If you are reading this article, it’s likely that you have already started meditating or you are considering doing so and are curious to learn more about meditation and/or deepen your knowledge around it. In either case, welcome to the world of meditation!
So, What Is Meditation Anyway?
Is it a path to peace and calmness? A way to connect with divine energy, to destroy or tame the ego, or perhaps a path to a deeper self-connection and self-discovery? Or is it simply a stress-reduction technique, which improves your sleep?
The answer to all these questions is yes but like most answers to profound questions, coming to a conclusion too quickly is a bad idea. The most important questions can only be answered in an intimate and nonconceptual way. As you keep reading this article, you will find some suggested ideas, which you might want to consider, and yet you will discover your answer for yourself.
My favorite, shortest and simplest description of meditation is given by Susan Piver, a meditation practitioner, teacher and author. In her book, Start here now, Susan defines meditation as a simple substitution.
All we do when we meditate is placing our focus on an object other than our discursive thoughts. What do we mean by discursive thoughts?
Imagine, for example, that you are meditating…
You start thinking about a friend of yours who went to Hawaii and they were telling you about a restaurant on the beach where they had the most amazing meal. You then start thinking about how you’d like to go to Hawaii too and you do a mental check as to when you can actually take a vacation from work.
Thinking about work takes you back to the office and you remember that you have to complete a task for tomorrow and in order to do so you need to speak with one of your co-workers. As you recall their name, you remember your aunt who has the same name and how you haven’t spoken with her in a while, so you decide that you’ll give her a call. That reminds you of a friend who was supposed to call you yesterday and they didn’t, so you start thinking about that too.
So, there you are trying to meditate and your mind starts thinking about all these related and unrelated thoughts, and it just goes on and on. Your thoughts start cascading endlessly and they become the primary focus of your attention. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with those thoughts. They are actually quite normal. Some of the thoughts are uncomfortable and some of them are completely brilliant. Most, however, are pretty mundane. When people catch themselves thinking while meditating, they get frustrated and angry at themselves, they judge themselves and they conclude that they’ll never be able to learn how to meditate.
Guess what – thinking during meditation is actually happening to seasoned meditators too. The truth is that there’s no need to stop these thoughts. In meditation rather than allowing your attention to be totally absorbed by your thoughts, you purposely place it elsewhere, you place your attention on an object different than your thoughts. By doing so, we encourage mind and body to be in the same place at the same time which is extremely powerful. Meditation teachers call this synchronizing mind and body.
Quite often your mind and body are not synchronized at all. Your body lies down to sleep, but your mind goes back to the office, your mind wants to finally write that novel, but your body starts cleaning out closets. Your body is walking on the boulevards of Paris, but your mind is dreaming of swimming in Maui, and so on, and so on.
All this is very exhausting. The splitting of mind and body can be at the root of the stress and fatigue many of us battle continuously. When mind and body are synchronized, we are in the present. In fact, this is all that is meant by presence.
When we are present, interestingly we relax. We enter a state of absorption. We are right here right now and that feels powerful and real, and by relax I don’t mean spaced out, I mean to be with. To be fully in the present moment.
What Can You Use As an Object of Your Meditation?
In some practices that object is an image. You gaze at it or you visualize it in your mind’s eye and when your attention is hijacked by thoughts, you gently bring it back to the image/visualization.
In other practices that object is a sound or a mantra that people say audibly or silently, and when your mind wanders, you gently bring it back to the sound or sense of the mantra.
Many meditation practices use the breath as the focal point or object of attention. Using the breath is quite convenient because our breath is with us at any time. More so, we can’t breathe in the past or in the future. The breath is always happening in the present moment and as such, it always takes us back to the present moment whenever we start wandering in our memories or we start daydreaming about our future. Taking a deep conscious and mindful breath can make you grounded and centered regardless of the situation you find yourself in.
Breathing is extremely important when you meditate because it is proven to affect our cognition and focus. What is more, “breathing control therapy is now wildly used in dealing with depression, PTSD, insomnia, and other relevant mental disorders. It is also applied as an adjuvant treatment for patients with physical disorders, including stroke and cancer.” (Ma et al. 2017)
After speaking about what meditation is, let’s briefly mention what meditation is not.
Meditation is not a religion. It has nothing to do with adopting foreign believes or figuring out whether God, Gods or Goddesses exist or do not exist. All you do in meditation is sitting down and breathing and remembering to be non-judgemental and compassionate with yourself when your mind wanders, and when that happens, remember to bring it back gently to the here and now.