… and what meditation actually is
You might want to start a meditation practice. You might be an experienced meditator, but dissatisfied with your practice. Either way, it can be difficult to understand and build a happy relationship with meditation.
I’ve been practicing most of my life, and have spent some 5,000+ hours in meditation, often on silent 10-day retreats. While I’m no expert, I’ve developed a happy and sustainable practice that I’m incredibly grateful to have. In this short article, my aim is to plant a seed, and help you do the same. In my experience, the attitude and approach to meditation is far more important than anything else. But then, why even bother?
Why bother meditating?
The exciting truth is that whether you know it or not, you already meditate! Even more exciting is that fact that you can take it way deeper than you do now. If you take the time to really explore it, you open the door to a vast swathe of human experience – one that can bring tremendous, science backed benefits to your life. There are many aspects to human flourishing, but meditation is a powerful and simple way to change your life in a positive way. Let’s start with the basics – the nature of meditation itself.
So what is meditation?
- Meditation is something you already know.
- Meditation is very simple, but it can go incredibly deep, and building a practice can change your life.
- Meditation is something you do naturally. It’s an innate human capability – the opposite of our inbuilt fight and flight mechanisms. It’s as simple as taking a deep breath, as natural as watching a sunset.
- Meditation arises from our human capacity to relax – to relax incredibly deeply, beyond sleep, all while being highly alert and more alive than ever.
The above might sound contrary to what you’ve heard about meditation. I often hear from people that they “tried meditation, but it seemed too hard”. Or – “it’s not for me – I’m too fidgety” There’s a common misconception that meditation is something requires a lot of willpower, concentration, or the ability to sit cross legged for hours. In fact, meditation is one of the most easy and natural things you can do.
Why does meditation seem hard?
The complications around meditation happen around the ‘on ramps’, the ‘slip roads’, the gateways to the experience. Here we find countless techniques, methods and dogmas. This is not to dismiss meditation techniques – they can be incredibly useful. However, the attachment to techniques can be harmful, and they can in fact limit or inhibit your access to meditation.
Moreover, the attitude towards meditation is critical. Many people approach it like ‘church’. They have to sit right, be right, think the right thoughts (or even worse, no thoughts!), and be pious, perfect beings while they meditate. I can’t stress enough how dangerous and counter-productive this path can be. Imagine if you took this approach to a different activity – like sports, food, or sex. You’d have so little fun in life, and your relationship with that activity would become toxic and unpleasant. Even worse, you’d develop a shadow side where you’d seek the fun that you’d be missing. Just think about all the pious yoga teachers out there getting high this weekend.
Meditation is an opportunity to connect with yourself as you are, not as you might like to be. You can only make real progress with your meditation by connecting with the world directly, as you experience it. What’s more, by being honest and open with yourself about everything you experience, you can build a practice that is as fun as a rave, or a party, or a swim in your favourite lake. The key thing here is accepting everything you experience, embracing it, and using your practice as a chance to explore the full range of things that emerge. What happens when you open yourself to meditation experiences like this?
Real meditation experiences
If you can let go of pious expectations – ideas that only ‘pure’ thoughts can emerge, or no thoughts at all, like you’re sitting in a temple or a church, you can develop a real meditation experience. So, what might happen? Well – almost anything. If you allow yourself to open up and deeply encounter the flood of thoughts and feelings that emerge, you may be surprised by the wealth of experiences that you have. You might go through the full range of human emotions – anger, sadness, pain, heartbreak, love, lust, yearning, passion, excitement, happiness, ecstasy. Anything can and will come up – and it’s your chance to embrace it, to let it move through you, and perhaps find some release. They key thing here is not to try to edit your experience or dismiss whatever comes up – from your ‘to do list’ to a lover. The important thing is to not get attached to any of these experiences or emotions. Accept them, embrace them, hold them lightly, be with them. This will allow you to move through them, and find the deeper meaning of the moment – energised by the life flowing through you.
The secret to building an easy meditation practice
So. What’s the secret? How can you build an easy, sustainable and life affirming meditation practice? You might be surprised to learn that you already know the answer.
Try this short exercise: Forget, for a moment, what you know about meditation. Forget about the techniques, and the rituals, and the monks.
Think instead, for a moment, about your happy place. Where you feel most alive. It’s different for everyone. It might be out in nature, it might be hanging out with your loved one, it might be out dancing, it might be swimming, it might be at home on your sofa with your dog. You might think of it as ‘the zone’ if you’re into sports, or ‘peace and comfort’ if your place is a quiet morning coffee. A place where you are most happy, most in tune, most at one with the world. This place, this feeling, is your easy, natural gateway to meditation.
The secret is that this is all you need. Tune into this, and going deeper becomes as simple as gravity.
if you can keep this state in mind, almost any technique can help you access meditation. Meditation is not something you can do. Meditation does you. Meditation becomes you, you become meditation. This might sound esoteric, but it really is incredibly simple. the more that you try to do it, the more distant meditation becomes.
The dangers of meditation techniques
The techniques of meditation can be useful, but they can also be a barrier. If in your mind, you are using a technique to “get somewhere”, you will find the experience frustrating and unfulfilling. If on the other hand, you can use a meditation technique lightly, and think of it only as something to be used and discarded – then it can be useful, for a moment, to help focus your mind. In fact, it can be useful to think of the technique as a ‘distraction’ – something to keep your conscious mind busy, giving space for meditation itself to actually emerge.
So, how to begin?
How to get started with meditation
1. Get comfy
Firstly, you need somewhere comfortable to practice. Don’t worry about sitting on the floor, you just need a comfortable chair, or you could even lie down – though this can make it more likely that you’ll fall asleep!
2. Check in
It’s important to take a moment to listen to yourself, and see how you are doing. Checking in like this gives you a moment to reflect, to be kind to yourself, and to assess your emotional and physical state. It’s a chance to be kind to yourself, and with knowledge, the state that you’re in. And without this stage, meditation can become more of a drill, and less of a chance to really connect with yourself.
3. Try a ‘meditation technique’
At this stage, it might be useful to use a “meditation technique”. A simple meditation technique can be useful to give your busy mind something to do, while waiting for meditation to actually happen. It’s best to think of it this way, because otherwise you can get hung up on not doing the “technique” right. Your ability to perform a technique “correctly“ is unimportant, and focusing on it will only antagonise you. This is the opposite of what we want here, which is a deep relaxation. So it’s important to treat techniques and their “performance” lightly. True meditation is never a performance – it’s an encounter with the reality of your experience, deeply lived. If you noticed that you are becoming distracted by thoughts, don’t try to let go of them. just notice them, and hold them lightly. The aim here again, is relaxation and acceptance.
I won’t go into details on techniques here, but suffice to say there are many. Explore! Some simple things to get started:
- Follow your breath (just watch it rise and fall, or try any meditation app near you)
- Focus on sensations in the body. Those little tingles in your extremities? Start with those.
- Visual focus – you might gaze at a candle, a light, a mandala, an object.
- Sound – mantra, chanting, or music.
- The heart – Focus on a loved one, then extend that love to yourself, your friends, family, colleagues, strangers, and finally the whole world.
The actual technique used doesn’t matter much – the trick is to find what works for you right now. Try a few! Moreover – it’s a good idea not to get stuck using any one technique, as this will build a rigidity in your attitude to meditation. If you learnt a ‘transcendental meditation’ mantra 10 years ago and have used it ever since, now might be a good time to try something different!
Tune into a practice you love, for a while. It’s okay to change techniques and explore.
Note also that a meditation technique is not necessary. It’s just an aid to a natural process – one that you have experienced many times.
4. Letting go of techniques
As you develop into a meditation, there is a progress from focusing on many things (waking life, thoughts, memories, plans), to focusing on just one thing (your “technique”), to focusing on no thing. No thing is actually the aim here. It’s a total absorption into the moment, experiencing and accepting everything as it is.
The practice naturally moves from ‘doing’ to just ‘being’. The trick is to learn to ‘do less’, as you deepen your experience and let go of whatever technique you’re using in the session.
5. The cycle
Meditation might be something that comes and goes during your session. You might find yourself deeply absorbed, or wondering in thoughts, or distracted by the world around you. This is all completely natural and to be expected. What you might find is sometimes noticing this, and coming back to an absorption in the moment. Your technique might be helpful here, and you may find you bounce in and out of it. Meditation tends to move in waves or cycles, so roll with them.
Whenever you notice the opportunity, remind yourself to do less, and deepen your direct experience of life as it is.
With practice, this gets easier. The practice is the key, and building a daily habit is essential to growing in meditation. Your practice can be short – in fact, it is more useful to do two short meditations every day than one long. But practice is the key. In some ways, meditation is a skill much like any other. They difference here though is that to find your way to a deep meditation, you need to learn how to do less, not more.
Meditation apps can help here as you can get them to nag you and build consecutive days of practice. Alternatively, any habit forming app can help. I’ve recently gotten into using Streaks app (iOS) and found it really useful. This similar app for Android looks good.
Building a relationship with teachers, coaches, or fellow travellers on the path is incredibly helpful in sustaining your journey. Seek out people online and especially ‘in real life’ to talk about your experiences and practice with. Treat gurus with scepticism, even if they dress nice and look the part. Take what you find useful from traditions and discard the rest. Build relationships around meditation wherever you can.
8. Meditation is not the answer to all your problems
There are many factors in human happiness and flourishing. Meditation is an important one, but only one factor amongst many others – exercise, relationships, family, and meaningful work are all equally important. It’s important to keep this in mind when juggling your priorities.
Meditation is an innate human capability – the opposite of our inbuilt fight and flight mechanisms. Your attitude towards meditation is the key thing in developing a healthy relationship with it. It’s important to accept and embrace everything your experience during your meditation. If you treat it like ‘church’, with only pure thoughts allowed, you’ll always need to look elsewhere for your fun and ‘real life’. Anything can come up, and your task is to accept and embrace it. Meditation techniques are like ‘slip roads’ to the highway of actual meditation. They’re to be held lightly and explored playfully. You will cycle through many experiences, and with practice you will reach states of absorption where there’s no need to use a ‘technique’ and focus on any one thing. Finally, regular practice is the key thing, and friends on the path are essential.
Is your meditation worthwhile?
The real test: Is meditation making you a happier person, with better relationships in your daily life? If not, then something’s wrong. It might be time to step back a little from your practice and reassess your approach, or focus more on other things for a while. Meditation should be an asset to your life – if it isn’t, change your approach or give it a break.
Get in touch
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article. I’m keen to help others grow and develop their meditation practice, so your feedback really counts. Is anything confusing? Can I make my points more clearly? I’m currently offering meditation coaching to anyone, for free – so do drop me a line if you would like help developing a practice that’s right for you.
- Meditation made easy – Lorin Roche. Lorin is a legend and his work is much of the inspiration for this article! I follow his work closely – you can listen to my interview with him here
- Natural Meditation – Dean Sluyter. Dean spells everything out so simply. He disarms dogma and teaches in a concise, direct way.
- Altered Traits – Daniel Goleman, Richard J Davidson. A fascinating tour of the latest scientific insights into meditation.