Meditation, the Fundamental Technique of Yoga

meditationWe began our exploration of “Living Yoga” with a look at the key principles of the Yoga tradition, followed by an overview of each of the four major branches. In our next few articles, we’ll now take a closer look at the primary techniques, starting with the one we’ve seen to be central to all four branches, from the physical to mental to spiritual, and that is meditation. Today we’ll look at the basics of meditation including the many benefits it can provide and why the Yogis actually considered it to be indispensable for a happy, balanced life.

 An Opening Observation…. 

 To begin, most of us have heard meditation offers numerous benefits, including better stress-management and concentration. And yet, in spite of this, in my experience even those of us drawn to meditation often have a hard time making it a regular part of our lives. The good news is there are some simple and very common reasons for this. Once we understand where those challenges come from and that we’re not alone, it becomes far easier to make this powerful practice a regular part of our routine. So let’s take a look first at how much meditation can do for us and then where and why those challenges tend to arise.

 Meditation & Stress

 Of course, any time we begin a new endeavor it’s helpful to look at the benefits, especially when the practice is difficult or subtle. Basically, the more we know we’ll get from it, the easier it is to stay motivated. To begin, you might be familiar with the extensive research proving meditation significantly reduces stress, as well as countless studies showing just how essential stress-management is for our health.  And yet, in our increasingly busy world, stress-management ironically can be something we have trouble justifying, so let’s start with why it’s so vital.

Obviously, our “fight or flight” response has a powerful impact throughout our body: in an emergency, we actually suspend “non-urgent” functions such digestion, immune defense, and cellular repair, to direct that energy to the challenge at hand. Obviously, in the short term this is valuable, but prolonged it becomes dangerous, as vital functions become chronically suppressed. Over time, digestion and elimination become weak, immune response plummets, and injuries take longer to heal, all further compounding the stress of our lives.

On top of this, chronic stress leads to several subtler but equally important challenges: nerve function is reduced, which means we’re less aware of injury or illnesses, motor skills decrease making us more prone to accidents, and insulin regulation becomes erratic, resulting in surges and crashes of blood sugar which are also stressful. Perhaps most important of all, chronic stress disrupts our cognitive function, which means we have an even harder time dealing constructively with the stresses we’re facing. Put together, you can see why prolonged stress is such a danger to both physical and cognitive health and why stress-management is so important. Again, study after study confirms meditation is one of the very best stress-reduction tools out there.  By adding it to our self-care routine, we can not only improve our health but dramatically improve physical and mental performance and ultimately our quality of life.

 Meditation & “Presence”

 At this point, hopefully you’re already excited to try meditation, but I’ve found it can be helpful to explore a few additional benefits for one subtle but very important reason: because meditation involves using our minds pretty much the opposite of how we have been conditioned to use them, at the start it takes some effort to make the shift, which means instead of being relaxing, initially meditation can be a bit stressful. Obviously, if we’re doing it solely for stress-reduction, it can then be easy to get discouraged and quit. On the other hand, if we realize the many additional benefits we’re receiving in the mean time, it’s easier to stick with it long enough to experience the stress-management rewards as well.

So what else does meditation provide? The first is dramatically improved focus. The Yogis realized our minds have a tendency to jump from thing to thing – a tendency we in fact actively cultivate, both in work and in our entertainment. This capacity has some very real benefits, including giving us the ability to anticipate challenges as well as the solutions for dealing with them. But it’s not so beneficial for staying focused, which means we tend to cultivate it at the expense of being able to focus on what’s in front of us right now.

For example, have you ever finished a meal only to realize you were so busy thinking about other things that you didn’t fully enjoy it? Or perhaps you’ve found yourself at the end of a special event like your child’s recital wishing you’d paid more attention? Again, the Yogis realized this is a natural result of what we cultivate and that if we want to get better at staying focused on the task at hand or simply appreciating what we’re doing we need to apply equal effort. This is exactly what meditation does – that is, by teaching our minds to focus on something simple, we gradually build our ability to be present and aware so ultimately we can be mindful and focused in each moment of our lives.

 Mediation & Self-Awareness

 Another thing the Yogis observed is we’re often unaware of the thoughts passing through us – for example, we can be worrying or projecting or judging without even realizing we are doing it. They also realized these unconscious thoughts have great power, much like having negative gossip in the background can steadily influence our mood and outlook – hours of ruminating over work, for example, not only creating chronic stress but also keeping us from being truly focused. Again, the Yogis realized meditation can dramatically change this: by teaching ourselves to stay aware of our thoughts while on the mat, we gradually become more attentive throughout the day, seeing “less-constructive” thoughts as they arise and redirecting them before they build momentum.  Ultimately, this allows us to be more productive, more present, and more at peace.

 From Self-Awareness to Compassion

 This leads us to our final benefit of meditation, one many in the West don’t realize, and that is the fact meditation helps us build compassion. This can come as a surprise as many of us think of meditation as private or even “selfish,” but the Yogis realized it can actually be a powerful tool for building empathy and connection. Essentially, as we become more aware of our own thoughts and patterns, we actually become more sympathetic toward others – we realize they, too wrestle with their own similar issues, often without awareness, and this helps us feel empathy, even when our patterns are very different. This realization helps us be more patient and kind, better able to accept the challenges of others even as we learn to navigate our own. The Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki called this “Big Mind,” as opposed to the “Small Mind” of our ego, and reminded us this is essential for seeing and serving from a place of true love and not attachment.

 Why Meditation Can Be Challenging

 Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s turn briefly to why meditation can be difficult. Again, I’ve found the more we understand the reasons for our challenges the easier it is to get past them and experience the many rewards. The first challenge to meditation is captured quite well by the Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar, who wrote: “It’s so simple to be happy, it’s so difficult to be simple.” Most of us have been taught the more important something is, the more complex it must be – a misconception that actually creates a great deal of friction in our lives, including in the area of meditation. Obviously, given all the benefits it provides, it’s natural to assume meditation must be quite complex, and in turn, when we hear it described quite simply, to assume we must be missing something or that we’re not being told the “full version.” But the truth of the matter is that meditation really is incredibly simple – in fact, much of its power comes precisely from that. Once we grasp this it can be very liberating, but it can take time to get past our conditioned belief.

A second reason meditation tends to be difficult, as mentioned earlier, is the fact we’ve invested a lot of energy teaching our minds to constantly and readily move from topic to topic. Again, this is great for problem solving but not so great for being in the moment. Once more, meditation can be a powerful tool for rebalancing this, but we need to stay aware of the fact we’re now training our minds in the opposite direction and it is going to take equal effort. Again, the more we can stay in touch with just how much programming we have, the more patient we can be with the process involved in reversing that. On a related note, it’s also helpful to remember we’ve not only trained our minds to be this way but our bodies, too, which means we tend to have as much trouble just sitting still as we do quieting the mind. Again, the more we can see and remember this, the more patient we can be with the process.

Finally, the subtlest and yet perhaps most powerful challenge to meditation is ego. Simply put, the Yogis and Buddhists realized we’re all attached to the capacities of our minds – whether our reasoning, our knowledge, or simply our emotional capacity. And with good reason: obviously, these skills help us deal with the challenges of life. But the problem arises when we start to think of these skills as “who we are” – essentially, the more we identify with those parts of ourselves, the more we unconsciously start to see our circumstances in terms of them. There’s an old expression that captures this well that says: “To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” which means we tend to see things in terms of the tools at our disposal. In this sense, the more we identify with our own particular “skill set,” the more we tend to distort our vision of the world to fit those abilities.

In turn, there’s a Yogic expression that ties in with this, that says: “The mind is a terrible master, but a wonderful servant…” – in other words, when we let our minds control us, our outlook becomes limited, whereas if we control them, we can use our minds without letting them drag us into their ego-based issues. When we meditate, this is exactly what we are doing – putting these capacities on hold and temporarily removing them from governing our lives, which leads us finally to our last challenge, which is that our minds very naturally rebel against this. To understand, imagine going to the head of a company and saying: “For the next thirty minutes, you’re going to take a break and we’ll be running things ourselves.” How would he or she respond? This is exactly what we do to our minds when we meditate and they respond just like that boss: depending on their nature, they might fight or argue or patiently explain our mistake, but one way or another they naturally resist. If we can anticipate this and not allow it to discourage or distract us, we can eventually return our minds to their rightful place as “useful and appreciated employees” rather than our “bosses” and in turn ultimately realize just how much more joyous and constructive our lives can be.

 The Basics of Yogic Meditation

 Now that we’ve explored the importance and challenges of meditation, let’s take a look at the practice itself. Again, at its heart, meditation is incredibly simple – so simple we often can’t believe we’re doing it right.  But there really are just a few basic and very simple steps. First, the Yogis realized it is much easier to quiet our minds if we use something to hold their attention. We want it to be simple so it’s easy to use and fairly neutral so it doesn’t draw us back into world concerns – that is, we don’t want to use something like a Ferrari because that will build thoughts rather than allowing them to subside. According to the Yogis, simple examples would include the breath, a word or simple phrase, or an image such as a candle or a pattern. Again, we want it to be simple and neutral with the understanding it is just something we can use to hold the minds attention but without encouraging “analysis” or “evaluation….”

Once we have our focus, meditation is really as simple as the following three steps:

  1. We direct our attention to our focus….
  2. We watch our mind, noting when it “wanders away…”
  3. When it does, we gently direct it back to our focus.

…. And that, difficult as it may be to believe, is really all meditation is. Again, most tend to think there must be more to be as powerful as it is while others are confused by the fact these steps don’t say anything about “peace” or “serenity.” But it really is that simple and the element of peace actually is there, but it’s more of a byproduct than formal step – that is, as we get better at watching the mind and guiding it back to our focus, it eventually becomes more calm and settles into periods of tranquility. Ultimately, this becomes something we can do whenever we wish – even in the middle of the most stressful tasks. Again, this can be said to be the true goal of meditation: the ability to be calm and serene even in the midst of intense effort.  But remember, even before we reach this stage, these initial steps are providing significant benefits themselves: we’re getting better at guiding our minds, which builds presence and focus in our daily lives, we’re getting better at observing our minds, which increases of awareness of when we fall into assumptions and programed thinking, and we’re getting better at redirecting our minds, which allows us to lead them back from those patterns to more constructive thoughts, wherever we might be.

 Building a Personal Practice

 Now that we’ve explored the basics, let’s talk a little about building a practice. The first thing to know is meditation doesn’t have to take a lot of time – in fact, my teacher frequently said even ten or fifteen minutes can provide incredible benefits, especially if that makes it something we can commit to more regularly and with greater focus. Much like exercise, even ten minutes of sincere meditation daily is more powerful than an hour of “half-hearted” meditation, especially if a longer period makes it harder for us to find the time.

The second element is time of day. Classically, the Yogis found first thing in the morning tends to be most conducive – our minds and surroundings are more quiet and we’re more likely to be able to find time than once we’re caught up in the energy of our day. That much said, if later works better for your mind or schedule, after work or before sleep can be every bit as beneficial, especially if it feels better and is easier to keep up. That much said, whatever time we choose, consistency does help – that is, sitting at the same basic time each day tends to make it easier to fall into a “positive routine.”

A final practical element is how we sit. Many traditions put a fair emphasis on posture, hand-position, and even surroundings and “accessories,” but in my tradition we take a more relaxed approach.  Of course, all of those elements can be helpful if they resonate for us, but we feel they aren’t essential. We believe all that’s truly necessary is a comfortable but alert seated position. Of course, if sitting on a cushion works for you, that’s great, but if a chair feels better, we feel that is just as good. Again, we want to stay alert, so sitting up-right is better than reclining, but if a chair lets us focus on our mind rather than our knees, we feel that is just as good as the floor.

 “Easeful, Peaceful, Useful….” 

 So those are the basics, including why meditation can be challenging and also so incredibly beneficial. Once more, practiced regularly, meditation can help us reduce stress, restoring our natural physical resiliency, thinking more clearly, and dealing with challenges more constructively, it can help us improve awareness of our patterns, building our capacity to guide our thoughts in healthier directions and increasing our empathy, and finally, it can help us increase our presence and focus, allowing us to more deeply observe, experience, and enjoy. In this way, ultimately, regular meditation helps us to be more comfortable in our bodies, more centered in our minds & more helpful to others, experiencing what my teacher Swami Satchidananda used to remind us is the true goal of Yoga, which is to be “Peaceful, easeful, and useful.”

In our next article, we’ll continue our exploration of the major tools with the breathing practices of Yoga or pranayama. Until then, once again wishing you the best in your own personal relationship to “Living Yoga….”

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