People ask each other difficult questions like: “But, what is meditation?”. It’s a difficult question because of the reasons of two kinds. The first kind of reason has to do with the meaning of the name meditation. Everyone has their own definition, and even though from afar every definition looks different, yet when we observe closely, we realize that all roads are leading to the same place. The second kind of reason has to do with the ineffability of the name meditation. It is something that you have to experience to really know. And therefore, every attempt to explain “But, what is meditation?” is congruent to asking a young fish “How’s the water?”.
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
— David Foster Wallace
Behind all the facades and forms, meditation simply means to be aware in the present moment. The kind of meditation Andy Puddicombe talks about in his book Get Some Headspace is called mindfulness meditation. In mindfulness, the anchor for awareness is the breath. Because every moment is just as long as our breath, and there is no way to hold onto moments and breath. Andy uses metaphors to explain what he means when he attempts to answer “But, what is meditation?” I found these metaphors particularly helpful, and I hope you (yes future Girish, you) find them helpful too.
You are not your thoughts and emotions.
Imagine yourself sitting on a chair at the side of the road watching the busy traffic.
This road is your mind.
The traffic on the road is your thoughts and feelings.
And being aware means being on the chair watching the traffic from a distance, realizing that you are not your thoughts and feelings.
You are neither the traffic nor the road upon which the traffic flows. You are only the observer of the traffic. There is no way for you to control this traffic, you can only observe these cars of different colours, shapes, and sizes passing by. And you can breathe.
Sometimes you’ll see a flashy car and you’ll be tempted to chase after it on the road, like how we get caught up in our thoughts or lost in our feelings. Other times, you’ll see a scary car coming toward you and you’ll run away from it, like how we resist uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. The moment you realize that you have been distracted, that you have been on the road running behind that flashy car or running away from that scary car, you take a deep breath and gently bring yourself to the side of the road on the chair.
This process of bringing yourself back to awareness by bringing yourself back to that chair at the side of the road is meditation. Meditation trains us to notice the traffic without chasing or fighting it — just to let the thought come. Then gently shift our focus away from it and back onto our breath — to let the thought go.
You are not your thoughts and emotions. You are only an observer of these thoughts and emotions. Sit back, relax, and watch how they come and go.
Meditation does not make you think.
Practising not-doing is scary. Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, wrote ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. And he’s right because when we sit quietly in a room alone, to meditate, a lot of thoughts and emotions arise on the surface—as if someone forgot to turn off the faucet. People exclaim, ‘Meditation is making me think’. But meditation does not make you think! All it does is shine a big bright light on your mind so that you can see clearly what’s already there. This bright light is awareness. Awareness is the present of meditation. You may not like what you see when you switch the light on, but it’s a clear and accurate reflection of how your mind behaves on a daily basis.
Give some time to the wild stallion to calm down.
What’s the hurry?
Your mind is like a wild horse when you sit to meditate. You cannot expect it to stay still in one place all of a sudden just because you’re sitting there like a statue doing something called meditation! You need to give this wild mind lots of room. Rather than trying to immediately focus on the object of meditation (breath), give your mind time to settle, to relax a little. What’s the hurry? Take it slowly, be gentle and give it all the space that it needs. Allow the horse to come to a natural place of rest, where it feels happy, confident and relaxed staying in one place.
There is always a blue sky.
Imagine a clear blue sky.
Imagine that your mind is like this blue sky.
I’m not talking about all the thoughts, confusion and craziness. I’m talking about the underlying essence of the mind, the natural state. Think back to the last time you felt very happy and relaxed.
Now, imagine a cloudy day, no blue sky at all, just big, dark, heavy clouds.
Imagine those clouds are the thoughts in your mind, how sometimes they’re fluffy and white and appear quite friendly, whereas at other times they appear dark and heavy. The colour of the clouds simply reflects your feeling or mood at the time. Even when it appears as though there’s nothing but big, dark, heavy clouds, there’s always a blue sky there. So, the sky is always blue. You don’t have to create the blue sky, it’s always there — or, rather, here. Meditation is not about trying to create an artificial state of mind. Neither is it about trying to keep all the clouds at bay. It is more a case of setting up a deckchair in the garden and watching as the clouds rolled by. Sometimes the blue sky would peek through the clouds. And, if you sit there patiently and do not get too engrossed in the clouds, then even more of the blue sky would start to appear. So, remember the idea of the blue sky, the possibility that perhaps underneath all those thoughts and feelings there might exist a place that is still, spacious and clear.
Happiness is just happiness. Sadness is just sadness.
Happiness is just happiness, no big deal. It comes and it goes. Sadness is just sadness, no big deal. It comes and it goes. If you can give up your desire to always experience pleasant things, at the same time as giving up your fear of experiencing unpleasant things, then you’ll have a quiet mind.
Resistance is futile. Peace is acceptance.
Resistance is futile. As long as there’s resistance, there’s no room for acceptance. And as long as we don’t have acceptance, there’s no way of having a peaceful mind.
We are not trying to create a dam upon the river of thoughts. That’s a futile exercise. No one can control or stop the flow of thoughts. It is the nature of thoughts to come and go. Nobody knows from where these thoughts originate, and nobody knows where these thoughts go. But we know scientifically that the quality of life depends on the quality of thoughts. So thoughts are something we must pay attention to, instead of getting intervened in our thoughts, we should take a step back and let our thoughts come, and let them go.
Happiness is yours when you give it away.
We’re attracted to the things we like and we become attached to these things. We don’t want to give them up for anything. The only problem is, the more we chase after them the further away they appear. And the more we try to hold on to these pleasant feelings, the more fearful we become of losing them.
When you experience pleasant sensations in your practice, I want you to imagine sharing those feelings with other people. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the pleasant sensation of a quiet mind, of a relaxed body or a comforting emotion; simply imagine you are giving it away, sharing it with your friends and family, the people you care about. It doesn’t require lots of thought and I still want you to focus on the breath, just counting the breaths as they pass. But, if you find yourself sitting there and you feel very good, then maintain this attitude of wanting to share it with others.
When you experience discomfort in your meditation, whether it’s the restlessness of a busy mind, physical tension in the body, or a challenging emotion, I want you to imagine it’s the discomfort of the people you care about. It’s as if in an act of extraordinary generosity, you are sitting with their discomfort so they don’t have to.
When we try hard to hold on to pleasant states of mind that create tension. By imagining that you are giving away those feelings, and sharing them, you lose that tension and become less judgmental. When it comes to unpleasant feelings we’re always trying to get rid of them, right? This also creates tension.
True kind of happiness is the ability to feel comfortable no matter what emotion arises.
Show me where is your sadness.
So where is it? Where’s the sadness? Is it in your mind or is it in your body? Can you go and locate this feeling of sadness for me?
Meditation is supposed to teach you to be more aware, it would not get rid of unpleasant emotions. It just so happens that when you’re aware there is very little room for these unpleasant emotions to operate. When you’re thinking about them all the time, then, of course, you give them lots of room, you keep them active. But if you don’t think about them, then they tend to lose their momentum. When you study the emotion very closely, it’s actually very hard to find.
Often our “idea” of a feeling is just that, an idea. When we look a little more closely, we see that the idea is actually not what we thought it was. This makes it very difficult to resist. And with no resistance, there is simply acceptance of the emotion.
Meditation is like going to the theatre.
When you sit to meditate it’s a little like watching this play. The images and voices are not you, in the same way, that the play or the film is not you. It’s an unfolding story that you’re watching, observing and witnessing. This is what it means to be aware. Your own story, as in your own life, will still require direction and a sense of engagement, but when sitting to observe the mind during your meditation, taking a seat in the audience is by far the best way of watching. And it’s through developing that ability of passive observation that you get to experience the clarity and confidence to make decisions, make changes and live life more fully. Think back to the blue sky, this space that has always been there. Awareness is not something you need to create, as it’s always present. We just need to remember not to forget.
We are so used to doing something, being involved in something, that it can feel a bit boring to just sit and watch the mind, especially if the thoughts are mundane. We create stories in an attempt to make things interesting, to get away from boredom. But have you ever stayed with boredom long enough to look at what it is? Is it simply a thought or feeling of wanting to be somewhere else. of doing something different?
This underlying sense of expectation, of wanting for something to happen, is a mind that is looking for the future, as opposed to a mind resting in the present.