When I talk about meditation I am also talking about what is known as mindfulness (which, after all, is a type of meditation).
Mindful meditation is simply about intentionally bringing your attention to a single point of focus; something that is occurring in the present moment, such as the breath, bodily sensations or your senses (eg. sounds, sights). It is important that we pay attention in a certain way. Our attitude is always one of open curiosity (that is to say acceptance, without judging anything, without believing that we should be thinking different thoughts or feeling different feelings than the ones that we observe are present). We do this with a sense of gentle kindness to ourselves (as we would towards a child or good friend who is suffering or learning a new skill), and a kind sense of humour.
It sounds so simple doesn’t it? I mean what could be difficult about that?
Anyone who has tried will know that it’s not as easy as it first seems. You settle down and bring your attention to (for example) your breath, and within a few seconds your mind is off, following thoughts. You do not see this when it happens, because you’re “not there”. Instead, what happens is, quite suddenly, you realise that you’ve been seconds or minutes lost in thought. So you bring your attention back to your focus; only to repeat the process once again. This is meditation; attention on your focus, realising you got lost in thought, then coming back. Three phases focus, realisation and coming back.
If we adopt the right attitude, then each time we repeat this process we weaken just a little bit our attachment to our thoughts. We become kinder to ourselves as we directly and humbly experience just how little control we have over our thoughts. This is meditation. We call it a meditation practice because, like any skill that you wish to acquire in life, you have to practice. There is no short cut.
This idea feels strange as in our society throughout our education we receive little or no mind training; even though it is the only thing that connects us to reality. Our happiness, success, relationships all depend on our minds and our relationship with our thoughts and our feelings. Happiness is an acquired skill. Through meditation you can train your mind to suffer less and be happier, and yet sadly, most people spend more time and money on their hair than they do on their mind.
Meditation is not about having an empty mind; it is about this process − focus, realisation, coming back. Each time you do this, you are loosening just a bit more your attachment to the rational mind (your thoughts) and strengthening your ability to simply observe. (That’s why it’s called the observing mind). Think of it like mental gym.
We have some twenty-thousand thoughts a day (most of which are pointlessly repetitive and automatic). We live in a kind of constant state of “autopilot”: first we have an experience (sensory input), then perception (thoughts about that thing), which, in turn, produces an emotion), and finally we have a reaction to that emotion. It is not the thoughts that cause suffering in our lives; it is this chain reaction. It is our thoughts about our thoughts; our emotional reaction to our feelings. When we unconsciously act on these feelings it will often lead to consequences that we might later regret.
As we practice our meditation we strengthen our ability to respond instead of react.
When we talk about inner peace, it is not the peace of a blank mind; instead, it is being at peace with the thoughts and feelings that arise, without any need to reject or to grasp what is going on − always with open curiosity, a sense of kindness to yourself and a sense of humour.
Why does this sometimes feel strange, frustrating, even boring?
We live in a state of almost permanent over-stimulation, as we are constantly bombarded with information designed to capture our attention and give us an instant buzz. Our smartphones, social networks and newsfeeds are carefully designed to do just this. For many, this is now an automatic and unconscious way of life. Frustration, boredom, discomfort occurs when we treat meditation in the same way; when we do it to feel good, to get a buzz − just like we might use drugs.
I am not saying that meditating does not lead to a sense of peace or a sense of wellbeing, but this only occurs when we do it simply to do it. When we try to force things by trying to push our thoughts away, then we achieve the opposite; we create more thoughts about our thoughts, and more emotions about our emotions.
Remember the saying “What you resist persists”. When you meditate your commitment is to sit down in a place for a certain amount of time and simply do it.
Acceptance and kindness are the key. We humbly accept that we have little control over our minds; we accept that we will lose concentration; we accept what we observe − the thoughts, the feelings, whatever they might be. We are kind and compassionate to ourselves, especially to our tormented, suffering, minds. If we feel an uncomfortable feeling/emotion we simply allow it to be, we don’t try and get rid of it. Because we hold no expectation, we have no need to criticise ourselves, to judge ourselves or to beat ourselves up.
When we learn to have compassion for our tormented, suffering mind then we will feel happier, we also develop a genuine, altruistic kindness and compassion for others; something that we need to develop for the good of all.