Understanding Meditation

Every form of meditation that I have studied since late l971 begins the training with some mention of or focus on the breath. Everyone who is alive breathes. It is a universally common denominator and familiar to all of us no matter what language we speak or no matter what religion we follow. Now the reason that almost all forms of meditation begin with awareness of the breath is why? It is present. It’s here. It’s always in the present tense and if we train ourselves to pay attention to our breathing it connects our mind to our body—the first step in integrating the subtle energy of soul with the gross matter of form. Now we are getting at it. But why do we want to meditate? Why do we have this desire to dig deeper into ourselves? And how does meditation help us to dig deeper exactly and see ourselves more clearly? Isn’t just doing a little stretching and breathing enough?

Let’s say as we are sitting quietly and starting to pay attention to our breathing, as we will do shortly, the first thing we begin to notice is our gross physical habits—what for example? Like restlessness. Is it physical discomfort that causes us to fidget and be uncomfortable with stillness or is it mental activity and stress. If we were to try and focus on our breath for five minutes, what thoughts would intrude? Who or what takes our attention? What are you giving your energy to? What is taking your prana? If we started to do this five minutes every day, we would begin to notice this same restlessness in other areas of our lives. We would begin to look at all this stuff. What is going on with us—not only on the outside, but more importantly, on the inside? Where is our attention? Why can’t we, for example, shut off our mind when we want to go to sleep? Under normal circumstances during the day we might not be aware of how busy our mind is but when we want to sleep or meditate and the mind can’t or won’t shut off, suddenly we become aware of this restlessness.

Or perhaps we are a terrible listener. We don’t know that we can’t or don’t listen until a friend or a partner tells us that we never listen to them. Even then we don’t really hear this because we are busy thinking about our response and defense. As we continue this practice of trying to focus on our breathing for five minutes every day we start to notice more and more how our thoughts interrupt and how we are constantly distracted by mental fluctuations. This objective awareness of our restless mind is the first step toward beginning the practice of meditation. The initial awareness that we are not our thoughts—in other words, what we are thinking about is not who we are, and that our thoughts are actually something that we can stand back from and observe is the very first glimmer of awakening in the meditation process. The mental restlessness we experience is often called “monkey mind” in the yoga tradition, a phrase that graphically depicts an image of a monkey swinging around in the jungle from branch to branch chasing whatever catches its attention. Literally, it refers to the mind jumping around like a monkey.

These fluctuations of our mind are caused by the going back and forth between the mental lists of what we desire and what we do not desire, or between what brings us pleasure (what is comfortable, enjoyable, and is to be pursued) and what we have aversion to (what leads to unhappiness or discomfort, and is to be avoided at any cost). Thinking about our desires and aversions creates a state of almost constant restlessness.

We spend a huge amount of time thinking about how we can maximize pleasure and minimize discomfort. Think for a minute about what you think about. No kidding. What did you spend most of today thinking about? We are incredibly busy in this pursuit. We are going backwards in time, thinking about enjoyable things, and how to recreate them in the future. Or we are going backwards in time remembering unpleasant, painful events and putting our energy into manipulating the present so we can avoid having them happen again in the future. Now this isn’t all bad. It is a basic survival instinct—avoid things that cause pain, especially if they can kill you. But it is important that we practice viveka (discernment) and learn to distinguish between actual threats and mental distortions that we interpret as threats—which really are merely insults to our ego. Perhaps we have been criticized or misunderstood or disrespected—this is normal, part of life. It’s gonna happen. We can’t insulate ourselves from stress, from the 50 percent of life that is never going to be comfortable for us. All we can do is become comfortable with the uncomfortable—unless it’s going to kill us. If it merely threatens our equipoise, we can move away, or turn inward, or focus on something else, or develop disregard.

With all this mental activity taking us into the past and the future, there is little of us left over to actually experience life, as it is, in this moment. So how is meditation going to help with this? A meditation technique is designed to help us learn to concentrate on one thing, whether it is the breath, or a candle, or a sound, or an image. We are trying to learn to train the mind to focus on one thing and stay focused on that one thing. We cannot learn to meditate until we learn to concentrate. That is why dharana, (concentration) is the sixth limb of classical yoga, and the first step of the antaranga, or the “inner limbs” of the yoga path and dhyana is the seventh limb. As we practice this technique of staying focused on one thing—which starts with our asana practice and continues through the eight limbs of yoga all the way to meditation—we slowly get better at doing it and as we learn to concentrate on one thing, the bodily processes, including thought, begin to slow down. Every meditation technique has this one thing in common: focus the mind on one thing, whether it is a narrow focus like a repeating a mantra (a Sanskrit sound or word like om, also written aum), or an open focus, like listening to what is (the sounds in the room, the rain, the bird calls, the thunder). The objective is the same—learn to concentrate. Look back at all the religious traditions—and their scriptures whether the Vedas, or the Koran, or the Bible, or whatever. One thing they all have in common—every single authentic scripture tells us the same thing—and that is get your attention in present time.

Why is this? Because it is only when we are present, in the moment, that we truly experience Life. And can understand the wisdom of Universal Consciousness or what in some religious traditions is called “knowing God.” Now is all there is. Now is when we experience ourselves. Now is when we are happy. Now is also when we are unhappy. But both are simply opposite aspects of reality. And in the Non-dual, Universal Oneness, they are both just different sides of One Coin. We train the mind to pay attention through the practice of concentration so we can experience life—our life, our manifesting and experiencing ourselves, expressing ourselves—as it truly is and as the mind learns to pay attention it becomes quiet. It is thru this practice of stilling the mind that we begin to go deeper and deeper into ourselves and begin to realize our True Nature. The understanding of the purpose and joy of meditation comes only out of the practice of meditation.

Remember, the experience of meditation is the experience of yoga, finding that stillness within each of us that comes as a result of training the mind to focus. Meditation is not simply the repetition of the word or the counting of the breath—this is only preparation for the actual experience of meditation, as in pranayama or dharana practices. The meditation experience is the full experiential reality of the present moment that comes as result of the journey taken via the meditation technique. The technique is simply the boat that takes you across the river, to the shores of the meditation experience itself. And just as when the surface of a lake becomes still like glass you can see deeply into the depths of the lake, so it is when we go deeply into the stillness of the Self, and the mind is quiet that we find our connection to our soul or our True Self.  And whatever is swirling around us doesn’t matter. We have found our center and whether chaos or calm is predominant, we can stay anchored in harmony and joyfulness. And when we lose our center, our yoga tools are standing by to return us to our very own ground zero.

Find out about upcoming programs with Beryl Bender Birch at Kripalu.

Excerpted with permission from Boomer Yoga, © 2009, by Beryl Bender Birch.