A Gentle Introduction To Meditation
These days it is difficult to avoid being bombarded with headlines about the benefits of meditation. Even if it is not our natural inclination, many of us have entertained the notion of adopting a meditative practice with the goal of ‘clearing the mind’ and feeling ‘more at peace’. And while these goals are connected directly to our busy, often stressful lives, and are thus very understandable, we have to take a few steps back and engage in the process of meditation, in order to understand the benefits. We cannot jump forward and expect miracles to happen. Meditation is very, very intimate process we undergo with ourselves, and for many of us, the mind is a chaotic and sometimes unpleasant landscape. My yoga teacher once called the mind the ‘untamed horse’ galloping all around. We must first learn to cooperate with ourselves and find a seat inside of self-love and acceptance before we can begin to tame the untamed horse.
First we need to understand that the mind, in its natural state, is the untamed horse. Most of us are not taught, from an early age, how to control our thoughts. They dip and flip and dart to and fro, and skip chapters, and dig up old dirt, and screen scenes, and grasp for desires, cravings, worries, deepest fears – all in the flash of a moment. Add in the stress and strain of our daily responsibilities as adults, and this can be an exhausting mix at times. But this is not something to feel badly about, as it is our organic foundational point, and those who have attained clarity and calm through meditation have had to do a lot of work to achieve it.
In order to find the core of meditation, and in order to make it work for us, we need to accept that this is our natural state and to not fight it. There is a lot of stigma surrounding meditation in that we need to completely empty the mind of thoughts, and if we can’t do this, we are failing. This is simply untrue, and goes against the very flow of what we are trying to achieve. “What we resist, persists” is an incredibly relevant and true statement here – if I tell you to not, under any circumstances, to think of a pink elephant, to resist it with all of your might, you are going to think of that pink elephant. So, while meditating, if you try to resist having ‘that’ thought, or any thought at all, they will push against the invisible barrier you are trying to create even harder. Ultimately, they will win!
Instead, what we need to do is create a channel for our thoughts. Eventually, with a steady, ongoing meditation practice, the space between our thoughts will increase and the clarity will as well.
Here is what you can do. This is following Pema Chodron’s method, and the preferred method of many other practitioners I follow.
Sit comfortably – either in the lotus position, or a variation of, or if you prefer, with your back leaning against something. Or, alternatively, you may lay down. Really, whatever is most comfortable.
Set your gaze on something a few feet in front of you – not too far away, and not too close – find a balance. Some people like to gaze upon a flame, or a precious object, but it can be anything. There is no need to fixate on the object. You can keep your eyes half closed, there does not have to be a sturdiness or consciousness about it. The reason is just to allow the mind to relax, but give it all a point of focus.
As you begin your session, thoughts will inevitably come zooming down the highway and pass before you. Chodron’s lovely and almost whimsical method gives us the opportunity to acknowledge the thought as it comes, but in a very platonic, neutral way which allows for it to become calm, no matter what the thought is. When the thought arises, we simply ‘say’ to ourselves in our mind, “Thinking!” – not with a scorn or a disappointed tone, but with a mental smile, if you will. This is extremely important – keep it light, keep it loving.
We greet every thought that comes up this way – be it a tantalizing thought about food or sex, or a terrifying thought about money or health – we simply smile within and mentally say, “Thinking!”
~Do this for 20 minutes or so, once or twice a day, whenever you can fit it into your schedule.
This neutralizes the thoughts we experience, and yes, even the happy ones! This is not to downgrade the happiness we experience by any means, or pit it against the unhappy thoughts we have. It is to teach our minds not to cling to comforts in the face of the negativity we experience, and not to fear the negativity in the first place. When we neutralize the thoughts by labelling them as ‘thinking’ we call them for what they really are – just thoughts. If they are negative, we don’t need to identify with them, and if they are positive, we don’t need to identify with them either. They are just thoughts, they are the untamed horse. Imagine holding onto the harness of an untamed mare as she thrashed and galloped around. We would be pretty bruised and broken and dirty in not too long. Following the chaotic train of the mind can be the same, when we attach too much identity and meaning to the chatter in our brains.
So, it really is that simple, and that hard. Simple, because the task itself is easy. Have a thought, and lovingly say, “Thinking!” – have another thought, and repeat the process. Hard, because it requires devotion and work to eventually attain more control over our thought processes.
However, I found that the benefits of method were fairly instantaneous. When I learned to treat every thought as neutral, the instinct to stress and panic about certain thoughts that arose greatly dissipated, and this is something you can easily bring into your daily life.
Ultimately, that is the whole point of meditation – that the benefits trickle into our daily lives, no longer existing within the time frames of our sessions. Thus we can find peace and sublime emptiness on the subway, in the office, around a crying child, in the experience of great loss, or whatever we are going through.