When you first asked me about how to practice meditation (was it last week?), I gave you a few vague answers and then dismissed it from my mind, thinking that while it is impressive that you consider it seriously, it is not really vital to you right now. But, yesterday when you spoke about how difficult it is to study for more than two hours continuously, I realized that there might be more to it. That conversation set me thinking about a concept called “Digital Natives“. You would definitely qualify to be one. Digital Natives are supposed to have shorter attention spans and a greater propensity to multi-task. They are more at home using technology or entertainment as well as education and even blend the two in exotic mixes. Most of the characteristics of the Digital Natives, like their appetite for knowledge, their openness to stimuli and their connectedness with this world of constant change, are all very positive traits. I too consider myself as a Native, even though, Tarun, who introduced me to the concept would disagree and try to classify me as a Digital Immigrant.
Having said all that, we also have to consider if these so-called positive traits might not also have the negative effects that the older generation attributes to it? Could there be a fundamental fleetingness encroaching into our natures? Could small things like it being harder and harder to spend long hours concentrating and a lot of my friends complaining that they can hardly find the energy to read anymore be side-effects of this life-style? What can we do to keep the positive side of this information age and yet not lose our ability to concentrate and to put in focussed effort when required?
As I thought of these things, I felt that maybe meditation may indeed be the answer for you and many like you and also to myself. So I spent a few hours researching and browsing about on this and stumbled on this wonderful book about meditation. I kept you and sis in mind as I read this and I think I might have an adaptation of the ideas that might help in our daily lives that might help you enjoy your hours spent studying and also make them more productive as well as longer.
I hope you can find the fifteen minutes needed to read this rambling of mine. As I keep telling you, 24 hours is a long time and we all have more than enough time to do more than earn a living and worry about school during a day. We have more than enough time to read, to meditate, to sleep and dream and to take a quiet walk. Shall we start?
What is Meditation?
Think of this present moment as a mirror. A mirror reflecting the past and the future. You have to understand and accept this reflection of yourself in this mirror. You have to be aware of this present moment in all its depth and fullness. Do not judge it. Just know it. See it completely and entirely. Every. Single. Detail.
The present moment exists whether you like it or not. Whether it is enjoyable or not. And even if time passes, the mirror stays still. it is always the present moment in which you find yourselves. You cannot change it, you need not judge. You can only understand and accept it. It just IS. If you can do this, only then will you know what to do next.
This practice is called “Mindfulness” and is the core of Meditation. I know the last two paragraphs might have been too abstract for your tastes, but indulge me and read it again please? Don’t worry, even though I wrote it, I too don’t understand it.
Unless we become “Mindful”, we may never quite be where we actually are, never quite touch the fullness of our possibilities. Instead, we lock ourselves into a personal fiction that we already know who we are, that we know where we are and where we are going, that we know what is happening – all the while remaining enshrouded in thoughts, fantasies, and impulses.
To be “Mindful” is to wake up from this constant ignorance about yourself, your surroundings and your situation. To find your path in life, you will need to pay more attention to this present moment. It is the only time that we have in which to live, grow, feel, and change.
The work of waking up from these dreams is the work of Meditation, the systematic cultivation of wakefulness, of present-moment awareness. Meditation is simply about being yourself and knowing something about who that is. It is about coming to realize that you are on a path whether you like it or not, namely, the path that is your life. Meditation may help us see that this path we call our life has direction; that it is always unfolding, moment by moment; and that what happens now, in this moment, influences what happens next.
If what happens now does influence what happens next, then doesn’t it makes sense to look around a bit from time to time so that you are more in touch with what is happening now, so that you can take your inner and outer bearings and perceive with clarity the path that you are actually on and the direction in which you are going? If you do so, maybe you will be in a better position to chart a course for yourself that is truer to your inner being? If not, the sheer momentum of your unconsciousness in this moment just colors the next moment. The days, months, and years quickly go by unnoticed, unused, unappreciated.
Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality. It is an appreciation for the present moment and the cultivation of an intimate relationship with it through a continual attending to it with care and discernment. It is the direct opposite of taking life for granted. It has to do with waking up and seeing things as they are. In fact, the word “Buddha” simply means one who has awakened to his or her own true nature.
All these ordinary thoughts and impulses run through the mind like a coursing river, if not a waterfall. We get caught up in the torrent and it winds up submerging our lives as it carries us to places we may not wish to go and may not even realize we are headed for.
Meditation means learning how to get out of this current, sit by its bank and listen to it, learn from it, and then use its energies to guide us rather than to tyrannize us. This process doesn’t magically happen by itself. It takes energy. We call the effort to cultivate our ability to be in the present moment “practice” or “meditation practice.”
The Practice Of Meditation
I know that you like to sit and meditate. But is it the only way? Not really. You can meditate while sitting, while walking, while standing or while lying down. Once you have some practice, you can even meditate while eating and while bathing and even while studying. That should be the goal. To be able to live every moment with that wakeful awareness called “Mindfulness”.
How to start then? I know it is hard to start meditating. there is always a hundred other things to do. You could be studying or reading or doing something else. DOING something is SO important. Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are. You have to learn to “Stop”. Literally. Just stop doing things. Could you stop wanting to do things? Stop wanting to improve or get somewhere in life? For five minutes? Surely?
People think of meditation as some kind of special activity, but this is not exactly correct. Meditation is simplicity itself. There is a joke: “Don’t just do something, sit there.” But meditation is not just about sitting, either. It is about stopping and being present, that is all. Mostly we run around doing things. Are you able to come to a stop in your life, even for one moment? Could it be this moment? What would happen if you did?
A good way to stop all the doing is to shift into the “being mode” for a moment.
Imagine that you died. Now no more responsibilities are there. If this is true, maybe you don’t need to watch one more tv show right now or open one more browser tab even if you think you do. Maybe you don’t need to read something just now, or run one more errand. just observe the moment. Stop thinking of it as a waste of time or a utilization of time. This time is for yourself. To BE yourself. without judgements. For a few minutes.
Once you have accepted this and is ready to meditate, try to ease into it. You may want to go to the next room first, to the drawing room or the kitchen. Then walk slowly and deliberately to the spot you have decided to meditate in. Meditate as you walk. As you approach the spot, stand there for some time. Meditate as you stand. Now, slowly and with dignity sit down.
Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “Peace is every step.”
Sometimes it is very difficult to just sit down. Walking is easier. Try walking formally before or after you sit. Try a period of walking meditation. Keep a continuity of mindfulness between the walking and the sitting. Ten minutes is good, or half an hour. Remember once again that it is not clock time we are concerned with here.
The walking is just as good as the sitting. What is important is how you keep your mind.
In walking meditation, you attend to the walking itself. Walking meditation can best be done by imagining a river. Imagine that you are a flowing river. Steady and changing, moving in time, but always yourself. Aware of every boulder and every turn. Be aware of every step.
You can focus on the footfall as a whole; or isolated segments of the motion. You can couple an awareness of walking with an awareness of breathing. In walking meditation, you are not walking to get anyplace. Usually it is just back and forth in a lane, or round and round in a loop. The challenge is, can you be fully with this step, with this breath? Walking meditation can be practiced at any pace, from ultra-slow to very brisk. The practice is to take each step as it comes and to be fully present with it.
Of course, you can extend this to walking anywhere, normally. You can walk mindfully as you walk that long path back to our home or every time you go to the terrace. Try to bring awareness to walking, wherever you find yourself. Slow it down a bit. Center yourself in your body and in the present moment. Walk with dignity and confidence, and as the Navaho saying goes, walk in beauty, wherever you are.
Once you have reached the spot, don’t abruptly sit down. Remember that we are trying to keep a continuity of mindfulness between the walking and the sitting. Stand still for some time and try to meditate. Standing Meditation is best learned from trees. Imagine yourself to be a tree. Feel your feet developing roots into the ground. Feel your body sway gently, as it always will, just as trees do in a breeze. Sense the tree closest to you. Listen to it, feel its presence.
You can try standing like this wherever you find yourself, in the school, in the football ground, by a river, in your living room, or just waiting for the bus.
Finally, sit down. But sit down with an intention. Sit with dignity. It helps to come to the bed or to the chair or to the floor with a definite sense of taking your seat. Sitting meditation is different from just sitting down casually somewhere. Sitting down to meditate, our posture talks to us. It makes its own statement. If we slump, it reflects low energy, passivity, a lack of clarity. If we sit ramrod-straight, we are tense, making too much of an effort, trying too hard.
To describe the sitting posture, the word that feels the most appropriate is “dignity.” If you are told to sit like a king from Lord of the Rings, how would you sit? That is dignity. A Royal Posture. I try to tell this to myself when I sit down to work, or write. To sit with dignity. You should try this while sitting down to study too. It makes a difference in you attitude. When we take our seat in meditation and remind ourselves to sit with dignity, we are coming back to our original worthiness. That in itself is quite a statement.
How you hold your hands is also important. that too is a way of making a statement, to yourself, to your mind. The hand positions are called “Mudras” in formal terminology and they embody different attitudes. There is no one right way to keep your hands. You may experiment with different ways yourself in meditation. Try sitting with your hands palms down on your knees. Notice the quality of self-containment here. This posture might feel to you as if you are not looking for anything more, but simply digesting what is. If you then turn both palms up, being mindful as you do it, you may note a change in energy in the body. Sitting this way might embody receptivity, an openness to what is above, to the energy of the heavens. I personally prefer the hands kept together in the lap, with the fingers of one hand lying atop the fingers of the other, the thumb-tips gently touching as if I hold the universe in me.
All our hand postures are supposed to be mudras in that they are associated with subtle or not-so-subtle energies. Take the energy of the fist, for instance. Try making a fists as if in anger. Feel the tension, the hatred, the anger, the aggression, and the fear which it contains. Then, in the midst of your anger, as an experiment, try opening your fists and placing the palms together over your heart in the prayer position. This is probably what Gandhiji did when he was assassinated at point-blank range. He put his palms together in this way toward his attacker, uttered his mantra, and died.
Try being aware of these subtle emotional qualities you may be embodying at various times of the day, as well as during your sitting practice. Pay particular attention to your hands. Does their position make a difference? See if you don’t become more mindful by becoming more “bodyful.”
Now, on to the meditation itself. In Sitting Meditation, the image of a mountain might be most helpful. Imagine yourself to be a mountain, invoking qualities of elevation, massiveness, majesty, unmovingness, rootedness – bring these qualities directly into your posture and attitude. As the light changes, as night follows day and day night, as weather changes, as crows and birds sing, as people try to blast it, and as years go by, the mountain just sits, simply being itself. Through everything, the mountain continues to sit, unmoved by the weather, by what happens on the surface, by the world of appearances.
How long should you sit like this? As long as you like, of course. It is quality not quantity that matters. Forming the intention to practice and then seizing a moment – any moment – and encountering it fully in your inward and outward posture, lies at the core of mindfulness. Long and short periods of practice are both equally good. In a line six inches long, there are an infinite number of points, and in a line one inch long there are just as many. Well, then, how many moments are there in fifteen minutes, or five, or ten, or forty-five? It turns out we have plenty of time, if we are willing to hold any moments at all in awareness.
Once you are sitting, there are many ways to approach the present moment. All involve paying attention on purpose, non-judgmentally. What varies is what you attend to and how.
It is best to keep things simple and start with your breathing, feeling it as it moves in and out.
Sit and watch the moments unfold, with no agenda other than to be fully present. Use the breath as an anchor to tether your attention to the present moment. Your thinking mind will drift here and there, depending on the currents and winds moving in the mind until, at some point, the anchor line grows taut and brings you back. This may happen a lot. Bring your attention back to the breath, in all its vividness, every time it wanders. Keep the posture erect but not stiff. Think of yourself as the mountain.
Not able to Meditate?
Remember how you told me last time that you are NOT able to meditate, no matter how hard you TRY? The answer it to stop “trying”. Thinking you are unable to meditate is a little like thinking you are unable to breathe, or to concentrate or relax. Pretty much everybody can breathe easily, anybody can concentrate, anybody can relax.
People often confuse meditation with relaxation or some other special state that you have to get to or feel. When once or twice you try and you don’t get anywhere or you didn’t feel anything special, then you think you are one of those people who can’t do it. But, meditation is not about feeling a certain way. It’s about feeling the way you feel.
Above all, meditation is about letting the mind be as it is and knowing something about how it is in this moment. It’s not about getting somewhere else, but about allowing yourself to be where you already are. If you don’t understand this, you will think you are constitutionally unable to meditate.
True, meditation does require energy and a commitment to stick with it. Anybody can sit down and watch their breath or watch their mind. And you don’t have to be sitting. You could do it walking, standing, lying down, standing on one leg, running, or taking a bath. But to stay at it for even five minutes requires intentionality. To make it part of your life requires some discipline.
Just try again, this time letting go of their expectations and just watching. Capture the moments. Meditate on the Now.
Our breathing can help us in capturing our moments. It’s surprising that more people don’t know about this. After all, the breath is always here, right under our noses.
To use your breathing to nurture mindfulness, just tune in to the feeling of it – the feeling of the breath coming into your body and the feeling of the breath leaving your body. That’s all. Just feeling the breath. Breathing and knowing that you’re breathing.
Just try to concentrate on your breath. If you look up the word “spirit” in the dictionary, you will find that it comes from the Latin, spirare, meaning “to breathe.” The in-breath is inspiration; the out-breath expiration. The work of mindfulness is waking up to vitality in every moment that we have. In wakefulness, everything inspires. Nothing is excluded from the domain of spirit.
Use your breath to help you to stay in the moment – feeling your own body standing, breathing, being, moment by moment. Thoughts will come up which will pull your attention away. Work with those perceptions, thoughts, feelings and impulses, memories and anticipations. Accept them. Reflect them in the mirror that is the present moment. See them clearly and let them go with the outgoing breath.
Ending The Meditation
Toward the end, if you are not particularly attentive, before you know it you’ll be off doing something else, with no awareness whatsoever of how the meditation came to an end. The transition will be a blur at best. You can bring mindfulness to this process by being in touch with the thoughts and impulses which tell you it’s time to stop. Whether you’ve been still for an hour or for three minutes, a powerful feeling all of a sudden may say, “This is enough.” Or you look at your watch and it’s the time you said you would quit.
As you recognize such an impulse, breathe with it for a few moments, and ask yourself, “Who has had enough?” Try looking into what is behind the impulse. Is it fatigue, boredom, pain, impatience; or is it just time to stop? Whatever the case, rather than automatically leaping up or moving on, try lingering with whatever arises out of this inquiry, breathing with it for a few moments or even longer, and allowing the moving out of your meditation posture to be as much an object of moment-to-moment awareness as any other moment in the meditation. Bring awareness to how you end your meditations. Don’t judge it or yourself in any way. Just observe, and stay in touch with the transition from one thing to the next.
You may even do the Standing Meditation and then the Walking Meditation again to end the period of Meditation. Stand up slowly, imagine being a Tree. Become a River and flow out of your room. Go to the balcony, enjoy the breeze as a tree again and then come back refreshed for a fresh day of studying.
This technique of learning to transition slowly in and out of things might soon help you to do things that you consider “tasks” to be accomplished more easily. Adopt this attitude before you start your daily exercise, before you sit down to study, before you go jogging, maybe even as you sit down to write the board exams. Let a continuum help you shift gears into things, so that you don;t postpone or cancel them.
Also use the technique of examining your intentions when you feel the need to stop an activity. Imagine you are studying, or jogging, or exercising. You feel the need to stop. Ask yourself why. Are you tired? Whatever be the answer, breathe with it a few times. Breathe with this idea that you want to stop. Then continue the activity for some more time. The more your practice this, the more you will find that your attention span is increasing.
You can meditate even while lying down. You might find the image of a lake helpful then. Imagine floating on a beautiful lake which supports you in stillness, not going anywhere, held and cradled in awareness. Does it have ripples? Waves? Note the calm below the surface.
You can also focus on different areas of the body while lying down and meditating like this. A sort of Body Scan with a Breath Machine. Not everybody can sit for forty-five minutes right away but anybody can do the body scan. All you need to do is lie there and feel different regions of your body and then let go of them. One way to practice is to inwardly direct your breath in to and out from the various regions of your body as if you could breathe right in to your toes or your knee, or your ear. When you feel ready, on an outbreath you just let go of that region.
In time you can extend this feeling of awareness and ‘wakefulness’ to everyday activities. Start slowly. Take deliberate small steps first. Maybe before you sit down to study?
Try to recognize the beauty of the present moment in your daily life. If you are up early in the morning, try going outside and looking (a sustained, mindful, attentive looking) at the stars, at the moon, at the dawning light when it comes. Feel the air, the cold, the warmth. Realize that the world around you is sleeping. Remember when you see the stars that you are looking back in time millions of years. The past is present now and here.
Thus, every now and then try Casual Meditation. Stopping, sitting down, and becoming aware of your breathing. It can be for five minutes, or even five seconds. Let go into full acceptance of the present moment, including how you are feeling and what you perceive to be happening. For these moments, don’t try to change anything at all, just breathe and let go. Breathe and let be. Give yourself permission to allow this moment to be exactly as it is, and allow yourself to be exactly as you are. Then, when you’re ready, move in the direction your heart tells you to go, mindfully and with resolution.
You can use ordinary, repetitive occasions in your own house as invitations to practice Mindfulness. Going to the front door, answering the telephone, seeking out someone else in the house to speak with, going to the bathroom, going to the refrigerator, can all be occasions to slow down and be more in touch with each present moment. Notice the inner feelings which push you toward the telephone or the doorbell on the first ring. Why does your response time have to be so fast that it pulls you out of the life you were living in the preceding moment? Can these transitions become more graceful? Can you be more where you find yourself, all the time? Also, try being present for things like taking a shower, or eating. When you are in the shower, are you really in the shower? Do you feel the water on your skin, or are you someplace else, lost in thought, missing the shower altogether? Eating is another good occasion for mindfulness practice. Are you tasting your food? Are you aware of how fast, how much, when, where, and what you are eating? Can you make your entire day as it unfolds into an occasion to be present or to bring yourself back to the present, over and over again?
These questions can help you cut through those moments when self-involved feeling states, mindless habits, and strong emotions dominate your practice. They can quickly bring you back to the freshness and beauty of each moment as it is. Perhaps you forgot or didn’t quite grasp that meditation really is the one human activity in which you are not trying to get anywhere else but simply allowing yourself to be where and as you already are.
The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing. Knowing the path you are taking in life.
Contemplating “What is my Way?” is an excellent element to inject into our meditation practice. We don’t have to come up with answers, nor think that there has to be one particular answer. Better not to think at all. Instead, only persist in asking the question. As with everything else in the meditation practice, we just watch, listen, note, let be, let go, and keep generating the question, “What is my Way?”, “What is my path?”, “Who am I?”
After all, in this moment, it may be an accurate statement of how things are for you.
This is a good way to find the path that lies closest to your heart. After all, the journey is one of heroic proportions, but so much more so if enlivened by wakefulness and a commitment to adventurous inquiry. As a human being, you are the central figure in the universal hero’s mythic journey, the fairy tale, the Arthurian quest. For men and women alike, this journey is the trajectory between birth and death, a human life lived. No one escapes the adventure. We only work with it differently.
When we practice meditation, we are really acknowledging that in this moment, we are on the road of life. The path unfolds in this moment and in every moment while we are alive. Meditation is more rightly thought of as a “Way” than as a technique. It is a Way of being, a Way of living, a Way of listening, a Way of walking along the path of life and being in harmony with things as they are.
Seeing your own life this very day as a journey and as an adventure. Where are you going? What are you seeking? Where are you now? What stage of the journey have you come to? Are you stuck here in certain ways? Can you be fully open to all of the talents at your disposal at this point? Note that this journey is uniquely yours, no one else’s. So the path has to be your own. Are there struggles? Difficulties? You have to listen and take them on in the spirit of the heroic never-ending quest each of us embodies.
Think of this journey as a forging period. During this time, inwardly, a new development is taking place, a maturation, a metamorphosis, a tempering, which culminates in the emergence of a fully developed human being, radiant and golden, but also wise to the ways of the world, no longer a passive and naive agent. The fully developed human being embodies the unity of soul and spirit, up and down, material and non-material.
The meditation practice itself is a mirror of this journey of growth and development. It too takes us down as well as up, demands that we face, even embrace, pain and darkness as well as joy and light. It reminds us to use whatever comes up and wherever we find ourselves as occasions for inquiry, for opening, for growing in strength and wisdom, and for walking our own path.
Meditation can indeed be done at any time. Take a break from time to time. Maybe during the advertisements of a cricket match, maybe while reaching for a glass of water while eating. Remind yourself: “This is it.” Remind yourself that acceptance of the present moment has nothing to do with resignation in the face of what is happening. It simply means a clear acknowledgment that what is happening is happening. Acceptance doesn’t tell you what to do. What happens next, what you choose to do, that has to come out of your understanding of this moment.
Try telling yourself when you find that you are not concentrating on what you are studying or reading that “This is it.” Tell yourself that this is what you are doing. Re-evaluate. Accept that you were being lazy and ask yourself what you really want to be doing at this moment, then do that. Wholeheartedly.
The type of ‘Mindfulness Meditation’ that I am recommending to you is not “new-age” or spiritual. It is the same kind of self-awareness you would have to practice if you were a hunter or a long-distance runner. That is why this is deeply scientific and hence very very useful. It ties in fundamentally with our evolutionary history, and the awareness of breath and body is part of how we should be in a world not so artificial in its trappings. That is why I recommend to you this form of mediation over any other.
That is why I kept insisting that anything, any action you do in your life can be made into a sort of meditation. Reading a book can be made into meditation too. So can sitting down and studying. Or playing cricket. It is not just about concentration but about a complete awareness about yourself. Sort of like what young Jedis are trained for in Jedi temples – We have spoken about this, remember? ‘Jedi Awareness’? As you bring awareness to what you are doing. That awareness is what really matters.
May Meditation help you in the full development of your true potential. It is a way of being, of living life as if it really matters, moment by moment by moment. Make it part of you daily life, rather than merely as a technique or as one more thing you have to do during your already too busy day.
The deepest of bows to you for having the courage and perseverance involved in throwing yourself wholeheartedly into this adventure of a lifetime. May every breath you take in mindfulness, in your everyday life, make you smarter, wiser, more compassionate and kinder. Moment by moment, breath by breath.