Sam Harris (of Waking Up, the book and app fame) says, and I’m paraphrasing, that there really isn’t any separation between your meditation practice and the rest of your life. But, that you do have to learn how to meditate first. You’re not going to learn how to meditate hang-gliding, playing soccer or rock climbing. However, once you’ve learned how to meditate you can take those skills into all of those things. In fact, into every thing.
So, what is it that we’re learning to do when we’re meditating?
We are working with our mind to shift the scales so that you are in control rather than the contents of the mind controlling you. Hmmm, before we go on, what do I mean by ‘you’. I’m just going to say that the ‘you’ or ‘I’ that I’m talking about is indefinable. You can’t locate it anywhere, it is no more in your brain than it is in your big toe, and yet it is an undeniable presence. Perhaps we can come closer by referring to it as your ‘sense of self’.
“Who am I?”
Is the classic meditation question because it is pointing to something that can’t be pinned down, located or defined. The ultimate subject, not a thing, just presence. In learning to meditate we are bringing this indefinable and yet undeniable aspect of ourselves more into the foreground. And that is the wonderful thing! We all have it, we cannot not have it. We can’t lose it. It is fundamentally who we are.
Mostly our attention is continually consumed by things, or objects, but, as I often say in my classes, just like all the objects in a room, it is the space that holds them. We are not trained to notice the space, the background. This is what we’re learning to do when we learn to meditate, notice what we don’t usually notice and yet is always there.
Our made-up self
We also, all have a self-image. But, you are not who you think you are! This self-image is not our true self but something that we have constructed throughout our life based on what others have told us, what we have learned and what we think other people think of us. It’s what we identify with. Here’s the newsflash. It’s not real! That’s the made-up part of us. Important in many ways, but not our true self.
A lot of this self-image is subconscious and it drives most of our behaviours and actions. Here’s a quote from Jim Maclaine, a psychologist who has worked in the field of addiction for many years. “There is nothing particularly mysterious about the subconscious – it’s just the part of your mind which is beyond your normal area of awareness unless you look for it”. In mindfulness or meditation, we are taking a look at it.
The you who cannot be named
That indefinable but undeniable part of you, the you who cannot be named, starts to notice how these things stored subconsciously operate in you. And, ta da, drum roll, you then have a choice about whether they continue to do so or not. Well, that’s putting it very simply and it can take a long time to change those habits of mind. Or, in a flash you get insight, clarity and they are suddenly no longer in control. You are!
Different methods of meditation
There are lots of different methods of meditation. To learn to meditate I recommend that you go with whatever method seems to work for you, i.e. you are not massively resistant to it and your experience is kind of comforting, although it may not necessarily be enjoyable. When you start to learn to meditate there is likely to be a period of time where it just feels like a chore. It takes some grit to get through that stage, but if you do, no doubt you will start to have insight and clarity and then there is no turning back.
The spotlight of your attention
There are a few aspects of mind that we’re developing in meditation. You might work on all at once, or one at a time. I’m going to talk about three. Firstly, a big part of meditation, but not all, is developing concentration. In yoga we call this Dharana, other traditions refer to it as single pointed concentration. Essentially, you are directing the spotlight of your attention where you want it to be.
A body scan is an example of this as you direct your attention around the various parts of your body. The Vipassana technique of keeping your attention on your breath is another example. We are giving the mind an anchor. The mind wants something to do, so we choose something to connect it to. Of course, the mind wanders and we simply keep coming back. Returning to the anchor over and over again is training us to control our attention, rather than our attention controlling us.
Secondly, is the type of meditation where you learn to feel into that presence that you are, beyond your self-image, that spaciousness that’s holding all the contents. You might call it open awareness meditation. You’re simply allowing the contents of your mind to come and go, hopefully without becoming hijacked. All the objects just coming and going, like clouds across the sky, just noticing without judgement or opinions. And, if judgements and opinions do arise, just noticing them too. In yoga we call this Dhayana.
Proactive engagement with troublesome aspects of mind
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly during these challenging times of ours, is learning to proactively engage with challenging aspects of, or objects in, consciousness; pain, emotions, thoughts, beliefs. Not all meditation techniques do this, but in my opinion, it is essential if we are to dismantle old habits of mind that are no longer serving us.
The meditation protocol that I am trained in, and that is the cornerstone of all that I teach, is iRest® yoga nidra meditation. It offers lots of tools to proactively engage with troublesome aspects of mind. Examples are working with opposites, stepping back from the challenging object, pairing it with an inner resource and anthropomorphising (a fancy word that means to give the thing you’re working with human qualities) so that you can discover what it wants and needs. All of your unhealthy habits of mind are there for a reason, they more than likely served you very well at some stage in the past. I have found this aspect of meditation crucial in the long and winding journey home to who I truly am.
Liberation is possible, but there’s just one thing you have to do
Liberation is possible. The important thing is to get started. The path will unfold before you, just follow what resonates and has a ring of truth within you. You can’t get it wrong, but as Sam Harris says, you do have to do it. Get started.