When I was a child I did a few martial arts. Before each class and for a few minutes at the end we could practice either focusing on our breathing or clearing our minds. This was my introduction to meditation. Many of us are taught to believe meditation is getting the mind to be blank, but this is possibly the least sophisticated version of the practice. A little up the food chain is settling or calming the mind. Athletes, and anyone interested in increasing performance like some business people, think meditation is focusing on a skill or mental rehearsal. For energy workers and spiritual practitioners, meditation is for clearing chakras, white or divine light shielding, and increasing vibrational frequency. Yogis meditate to achieving moksha or liberation. Buddhist meditate to awaken, Buddha means awake. All of these are forms of meditation. The word meditation means to become familiar with, or to familiarize with, so any mental activity that increases familiarity is meditation.
In a way we are meditating all the time. Every belief we support or affirm with experience is an act of strengthening familiarization. Every time we get upset about something, like politics, the unfairness of the world, or how shitty other drivers are, we are becoming more and more familiar with those things and our reactions to them. The worse part is whatever we focus on, or recognize, seems to appear more and more in our lives. It’s not magic or law of attraction, it’s just the way the brain works. Doubt me? Play punch buggy. Punch buggy is a game where the first person to see a VW Bug gets to punch the other person. At first, you don’t see too many, but the more you look the more you find, you know, seek and ye shall find. Soon the contestants are punching each other with equal frequency because seeing VW Bugs gets easier and easier.
Meditation is mind training. You are learning to control, not only what you are familiar with, but your reactions and responses to stimuli. All learning is a process of familiarizing. Most of us learn how to view the world naturally and slowly over time. It takes years for us to master our native language. If you doubt this because the “experts” say it is easier for young people to learn language go and try to have an intelligent conversation with a three-year-old. On the flip side, an adult can immerse themselves into a foreign language and become fluent in three months. Focused and concentrated learning can happen quickly which means we can become familiar with new things easier than we believe. What does this have to do with mediation? It’s all meditation. The difference is we can meditate or become familiar unconsciously through social learning and adaptation, or consciously, by choosing to focus on what we want to become familiar with.
Want peace of mind? Become aware of and familiar with peace. It is easier to feel peaceful in nature or a natural setting unless of course, you encounter a snake or a bear. But even mosquitos are a challenge. The Dalai Lama has said, “Think you are too small to make a difference? Try sleeping with a mosquito.” Jokes aside feeling peaceful due to natural or peaceful settings is conditional. True peace of mind is becoming aware of the level or part of your mind that is peaceful and becoming more familiar with it. This is a form of meditating on the mind. Meditation on the mind is an advanced practice. The mind is more than the intellect and the mental chatter we normally think of, mind actually includes the heart and emotions too.
Before we can analyze the mind we need to see the mind. Usually, we are too embroiled in the mind to have enough distance to be able to see or analyze the mind. I know this sounds strange but the mind we are naturally familiar with is the one made of language. It’s the constant chatter and emotional reactions to that chatter that we identify with the most. For a moment consider what kind of thought you had before you had language? You had thought, you just didn’t have linguistic thought, it was a world of sensation and direct engagement without labeling, judging, and evaluating. You couldn’t describe your identity with words like my name is, I am this many years old, I do this for a living, and so on. It is not bad to have linguistic thought, what is bad is being unconsciously controlled and habituated by it. Language based thought is just one level of mind and awareness. We are multidimensional beings and living a life constrained by our language based and reactive animal fight or flight brain is to live a stunted life. We can experience a much larger slice of life by becoming more and more familiar with other parts of our mind. To begin to do this it is best to first learn to become aware of our settled level of mind.
Years ago I learned Transcendental Meditation or TM. I was given a mantra or sound that was matched to me by my birthday. The mantra acts as an anchor. The way it was explained to me is the mind is like the ocean. On the surface the ocean is wavy, but as you go deeper down the water gets calmer and calmer. The mantra acts like an anchor that draws your awareness deeper and deeper, to where the mind is calmer and calmer. Dr. Herbert Benson performed experiments using any two syllable word, like relax, as the mantra. His experiments showed the same physiological response as the TM mantra. The TM mantra and instruction cost about a thousand dollars, but you only pay it once and it’s good for life versus going to a meditation class and paying or donating weekly which could add up to more than a thousand bucks over a lifetime. You could make up a sound like Dr. Benson did, check out his book, The Relaxation Response for detailed instruction. Another way to the settled part of your mind is to simply focus on your breathing. At first, your mind will wander and you won’t even notice that it wandered. One day you will catch your mind wandering and the simple act of noticing your mind wandering and bringing it back to the breathing is greater awareness and more mental control. The more you practice and become familiar with observing the breath, the calmer and clearer you will be. You could gaze at a candle, the image of a thing of beauty, or of spiritual importance like an image of Buddha or Christ. The more you are able to focus on the image in greater and greater detail the more mental calmness and control you will have.
These exercises are a good start. When you get more control you will begin to notice your thoughts like observing clouds passing in the sky. When that happens you will then proceed with becoming familiar with the observer part of your consciousness. Just this step will make you less reactive to your thoughts and emotions which will automatically help you be more peaceful. There are deeper and deeper levels of openness and serenity, but the instruction above will be a lot to chew on should you decide to partake in mind training. Good luck on your journey.
Turning Confusion Into Clarity by Yongey Mingyur
The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh
Happiness by Mathieu Ricard
The Wise Heart by Jack Cornfield
Meditation in Action by Chogyam Trungpa