The gift of learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself in this life. For it is only through meditation that you can undertake the journey to discover your true nature, and so find the stability and confidence you will need to live, and die, well. Meditation is the road to enlightenment— Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
I am not an object in Consciousness but its source, its Witness, pure shapeless Awareness — Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
Spiritual belief systems such as Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, Buddhism, Shamanism and Christianity, all prescribe meditation in one form or another, whether it’s prayer, mantra, mandala, observation, visualization or emptiness.
There are numerous meditation traditions and techniques such as Sati (mindfulness), Śūnyatā (voidness), Vipassanā (Insight), Vajrayāna (Tantra) or Zazen (seated). These techniques are different streams leading to the same river, methods to glimpse the true self, hidden beneath the buzzing of the mind and the dazzling sensuality of life, which Buddha compared to a burning fire in its ability to distract us.
In the West, meditation is often prescribed as a form of stress relief, a way to quiet busy minds and sooth the autonomic nervous system, as if it were a time out from your “real” life. But meditation is actually a way to dissolve the illusion around you, so that you can perceive the processes that cause restlessness, desire and sorrow.
Buddhists refer to the mind as the monkey mind. The mind is restless and capricious, it moves from object to object like a monkey from branch to branch. In the initial stages of meditation, we may not be able to maintain our focus very long, maybe only for a breath before the natural tendencies of the mind manifest; random feelings, thoughts, daydreams, opinions, projecting into the future or the past, being distracted by the senses. These natural rhythms of the mind, make it difficult to stay in the moment.
The first, and maybe the most important aspect of meditation, is just to notice this tendency of the mind to continually shift.
If you get this far, it’s a huge triumph. This is moving into witnessing consciousness, to observe the mind without attachment. As the witnessing state is mastered, we can practice holding the mind on internal or external Drishti points. (Drishti means view in Sanskrit). An external point could be an object such as a flame or a point on the floor, while an internal point can be your body, your breath or a visualized object or place. Eventually we will be able to hold our mind in open space and radiance.
Everyone needs a healthy ego to navigate Samsara (the cycle of birth and death). A healthy ego gives confidence. But when the ego is distressed, it acts like a defense system, trying to hold onto things, to solidify them, or to neurotically control events. When we over identify with people, animals, places and outcomes in our lives, we can grow unbalanced when those things either transform or dissolve. When fear and grasping arise, it is a symptom we have projected our consciousness onto things too deeply and are tangled up in them. In order to maintain its own existence, the ego fights change, sometimes even clinging to situations steeped in misery. When we allow work to define us or are overly attached to our identities as parent, child, husband, wife, or lover, we will eventually experience this clinging of the ego, because the only constant in life is that everything changes. Roles and relationships change, time and entropy dissolve all things and dematerialize them. Meditation is a way to reconnect to pure consciousness, that which is constant and unchanging.
If you look back on your life, you’ll see that some of your early identities are completely dissolved, both physically and mentally. For example, the body you occupied as a child is gone and every cell replaced, thoughts you held to be true are entirely different. In a way we have already experienced death because our bodies and minds have transformed so drastically, our previous selves have ceased to exist. Your thoughts and your physical body are not you.
Despite shifting from identity to identity, something remains consistent— an awareness or witnessing consciousness, sometimes referred to as the “I” behind all thoughts— this awareness is immortal, continuous and connected to universal consciousness. This awareness moves from identity to identity. This unchanging awareness is the only constant, the one stability, that which survives death. Everything else is temporary. The ego is a useful tool, but not your true identity, understanding the difference is important.
Meditation is ultimately about understanding who we really are. The inscription above the Temple of Apollo at Delphi commanded the seeker to “Know Thyself.” This is the journey of meditation. We are not our job, relationships, possessions, creations or intellect. We are consciousness itself at play. And just like children, who may get confused and associate themselves with the fair ground ride, we must sort through what is fantasy and what is reality.
So how do we meditate? We can begin with Sati (mindfulness) to calmly reside in the body in a non-dualistic state, but still stay connected to the world by allowing phenomena to come and go without attachment. Walking meditation and mindfulness meditation are ways of using the world around us to release the habit of time jumping into the past or future by staying in the present. However, this is not Pratyahara.
In Pratyahara, we withdraw consciousness from external objects entirely. This more extreme technique is one of the elements of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. The easiest way to begin Pratyahara is to draw your consciousness to the breath. Using the breath is a way to withdraw the senses (Indriyas) from external reality, a process described as similar to a tortoise pulling her limbs into her shell.
This is not an easy meditation. We are so engulfed in the outer world, we become easily distracted. Our senses tug our consciousness to any sound, or movement. A breath of air against the skin, a thought, a desire, can send our consciousness spiraling off in a new direction, seeking sense contact or pleasure in outer objects.
There is a famous Hindu analogy: the mind is the chariot driver and the senses are the horses, wild and out of control until they are tamed.
Once we withdraw the senses we can move to a more challenging meditation method called Śūnyatā, to rest in emptiness. I know, I can hear the “but my mind is empty” jokes from here, but I don’t mean dark, dull or blank. Not zombie-like emptiness, devoid of creativity or life. I am talking about space, openness, and radiance, both the crucible of creation and the cauldron of dissolution, to rest in undifferentiated awareness where all objects arise and disperse.
Try choosing an image, say a lotus flower— allow it to arise and disperse in the mind. Practice creating images and dissolving them, the way Buddhist monks create elaborate mandalas out of sand, then brush the grains away; essentially the same process. After we work with images, eventually we can rest in space, but like any skill this ability must be built up over time, our concentration strengthened. This is how we extract ourselves from over-identification with the world.
This is where it gets tricky.
The mind and senses are addicted to stimulation and when you take it away, a battle begins. At first we may be surprised to find how dependent we’ve become on thoughts, feelings and sensual stimulation. Or the ego will rise up and barrage the mind with fears and fantasies, anything to avoid emptiness.
I had the opportunity once to spend time in an isolation tank, floating on brine in absolute darkness. With my senses cut off, fears and phobias flared up, then dissipated. A cornucopia of visions arose, luminous dreams to fill up the darkness. In a way, that’s how our minds always work, projecting our own hopes, fears and delusions onto outer objects, infusing the things around us with our own radiance. First we must retrieve our energy from these objects, so our mind can smooth out, like a calm pool of water.
Once the mind is still, we will experience more subtle vibrations, like the deep, fluxuating currents of the Kosas (Energy Bodies) and the expansion of our consciousness. As we draw into our own awareness, we discover our internal radiance and as we rest there, we cultivate confidence, openness, inner power and pure intelligence.
Drawing stillness into the heart of life.
A quiet place will certainly assist us initially in practicing meditation, but ultimately it is the nature of the mind, not the outer world, that distracts us. We can become proficient at meditation when alone and quiet, but lose our balance and even our temper once the first pressure comes along, just as we can physically master yoga and not master our own anger or desires.
It is inner silence we must cultivate. As we grow still and open, the waves of disruption dissipate. We enter into non-dualistic consciousness and the outer world, grows calmer, gentler and more accommodating.
Eventually, we must take our stillness back into the heart of life, where it is most needed.