This article is the second part of my forthcoming book, Sit, Breath - Mastering Meditation. I will be releasing the book, free of charge as a series of blog posts throughout 2018 before publishing it in its entirety.
If you missed the previous chapter you can find it here.
Sit, Breathe - A Nuts and Bolts Guide To Mastering Meditation
Chapter 1 - What is meditation?
So how did you feel with last week’s exercise? Relaxed or tense? Calm or agitated? Alert or Drowsy? Light headed or focused? Did you enjoy it, or find it boring or frustrating? There is no right or wrong here. How you felt is how you felt. It’s good just to be curious, aware and see this practice simply as an experiment.
In this session we are going to explore exactly what meditation and there will be a new practice to work on.
But first a story. Like so many traditional meditation stories, it’s set in a monastery somewhere in China in ancient times, but remember, meditation is for everyone, not just monks and other “spiritual” types.
A novice monk was receiving his very first instruction in meditation from the old abbot of the monastery.
“You sit like this,” said the abbot, and demonstrated, “And then you breath like this.”
“Great,” said the eager young monk, “I can do that… and what next?”
“Next?” said the abbot, a little puzzled, “that’s it. There isn’t a what next!”
And that's it. Meditation is sitting and breathing. That is the only instruction in this book: Sit, breathe.
Yet I have had to unpack those two simple words into 10,000. What is more, if you go into a bookstore, or search on Amazon you will find hundreds of thousands, if not millions of words about - sit, breathe.
What is going on?
What does the word meditation mean to you?
The popular conception of meditation
When you ask many people about meditation they will mention things like:
- having a completely blank mind
- something to do with Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism
- experiencing altered states of consciousness.
None of these ideas is quite right, or totally wrong.
In fact, people tend to have a rather idealised view of meditation.
We’ve all seen the pictures: A slim and sensual looking woman sitting crossed legged with her palms open on her knees in a gesture of receptivity. She on a tropical beach, clad in white, her back is straight and there is a look of rapture on her face. Or, it’s that robed monk. Incense is burning in the temple and the old monk’s face seems to speak of a tranquillity that is beyond our ken.
Beautiful images to be sure, but they don’t really get to what meditation is about.
In my experience, the word meditation has two meanings. Let’s look at them.
Meditation as any kind of inner contemplation
In certain circles, the word meditation is bandied around a lot. In the new age, self-development and spiritual scenes people talk about any form of inward contemplation as meditation. So, relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, visualisations… in fact any vaguely “spiritual” activity done with the eyes closed is called meditation.
On the new age scene, there are countless different practices newly created or from diverse traditions, that get lumped together under the meditation label. Some of these practices are beneficial and useful, some are at best pleasant but harmless and others are downright dodgy. There is a real danger of getting chronically meditational indigestion snacking on a bit of this or a bit of that on the new age smorgasbord without any real understanding of what the different practices are supposed to do and how they fit together.
I am a bit of pedant and believe that neither this catch-all definition or the smorgasbord approach is helpful. To me a relaxation exercise is a relaxation exercise, a breathing practice is a breathing practice etc etc. I believe too that if we want to gain real benefits from meditation we do best to stick with one simple time-tested approach. That’s why I wrote this book.
So, for me, there is much more specific meaning to the word meditation. We’ll look at this in the next section.
Meditation as a specific state of mind
According to this view, meditation is not simply a technique, exercise or practice, it is a specific state of mind or way of experiencing the world. This state of mind has been explored and cultivated by various spiritual traditions over many millennia, but it wasn’t invented by those traditions and it doesn’t belong to any one tradition. This state of mind is a capability latent in human consciousness and accessible by anyone willing to learn how to experience it.
What is this state of mind? Here is my definition:
Meditation is a state of mind in which the attention rests single pointedly and directly in present moment experience.
Let’s break this definition down. There are three key parts to it
What do I mean by “rests single pointedly”? I’m sorry, I’ve thrown in a bit of meditational jargon there, but it’s a useful phrase and you might as well learn it now. Single pointed attention is awareness that is focused in a stable way on a single object. Habitually, your attention is in constant movement from one perception or thought to another. In meditation, the mind slows down, lets go of its incessant chatter, and comes to rest. More on this in the next two chapters.
The word directly is important. Habitually, whatever you are experiencing gets filtered through a web of meanings, judgments, ideas and beliefs. Often you are more focused on your conceptions of things rather than the things themselves. In meditative awareness you drop the filter and seek to experience reality directly. In meditation there is no separation between subject and object, perceiver and perceived. This might sound a bit abstruse to you, so we’ll talk more about it later on.
Finally, there is present moment experience. So often we are lost in thought, reminiscing or regretting the past and then fearing or fantasising about the future. Quite simply, we are not here. In meditation we arrive back in what is happening right now in this moment.
As one of my teachers put it. Meditation is sitting and letting things be exactly as they are. We’ll look more in the next chapter at this and why it is beneficial.
It is also useful to speak of meditative practice as well as awareness. Meditative practice is the method you use to get to meditative awareness. Meditative practice is simple (although perhaps not easy!), you focus or attention on one thing until your mind slows down and comes to that single pointed resting state. Since time immemorial, meditators have found that the best “one thing” to focus on is the experience of breathing. Hence, meditation is “Sit, Breath.”
Finally, before I offer you a practice, here is a bit of history. My narrow definition of meditation, comes from the ancient Sanskrit word Dhyana. Dhyana simply means meditation. The word is significant because when the Dhyana went to China around 500 CE it became Chan. When Chan went to Japan it became Zen. When Zen came to the west in the 1960s, it became cool and we’ve all heard of Zen. But it’s all the same word and simply means meditation.
1. Take a brief stock check of how you are at the moment. How does your body feel? What is your mood? What thoughts are uppermost in your mind?
2. Now, just as you did in the previous practice, breath a little deeper and slower. Pay attention to the sensations of breathing in your body.
3. As you breath in think or say with your inner voice, "breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in".
4. As you breath out, think or say with your inner voice, "breathing out I am aware that I am breathing out"
5. Continue in this way for about three to five minutes
6. Now stop and again with no preconceptions about how you ought to feel, take another brief stock check about your body, feelings and thoughts.
7. That’s it. Do it as many times as you remember in the coming week until the next instalment of the Sit, Breath programme.
This article is the first part of my forthcoming book, Sit, Breathe - Mastering Meditation. I will be releasing the book, free of charge as a series of blog posts throughout 2018 before publishing it in its entirety.
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