Photographs of beautiful women dressed in white yoga clothes, immaculately made-up and airbrushed, sitting in meditation postures, are used nowadays to advertise anything from soya milk to exclusive wellness spas. They are almost cliché, in the same way that women in bikinis are used to advertise expensive cars.
Meditation has become a marketable phenomenon. But do we really know what it is?
What Meditation Isn’t…
A common misperception is that meditation is simply a tool to help us to de-stress, relax deeply and soothe the nervous system. It is often portrayed in this way, especially in the new age world.
Whilst these are positive and valuable side effects of a consistent meditation practice, they are far removed from the traditional or deeper aspirations of the serious practitioner.
The Real Goal of Meditation Practice
Traditionally the goal of meditation practice is to awaken from the dream of a separate sense of self. Through meditation, you to begin to see life and yourself with profound clarity and freedom.
Working with the “Monkey Mind”
When we sit on our cushion, we suddenly find ourselves alone with our own mind. We are often surprised at how agitated and relentless the thought stream appears to be. In Buddhism this is often referred to as the “monkey mind.” And we all have one! By sitting and witnessing the endless fluctuations of the mind, we slowly start to understand its nature.
The practice is to simply be aware of everything that arises in our consciousness and to choose to stay present and not to get entangled in any of our thoughts or feelings. We endeavour to gently let go of any thought or feeling or experience that arises.
Learning to be Present
We notice that it is habitual to be lost in thought and feelings. We are often either rehashing past events or projecting our fears and desires on the future. It takes steady effort and focus to remain very aware of the simple, direct and unadulterated experience of the present moment.
Discovering Who We Are
As we become more skilled at staying present, we learn to observe thoughts and feelings arise without getting caught up in them. This allows us to sink into a profound awareness of ourselves as Cosmic Consciousness, which is who we are beyond the body, beyond the mind and beyond the individuated sense of self. So a very good reason to meditate is to glimpse your real nature and to recognise your true self beyond ego.
We may have mistakenly believed that we are the thought-stream, but when we find ourselves witnessing our thoughts, we suddenly realize that we are not the thought forms but the one who is able to be aware of the mind. That can be literally mind-blowing, in a good way.
Changing Our Perspective
We start to see that everything that passes through our awareness is just a wave of energy or a movement in consciousness. It ceases to matter whether the content of thought is “positive” or “negative”. On a profound level the content of our own minds ceases to really matter. What becomes more important is our ability to stay present and aware, instead of becoming fascinated by the content of our mind.
Consistently doing this practice will start to affect our everyday experience. It will give us the ability to become more objective, rather than always relating to the world through the lens of what I think and what I feel.
Naturally, we will start to experience a little more space between our thoughts and are actions. We won’t just react in a knee-jerk way when our buttons get pushed, instead we will take a deep breath and decide calmly on the best response. We will become less agitated and experience greater equanimity.
This doesn’t mean we will never get upset, or experience ups and downs, but that we will be better equipped to deal with the ruffles and riles of daily life and will have a greater perspective on what it means to have a human mind.
Mastering the Mind
Ultimately we will gain more and more mastery over the roller coaster of thoughts and feelings that is the nature of mind. In doing so, we become a master over our own mind, rather than being enslaved by it. As we start to gain space in the mind and learn to loosen the fascination with the content of our own minds, we also will begin to experience greater depth, joy and peace in our meditation. This is when we rest in the ground of being, before thought. The great masters have called this Satchitananda: Truth, Consciousness and Bliss.
Meditation Techniques and Methods
There are many different techniques for practising meditation. For instance, in Zen and Vipassana the focus is on the breath, whereas when practising Japa a mantra is used. Any technique is good, as long as it works for you. There may be many different roads that lead to the centre of town, but as long as you reach the destination, it doesn’t matter how you got there. The same route doesn’t always appeal to everyone. That is why it is good to find a technique that resonates with you and then to stick with it.
Just Keep Practising
As Patanjali said, what will make a difference in the end, is a steady and consistent practice over a long period of time.
Vidya Jacqueline Heisel, SYT is the Director of Frog Lotus Yoga International Yoga Teacher Training Programs and of Suryalila Retreat Centre in Andalucia, Spain.
This article was first published in Om Yoga Magazine.
Inspired to learn more? Vidya leads Yoga Teacher Training courses, in which meditation is valued daily practice. Click here to find out more.