What is Meditation?
As we scan books, websites and documentaries, we will find many definitions of the word “meditation.” Descriptions range from “to engage in contemplation or reflection” to “clearing the mind” to “a state of thoughtless awareness.” Whatever definitions you may have searched for or stumbled upon, meditation can seem very intimidating. It may appear to be some esoteric practice that is reserved for only certain types of people. The good news is mediation is reserved for no one and is available and accessible to everyone. Experience and practice tell me that what we call meditation is really the practice of remaining present with ourselves as our bodies, emotions and thoughts go through a wide array of experiences during any given moment. It is my understanding that a “true” meditative state happens spontaneously only after we have rooted ourselves in the practice of cultivating focus. This is also known as dharana- we’ll talk more about this word later.
“Meditation” is often used as a term to describe a variety of methods and techniques for stilling, quieting and opening the mind. While quieting or stilling the mind may be a byproduct of a meditation practice, it need not be the goal. Today we will explore meditation simply as a practice. We will begin to learn the practice of becoming more aware and more present to whatever the body, emotions and mind are currently experiencing. If we are willing, we can consciously let go of any goals to clear the mind. We can also invite the release of any expectations, judgments or desire to change or fix. There is no forcing, pulling toward or pushing away that needs to take place. Let us go into the practice with the idea that we are enough just as we are. Our job is to show up, to sit comfortably and to observe what is happening within us from a place of kindness, gentleness and patience. We practice allowing space for thoughts, images, shifts in energy or mood without attaching our own stories and judgments to whatever arises. We are very creative beings! So often we are not even aware of the stories we are weaving about our perceptions and experiences. Practicing meditation will give us the opportunity to gain perspective- to put a little space between who we really are and our perceptions, thoughts, stories and ideas about who we think we are. The practice helps us to become a little more intimate with our own bodies and minds. Meditation can help us to see our strengths as well as our habits and patterns.
While this definition of meditation may be a simple concept, it can often be very difficult and we may be faced with emotions or thoughts that are hard to be present with; Emotions and thoughts that we find threatening, embarrassing, scary or sad. Pema Chordron says (and I am paraphrasing) that commonly, meditation is attributed to clearing the mind. During meditation the mind is often compared to the surface of a still lake. With practice, meditation does aid in calming the spinning, monkey mind (as a byproduct) eventually helping to lengthen the spaces between thoughts. But what we don’t hear so often is that once the surface of the lake mind is calm and clear and we can see straight down to the bottom, that is when we encounter all the old tires, broken bottles and murk beneath the surface. This is when all the practice comes in handy. This is also when we can take our lessons off the cushion with us into our daily lives. When we encounter difficult thoughts, sensations, emotions or experiences during meditation or in life it is our practice that allows us to remain present with whatever lies before us.
What is the benefit to becoming more present? While this is a question that each person will need to answer for themselves, for me, the benefit of returning to the present moment is that with this process comes a cultivation of awareness and clarity. Among other gifts, presence allows for more openness, understanding and connection with ourselves and others.
Why meditate? The benefits of a meditation practice:
Aside from allowing one to live fully in the present moment with awareness and contentment, a meditation practice has an assortment of physical, mental and emotional benefits. In this day and age, we can spend a great deal of time with our sympathetic nervous system activated which triggers the fight, flight or freeze response. A meditation practice stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, or the branch of the nervous system that helps your body return to a calm, relaxed state after the threat of danger, or even daily stress, has passed (this is called the relaxation response). When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, the body and mind can naturally rejuvenate, repair, and rebuild itself. Practicing meditation can also boost your immune system by slowing the production of the stress hormone, cortisol.
In short, a meditation practice can help to reduce stress and fatigue and increases focus, alertness, tranquility and self-awareness. The benefits extend beyond the duration of a meditation session to bring increased physical and emotional poise into life’s daily activities. The benefits of a meditation practice are both general and personal. The invitation is to remain open to the individual gifts that your own practice reveals.
There is a Sanskrit word, maitri, which can be defined as unconditional friendship with oneself. While practicing meditation it is very easy to beat ourselves up, to judge or reprimand ourselves. Without a cultivation of maitri, it is difficult to truly appreciate our own efforts and accomplishments. During our practice we can count on the fact that our mind will wander. It is the nature of the mind to wander, to think or list or judge or plan. We can also expect that our posture will collapse. We can just get it out of the way now and say that this is a part of the practice. There is no need to beat ourselves up for these natural responses and phenomena. We must be gentle, patient and kind with ourselves and remember that we are whole and enough just as we are. This is not a practice of fixing or repairing, this is a practice of curiosity and compassion; of learning to sit with ourselves as we would a friend in need. When the mind wanders or when the body collapses, we can use these moments as little reminders to return to the vehicle of breath, which will bring us back to the present moment.
With a meditation practice, we can begin to observe meditative and daily activity as though we are a non-attached spectator, the witness. This applies not only to our physical actions, but also to our states of mind. To be non-attached means observing without passing judgment, without changing or commenting. We can practice this every moment of every day. From, conversations to driving a car, from working to washing dishes, every mundane daily activity can be charged with life simply by bringing awareness to it. This is not to say that judgments or comments won’t arise. Most likely, especially when we are just beginning the practice, they will come in abundance and when they do we can choose to remember, maitri, we can choose to remember our breath and continue to observe with gentleness and curiosity.
A little bit of history:
Where does meditation fall in terms of yoga? To understand meditation and its place in our yogic path we can study Patanjali’s Eight Fold Path to enlightenment. This is also known as Royal yoga. Patanjali is thought to have lived about 2000 years ago between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D. He was thought to be an educated man who, during his middle to latter life either gathered or originated a body of knowledge that is now the foundation of yoga practice. He is often called “The father of yoga.” Patanjali compiled his thoughts and understanding in his “Yoga Sutras,” instructions to living a happy, peaceful and compassionate life while incorporating the science of yoga into our daily living. Patanjali’s guide is comprised of 196 sutras. Let’s examine the basics a little closer:
The Eight-Fold Path (eight limbs of yoga; Astanga)
- Yama- Social ethics, restraints or abstinences
- Ahimsa- non-violence, reducing harm (mindful words, minimal waste)
- Satya- Truth (your truth, their truth, our truth)
- Asteya- Non-stealing (not just non stealing of objects, when one lies, the truth is stolen.)
- Brahmacarya- appropriate use of one’s vital energy (brahmacarya, which literally means to “walk with God,” it is often translated as “chastity”, although brahmacarya also means “continence.” It is, quite simply, a call for us to practice moderation in uses of our Prana, or energy.)
“When the practitioner is firmly established in continence, knowledge, vigor, valor and energy flow to him.” — yoga sutras
- Aparigraha- non-possessiveness, generosity (sharing is caring J)
- Niyama- personal ethics, internal restraints or observances
- Sauca- purity, cleanliness (hygiene, mental clarity, positive thinking).
- Santosa- contentment (learning to observe life without judging or commenting. Allowing things to just be and giving oneself permission to live in peace).
- Tapas- practice causing change, “heat” (Having passion for your yoga practice. Practicing every day and whole heartedly, even if it’s just minutes a day).
- Svadhyaya- self-study, observation (learning to listen to yourself. Being honest with oneself and LOVING oneself).
- Isvarapranidhana- letting go, surrendering to the idea that we do not have control over everything.
“A warrior accepts that we can never know what will happen to us next. We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not knowing is part of the adventure.”
– Pema Chodron
- Asana- posture, sitting
- Pranayama- breath regulation
- Pratyahara- withdrawing of the senses
- Dharana- focus, concentration
- Dhyana- maintaining a focus, meditation
- Samadhi- self-realization, complete absorption, union of person who meditates, point of meditation and the act of meditation itself. Unity of mind with its contemplation. A remembering of our union; Non-separation.
Techniques for meditation:
In preparing for meditation, the first thing we want to do is stretch and relax the body. It is very difficult to sit still when the body is tight or tense. A short asana (posture) practice is recommended before each meditation session. It is also suggested that we wash our face and hands, brush the teeth and rinse the mouth with water. Empty the bladder and the bowels if possible. Try not to practice meditation on a full stomach or an empty stomach. We can eat a light snack an hour or half hour before we sit to meditate. That way we won’t be distracted by the discomforts of a full or empty stomach. Wear comfortable, unrestricting clothing. Find a quiet, comfortable, peaceful spot to sit or lie down. (we want to avoid lying down if there is a good possibility that we will fall asleep). Sit either on the floor with spine straight and aligned or on a chair with feet directly under the knees and hands resting on the lap (Egyptian posture). The most famous position for meditation is the lotus posture. But there are many other options for comfort and stability, such as sukhasana (“easy pose”- a more basic crossed legged posture). Maybe turn the lips upward in a smile. Keep the eyes closed to withdraw inward (pratyahara) unless you think you will fall asleep. With the eyes closed, we’ll take a few moments to invite ourselves to the space using our other senses to listen, smell, taste, feel and hear. There is space for everything we observe both internally and externally. In this way, there are no distractions. Everything becomes a part of the meditative practice. We try to breathe through the nostrils and observe our natural rhythm of breathing. If the mind is particularly active, we can practice some breath control (pranayama) to help us center.
When the physical needs have been met, the most helpful technique in meditation is dharana. Dharana is honing our focus to one point. It is concentration without tension. No wiggling, no biting of the lip, no furring of the brow. This is not to say that we become statues during a meditative practice. If the body becomes uncomfortable, if there is an itch or a limb that is falling asleep, it is absolutely OK and recommended to adjust the body slowly and mindfully. The meditating yogini has the appearance of relaxed serenity. Yet she is giving all of herself to concentrative meditation, a whole person wholly attending.
A mudra, or gesture is another way to focus the mind through physical awareness. By placing our hands and fingers in certain positions, our minds have another point of concentration to keep us aware and breathing in the present moment. Breathe and bring awareness to the sensations in the hands.
Abhaya-mudra: “no fear gesture,” palm facing away from you, fingers and thumb together.
Anjali-mudra: “offering gesture,” palms together, fingertips facing upwards towards the sky.
Cin-mudra: “consciousness gesture,” Palms down, fingers pointing toward the earth, index fingertip and thumb-tip touch.
Dhyana-mudra: “meditation gesture,” both palms facing upwards on the lap, right hand rests on left, fingers fully stretched, tips of thumbs touch.
Jnana-mudra: “knowledge gesture” Palms down, index fingertip and thumb-tip touch.
Karana-mudra: “Banishing gesture,” thumb holds middle two fingers, index and little fingers point out.
Varada-mudra- “granting a boon gesture,” palms face outward with arms completely extended
Yoni-mudra- “womb gesture,” index fingertips of both hands touch, thumb-tips of both hands touch, the rest of the fingers interlace, palms face up, fingers point down to create the shape of a diamond.
Yet another tool to keep the mind in a state of dharana (focus): Mantra is repetition of a letter, syllable, word, phrase, sentence, or sound. It may be voiced aloud or thought inwardly. When sung, mantra is known as chanting. The word mantra is said to come from a root meaning “that which protects the mind.” Mantras are sacred sounds, usually chanted, thought or voiced in the ancient language of Sanskrit. Sanskrit is thought to be one of the first written languages. “The Sanskrit alphabet is perfectly designed for the human vocal apparatus, and the sound of each letter or [word] represents the subtle energy of its meaning. Because each syllable is either one or two beats, pronouncing correctly allows one to feel the natural rhythm of the language and imbibe the true essence of the word” (Bachman, 1). We are vibratory beings and sound has the ability to altar consciousness. Therefore exploring sound is another very important aspect of meditation. Sound is vibration, and sacred sounds have the potential to resonate deep within us.
Many people find it easier to focus if they concentrate on something specific. A mantra can help. Here is a list of some simple mantras:
- Aum (OM)- Universal sound representing the connection of all things.
- Hum Sa– Who Am I?
- Hum on the inhalation
- Sa on the exhalation
- So Hum– I am that
- Sooooo…is the sound of inhalation, and is remembered in the mind along with the inhalation.
- Hummmm…is the sound of exhalation, and is remembered in the mind along with the exhalation.
- Sat Nam– I bow to truth
- Sat on the inhalation
- Nam on the exhalation
- This mantra can be broken down even further:
- Sa= Infinity
- Fill, empty
- Fill on the inhalation
- Empty on the exhalation
Sometimes a sensory assist can be used to facilitate the internalization of our awareness. Visualization can be a largely beneficial tool. The mandala (circle) and triangles are focusing devices designed for the purpose of finding the center of your being or true self. As art works to be gazed upon, they range from the simple to the complex and colorful. Their shapes and design are based on the sacred geometry of the cosmos. The practitioner sits in a meditative posture and concentrates on a form-symbol with their gaze. Holding the mind steady and opening to the deeper meaning of the symbol. The practitioner can also close the eyes and visualize yantra, holding it gently in the mind. Here are a few examples of yantra:
Thanks for the yoga class Wednesday evening. You mentioned that the class was a bit different than some of yours and I think you said something about wanting feedback? Ok, here it is: It was very effective for me, and the next day (yesterday), I felt really good and better than many other recent days – alert, clear-headed, body felt better in a bunch of ways. And my shoulder seems to be gradually improving, too. Thanks.Holden