What is Meditation?
Many people new to yoga and meditation may believe that meditating is simply siting cross-legged, with your eyes closed, saying “ommmmmmm.” This is far from the truth. Although sitting cross-legged and chanting is one way to begin the process of meditation, there’s a whole lot more going on than meets the eye.
Meditation, or Dhyana is the seventh limb of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. According to Patenjali, dhyana is
“…the continuous flow of cognition towards that object.”
To meditate means to have pure, uninterrupted concentration on one fixed idea, object, sound or thought.
Although this may sound easy, it’s extremely difficult to do correctly.
Let me prove it by asking you to try a little experiment. First read through the experiment once, then give it a try:
Close your eyes for a moment and get into a comfortable position. Concentrate on your breathing – slow it down and relax.
Now as you inhale, think the word Sat (rhymes with nut). As you exhale, think the word Nam (rhymes with Tom). Clear your mind of all other thoughts except for Sat on the inhale and Nam on the exhale. Continue this practice for five minutes.
Open your eyes.
Although this is a simple exercise on paper, it is extremely difficult in practice. You likely encountered all sorts of thoughts intruding in your mind – from what to have for dinner tonight or what happened at work yesterday to that itch you felt on your chin or maybe the fact that you were a little hungry.
Meditating is difficult because we do not have control over our own mind. You may believe that you have control over your thoughts, feelings, and emotions – but this is an illusion. The experiment above shows just how little control you really have.
You may be thinking: well what does it matter if I have control or not? This is an excellent question. And the answer is that it doesn’t really matter – unless you want it to.
This is what I mean.
The only person responsible for your happiness is you. It is your decision. If you choose to be happy, you will be happy. I understand that this is a radical idea. Especially with diseases and situations beyond our control such as cancer, job loss or death.
Although you may not have control over all of life’s situations, you do have control over how you deal with your mind. And your mind affects all other parts of your body and life. The mind is an extremely powerful thing.
All actions begin with a thought – whether consciously or unconsciously – the truth is that all action begins in the mind.
The reason the above exercise was so difficult is purely a neurological one. The pathways in your brain that allow such one-pointed concentrate have yet to be formed. In this sense meditation is an exercise meant to build the parts of your brain needed for true one-pointed concentration and control.
By practicing meditation every day, you will begin to build these neurological pathways in your brain. Control of your thoughts, mind and emotions will become easier. Ultimately, inner peace, health and wisdom result.
How To Meditate
For beginners, I have created a simple 11 step process through which you can start meditating. You can also refer to some excellent books on meditation that can be used to make your practice more effecitve.
Meditation can be done anywhere and in any position: from lying down in bed or washing the dishes, to sitting in a chair or taking a walk.
The Hindu scriptures describe meditation as
“…pouring oil from one pot to another.”
Put a different way, meditation is taking concentration from one item and placing it towards another.
If you tried the exercise above, you’ll come to realize just how difficult this can be. Above all, do not despair. Frustration will only lead you further away from attaining your goal. Instead, be gentle with yourself as you meditate. If your mind wanders, simply bring it back, just as you would take a child by the hand and gently steer him in the direction you need him to go.
Simply noticing that your mind has wondered will give you the awareness you need to bring it back to the object of your concentration. By shining the light of awareness on your wandering thoughts, you will gently bring yourself back to meditation.
Meditation is a life-long practice. And just like your yoga practice, it is an end in and of itself, not a means to an end. Do not sit down to meditate with an expectation. Each meditation practice will take you different places and elicit different emotions, feelings and thoughts. Let that happen. Meditation is as much about control as it is about letting go.
To get started with meditation, Patenjali suggests using an object, place or idea to concentrate on.
This first stage of meditation, also the sixth limb of yoga, is called dharana. According to the Yoga Sutras, Dharana is,
“…the binding of the mind to one place, object or idea.”
First, get into a comfortable position. You do not need to sit cross-legged, unless this is comfortable for you. You may lie down, however be careful not to fall asleep. If you find yourself drifting off into sleep, take a nap before you meditate. If you are getting enough sleep, lying down should not cause you to fall asleep.
However, if you are still having problems falling asleep, you may want to try sitting up to meditate. If a cross-legged position is uncomfortable, try sitting on a stiff chair.
Once you are in position, close your eyes and breath deeply a few times.
Now it’s time to point your mind towards one thing, and one thing only. You have three different objects of concentration to choose from. I suggest trying all three to see which one works best for you.
This is my personal choice for meditation. But again, everyone is different so try a few out to see which you like the most.
When meditating on the breath, simply pay close attention to each inhalation and each exhalation. Don’t force the breath to be slow or fast, just breathe naturally and concentrate. Feel the air as it moves into your nostrils. Does it feel cold? Where on your nostrils does the air hit? Feel that feeling. Concentrate only on that.
Feel the air as it moves into your throat, your chest, your belly. Notice when you’ve come to the end of your inhale, there is a slight pause before the exhalation begins. Feel that feeling of being full of air.
Now notice as the air leaves your lungs. First your solar plexus release, then your chest contracts, you feel the air coming through your throat and finally out of your nose. How does the air feel as it comes out of your nose? Is it warm? Moist? Feel that feeling and concentrate.
If breath meditation does not work well for you, try using a mental image to meditate on. You may pick whatever image works for you. However, here are a few suggestions:
- A rose
- The ocean
- A tree
- The moon
- A religious ideal such as Jesus, Buddha, or Krishna
Once you have that image in your mind, close your eyes and hold it there. Imagine as if it were right in front of you. Concentrate only on that image. Let yourself feel all feelings you may have associated with that image.
The third variation of mediation involves a mantra. A mantra is simply a word, phrase or sound which is held in the mind. It can either be related to the movement of breath, or simply a constant repetitive sound or phrase.
Here are a few examples:
- Sat (rhymes with Nut) on the inhale, and Nam (rhymes with Tom) on the exhale.
- Your favorite religious prayer.
Again, your concentration will be only on these sounds or phrase. As soon as the mind wanders to other things, gently place your awareness on the wandering thought and bring your mind back to your mantra.
Words of Caution
Please understand, meditation can be very emotionally and mentally draining and exhausting. This is especially true if you have past experiences or feelings that have been suppressed or not worked out.
Once you have gone deeper into meditation, you may begin to feel emotions, think thoughts, and experience sensations that are uncomfortable.
Please note this is a normal part of the meditation process.
Do not be afraid of these uncomfortable things. Let yourself feel these emotions, think these thoughts, and experience these sensations. Do not fight it. This is your subconscious rising to the surface. The only way to truly deal with these angst is to experience them. To go through them. To place your awareness on them and let them work themselves out.
Although it is important to let yourself feel any pain, sadness, anger, or frustration that may arise from the depths of your consciousness, be gentle with yourself and do not overdo it.
If you need to take a break, take a break. Speak with someone you trust such as a family member, friend or religious leader.
Just remember to keep meditating. If even for five minutes per day. You will make mental and emotional breakthroughs you never thought possible. If only you let yourself.