Meditation is getting to know oneself, beyond any version that the mind may project. What we perceive with the five senses is one version of reality. Microscopes and telescopes increase our reach into physical reality, showing us another flavor of material existence, but the inner realm is beyond the reach of the senses or any physical instrument. We perceive the mind, thoughts, feelings, and experiences, not through our eyes but directly through the subtle tool of awareness. Meditation enhances our understanding of ourselves through the expansion of awareness.
Meditation helps quiet the mind, which is the most superficial layer of our inner subjectivity; the talkative mind is a significant source of our restlessness and miseries. The deeper we go within ourselves, the more bliss we uncover. Like a natural spring that continually brings fresh water from deep under the earth, meditation brings up from within ourselves what we are searching for in the external world, lasting happiness. According to Om Swami, a monk who lives in the Himalayas, the greatest reward of right meditation is a state of no provocation. He says, “People, their responses, your thoughts, reactions, emotions, and desires—none of it will be able to provoke you.”
How should we approach Meditation?
“Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.” Thich Nhat Hanh
A common mistake is turning meditation and its byproducts such as peace and bliss into goals. True inner reflection does not lend itself to goals and ambitions. In the worldly context, plans come into play as we seek wealth, pleasure, and happiness—the three deep-seated motivations that drive us.
Goalsetting has its benefits; it helps us direct our energies in a specific direction. This works for climbing up the corporate ladder or attaining material success. However, meditation is about uncovering the true nature of the one setting the goals, harboring ambitions, hopes, and dreams. This does not mean that we cannot be successful in our worldly pursuits when we embark on the journey of inner discovery. Meditation can help us uncover hidden talents, and we may bring forth new ideas hiding under the chatter on the surface of the mind.
We cannot approach our subjective interiority through the five senses. They are directed outwards like the mind’s arms and legs. Sensory impressions that result in real and tangible experiences contribute to the foundations of the mind. On the inner journey, however, these sensory organs become impediments. Sensations, sights, sounds, smells can make it hard for us to focus inwards.
Hurdles on the path and how to overcome them
It is hard not to carry expectations when we embark on the journey of meditation. We treat it as we do any worldly transaction where we may ask, what is in it for me? It is hard to motivate ourselves to work without the promise of a tangible return in the form of wealth, pleasure, or happiness. Such expectations are deeply ingrained in the mind. Of course, nobody can get rich—amassing money in the traditional sense—by sitting in meditation for hours each day. Still, we expect a reward for our efforts, which could take the form of a mystical experience that we cannot otherwise acquire.
When we meditate, at least initially, we may not experience the pleasure or happiness that we may be seeking. Expectations worsen our suffering. We silently calculate whether rewards, if any, are in proportion to our efforts. When we harbor expectations, the mind won’t leave us alone. It will bring in thoughts and ideas that either support or refute what we expect. The tension in the mind builds when this inner dialogue persists. We then burst open the sensory gates to take our attention away from the brewing pressure inside. Coupled with this, the body that may be unaccustomed to remaining still begins to ache, adding urgency to end our meditation practice.
Meditation is an exploration into the unknown. It is like trying to find someone you have never heard of and have never met. Having the correct attitude—that of an innocent explorer—is critical in meditation. This comes when we let go of any expectations or preconditions. They are based on what we already know.
According to Om Swami, a Himalayan monk, “Meditation is not about reaching somewhere, it is not about improving according to societal definitions and beliefs. Meditation is about knowing and feeling that you are complete, perfect, and whole.”
When we harbor a notion that we are already complete, perfect, and whole, it has the immediate effect of throwing out all expectations, goals, and aspirations. However, we must be careful not to encapsulate completeness, perfection, and wholeness into just another thought but turn these qualities into an actual moment to moment experience that never leaves us. Like precious diamonds hiding underground that don’t advertise their presence, our inner nature lies hidden, and it is left to us to uncover it through correct meditation.
The three foundational elements of meditation
Like a tall building with a proportionately deep foundation, success in meditation requires a solid base. No one is a born meditator, but everyone has what it takes to become an adept. Regardless of the technique or path we choose, we all have the same three essential elements—the body, the mind, and the breath, which form the base of any meditational practice. How we tune and harmonize the mind, body, and breath has a significant impact, and when the three are in sync work in unison, meditation automatically happens. There is a big difference in the sound produced when a concert violinist plays versus someone playing that same instrument for the first time. As we hone our practice, we will begin to enjoy the music of meditation, deep inner silence.
When we plant a seed, we cannot expect a fragrant flower the next day. The seed first has to sprout, grow roots, and establish sustenance for the plant. After this, a tender stem emerges from the ground. As it grows, leaves emerge, and after the plant matures, flowers begin to bud and blossom. Meditation is like a fragrant flower. It grows out of the same mind, which may have once played host to negativity and pettiness. But just as we can till and prepare a field, we can work with the mind as we experience it at this moment and turn it into a fertile ground from where we easily slip into meditation. True meditation is not an effort. It comes effortlessly. However, to get to the point of effortless meditation, we will have to put in enormous efforts working on the body, mind, and breath, individually and together.
It is essential to take care of the body and keep it in good health to succeed in meditation. The body is the most precious object in our possession. A gift from existence and a living temple of life, the body, is incredibly complex. In the brain alone, over 100,000 chemical reactions occur each second. Luckily for us, most of the bodily processes, especially the vital ones such as blood circulation, happens automatically without our intervention. There is very little expected of us compared to what transpires behind the scenes in the cells and organs. However, we take it for granted and use and abuse the body as we please. Health is like the air we pump into the tires of a car. If there is no air, the vehicle cannot travel very far, and it goes at a slow pace. When there is an optimal amount of air, the ride is smooth and comfortable. When we sit in a car, we don’t think about the tires as long as we don’t feel the road.
Similarly, when we are in a state of optimal health, the body less likely to disturb us while we meditate. It feels weightless, just as a musician does not feel a violin’s weight in his or her arms while playing that instrument. But when disease sets in the body, it draws our attention via the mechanism of pain or discomfort. We cannot fool the body. It lets us know when we are misusing it. For example, when we overload the digestive tract by eating indiscriminately or not exercising control, we experience uneasiness in our abdomen.
Role of diet
Our health is primarily determined by the food we eat and the mental attitude we maintain while eating. Regardless of the names we give to our food preparations, the body only recognizes the molecular signatures of the three necessary building blocks—proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. About 20% of the body is made of protein. Ideal body fat is 15% for men and 25% for women. Dietary guidelines suggest that about 15-25% of our daily caloric intake should come from protein, 20-35% from fats, and 45-65% from carbohydrates. If we keep these proportions in mind we plan and cook our meals, we will be providing the body what it needs to grow, repair, and rebuild cells and tissues.
Besides the composition of food, the timing of our meals, and the gap we leave between meals, is also essential. Imagine someone dropping a stack of papers on your desk and demanding that you instantly sort and collate the documents. This is what we do to our bodies. Barely after one meal has finished, we begin to snack and put more food in, forgetting that the digestive process is slow and methodical. By going several hours between meals, the body will not starve. When we keep the stomach light, the body will leave us undisturbed when we sit down to meditate.
The way the human body turns food on our plate into living cells is a magical process. Some cultures honor this process through elaborate rituals. We need not turn every meal into something on the lines of a Japanese tea ceremony, but taking a few moments before eating to look at and appreciate the source of that nourishment, which is nature, will fill us with a sense of gratitude. Eating has turned into an automatic behavior, fueled by fast foods, junk foods, and ready to eat meals. A brief pause before eating, thinking about, and thanking all the hands that worked to bring food to our table will help break this unconscious automaticity.
When we turn the mind positive and receptive towards the food we eat, it will ease the body’s burden. Relaxation of the mind and body go hand in hand with good digestion. By practicing mindfulness while eating—being grateful as we chew, observing the various sensations that emerge from the palate—we eat less. Thoroughly chewing food before swallowing aids in the digestion of our meal. This, in turn, will help us lose weight. In this manner, each meal can turn into meditation by practicing awareness while eating.
The spine is like the trunk of a tree. It is the main conduit for the flow of information from the brain to the body. There is an ancient yogic saying —You are as young and healthy as your spine is supple and strong. It is impossible to straighten the trunk of a fully grown tree, but taking corrective action while the tree is still a small plant, such as tying the trunk to a stick, will help it remain straight as it grows. Unless the spine is fused and rigid, there is room to work on our posture.
A good meditator learns to master the right posture, which involves is keeping the back straight. It is not uncommon for people to struggle with their backs while trying to meditate. If we learn to be conscious about a straight back whenever we are sitting, whether, at the dining table or work, in time, it will become easy and natural when we sit down for meditation.
Keeping our backs straight when sitting, either in the traditional cross-legged meditative posture or on a chair, helps the body align itself so that the center of gravity moves downwards towards the base of support. However, if we sit with a curved back, the weight of the head and the upper body shifts the center of gravity upwards, and we begin to tilt forwards. When the body is off-balance, it lets us know. Opposing muscle groups fight each other as we attempt to straighten our back, and we begin to feel pain and discomfort. When pain sets in, it becomes difficult to ignore and will interfere with meditation.
When we are sitting, the line of gravity passes through the base of support. The key to balancing the body is getting as much of it along the line of gravity. We can achieve this with a straight back. Sitting cross-legged enlarges the base of support, makes us bottom-heavy and provides the best support for meditation.
“To understand the immeasurable, the mind must be extraordinarily quiet, still.” Jiddu Krishnamurti.
The mind is like a transparent glass snow globe filled with water and tiny white particles resembling snowflakes. When the snow globe is left untouched, the particles settle, and the water becomes clear. But when it is shaken, the particles that have settled at the bottom churn in the liquid giving the appearance of a snowstorm. The globe then becomes nearly opaque. Similarly, through watching the mind and leaving it alone, thoughts will settle, revealing the transparent lens like quality of the mind. When we identify with our thoughts, we begin to struggle to hold onto or reject thoughts. As a consequence, the mind becomes agitated, and thoughts cloud the mind space.
The art of meditation lies in allowing the mind to settle on its own. This brings inner calmness. When we are calm under all circumstances, it is a signal that we have made significant progress on our inner journey. Serenity is the product of attention and concentration during meditation. When the mind is restless, our attention span is brief, and we cannot concentrate on any one thing for more than a few seconds.
It is no secret that the mind is challenging to master. In the beginning, the mind will seem like an insurmountable obstacle. Most people give up meditation at this stage. It is like swimming upstream against a strong current. It is easier to let the mind take us along with its trains of thought than expend energy staying alert, as we need to do in meditation.
Meditation and mind mastery does not involve fighting the mind. It is not a conquest. It is essential to remember that you are not your mind or thoughts, emotions, and feelings. They are like clouds that come and go. Our true nature is like the sky, which plays host to countless clouds, but none can leave a mark. For meditation to be successful, we will have to work alongside the mind, preferably leaving it as is without disturbing it, while we silent look for an opening to go deeper into our being.
Observing the mind from a distance teaches us more about ourselves than any book can reveal. Steve Jobs said this about watching the mind, “If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things – that’s when your intuition starts to blossom, and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before.”
Habit makes our attention flow along grooves dictated by the mind. However, we have the unique ability to step aside and become a watcher of the mind. When we realize that we can observe the mind from a distance, we begin to break the bonds than enslave us to the mind and its fickle nature. Watching the mind from afar is the birth of awareness. As awareness expands, we go deeper into our being.
The scope of the mind is infinite, and there is no universal method for mind mastery. The compulsions, motivations, negativities, hopes, dreams, and passions are unique and different for each individual. No two are alike. The mind comes to us as a blank slate when we are born. As we go through life accumulating various experiences, it expands. We cannot perceive the entirety of the mind. What we know as the mind is only a tiny slice that we call the conscious mind, which is like a movie screen on which thoughts and experiences come and go. The conscious mind is a transit zone between the external world and an infinitely bigger space called the subconscious mind, which stores every thought and experience.
Meditation helps manage and slow down mental traffic. When we incorporate awareness of the mind as if a watcher from a distance, it adds more power to our meditation. Imagine standing in the middle of a busy intersection with traffic coming at you from all directions. You cannot relax even for a moment. We will be in a heightened state of alertness out of fear of being run over. Anxiety activates the nervous system, and the flight response kicks in. Similarly, when we are active participants in the mind and identified with thoughts and experiences, it is like standing in the middle of a busy road. As we fight with, negotiate through a minefield of thoughts, we risk a full-blown stress response. We fight back by pushing aside thoughts we dislike while holding onto ideas that resonate with our desires and aspirations.
In contrast, imagine sitting outdoors on a pleasant Saturday afternoon at a sidewalk cafe watching the same traffic intersection from a distance. The fear of being run over is no longer present; it becomes easy to relax. The portion of the nervous system responsible for relaxation, rest, and repair begins to function. When we become a watcher of the mind, unconcerned with thoughts and not expressing likes or dislikes, our whole being starts to relax. Calmness takes over, banishing stress from our system.
When we are calm, it is easier to concentrate. As we bring our attention to one point, we begin to train the mind’s energies to move in that direction. The object of concentration could be a sound, a visual, or a symbol. When the mind is not moving in many directions simultaneously, its turbulence will lessen, and eventually, calmness becomes part of our nature. In the beginning, it may be challenging to concentrate and focus our attention, but like any endeavor, with persistence, patience, and effort, we will eventually succeed.
Although the object of concentration could be anything, it is best to keep it consistent and pick a sound, object, visual, or symbol we find appealing. This will help us retain our focus and attention. Building concentration and lengthening attention span is like going to the gym. We can’t expect to tone and build muscles by lifting a dumbbell once. It takes regularity and repetition before we can begin to see results. Similarly, concentration and attention are like the dumbbells and barbells of the ‘mental gym.’ Just as we start with small, easy to handle weights before lifting heavy weights, it is better to start by working in small increments when building our attention span and concentration.
Rather than keep the practice open-ended, setting a timer for five or ten minutes helps us get deeper into the practice. The mind dislikes meditation. But when we suggest to the mind that it is only for a short duration, it is more likely to cooperate. Without the burden of reminding us to end the practice, the mind might even take a break and leave us alone while we meditate. In an open-ended approach where there is no defined time limit, one part of the mind will be on the clock while we are focusing on the object of meditation. This will disturb our concentration. Just like at the gym where we do eight to ten reps times three to five sets, we can practice meditation in short bursts of five to ten minutes, giving ourselves a little break in between each session. The quality of meditation is more important than the duration.
Besides the mind and the body, the breath is the third limb on the path of self-mastery through meditation. It is well established that there is a link between the mind and the breath. When we gain conscious control over one, the other naturally follows. Rather than separate the two, it is easier to simultaneously work on both the mind and the breath. Harboring negative emotions such as anger and frustration, changes our breathing pattern. It becomes shallow, coarse, and more rapid in frequency. In contrast, when we entertain positive feelings such as happiness and contentment, our breathing becomes softer, more subtle, and we begin to take slow and deep breaths.
We can experience this for ourselves by doing the following experiment. Stand in front of a mirror and recall a situation or a person that made you angry or frustrated. Now tense the facial muscles and begin to frown. While doing this, take a deep breath. You may notice that the breath is coarse, it is hard to take a full deep breath, and it is hard to involve the diaphragm in our breathing. Relax for a few minutes and recall a situation or an experience that brought you happiness. Smiling will become easy and natural, and when you take a deep breath, you may notice that the breath is softer, it is easier to take a full breath, and the diaphragm comes into play. It contracts and moves downwards, allowing more air to enter the lungs.
In practice, it may be easier to alternate between watching the mind and watching the breath. If one does only one type of activity, we risk losing our alertness. A timer with a soft chime can help our practice, especially when we alternate between observing the mind and the breath. In the first round, we can start by watching the mind, followed by the breath, and the second could be done in reverse. This technique will help us learn how to consciously and at will, move our attention and focus from one object to another while also training ourselves to hold our concentration.
We can also combine focusing on the mind and the breath simultaneously using visualization to link positive feelings and emotions to our incoming and outgoing breaths. One example is breathing in contentment and breathing out gratitude. As we breathe in thoughts of contentment, we can visualize feeling whole and complete and happy with everything we have. While breathing out, we can express gratitude towards nature and existence for creating this vast expanse of life and energy all around us.
The more we study and observe how our mind operates without analyzing individual thoughts, the more we learn about what works and what does not. The key is to remain alert and focused while meditating.
- Meditation is getting to know oneself.
- Letting go of expectations and preconditions is liberating.
- Body, mind, and breath are the three foundational elements of any meditative practice.
- Caring for the body and maintaining good health is essential for success in meditation.
- Posture is important. Keeping the spine erect helps maintain balance and ease while seated.
- The gates of meditation open when the mind is still and quiet.
- It is essential to work alongside and not against the mind.
- Focus, attention, and concentration help us dissociate from the mind’s wandering nature.
- There is a link between the mind and the breath. Calming the breath settles the mind, and vice-versa.