Meditation is the art of finding peace and happiness within by using simple methods of calming and stabilising our minds. Modern life can be stressful and busy. Most of the time we are carried along by the force of emotions, habits and conditioning to the point where we end up feeling nothing but tired and stressed by our everyday lives. Cultivating the practice of meditation can change this.
Meditation can help bring about a natural sense of peace and well-being that can extend to every aspect of our lives. People who meditate regularly tend to sleep better, handle the ups and downs of daily life with more clarity and ease and relate to others with more compassion and warmth.
At the heart of it, meditation is simply the practice of paying attention to what we are doing while we are doing it, whatever this may be. In the Buddhist tradition, this type of attention is called ‘mindfulness’.
Traditionally we have come to think of meditation as sitting on a cushion in the lotus position, but this is simply one form of meditation. Instead, meditation is the patient process of settling our mind in the present moment so that we are fully engaged with whatever we are doing at that moment; and consequently it can apply to all aspects of our lives. For example, when we eat meditatively, we are fully present with eating, instead of eating with our mouth and planning the rest of our day with our minds.
To become proficient at meditation, we learn to identify and work with distraction, which is the tendency of the mind to drift off into thoughts and daydreams. Distraction disconnects us from the present moment. So, in meditation, every time our attention gets lost, we notice this and return it to the focus of our meditation. This is done gently, just as a good parent gently returns a wandering child back to where he should be. And it is done patiently, again and again, until our mind naturally comes to rest of its own accord in the present moment.
As we become competent at meditation, it stabilises our mind and innate qualities of wisdom and compassion start to reveal themselves to us. From here they permeate all aspects of our lives. We begin to understand how things are not as solid and unchanging as we’d first thought, and how our lives are inter-related with those of all other living things. Out of this realisation comes a sense of great joy and freedom. We find ourselves appreciating our lives more and more and living more intensely in the present moment. As we do so, our vision expands to encompass not only our own happiness but also that of all other beings.
In modern life we are often left feeling like there is never enough time. Busy and over-worked, as soon as we get around to doing one thing, our mind is already off planning and worrying about the other things. This creates a vicious cycle of compulsive doing and distraction which causes us great stress and offers little peace.
Most of the time the only way we can find peace is to ‘switch off’. We veg out in front of the television or deaden our feelings by getting drunk or using drugs.
These things, of course, are not real peace at all. They are simply forms of avoidance and distraction, and if we live this way long enough, we start to feel unhappy, overstressed and out of touch with ourselves. It can even negatively impact our health.
When we are caught up in the vicious cycle of planning and worrying, we tend to live our lives in the past, stressing over things we can no longer change, or in the future, anxious about what hasn’t happened yet.
Out of touch with the present moment, our actual life is lived largely on autopilot. The problem with this is that life is happening right now. Consequently, if we are out of touch with the present, we are also out of touch with our lives.
This perpetual busyness robs us of the precious experiences of our life. Not being present means we miss seeing the beauty of life all around us; we miss opportunities to connect meaningfully with the people who matter most to us. We notice these things only fleetingly and then drift away into the past or the future, following the issues that preoccupy us.
In the beginning, the purpose of meditation is simply to calm down our minds. When the mind is agitated, we experience a continual round of worries, upset and anxiety. With this happening, it is almost impossible to be happy, even if we are surrounded by luxurious things and living in wonderful conditions.
As we become increasingly adept at meditation, our mind gradually becomes more peaceful as it calms down and is able to maintain that equilibrium. When this happens, we begin to experience a natural happiness that comes up from within us.
As our practice deepens, this sense of peace and happiness will become increasingly constant, even in very trying or difficult circumstances. As this equilibrium becomes more stable, insight into how our mind functions spontaneously occurs.
We come to understand the essentially illusory nature of all our mental experiences, and through this insight we begin to feel compassion for everyone else who is likewise struggling with pain and adversity in their lives.
How Do We Meditate?
Since mental distraction is such an ingrained and often unconscious habit, we need a way to anchor ourselves in the present moment. There are many different techniques that can be effectively used. For example we can focus on an outer object for support, such as something to look at, like a stone, a light or running water, or alternately something to listen to, like birds singing or soft music. We can also choose to focus on an inner object for support, such as a visualisation or a mantra. All these have the same purpose: to help us focus, develop mindfulness and calm our minds.
In this example here, we are going to use our breath as a focus to support meditation.
First, we find a comfortable posture. The traditional posture is sitting cross-legged on the floor in what is called the “lotus position,” but it is also all right to sit on chair. What is important is to ensure our back is straight and the back of our neck is in line with our spine. This helps us remain alert and not drift off to sleep. It also helps us not to get backache.
We relax physically and gradually turn our attention to our breathing. We breathe naturally, preferably through the nose, and don’t attempt to control our breathing. We focus on becoming aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. This sensation is our ‘object of meditation’ which means that whenever our mind wanders off into thought we notice this and bring our attention back to our breath.
When we first start meditating, it is very normal to feel a bit discouraged because our mind seems to be running everywhere. Thoughts and emotions keep cascading into the quiet space we are trying to create, and often they aren’t very pleasant. The truth is, however, this is actually a useful experience. It shows us first-hand what has been going on all the time in our minds and we’ve just not noticed. It also gives us insight into how useful being able to still all that activity will be.
The other thing we tend to discover when first meditating is a strong tendency to follow our thoughts and get caught up in them. Into the quiet space we are trying to create suddenly comes a thought about Uncle Bert’s birthday and before we know it, we’re thinking about whether the cake will be nice or not, if we should get it from the bakery and whether or not the baker’s wife is still seeing the milkman! In meditation we learn to gently resist this pull. We simply notice that we are thinking, but instead of following it, we bring our attention back to the sensation of breathing.
There is often the misconception that in mediation we are supposed to try to stop thinking altogether. This isn’t very realistic, so the aim of meditation is not to empty our minds of thoughts. Instead, they are free to come and go like clouds passing through the sky and we practice watching them, but not sailing away with them. Indeed, what we are attempting to do with meditation is teach ourselves how to have a different relationship with our thoughts and emotions. Instead of habitually grasping hold those we like, pushing away those we don’t like and ignoring the rest, we are learning to be open to them, to all of our experiences in a calm and compassionate way.
Benefits of Meditation
Gradually, as we practice meditation, our distracting thoughts subside and we begin to feel more peaceful and relaxed. A deep happiness and contentment spontaneously follows.
We find that we have more space and clarity to deal with the difficulties that arise in our lives, and we find ourselves responding more compassionately to other people.
We realise that we do not have to depend on external conditions to be happy or to dull our senses to have peace. The freedom and peace that we have always yearned for is within our own, everyday mind. We simply needed to gain access to it, and the key that unlocks the door is mindfulness, which we achieve through meditation.
As our practice deepens we come to understand that we create our own reality depending on how we think and act. We realise that we have a choice as to which thoughts to cultivate and which ones to leave alone, so we choose to cultivate helpful, positive thoughts and don’t deplete our energy with destructive or negative patterns of thinking.
We discover that whether we are unhappy or happy is within our own power. Meditation gives us this choice and freedom.
As our practice deepens further we come to understand that nothing that arises in our minds is solid and real in the way we normally think it is. We realise that we make it solid and real by the way we react.
This insight opens the door to an even greater freedom – we no longer need to take ourselves too seriously!
At this level of practice we are always in touch with a sense of warmth, spaciousness and freedom within ourselves, regardless of what else is going on in our minds or in the world outside us. We find ourselves naturally extending this feeling of warmth to all other beings who are also struggling and unhappy, and we make the wish that they too can experience this freedom and peace.
Information supplied by Kagyu Samye Ling Buddhist Centre, Eskdalemuir, Scotland