What is Meditation?
While meditation in the so-called Western world is usually seen as a practice or exercise to do, meditation really is a way of being. And what is termed “meditation” are the exercises that can help us learn to “be in meditation”. The way of being that is called meditation is a state in which we are fully and deeply aware. Aware of the true, underlying nature of ourselves and the whole world. Able to see deeply into the nature of things as the awareness opens our capacity to see clearly and precisely how things are and inter-are (or are interconnected). Reaching such a state of meditation results in our dwelling in a deep state of peace, joy and love.
It should be stated, however, that only the experience of being in a state of meditation can give us a full understanding of what this really means. Any descriptions are like reading a book about a foreign land: while it gives us an impression, it is never the same as actually being there.
The essence of meditation
Meditation in its essence, as mentioned above, is the accepting awareness of what is. This may sound like very little. But when we think about it more deeply, it is the basis of bliss: Since its quality is one of openness, understanding, acceptance, joy and love, the more we come to recognise and reside in this awareness, the more we are suffused by the qualities of openness, understanding, joy and love. And since meditation is a state of being, the more often we dwell in that state, the more often we live with these qualities.
Learning and training to remain in a state of meditation, however, takes a while. We are very used to being attached to our thoughts, our emotions and our sensations without realising it. These can feel like the waves of a stormy ocean and we get so caught up in them that we forget that we are not the waves. We forget that our underlying nature is more like the water of the ocean than the individual waves and when we rest in the depths of the ocean, our experience of it changes.
In other words, what happens when we start to practise meditation, we first become aware of all the waves, i.e. everything that is going on in our mind, heart and body. It is why we often feel that we suddenly have more thoughts and emotions, that everything is becoming more chaotic. However, it is really just us fixing our gaze on the ocean and noticing more closely all the waves moving and crashing.
Fortunately, all these thoughts and emotions as well as bodily sensations are the perfect environment for practice. All we need to do is to stay aware of whatever we are thinking and feeling for as long as we can, and whenever we drift off, simply come back to it once we notice and start over.
How to practice meditation
Learning meditation is a lot like becoming a professional dancer: It requires a lot of training, dedication, diligence and joy. You do it until much of it becomes part of who you are. For ballet dancers it is the way they carry themselves, for meditators it is the way they show up in the world, for themselves and for others: mindful and kind.
Also as with any dance training, there are a lot of different ways to train and different styles to specialise in: There is a wide variety of techniques that can support us in learning to be aware. Each of them is valuable and helpful. It is good to find the ones that best fit you, that most resonate with you, and to have a variety of techniques to draw from so you can change the routine to avoid getting bored or one-sided in your practice.
A great way to start is by doing a so-called body scan: bringing awareness to our body, bit by bit, going from bottom to top or top to bottom, noticing how each part feels: is it hot or cold, tense or lose, hurting or numb or tingling or…
A second method is to bring awareness to our breath as it moves in and out of the body. Again, the idea is to simply notice such things as the temperature of the air coming in and going out, the feeling of the air on your nostrils, which parts of your body expand and contract as the air flows in and out, how this feels, if there is tension or whether it flows easily, if there is a pause between the in-breath and out-breath.
In addition to these techniques, an important point is to practice. You can do this any time during the day, even if you just take one or two breaths with awareness or feel your body. As well as during set times for practicing meditation, starting off with a few minutes, slowly building the habit.
What to expect from practicing meditation
What we can expect is to be with and become familiar with ourselves, and to learn to accept ourselves more. Just like any training, this will have its ups and downs. That is natural and part of the process. Thoughts and emotions will keep happening and that is normal. While they may calm down, they can always arise again, be stormier or less so, depending on the day. The goal is not to stop them. It is to let them be and just be aware of them.
This will allow us to become familiar with the waves of emotions and thoughts that are going on inside of us. Depending on the thoughts and emotions, we will perceive this to be pleasant or unpleasant. The trick is to notice how we react to the thoughts and emotions and observe our reaction more closely. That way we can learn to simply let it all be, which in itself transforms the experience.
What will happen is that as we stay with whatever is, whether pleasant or unpleasant, whether short-lived or long-term, we will start to become more and more aware of the processes of thinking and feeling and, thereby, feel a little bit less caught up over time in the effects that the thoughts and feelings usually have upon us when we are tossed about by the waves of the ocean of our perceptions and start to simply observe them, or hold them in awareness.