What is meditation?
For a long time I had a love/hate relationship with meditation*. On one hand I loved to meditate because it brought me places (that may not make sense, but I will explain hereunder). The ‘hate part’, on the other hand, took over mostly. I found meditation extremely frustrating because I was never able to stop my thoughts. As I thought this was the whole point of meditating to begin with, I deemed that I was doing it all wrong (if you are there too, you should definitely keep on reading!). Due to the fact that so much research has shown the benefits of meditating, and there actually were times when I noticed those, I kept trying. It was only recently that my whole understanding of meditation changed completely.
Before I became a yoga teacher, and before I learned more – and understood – the power and importance to live in the present moment, there was a period in my life when I did a lot of guided meditations. I lived on a Caribbean island, where once a month I joined a Full Moon meditation. The lady that guided the meditations was very ‘in-tune’ with everything ‘out there’ and she channeled messages from the angels, amongst others. During these meditations I made the most fantastic journeys through space, visited Egyptian temples and pink-lit crystal chambers. It was all very cool. Whether I (or my Soul) actually travelled to these places or made it all up, I don’t know. At that time, I didn’t really care. It gave me a sense of having a connection with something “bigger” than myself, which I believed to be God/Love/The Universe (take your pick). At that time, I didn’t know that it would be more interesting and fulfilling to seek that connection with my Self and my own divinity. To sense that part of me that is connected to everything and everyone else. I didn’t know that bringing my mind to the here and now would create a bigger chance of actually finding that connection.
Fast-forward 6 years. By then, I had studied different meditation techniques, and learned a lot about the power of now (yes, I also read Eckhart Tolle’s books). I was trained to become a yoga teacher and to teach others how to meditate. And yet, I was still struggling. There was just no way that I could get my thoughts to stop when I sat down to ‘meditate’. I put those ‘’ here on purpose, as I was convinced I wasn’t really meditating as long as my mind didn’t shut up.
And then there was the first 21-day meditation challenge offered by the Chopra Center (no advertising intended…). After I signed-up online, I would receive an email with meditation instructions every day, for 21 days. I thought that this would be a chance to finally learn how to meditate, so I started enthusiastically. I even wrote a blog about my experience. After those 21 days, I still felt that I wasn’t ‘good’ at meditation. Yet, I learned one very important thing: there is no such thing as stopping your thoughts. When your thoughts stop it means you are dead. That isn’t the purpose of meditation, as far as I know.
A couple of years later, I had the fortune to study with Swami Ramananda for a couple of days. When he came to speak of meditation I was hanging at his lips (ok, not really. That’s a Dutch expression for paying close attention to what he was saying). Swami Ramananda compared the mind to a swing. When the mind is triggered by a lot of impulses – other people, Facebook, life, to name a few – it gains a lot of momentum. When these impulses stop – i.e. when you sit down and close your eyes – the mind starts to loose momentum. It takes a while, however, for the mind to become completely still. He suggested at least 15 minutes. This image of the swing, and the suggestion of taking at least 15 minutes to calm the mind really helped me to be more patient with my thoughts when I would sit down to meditate. Small progress was made.
Recently, I was a faculty assistant in an advanced training for yoga teachers. During this 9-day training, which I had taken before, the students learned how to teach meditation and pranayama (breathing exercises). It was only then that the whole meditation thing started to make sense to me. Sudhir (Jonathan) Foust, who was one of the teachers, put it brilliantly. His view (and I am paraphrasing here): if you think that meditation is bliss, you haven’t really meditated. When your experience is that meditation equals torture, you are on the right track. “Finally!” I thought, “I can relate to that!” During the course of being part of the training (and it goes to show that some things need to be repeated before it finally clicks), it became clear to me what meditation is, and especially what meditation is not.
Meditation is not:– to make your thoughts stop; – to take off on a spiritual journey; – sitting on a pink cloud; – always fun.
So, what is meditation? My view on meditation right now (and I reserve the right to change my mind) is the following.
Meditation is:– a way to become aware that you are feeling sensations in your body; – a way to become aware of each individual sensation; – a way to become aware of the fact that your are thinking; – a way to become aware of each individual thought; – a way to become aware that your are experiencing emotions; – a way to become aware of each emotion; – a way to become aware of which thought preceded that emotion; – a way to become aware of what is present for you in this moment; – then, an opportunity to not be attached to anything you are aware of, to not judge it, but to bring your focus back to your breath, i.e. the present moment. In other words: meditation is a tool to enhance awareness, non-judgement and non-attachment (to thoughts, emotions, situations, you name it). When you sit down with your eyes closed, you are aware every time your mind wanders off on a tangent, and you can bring your mind back to the present by focusing on e.g. your breath or a mantra, you are doing a great job at meditating! The good news is: the more you practice awareness through meditation, the more you will be aware during your day-to-day life and be living in the now. And it is there that you will find your bliss.
Do you have a different view on meditation? I would love to hear from you!
* When I refer to meditation in this blog, I am not talking about Dhyana in the sense of Patanjali’s Eight Limb Path, but to Mindfulness / Vipassana Meditation.