Along the way, and over the years, one person or another has asked me whether I meditate. And every single time I have been at a loss as to what they meant. This response may seem a bit silly at first and I will most definitely need to add more details and provide you more context to convey more clearly where I am coming from, but lets say for now that there is little doubt that if you are interested in self-discovery, personal healing, and living life to its fullest, then at some point or another you are going to come across this concept of meditation. But what does it mean to meditate? Well the problem I faced whenever I was asked that golden question was that there are so many ideas about what meditation is, it was always very hard to know what was exactly meant by the word, and perhaps just as importantly why the question needed to be asked in the first place.
So the first helpful thing to understand is that the term meditation can refer to many different processes and techniques pertaining to the mind. The history of meditation goes hand in hand with early spiritual traditions, with some of the earliest references found in the Hindu Vedas. Over time numerous other forms of meditation have developed through Confucianism and Taoism in China, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, Islam, and Christianity. More recently modernised forms have emerged with less of a focus on the spiritual and more of an emphasis on lifestyle enhancements such as stress reduction, relaxation and increased creative potential. So its no wonder that meditation can seem particularly confusing to some and a source of contention to those who claim to know the ‘right’ way to meditate from the ‘wrong’ way. Having said that, all meditation approaches do have some things in common, which will perhaps point us toward a clearer definition for the word. Some of these are as follows:
Practices that train attention and awareness in order to foster general mental well-being
Mental techniques that are practiced repeatedly in order to achieve a wholly subjective experience often described as restful, still, peaceful, feeling present and alert, and sometimes blissful
Through concentration or mindfulness (directing one’s attention to the present moment) the attention of the mind is retrained toward a more positive and peaceful state
Nowadays a common image for meditation is one where we sit in a lotus position with eyes closed and hands resting gently on the knees often forming mudras (hand gestures that influence the energies of the body and affect mood). There’s nothing wrong with this image of course, but it does tend to turn a lot of people off the idea, especially when approaching meditation for the first time. The intention behind this article is to broaden the collective view of meditation so that it becomes more accessible, especially to those who just can’t see themselves ever comfortable in a lotus position. To get really simple therefore, one way to see meditation is as the mental action to concentrate on a peaceful positive state of mind. This act doesn’t require any formality, and can be done anytime and anywhere. I personally have never been one for formalities; I like to be mutable; to flow like a river. So the answer to that golden question whenever it was asked was always a yes. My favourite way? Mindfulness; just being present in the small moment off and on throughout the day and practising conscious attention on positive thoughts during day to day activities, often when I am cooking or cleaning, walking, sitting still by the ocean, on the bus, in the car, and even while in warm conversation with others. Occasionally I take on a suggestion of formality and sit ‘just so’ but in general for me personally, meditation works much better when I allow myself to flow and be and do whatever ‘feels’ right. But for others formality is essential to the process; body posture and setting can be significantly supportive. Meditating in groups can also help some stay motivated at the beginning. The key I believe is to try different methods until you find one that works for you.
The thing to remember is that we are all unique and wonderful beings, and what works for some simply doesn’t work for others. Problems arise when we try to fit ourselves into a technique that doesn’t suit us; we need to start on the right foot and allow our meditation practise to evolve in a way that is natural to us. Some people approach meditation as an answer, as a mountain to climb, as something to attain or conquer. I see it more as a tool, which can be used in several ways as a means to an end rather than a destination in itself. As a tool the practise of meditation, which is less about technique and more about the actual quality of attention one is putting on anything in any given moment, can enliven and illuminate all internal processes whether they be related to healing and resolving the past, to our personal creative potential, to the expansion of awareness and heightened perception or to the frontier of personal self-realisation. If we cling to the idea that meditation is a destination; something we have got to get right, and something that sets us apart from others, and merely compensates for the deeper causes that really bother us, then we will become just ‘meditators’; more limited than liberated. I have come across those exploring meditation who have picked up the notion that to meditate is to empty the mind of all thought. They are often in a subdued state of distress because every time they try to do this colossal task, they naturally fail. In my view thought is an innate part of the human being, to stop thinking would be like to stop breathing. It is true that if you meditate enough, in whichever way, then it is possible to enter states where thought is experienced in a very different way, where the clutter of everyday mind chatter falls away. However this is much harder to achieve if one makes the target of meditation to empty the mind, because we put more energy on wanting to change rather than on the change itself.
The practice of meditation like everything gets better and easier the more one does it, and because we are all living different lives with very different creative drives, the type of meditation and the outcome differs from person to person. For example if we have a spiritual drive then meditation might open us up eventually to heightened states of awareness, and if we have a more material life motivation, then meditation could help us initially feel more relaxed and revitalised, and from there space opens up from which we become day by day more aware of how we feel, the quality and nature of our thoughts, and the essence of our true motivations. In short we become more self-aware and through self-awareness we are able to become more of who we really are, which in turn makes us happier people.