Meditation is a process of making friends with the mind. It is a way to discover that we are, in fact, not our mind. There is a quiet, still observer at the core of our being—our spirit, our true Self—that lies beneath the endless chatter. Meditation reveals it.
“The mind is everything,” the Buddha taught. “What you think is what you become.” Thoughts can create a reality of inner peace, clarity, love, purpose, and connection to something far greater than ourselves. Or it can mire existence in a web of emotional turmoil, conflict, confusion, and separateness. Thoughts often keep us trapped in the past or left drifting in the future, reinforcing beliefs and patterns that we mistake for who we are.
Meditation clears away the clutter so we can experience life in the rich, electric awareness of the present moment.
The magic of now
Meditation takes many different forms. Often, the thought of meditation brings up an image of a serene-looking person sitting cross-legged and impossibly still. While that’s a popular form—and we’ll dive deeper into it a little later—it isn’t the only way to meditate. Ecstatic dance can be meditation. Getting completely absorbed in a passage of a holy book. Mentally repeating a sound or word until it becomes alive, filling the body with its vibration. Drawing something intricate. Long-distance runners talk about the “zone” they get in where only the feeling of their own breath exists. Spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of the stillness that can be found in the simplicity of everyday tasks, such as washing the dishes or cooking a meal, when one absorbs his whole attention to it. All of these practices are meditation, because they quiet the mind. In the emptiness that exists in the absence of 24-hour thinking, doing, judging, evaluating, and analyzing, there is space to see things how they really are. There is an opportunity to listen.
Working with the mind
Meditation in any of its forms is a gentle process. Its purpose is to work with the mind, not to force it to do anything. After all, the mind is our vehicle for experiencing the world. It is uniquely ours, and there is nothing wrong with it that needs to be fixed, changed, or controlled. Meditation does none of that. Instead, it gives us the tools to provide the mind direction and discipline so it can work with us, not against us. The key to this is to simply observe the mind and bring it back to a state of awareness, again and again. The more frequently we do this, the more consistently the mind exists in this state of awareness. Soon it becomes our automatic way of being, even off the meditation mat. “Meditation is a process of lightening up, of trusting the basic goodness of what we have and who we are, and of realizing that any wisdom that exists, exists in what we already have,” says American Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. “We can lead our life so as to become more awake to who we are and what we’re doing rather than trying to improve or change or get rid of who we are or what we’re doing. The key is to wake up, to become more alert, more inquisitive and curious about ourselves.”
Learning to focus
Most meditation forms use a point of focus to train the mind. Take mindfulness-based sitting meditation, for example. The breath is the point of focus. Our only task is to observe the breath as it enters and exits the body. There’s no force or concentration here—just watching. When the mind wanders—and it will wander, to the grocery list or an impending project or a sticky song—notice it and gently go back to watching the breath. The mind may wander hundreds of times in the first few minutes, especially at first. Meditation is equally an exercise of non-judgment. There’s no reason to get frustrated or angry at the mind for thinking. Minds think. That’s what they’re made to do, just like ducks are made to swim. It’s their nature. By observing thoughts and the emotions attached to them, space opens to see them for what they are. Meditation teacher Ram Dass compares the practice to watching a cloud-filled sky. Thoughts are the clouds that move across the sky, but we are the sky itself: big, empty, and luminous.
Types of meditation
All spiritual traditions teach meditation, and it takes many forms. For Buddhists, meditation is the vehicle for enlightenment to one’s true nature—an eternal spaciousness that is free from suffering and karmic entanglements. Judeo-Christian, Islamic, and some Hindu meditations are often more devotional in nature. Ageless Wisdom taps into non-secular, universal teachings with ancient roots. Many of the techniques fall into these categories:
Observation: Observation techniques utilize an object, either internal or external, to occupy the attention. Zen places emphasis on the breath. The Taoist practice of flower gazing uses a beautiful object of nature to focus the mind, while trataka concentrates on a candle flame.
Visualization: Visualization techniques harness the power of the mind to create powerful images. Practices that cultivate gratitude, loving kindness, and compassion direct these qualities to a variety of people. Triangles meditation links a trio of people for the purpose of world goodwill. White Skeleton meditation visualizes the bones of the body to contemplate mortality.
Mantra: Mantra meditations repeat syllables, sounds, or a sacred phrase. Examples of this include the Hindu practice of japa, Jesus Prayer, and meditations that invoke Medicine Buddha and Green Tara.
Devotion: Devotional practices appear in many traditions. In Hinduism, it takes the form of bhakti, while in Islam it’s called dhikr.
Contemplation: Contemplative meditations focus the mind on a line of thinking often based on a passage of reading. This is a common practice in Christianity, but one can also contemplate the stars or the lessons of navigating a labyrinth.
Active: Meditation doesn’t necessarily mean sitting still. The Jewish practice of writing permutations, Sufi whirling, mindful walking, Qigong, and speaking gibberish are all examples.