How Meditation is Different
There are a few things you should understand prior to attempting to meditate. These keys will help clear up misconceptions about what meditation is. Meditation is different from others things that you do in your life in a very significant way. For most tasks that you embark on through your day or throughout your life, there’s a goal you’re trying to reach. When you form a goal, you’re implicitly saying that having this goal is preferred to not having this goal. You rank it higher.
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For instance, so your goal is to have more income than you currently have. What you’re doing in your mind is saying “right now, my current income is bad and I need to change it in order to get to something better.” There’s a certain tension that develops and you work to relieve this tension by trying to make more money. You push forward. The same thing happens when you’re trying to improve yourself emotionally, psychologically, improve your relationships, your job, your level of boredom, of disappointment, whatever. You rank having something higher than not having it and the tension between the two motivates you to push forward. It puts you in a state of mind we can call “Pursuit Mode.” This is how we go through most of our life, skipping from one goal to another, whether personal, professional, material, or spiritual.
Meditation is different from this because in meditation, we don’t set goals. We don’t try to get to this spiritual place. We’re not setting one state of being, like spirituality or peace or happiness, above another and pushing forward to get it. We’re not searching for something in meditation. Instead, we see what’s already here, whether or not we like it, whether or not we understand it, whether or not it’s boring or confusion or scary or uncomfortable. We let it be here. We don’t have to do anything special to it, as that would be setting another goal. We just let it be here, as it is, quietly and patiently.
So am I saying you don’t do anything at all? Are you meditating right now? No. The reason meditation takes effort and time is because our minds are naturally and habitually spinning all the time. Whether we realize it or not, we’re constantly setting goals and looking for things to make us better and more secure. We live in this state of tension all the time and because we’ve done it so long, and because everyone else is doing it (and praising it!), we don’t realize there’s an alternative that would actually mean something or somehow be useful. It takes care and attention to realize that we’re doing this and to stop all internal fighting and struggling.
So, when you ask “how do I meditate”, ask yourself if you’ve decided that there’s a state that you’re trying to get to with your meditation. Have you set up another goal? A meditative state that trumps your current state of boredom or frustration? If you have, remember that meditation is not a destination. We’re not going anywhere special. We’re just staying right here, right where we are, and seeing what’s already here in this experience. What feelings are we already having? Frustration? Boredom? Restlessness? Confusion? What sensations are we already having? Tension in the back? Vulnerability in the chest? Tenderness in the throat? Sadness in the eyes? What type of breath are we already experiencing? Soft? Strained? Slow? Fast? Short? Long? We just let it be there. As we do that, our heart starts to slowly open up. It may not be immediate. It may come in small amounts over a long time, but it happens. This is why people call meditation a training of the heart.
Last, let’s talk about thoughts. Thoughts are a tricky area in meditation. It’s your thoughts that create goals and try to make plans to accomplish those goals. When you let your mind wander too much, it’ll start thinking about what you need to be complete and start reviewing the things you have on your personal and professional to do list. The natural tendency that people have, including myself, is to try and end thinking—to shut it down and chase it away with force. But doing this is problematic because it creates yet another goal: it places not thinking above thinking and puts us back in Pursuit Mode where we’re trying to get somewhere and attain something. As we’ve already said, meditation is not about getting somewhere, it’s about being where you are.
So the correct relationship to thoughts is to witness them, to experience them, without rushing to do anything special with them. That means, not being in a rush to eradicate your thoughts, but also not being in a rush to study them and analyze and elaborate upon each interesting thought that comes into your mind. You can simply witness what’s here, while it’s here. When it leaves, it leaves.
So, in essence, meditation is listening, listening to what’s already here in no particularly special way. Just seeing what we see, feeling what we feel, sensing what we’re already sensing. We don’t have to steer our experience or control it; we don’t have to force ourselves to be someone special or get somewhere. Enough of that. We have a right to be here and we’re strong enough to face whatever is already here without being in a rush to change it, whether boredom or fear or confusion or sadness or vulnerability.
The night Buddha found his own peace, he was sitting in deep meditation under a Bo tree in
. His mind tried to tease him will all sorts of thoughts of distraction, temptation, and self-doubt. In Buddhism scripture, this aspect of the mind is personified and named Mara, the tempter. Mara bombarded Buddha with threats, distractions, mental demons, and sexy dancing girls. When they failed to shake Buddha’s concentration, Mara made one last attempt, saying “what gives you the right to be here?” Buddha touched the Earth gently to call the planet as a witness to his right to stay seated. Buddha was saying that he had a right to be there. He didn’t have to get anything else to be complete. He didn’t need any more qualifications or practice to witness his experience and be at peace with it. India
There are some practical things that can help prepare you for this intimate looking and observing. First, quiet. Find a place that’s nice and quiet. It doesn’t have to be silent. Just enough to help you pay attention. Second, finding a posture that helps you pay attention while not having to worry too much about your posture itself. Sitting in a chair works. Lying in bed will probably make you sleepy. I like to sit on a raised cushion with my legs somewhat folded inside one another. Third, your back. Keeping your back straight will promote attention and prevent sleepiness and dullness.
Meditation can be confusing, so it helps to have a mantra to keep you fresh. The mantra doesn’t have to be something you say over and over. It can just be used as a reminder. You can choose something memorable, or you can use what I use: “Peace is not a destination.” This helps remind me that I don’t have to get anywhere or create something special, psychologically or emotionally. I don’t have to make myself happy or make myself peaceful. My practice is just to sit still with what I already have and let my experience go where it goes, not being in a rush to analyze it to death or steer it.
Lastly, I’ll briefly talk about things you can do in your daily life to help your meditation practice. One way to think of meditation is an opening of the heart. The heart embraces things as they are, without hatred or fear that they’re defective. When your heart is open to another person, you accept them the way they are. You accept that they act the way they do, with whatever flaws they may have and whatever habits they may have picked up. You don’t make them feel guilty for their flaws or silently resent them. (That’s not to say you have to live with them, either.) So, activities and habits that cultivate this open-heartedness will help your meditation.
There’s no limit to what you can design for yourself to help your heart blossom. You can practice sincerity in your speech. You can do nice things for people. You can eliminate the things in your life that make your heart close up. What these all have in common is that they renounce violence. I don’t just mean physical violence. I’m talking all forms of violence: psychological violence, emotional violence, self-directed violence, enemy-directed violence, all of it. Contemplate what your life would look like if you gave up all forms of violence. You would probably talk differently to some people. You would also probably move a little calmer and with more patience. Make a promise to give up violence in your relationships to the world, it’s people, it’s life, and to yourself. This’ll help you strengthen your heart and improve your meditation.