Meditation has often been described as a panacea for many ills. As that may be the case, all the benefits are an outcome, not the goal of the practice.
We are organised by default to pay attention to the outside world. This comes from the survival instinct that our brain has honed over centuries. Our brains basic function is constantly scanning the environment for potential threats. An assignment that comes on in all creatures the moment they are born, as soon as they leave the safe environment of the womb. Instinctively, we know that we are now responsible for our own survival. This first impact creates the great anxiety infants feel upon separation from the mother. Slowly the infant learns how to keep itself fed, warm and cared for. Its first exploration into this world is understanding what kind of behaviour will elicit a positive response, and the first chapter in its education starts without any formal planning.
To gain this understanding the infant employs the 5 senses — an essential apparatus provided to every creature — so as to be able to interact with the environment. As time goes by, the infant adopts certain habits beliefs and concepts about pleasant and unpleasant experiences through responses received by the habitat and family, friends, teachers and society at large. As this information builds up, we assume that emotional and mental maturity are setting in. We assume the growing child is slowly attaining maturity as he/she is better able to handle life’s myriad experiences. But that's easier said than done. Acquiring clarity is usually a life-long mission. The proof is teenagers the world over who are often rebellious and self-destructive in their desire to make a safe place for themselves. Why is this? Mostly because of what Yoga calls the 5 mind distortions or kleshas in sanskrit. These misrepresentations cloud the mind, obstructing clear vision – i.e. we may more often than not misinterpret events, people etc. Which can in turn lead to emotional upheaval, and erroneous judgements.
In the brain, all situations are quickly scanned and instantly referred to past experience and categorised. This behaviour, over time, leads us to faulty understanding of life’s experiences and the only outcome possible is mistaken identities and faulty decisions that hinder happiness and growth.
Of course, things are not always like this, of the millions of decisions the brain has to take within one single day, many are automated, based on instinct. It’s the other ones that require greater intellectual and creative involvement that are not always up to par.
Meditation has often been described as a panacea for many ills. As that may be the case, all the benefits are an outcome, not the goal of the practice. Better mental and emotional maturity, greater intellectual and creative capacity and better health are only some of these aftertastes.
The goal of meditation
So what is the goal of meditation? The removal of a veil of non-understanding, of absence of clarity and the inability to see things as they are. This can only be done by getting to the bottom of the problem, i.e. systematically removing all pre-stored notions ideas and beliefs. Acquiring the skill to perceive every moment as a new one. For instance, not seeing a tree as a preconceived notion of a tree, where the brain instantly classifies it as an object with a green crown and roots running deep into the earth. That done, we move on to the next thing that comes into our line of attention, where we’ll do the exact same thing with all we come across during our day.
What does this manner of perceiving the world represent? That we aren’t really living our life as it is presented to us, with its myriad fragrances, tastes, shapes, colours, textures and sounds. We pass them by, losing out on the beautiful experience offered to us every moment. We don’t see the hues of green in the crown of the tree, the shape of its leaves, the sound of the wind ruffling in them, their fragrance. All this is lost, it is little wonder that we go to sleep dissatisfied, discontent. We may have spent the day looking for satisfaction and magic in material pursuits, but truly our senses must engage with nature so as to feel alive.
Exactly the same happens with the people in our lives. We are not seeing them for what they are, but as our idea of them. Little wonder that relationships become constrained and difficult as we are closed to the humane, naturally changing character before us, we are instead focused on a rigid concept we hold.
To undo this process and become completely available to life in all innocence — as it unfolds — is called meditation. To have absolute clarity and understanding, the ability to see things as they are, ever changing, ever renewed, stripped of our own superimpositions is the art of meditation.
Easier said than done? For sure. The goal may take some time to achieve, but even so, every step along the way is wrought with wonder and countless benefits. One could say it’s the opposite of the woods little Red Riding Hood walked through, to go see her grandmother. While our instincts must be left unhindered so as to recognise the wolves, the higher centres in our brain must be activated to be able to also recognise the sublime nature of the ephemeral world that surrounds us. To be able to, as a little child, marvel at the countless facets of this beautiful ever changing world, to become an integral part of it, is what yogi's term as pure joy, ananda.
The practice of meditation
While yogis and monks may spend long hours every day, meditating, that is surely not recommended for everyone. A few minutes a day to start with and building up systematically to 20 minutes over weeks is the best way to start. Increasing the time much more than this, requires some serious readjustments in diet, exercise and general lifestyle. Simply because more time spent meditating means a restructuring of the mind-body´s functions and properties. Things start to work differently inside as brain waves change and the body and mind must be prepared adequately, so as to have no side effects.
First and foremost find a time of day that you know you can call your own for 5 minutes of practice. If possible try to stick to the same time every day. It can be as soon as you wake up, just before you go to sleep, just before you head out for work or when you get back home from work. Whatever moment suits you best. Only 5 minutes, no more.
Find the ideal place, at home, at office, a park bench etc. Somewhere where your mind can be tranquil, not a place which others define as tranquil, it has to be tranquil for you.
Sit down in any comfortable posture. Make sure that your spine is straight and if your feet are on the floor, plant them firmly, keep them parallel, with your weight evenly resting between them and your buttocks.
Close your eyes and take your attention to your breath.
Feel the movement, the expansion of your abdomen and rib cage every time you inhale. Feel them come back to the resting position as you exhale. Become conscious of this movement.
By paying attention, we are bringing a basic function like breathing into the purview of the parasympathetic nervous system that not only helps shift the brains positioning from often obsessive stress response activity of the sympathetic nervous system, it also gives access to higher centres of the brain. These are the places where creativity and inspiration reside.
You may find, that surprisingly you can’t keep your mind on your breath for long, sometimes not even for 1 single cycle of inhalation and exhalation. The mind habitually wanders off to other issues it feels it needs to tend to. Every time this happens, try to remain aware of this shift in attention, nothing more is required. As soon as you notice the mind wandering, bring it gently back to the breath. As you would kindly lead an infant away from its distractions. Do this as many times as necessary during your 5 minute session. The goal is not to focus the mind, but to bring it back every time it escapes. This step itself will take time to perfect. Which is completely normal.
At the end of the 5 minutes, try to become aware of how your mind behaved. Some days it will be more tranquil and easier to manage. On others it will rebel more. Thats fine. As long as you have noticed it's behaviour that day, it’s enough. No need for more.
Closing the session: pay attention to the expanding and relaxing belly and ribcage again. Count 3 full cycles of inhalation and exhalation and slowly start to become aware of your environment. Open your eyes and remind yourself that you will try to be a little more aware than usual of the happenings around you today.