the list is long. Tim Ferris’s book “Tools of Titans” profiles many successful people who meditate as part of their daily routine, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Harris, and Tim Ferris himself, to name just a few. As Ferris says in the introduction: “More than 80% of the interviewees have some form of daily mindfulness or meditation practice”.
A web resource that I have found valuable is the site “Advanced Yoga Practices“. It contains hundreds of posts detailing with many different aspects of meditation. It’s not as easy to navigate as reading “The Mind Illuminated“, but if you take the time to look through the site you’ll find a great deal of valuable information.
So far my meditation practice has lead to some very practical results. My ability to focus is better, I don’t get swept away by emotions as much (though important to note that it doesn’t dull emotion, it just puts you in the driver’s seat), and since starting meditation I have become more productive in all my personal endeavors. It seems to help “unclog” the brain so ideas can flow more freely. I highly recommend that you make meditation part of your daily routine.