Meditation is allowing yourself to simply be

“Meditation is what happens when you sit with the intention to meditate”

What’s your image of meditation? What words does it conjure up for you? How might you feel? Many might imagine someone sitting on a rock with a background of a calm sea, with their legs crossed and arms extended and resting on their knees with each index finger and thumb touching. Or on a yoga course after a yoga work-out. Or do you get the idea that’s difficult and only for terribly spiritual or flaky people? You might have tried it and given up, with all those thoughts and no calm, peace and serenity.

Man meditating in lotus pose
Yoga meditation in lotus pose by man in silhouette.

People often have very high standards by which they judge meditation, and often they are standards by which they then consider themselves to have failed. Thus, those words quoted above were very liberating for us. This is what we were told when my wife and I attended a meditation course. It might not be what you expect. However a key part of meditation is letting go, and one thing to let go of is our judgements about meditation, as indeed judgements about just about anything. It’s here that we can get into a space of acceptance, including accepting all that can come up in meditation, including our judgements.

There are of course lots of schools of meditation, lots of prescriptions about what it should be acccording to those schools. I don’t want to get into all that, because they can fit with various people’s belief systems that they like and feel attached to. I’ll just focus on what a simple meditation can be like and how we can make it happen.

Sitting

First you will probably sit, although people do do other forms, like walking meditations. Personally I’d recommend sitting for at least 20 minutes, with practice, and ideally then extend that to whatever works for you, half an hour, 40 minutes or an hour. Busy people might not be able to given themselves much time, but then we live in a time-constrained world and there’s an argument for creating the time and then finding we have the time.

So you’ll be sitting a while, and so it pays to have a comfortable, but not too comfortable, seat which supports your back. You might get rather aware of discomfort and then that can be part of “what happens”. It can become something to let go of. In time you may well not notice it.

It’s good to have an upright posture, and hence a small cushion at your back can help. You might want something warm to put over you if it’s cold or you get cold. Shawls are useful.

Hands are often placed on the lap, resting lightly. Some people place their hands one on top of the other, each facing upwards. Or you can have your hands resting on your thighs, and you might even do the finger/thumb placing mentioned above, with your hands still resting on your thighs.

You could sit on the floor, cross-legged. You will probably want a cushion, with at least a mat beneath. I prefer a chair, but then I’m a Westerner and my hips don’t do crossed-legs postures.

Comfortable arm-chairs can be used. However, I’d caution against too much comfort. It might help send you off to sleep and you might not want that. Some meditations can feel like sleep, and a useful test is if you “come to” at the alloted time feeling reasonably awake, or very sleepy. The first might feel like a kind of meditation, the second like sleep.

So, part of what happens in your meditation can be just sitting there for a while. Nothing inherently “wrong” with that. You at least sat with the intention to meditate.

Or you can get all your thoughts, opinions and views about that, which may serve you, and they may not. From a meditation point of view, they are just thoughts.

Thoughts, breathing and a mantra

What very many people will say about meditation is that what they get is a whole lot of thoughts. You might spend yur whole allocated time thinking about some issue, and come away frustrated. “That wasn’t a meditation”, you might think. More thoughts.

Thoughts can be like that. We sometimes call this kind of meditation a “shopping list” meditation. You could run through your schedule for the day like this! They can happen a lot. The trick is to not be attached to them but learn to accept them when they happen and find a way to let them go or at least become unattached to them. Thus meditation teachers often say that one can learn to regard them as white clouds in the blue sky that float across your awareness and dissolve. What can happen here is that you can learn to be aware of thoughts, to observe them, but not be caught up in them. After a while they can go on in the background, but in a sense they aren’t “you”. You can discover that you are more than your thoughts.

A classic tool in meditation is to use the breath, to feel the sensations of the breath, breathing in and breathing out, and really noticing and observing your breath. When you get caught up in thoughts, you can return your awareness to your breath. And keep doing that.

You can use your breath for various things. One can be to breathe in to any tension or anxiety and then breathe out and release the tension or anxiety – or any other stuff you’d like to let go of. Including any judgments you might have about meditation. You are so much more than your judgements and and not-so-helpful feelings.

It is often good to start your meditation with a little deep breathing, down into the diaphragm,  and breathing out long, and then settling into a pattern of regular breathing as suits you.

Many people also use a mantra, often from various spiritual traditions, both Western and Eastern. There are masses. They’re not obligatory. One can repeat the mantra on the in-breath and out-breath, or across both in- and out-breaths. Again it can both help to motivate you, as you might get inspiration from the mantra, and it can help manage thoughts. As with observing the breath, once you notice yourself engaged in thoughts, you can simply return your awareness to your breath and your mantra. Again, keep doing that.

Meditation at sunrise
Meditation at Sunrise

The intention to meditate

I’d suggest that one key is to sit with the intention to meditate, allowing what happens but with the intention to continue the kind of procedure I’ve outlined here.

I’ve avoided trying to define meditation. More head stuff, when the idea is to let go of all this intellectualising. However, this guy on this link has a good approach, although personally I think he talks too much! I like the space created by silence. But you might like it – a lot of people do.

Intention is a powerful tool. It is the focused direction of the mind on a purpose, employing the will. It is creative. When we intend, we harness the forces of the universe behind our intention, to bring it into reality, but not being attached to it. Instead we allow it to happen, trusting in the creative process. We might take action according to the intention, but we’re not engaged in fear or anxiety about it, but trusting that it will happen. This too is a thought, but it’s a powerful one.

So, one sits with the intention. Lots may get in the way, like life. Interruptions, noise, cats, children, the phone, someone at the door. Do we allow ourselves to get caught up in that, or let it go. It’s good to make arrangements so that these things don’t interrupt you in practical terms. Then all you have are your thoughts about them, and your feelings. Like guilt, worry, anger, and the rest. A bit like life.

You can get your whole life going on as you meditate. And then you can just notice it – and return to your practice. It’s superb way to learn to be more calm, unattached, accepting, and aware.

Practice it

I think it is important to practice it. Every day, on a regular basis. Keep doing it. Yes, really, every day, even when lots seem to get in the way. That too can be part of the mediation, and what needs to be let go of. That’s when people start to get the benefit. Regular, sustained practice.

It changed my life.

How illness holds within it an opportunity for awakening

Pandemic outbreaks of highly infectious disease like the Plague, Cholera, Influenza and now Coronavirus, sweep through human consciousness like a hurricane. They are like auguries of awakening, not always welcome ones, as the disease and suffering is not welcome, but they have a way to get us to address that from which we have been hithertoo averting our gaze. At the political level they have so often in the past heralded, accompanied or driven major change. At the personal level we might think we can after a while get back to life as normal but so often this is not so: such shocks to our sense of wellbeing can be lasting and profound. Our collective and individual cage has had a violent and unsettling shake. It is our choice whether or not we have an awakening and choose to pay attention and learn the lessons that beckon.

Powerfully existential

In one way, such an event impacts our very survival. The disease could kill us, or our loved ones. It thus directs us to reflect, if we can allow ourself, on the prospect of dying. It might flit tangentially on our awareness, and then we may look directly at the possibility. Many avoid it, not surprisingly, given the core human driver to survive.

I wonder how many of you have been making wills, or discussing with others the practical aspects of your departure. It’s an uncomfortable subject, one that many avoid entirely. In the UK around 54% of people don’t have wills. Also many don’t make practical arrangements for what they would want to happen if they were incapacitated, like a living will. It can be a useful, if unsettling, question to ask oneself: what if I die?

There’s not surprisingly an emotional side to this, to contemplate leaving the earth plane and what that might mean. It can be very scary. Some say that such existential dread underlies the human condition, and explains a lot about human behaviour. There are those who’ve nearly been there, who’ve had Near Death Experiences (NDE’s), or who have had to cope with and come through an event that threatened their survival. There are those who have done this who now have no fear of death. I have before in these pages recommended the work of Steve Taylor who has researched people who have had these or related experiences, and the bliss, joy and contentment that they have found as a result. See for example Out of the Darkness. At some point, many of his subjects broke through to another level of awareness.

Existentialists say that death is a “given”, something we will all face sooner or later. Our challenge is how we do that. We each find, or don’t find, our strategies for coping. It might for example be religion, spirituality, philosophy, or rationality. We might adopt a spiritual or mental practice. Then again, addiction, media and other stimuli can provide substitutes.

Perhaps this pandemic is one of those invitations for us to reconcile ourselves with our ending.

Alone in a lockdown, it’s hard to use others to help us avoid these issues. We’re in danger of being left alone with ourselves. As Oriah Mountain Dreamer says at the end of her poem The Invitation,

“I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments”

Fear and anxiety are a wake-up call

A lot of us in today’s world live in various states of fear and anxiety. It’s endemic in modern living. Existential anxiety is often linked with other reasons for us to feel anxious, like our job, our relationship or financial issues. Thus, while we might focus on the content of the anxiety, like what we fear might happen and the disaster scenarios that churn around in our minds, we might also use such occurrences as a reminder of what’s really behind this seeming regular visitation from the angel of fear. What has this fear to teach us, probaby one we’re resisting?

Thus visitations of fear and anxiety may also have something useful, much though it can be highly unpleasant to experience. We can use it to learn what positive potential might lie behind the fear. After all, as said in a recent post, fear is simply False Evidence Appearing Real. It’s an illusion.

I have often taught people to use fear in meditation, or simply when we wake up afraid, or encounter it during the day. This is to use it as a tool. What?, you might think, are you crazy?! We’re all crazy in this world! It’s a perception.

Breathe!

In this practice, we use the breath.

With fear you can breathe into it, let go of the thoughts, be present with the fear, focus on the feeling, feel it, and let it dissolve. It’s just an energy. Let it go. Then do this.

Breathe!

Sit if possible, and you could stand if need be. Focusing on your breath, take a deep breath and breathe in deeply, down as it were into your belly, such that you move your belly out, expand it, using the diaphragm. You breathe as it were “into” the stomach, where feelings are often felt. Then breathe out long. Then do it again several times. Not too often as you can get dizzy. As you breathe out, let go and relax. In fact you could say to yourself as you do this

Breathe in (breathe in deep)…(Slight pause)….Breathe out (Now breathe out long)…Let go (and relax)

(Very slight pause)

Breathe in (breathe in deep again)…(Slight pause)…Breathe out (Now breathe out long)…(and when you’ve breathed out and relaxed) And I am good.

Be present with with the understanding that you are good.

Then breathe naturally and in a relaxed state for a few minutes.

Thus in this practice, you focus on your breath and breathing, come into the present moment and simply be aware of your breath. You intentionally leave each end breath with a positive affirmation.

Focusing on the breath is a mindfulness practice, explained on this website. You can practice using breathing as a tool to let go of anxiety and have a positive focus.

Meditators use tools like the breath and they also use a mantra. Often mantras contain some positive element. So’ham or Hamsa (I am That) is a well-known one. If you look at the pages on this site on various mindfulness practices, you can practice using the breath and a mantra. Practice is essential. The benefits come in time.

It’s hard to intentionally focus on the breath and be anxious. Anxiety is a mental process. It is thoughts we don’t need and can let go of. Conscious breathing is a great tool. We do it all the time! So why not be aware that we doing it!

Opportunity

It might be hard to see this pandemic as an opportunity for an awakening and humans, being humans, might not use it as such. My take is that it offers us a painful way but a great way to see through how we are living on this planet and make real, lasting positive changes for all of us. One way is to experience consciousness and aliveness differently, for ourselves, for our planet, for our wellbeing, and for our relationships. As Lao Tzu said,  If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.

Where the mind goes, the energy flows

The mind is powerfully creative, even when we’re thinking negatively. What we focus on is more likely to happen, even those things we don’t want. Understanding the power of the mind has great potential, not only to help bring about the things we want but also to make less likely the things we don’t want. We simply need to be aware of what we’re giving attention to, and make sure that that is being done with positive intent.

On one occasion I was delivering some workshops in London, which involved a short tube journey from my accommodation to the venue. The last morning I came downstairs for breakfast at the agreed time to find that the breakfast room was in darkness, with the shutters closed and nothing laid out. I waited some minutes and noticed my agitation rising. “This will delay me”, I thought. Eventually I went and called up the people in charge and got my breakfast.

Then, when I got to the tube station, the train was delayed. Again I noticed my state of mind and this time found I was thinking that the longer I waited the more the station would fill up, the more crowded the train would be and somehow the later I would get to my destination. Eventually I got a train on another route and then found myself thinking the change I’d need to make would lead to more crowded trains, more delays, and so on.

At some point in this internal dialogue I began to get a grip. “Stop!”, I told myself. “You’re too focused on delays. Stop this! (Deep breath in, breathe out, and let go) My train will have plenty of room, there is plenty of time and I will get there in time. I am flowing calmly, easily and effortlessly through the mass of people”. And so it was, even to getting there 10 minutes earlier than before!

This process is one I am familiar with. I find that what I think comes about, provided my intention is clear, I sustain the intention, and my on-going thoughts are supportive of that intention. And provided that I let go of being attached to it happening, eg. letting go of worrying that it won’t happen. If, by contrast I get embroiled in some negative self-talk, events follow in train with that internal conversation.

It’s not an easy process and requires will and effort to sustain. But training the mind has great benefits. What is crucial is to become aware, using self awareness, and stop the negative flow. Almost literally to drop them. Learning to drop them takes practice, as does re-framing the thoughts so as to fufill the desired outcome.

We have that power. Studies of the brain have shown that changing thought patterns lead to the old neural pathways withering away, while new ones become established in their place. The power of the mind is hugely creative.

So what do you find happens to your mind if you let it “do its own thing”? How easy do you find it to shift your thinking into something preferable? How do you feel about changing your thinking and letting a positive energy flow through your life?

Being happy with your lot

How much of your life is taken up by wanting, desire, lack, dissatisfaction and not being happy with your lot? This is about desire and there not “being enough”.

Eastern philosophy gives a big role in its analysis of human suffering to desire. They say that being caught up in desire explains much of our inability to find contentment. Swami Muktananda when responding to someone who complained of always feeling dissatisfied, said,

You become dissatisfied with what you have because you are not aware of all you have. If you were aware of all that you have, it would give you supreme satisfaction, and the question of being dissatisfied would not arise at all. Everyone suffers from this tendency.”

He meant that we have supreme contentment already within us. We already have everything.

Humans can’t get this and so the cycle of desire goes on and on, not being happy with your lot, caught up in dissatisfation, till you do get it and let go.

The effects of desire can be deadly. Wanting creates not just dissatisfaction with our lot, but envy, jealousy and hatred. We compare ourselves with others and we long for things to be better. Thus there’s a seemingly unending pattern of thinking we don’t have enough, aren’t good enough, and our lives are governed by scarcity thinking. We can’t see the natural abundance of the universe. We’re seemingly very caught up in this at the moment.

Here is an alternative approach

Give yourself some time to yourself. Meditation is good. This time, start by allowing yourself to be aware of where you are feeling dissatisfied and then, as you breathe in and breathe out long, as you take your awareness within for meditation, imagine that with the out-breath you are letting go of dissatisfaction. Breathe it out; breathe it away. Take your time. Let it be gone. And now allow yourself to take your awareness to your heart centre and then, once you have settled your focus there, rest in the awareness of the love that naturally dwells there. As far as you can, allow this love to flow around your body and as you meditate, allow this love to flow out around you. Perhaps have the thought of it doing that, or visualise it doing that, or hear the sounds of the very subtle, gentle rustle of the warm, loving breeze as flows out around you. And now, as you meditate, allow that love to spread out around your room, then your house, then your family, then your neighbours, the street where you live, your town, your country, and even the world, to reach all those who are unhappy and who are dissatisfied. Have that intention. Let it be there. Breathe your love out to them. And now just rest in this loving state awhile.

The point is to switch awareness out of your negative state into that which uplifts you, and have your focus be there, happy with your lot, your true lot, who you really are.

Enjoy.

The dark night of the soul comes to test us and teach us

Have you had hard times when things have been such that you’ve hit prolonged periods of pain, depression or illness? Have there been really hard times in your life when all has seemed to be going against you? Sometimes we hit really low points when we despair or feel utterly stuck and constrained. This is when life seems to close in on us and it appears that this is all we’ve got. Some people call this sort of time a dark night of the soul.

The phrase “dark night of the soul” derives from the 16th century Spanish mystic, St John of the Cross, who was imprisoned for his beliefs in a cell in which he could not sit or lie down. His experiences and his fortitude amidst the seeming impossible have blessed us all and provide great teaching.

Times when we hit rock bottom

These times when we hit rock bottom are very important. We might imagine them as “bad moments”, to be forgotten as soon as they are over. “Don’t go there,” we think, “it’s a bad place and you might not get out”, which doesn’t help much equip us with skills to help us learn for the future. In fact the more we resist a dark night, the more we get it: “what you resist, you get”, is an old saying. It is far more constructive to open yourself to the experience, to stay with it, enter into what is so very bad, so that you can get to the heart of it and learn whatever it has to teach you.

A dark night of the soul is a spiritual and well as a psychological event. It is when our faith is tested to the utmost. Come out of it we can, and with important learnings about ourselves and life which strengthen us, make us wiser, purge us of ego characteristics that don’t serve us, enable humility in the face of adversity, bring about a greater acceptance of life, ourselves and others. How we come out of it is in itself a teaching, since we can learn skills about how we manage life that we hadn’t fully got before.

The dark night of the soul can teach us how to handle adversity

How we handle adversity is thus a teaching. For example, over the last 3 years I’ve been tested severely around financial issues, such that in the end there was only one way to go and that was to face and feel the survival and faith fears that lay beneath the surface issues. For ages, I used to wake up in the middle of the night terrified. If I indulged the thoughts, away I would go in my mind to Armageddon. What I learned to do was to shift my awareness to the feeling, fully embrace the feeling and let it wash though me and slowly evaporate. In time I learned that fear was not to be feared. Just let it be. It is an illusion.

So too are the thoughts that support it. Just as I learned to release the feeling, I also learned to not be attached to the thoughts. Yes, I knew the theory; now I had to practice it. Noticing that I might be caught up in a vicious circle of negative thinking was crucial. I repeatedly reminded myself to stop the thoughts, to drop them. Slowly the habit would reduce, as a habit it was, and there came a point when I no longer felt the panic as I had done. That doesn’t mean the pattern has gone; it does mean I have a mastery over it, rather than it over me.

So, dark nights of the soul have to be faced and embraced. In a way it’s our shadow side, and we need to learn to integrate it before moving on. We will be much the wiser for it. It’s like we’re being tested, When we come through it, we’ll really know it’s for real, who we really are.

What you appreciate, appreciates

Recently helping someone to get their life back on track got me thinking about how much is possible when we deliberately focus on what we’ve got that we value, that we appreciate.

So, when you feel like it isn’t happening, that you haven’t got what you want, that things seem not to be turning out as you intended, try this.

Focus your attention on what you do have. Think about all the people in your life that you love, value and respect. Think of the things in your life that you value. Think of your positive attributes, of your skills and capabilities, of what you have accomplished. Think of places you’ve been to, seen on TV, read about, heard about. What’s around you that you value? Just look around at your world. What do you like about it? Then notice how you feel.

If you focus intentionally on what you have in your life that you value, that you appreciate, you create new value. Focusing on these things grows them. It’s a bit like counting your blessings, often said but not often practised.

I’ve seen this many times when working with people whose jobs weren’t going well, had to find another job, were impacted by some organisational transition, had to up-skill or move on, or were not performing well. Their self-esteem had taken a knock and the downward spiral was self-reinforcing. Often this was being accompanied by things going on at home, a divorce, a bereavement, and so on. As a result of the coaching, they would focus on what was positive in their lives, in their skills and accomplishments, discover new possibilities and build a much bigger future for themselves. Their self-esteem would grow and they would discover new confidence and capabilities. The re-focusing of attention is extremely powerful.

And this is the power of the mind: “where the mind goes, the energy flows”. We are extremely creative, much more so than we realise. This positive, appreciative focus is supported by the research of Positive Psychologists like Martin Seligman. It is also to be seen in the work of Appreciative Enquiry in management consulting.

Of course the trick is not to go off into the negative about these things. Left to its own devices, the mind will start to find fault. That’s what the ego likes to get up, because its job has been to look after you, to maintain the limited perspective because it had been proven in earlier life experiences that it’s safe there. Not so. Taking a larger perspective involves challenging the ego. Just notice what’s positive, what you appreciate. Then watch it grow, supported by action on your behalf.