What do you imagine when you think of someone meditating?
There was a time I would’ve imagined someone sitting crossed-legged in the lotus position, eyes closed, palms up and thumb and forefinger touching to form a symbolic circle. And if they were wearing a saffron robe and sitting atop a mountain or deep in a forest temple – somewhere in the mystical East, of course – then all the more the credible they were.
The mainstreaming of mindfulness has done some work towards shattering the above cliché but there is still such a sea of nonsense out there that I have to start by saying what meditation is not: that is, it’s not about “checking out” (which is escapism), nor is it about “clearing your mind of thoughts” (which is impossible).1 If anything, you engage more with yourself and the world around you, and are just aware that you are thinking as opposed to being lost in thought.
Then, of course, many say “I can’t meditate because I can’t stop getting lost in thought,” which is rather like saying, “I can’t learn to play the guitar because I can’t already play the guitar.” If we never got lost in thought, we wouldn’t need meditation in the first place. Still others might say “I tried a guided meditation once and it’s not for me,” which is like listening to a song you don’t like and deciding “Music isn’t for me.”
And – perhaps the most popular misconception – some think that if they meditate they have to be happy. After all, isn’t that what meditation is all about?
Maybe in the long run, but there are of course times when “happiness” is inappropriate – the loss of a loved one, a relationship breakdown, and so forth – when being “happy” would involve such a herculean effort of repression that you would have to be a sociopath to succeed (or suffer feelings of guilt and failure on top of everything else when you don’t). Sometimes in meditation it’s better to just sit with your emotions.2
Of course, some of this depends on how you define words like “mindfulness” and “meditation,” and these words seem to be thrown around with a maddening inconsistency. So even if not everyone agrees with my definitions of these terms, it’s useful to be clear about how I’m using them:
When I refer to “mindfulness” I am talking about a state of mind; one characterised by being grounded in the present moment, thoughts rising and falling without grasping or attachment, and you treat well-being as something ultimately to be found in the here and now. The antithesis of mindfulness is a state of distraction or mindlessness, being lost in thought, ruminating about past and future beyond what is useful, treating well-being as always something to be found elsewhere and else-when.
Whereas “meditation” is the method or practice by which we train our mind toward the state of mindfulness. In other words, if mindfulness is the “what” then meditation is the “how.” Meditation itself can be broken down into two aspects: samatha, or the stilling of the mind, and vipassana, the insight or perspective you gain on your mind and the world by stilling the mind.
training the mind
At its best, samatha meditation is a very simple practice. It can be boiled down to three steps:
1- Ground your attention in the present moment.
2- Notice when your attention wanders (it will).
3- Bring your attention back to the present moment.
It is that simple… and that difficult. Meditation takes about five minutes to learn and then a lifetime to master. A byproduct of our big human brains is that our minds are wired to wander, to jump all over the place, grasping and attaching to thoughts and expectations; what the Buddhists call “the monkey mind.”
Neuroscientist Sam Harris has made an excellent analogy comparing the instructions for meditation to those for walking on a tightrope, which are also relatively easy to say in a nice tidy list:
1- Step forward by placing one foot directly in front of the other.
3- Don’t fall. 3
Like any skill it takes training. But in a sense we are already always in the act of training the mind. The brain is a muscle, and like any muscle, however you are using it is training it to be better at doing that thing. If you lift weights at the gym on a regular basis then you are training your biceps to be better at weightlifting. If you are constantly lost in thought, uselessly ruminating about the past and worrying about the future, then you are training your mind to be better at ruminating and worrying.
Meditation is just the act of taking control of how we are training our minds. When you do the above samatha practice, over and over, you are training the mind to be better at being present and therefore calm and content. You are building a place within yourself where you can observe your thoughts and emotions from a certain healthy distance, so that you are not simply buffeted and overwhelmed by them, allowing you to gain a better perspective of them and to respond more rationally.
I’ll note here, however, that it’s very important to manage your expectations. It’s all too easy – and very human, I might add – to expect results, to expect benefits, to expect positive change. Isn’t all that the point, after all?
Of course, it is. The problem is that sitting in meditation while bogged down with all your expectations of results means that you’re not really in the present moment at all. Worse, your expectation is usually accompanied by some degree of anxiety around gaining the expected results, followed by self-judgement if you don’t, and the whole exercise becomes self-defeating.
Being truly present means learning to let go of your expectations about what will happen, what might happen, what could happen. You need to be able to sit there just with the present moment, with any thought of expectation or judgement simply being observed, noted and allowed to fall away.
Yes, it’s something of a paradox, but it’s only in letting go of expectation, craving, and attachment to results, that you will start to see results.
The key to meditation is to find your “anchor.” Your anchor is the thing that is going to keep you grounded in the present moment, the thing that you will return to when your mind inevitably wanders. The anchor could be your breath, your body, your senses. What your particular anchor is is not important. What’s important is simply that it works to ground you in (and return you to) the present moment.
I will emphasise the “you” in that sentence; it is what will keep you grounded. Different anchors work better for different people- and some can be downright bad for certain people. This is a fact that seems to have been underplayed somewhat in the modern enthusiasm for mindfulness.
But the truth is, someone who has anxiety around breathing problems may not find it so relaxing to focus on their breath; a hypochondriac prone to worrying about their body may not be calmed by being instructed to focus more on their body; a victim of PTSD may not be soothed by being made to tune in more to the sounds around them.
Even if you don’t find any anchors to be particularly troubling, some may work better than others, and some may even work better at different times. You know you best; don’t let anyone tell you that you must use their favourite anchor, no matter how advanced they are as a meditator, how ancient and revered their tradition is, or how qualified they are in meditation research.
Certainly don’t pay money because someone insisted you must use their meditation technique, and only for a price. This is where some go wrong, trying an anchor not suited for them and concluding “Meditation’s not for me.”
All you can really do is try out a range of anchors and styles and see what works. To know if a meditation is effective for you there really is no substitute for personal experience.
why you do have time to meditate
I know, I know, I can hear you now: “But I don’t have time to meditate.”
Yet what’s important to note about the above instructions is that there is nothing about it that necessarily involves taking extra time of your day to sit or close your eyes. This is why I say that if you are alive, then you do, in fact, have time to meditate.
If you are going for a run and you are keeping your attention in the present moment rather than letting it stray to thoughts of what you’re going to have for dinner or that conversation you had yesterday, you are meditating. If you’re standing in a queue and you notice the sights, sounds and smells around you – ignoring the automatic reflex to whip out your phone – you are meditating.
In a sense, meditation is really about doing less.
That said, there is a rhyme and reason for taking the time to do a formal eyes-closed sitting meditation. People haven’t been doing it for millennia for nothing.
For some it is easier to still and relax the mind by stilling and relaxing the body, in which case it is worthwhile to take the time to “just sit”; and sitting is often recommended over lying down as then you are in less danger of simply falling asleep. And because the sense of sight is so dominant in human perception, closing the eyes can really help you better tune into your other senses, your body sensations, your thoughts and your emotions.
However, as long as you are actually paying attention to whatever it is you are doing, actually in the present moment, then you are meditating. At the end of the day, there really is no “wrong” way to do this.
So get on that tightrope.
- True, there are some styles of meditation where they claim to seek a “thought-free state.” However, even if this is possible (and I have my doubts), I am not sure that such a state is desirable. After all, it would be rather difficult learn anything or gain insight into anything without at least some level of thought.
- Andre, C. (2014). Mindfulness: 25 Ways to Live in the Moment Through Art. Rider Books.
- Harris, S. (2011, May 10). How to Meditate. Sam Harris. https://samharris.org/how-to-meditate/