Okay, here we go: my take on meditation.
First of all, I’ll note there are many types of meditation, arising from many religious traditions. Furthermore, individual teachers may have their own homegrown approaches to meditation, based on whatever they’ve found helpful or even approaches they’ve invented themselves. Many people think that meditation is always just sitting quietly, but there are forms of meditation that involve walking, lying down, chanting, running, yoga positions, and lots of other activities.
But let me talk about the forms I know best. These forms do one of two things:
- Either the practice is intended to focus the mind on something in order to shut out external and internal distractions. This means quieting the mind.
- Or else the practice is intended to open the mind to observe whatever thoughts and sensations arise.
Often in a meditation session, you do the first type of practice for some length of time to calm the mind and make it less busy. You focus on your breathing, or chanting, or a mental image, or a phrase. Then you move on to the second type of meditation form.
A phrase used to help you focus is called a mantra. It may or may not make sense. One of my teachers taught us a particular mantra saying, “I’m not going to give you an English translation. That’s not the point. Just focus on the sounds.” This illustrates an important principle: meditation isn’t an intellectual exercise. It’s not something you figure out or think your way through. In fact, it’s the opposite—it’s designed to quiet the talkative intellectualizing part of your mind and to get you into a more non-verbal state.
The second type of meditation practice is basically watching your thoughts and body sensations. You do this after your mind has settled down enough. Notice that you pay attention to your body, not just your brain. Ideally, you get out of your head completely and just make note of whatever is happening in your entire realm of experience. But you don’t make that a goal. You don’t make anything a goal. You do nothing except observe.
That way, you see what you see, moment by moment. You aren’t trying for a result, you’re just observing. Why? To get past your mistaken ideas of who you are, to get past your habits of ignoring the truth, and to see what’s real.
One last note about meditation: I strongly recommend you find a teacher. Meditation is hard, and it doesn’t get easier with practice. In fact, once you accumulate some experience, it’s embarrassingly easy to find yourself just going through the motions and not really paying attention. You get in the groove…and that means you start ignoring your mind and body again because you’re doing what you did before and you think you’re “there”. A good teacher will keep you honest, and help you stay awake.