The following is about some lesser-appreciated aspects of meditation. In order to drive these underrated points home, I may overstate the case. For those unfamiliar with meditation, I recommend consulting a variety of sources for balance. There are tons of sources online.
Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I used to meditate, but stopped for reasons I will discuss below. Please remember this when reading this article — which actually touts the benefits of meditation. From one who stopped.
Ok, on to the article.
What is Meditation?
Let’s say one is trying to improve one’s tennis game. How is this done? First, by playing as much as possible. Second, by training. Training consists of practicing in a “sterile” setting, so one can focus on the relevant parts of the game (eg: the serve) without the many distractions of the game. The idea is that without those distractions, one can better practice a specific thing and apply the improved resulting skills to the real game. The same holds true for living.
If life’s goal is happiness, and if that can be achieved by letting go, then practicing letting go is practicing living well. How does one practice letting go? First, by letting go as much as possible in one’s daily life. Second, by training in letting go in a “sterile” enviornment. This training is called meditation.
There are different types of meditation, but I will only discuss Mindfulness (also known as Insight or Vipassna).
How to Meditate
Find a quiet place and take a position that can be comfortably maintained for the full session (that won’t lead to drowsiness/sleep). Focus fully on an object with eyes closed. This object should be something boring that’s easy to notice — the breath is a common choice. Now maintain the attitude of a detached observer watching someone else, and focus on the object. DO NOT INTERFERE WITH ANYTHING. Soon the mind will produce tons of stuff for stimulation; good, that’s the stuff to practice letting go on! Keep the same detached attitude: do not suppress, cling or react to these thoughts. Just let them be and let them go. The only goal is to observe the object, accept the distractions, let them go, and return to the object until time is up.
The point is not to improve concentration, but to improve letting go. Put another way, the distractions ARE the point. The object exists to lure distractions in, and provide a background against which they can be more easily detected. After all, to be distracted it helps if there’s something to be distracted FROM. Again, the meditation object is basically distraction-bait. That’s why the object shouldn’t be interesting; who’d have any trouble focusing on that?
Meditation is just training, nothing more. It’s not an end in itself, nor is it a competition or a point of pride. It’s there to improve a key skill that can be applied to daily life. People don’t train in tennis only to forget the training during the game, so why meditate only to forget those improved skills in life? Sure, some of the effects are likely to bleed in on their own, but better results can be had by consciously applying these skills in life, by letting go, by living MEDITATIVELY.
This is where I went wrong.
I used to meditate 5 hours a day. It improved my life and I was less susceptible to negativity. However, I thought I should be immune to it, so I made the mistake of clinging to the idea of being negativity-free. This meant when negativity appeared, it was magnified: there was the negativity, and my negativity about the negativity (clinging) which was much worse than the negativity itself! Had I fully let go of everything, including this idea and my “progress” I believe all would have been well. Yet, I took pride in my “achievements” in meditation, treated it as an end in itself and identified with it and “my progress”. Keep in mind that I knew about the illusion of identification too! I was still much better off for meditating, but I also went wrong in a key way.
I stopped meditating (probably out of sheer laziness/busy-ness) and have not resumed, as I’m still debating if I want to do it formally, or if I’d rather apply my efforts to living more meditatively. Part of this is my concern about clinging again.
This was/is MY failing and not an attack on meditation; however, it does illustrate what I think is a very common pitfall, so take it as a cautionary tale. Anything can be clung to, including letting go! This is why unhappiness is very pernicious; the factors that contribute to unhappiness can encompass one’s search for happiness and undermine it from within. Be fully accepting of everything, including “failure” to accept. Or to put it another way, always have a “Beginner’s Mind”.
Sometimes, the greatest curse is to get “good” at something.
There are tons of distractions that can come up during meditation. Errant thoughts, absorption, bliss… Yes, many of the really great experiences that can arise during meditation (that some regard as the goals or hallmarks of it) should also be treated as distractions. Sure, they can provide a powerful lesson — that some of our greatest joys come from nothing — but they are also subject to clinging. Worse still, if not treated as distractions, they can be mistaken for the goal of meditation and become expectations in future sessions. Since expectation is a form of clinging, dragging it into an exercise designed to let go is a bad, bad thing.
In fact, there’s an amusing story about how to treat peak experiences during meditation:
One day a guy was in a group meditation session. Halfway through the meditation, he heard the most beautiful melody and felt bathed in an incredible energy. He felt himself floating out of his body and felt rapturous and blissful. After the session, he rushed to the group leader and with tears in his eyes related his experience. The leader listened patiently until the guy was done. Once the guy finished talking, the leader said: “If you keep your back straight next time, you won’t get distracted like that”, and walked away.
Here’s a short article on how to do mindfulness meditation. I just picked one at random, there are tons.
Entire books have been written on mindfulness meditation. Here’s a very clear one, freely available online.
I used the phrase “Beginner’s Mind”. I took that phrase from this book, also freely available online that discusses the importance of going back to the beginner’s frame of mind. I recommend you get a bit of meditation/mindfulness practice under your belt before reading this book, as I think it’s more pertinent to those who have some experience, and hence can relate.