Of all the spiritual pursuits people have taken up in the last few decades, meditation is probably one of the least understood and most erroneously practised. Like many concepts that originate in an almost unattainable purity, religion for example, it has been downsized to fit into a comfortable social context. In this process, it loses its original definition and clout.
Properly understood, it could heal the world.
One of the most common misconceptions about meditation is to equate it with relaxation. As Ken Wilber unequivocally comments – “Meditation as relaxation response is a joke.” Search through any of the original ancient texts on meditation such as the Sutras of Patanjali, the most studied classical Yoga text, and you will find no mention of relaxation. Balance was the primary consideration, balance of body, mind and emotions. This was and still is the prerequisite for a foray into the higher realms of being.
It was quite probable back then that people led far less demanding and stressful lives than we do today, and were a good deal more physically active. In our energetically complex societies, balance is a lot harder to achieve. Hence the amplified focus on relaxation. But the ‘rules’ haven’t altered, even with this new ingredient. We need just enough relaxation to achieve that balance of being which allows us to engage the meditative state. Too much produces dullness, torpor and mental flaccidity. That bright sparkiness which is the hallmark of the on-song meditator is completely missing..
Visualisation is another misused concept in the meditation process. It can have a place, but only as a tool which furthers the goal of union with the Higher Self. It should not be employed to escape from the emotional upheaval and turbulence of life, nor can we use it to visit harm on another person. While the seven vices have fallen out of favour, often being touted as virtues, they still stand as self - and other - damaging attitudes. Imaginal cultivation of them is a no-no for anyone on a spiritual path. Then, it pays to remember that, as the poet Shelley put it “The Deep Truth is imageless.” In other words there is Something better, deeper, simpler than our imaginations can conjure up; this ‘speaks’ to us in an alert silence.
We need to be as clear as possible about where we are heading with our practice. The ‘official’ definition as proposed by Patanjali, is prolonged concentration. This means that a burglar painstakingly picking a lock could be said to be meditating. Very few of us would opt for this kind of activity, but we could still, inadvertently, ‘follow the wrong god home’.
Succinctly put, meditation is soul-contact. This of course begs some critical questions. What is soul and how do I contact it? For practical purposes, the soul can be understood as our deepest integrity. Or our most profound love. Put more fancifully, in right brain terms, the soul could be defined as the unique and fabulous ‘song’ each of us has been born to perfect and present to the world.
This song plays continuously beneath the static of the sleepy conditioned self. The practice of meditation is incisive, cutting through the surface dross, waking us up to our amazing potential, reviving our song. Ongoing vigilance and daily practice are necessary, because we can so easily fall back into old discords.
Whoever phrased the old adage ‘Speech is silver, silence is golden’ may well have had soul-speak in mind, because it is in the shining silences, the gaps between the busy thoughts, word torrents and restless emotions that the soul can impress its directives on heart and mind.
A simple image further illustrates this point: Think of an enclosed paddock containing four animals – a pig, a goat, a monkey and a unicorn. The first three are very noisy, quarrelsome, plaintive and mischievous. It is only when they are disciplined, brought to an obedient silence, that the unicorn’s melodious voice can be heard. Finely balancing body energies (pig), ordering the mind (monkey) and streamlining the emotions (goat) allows the ‘still small voice’ of the soul (unicorn) to be more easily heard. This, incidentally, is the goal of all Yoga practice.
Even then, with order prevailing in our ‘animal bodies’, there can still be uncertainty and Angst. How can we be sure it is the soul’s voice that is speaking to us.?
There are a number of failsafe criteria:
First, your soul will never require you to hurt anyone. This includes yourself.
Then, it may transcend logic but it does not defy it. Rather, it complements it.
The soul often speaks in dreams or images, the latter sometimes flashing onto the mind in a split second, but transmitting volumes of ‘information’.
Almost always, there is a deeply-felt feeling that this is the Right Impulse to follow.
There is a beautiful Sanskrit word for this heart-conviction: atmasusi. This is the kind of cosy glow we feel around the heart when we have followed our soul’s intuition. Quite often, our gut feeling or strong hunch draws a synchronous response from the environment. Miraculously, what you are feeling on the inside is confirmed by a correspondence on the outside.
The practice of meditation falls into two main categories, formal and informal. The former involves sitting somewhere (usually), away from distractions of all kinds, attempting to lasso the mind, take charge of thought processes which may have been chaotic and unruly for decades. This is no mean task for many of us. The virtues of patience and perseverance have to be strengthened. Somewhere in this process, when one least expecting it, a seam of golden silence is struck and a sense of bliss pours in. This usually does not last, but once experienced, never forgotten. It makes the whole journey - the lonely valleys, the desert trudges, the existential Angst – totally worthwhile. As we approach wholeness of being, bliss becomes more and more steady state.
Informal meditation is all about conduct in the world. One has to learn to hold the learned equipoise from formal sittings, on the wing. This means holding sustained intuitive effort, no matter what life throws at you. In its working out, meditation is alchemical, transforming the baser ‘metal’ of the smaller dingy self into the pure gold of spirit. Fire is involved in both gross and subtle processes, so you can expect some torrid times.
It’s also important to know exactly why you want to take up meditation. If it’s simply to reduce stress, then it would be better to learn the art of relaxation. If you’re tossing up between taking up a new skill or learning to meditate, then you’re better to go with the former, because you haven’t understood what you’re letting yourself in for with the latter.
Attitude is everything at all stages of the meditation journey. The following story spells out the most desirable mind-set:
An aspirant once asked his teacher –“What do I need to begin meditating?”
His teacher said nothing but threw him into a deep pool and held him under for a long time. Eventually the aspirant was released and came up spluttering and gasping.
“You needed air more than anything just now”, said the teacher, "and that’s how much you should long for the Knowledge that meditation brings!”
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have this intensity of feeling for that Something Else beneath the flotsam and jetsam of surface existence. But there should be some kind of gut feeling that there is something you really need to find to make complete sense of your life. It helps to read good books on the subject, talk to established meditators, attend lectures and workshops. Above all, make sure you find the Right Teacher, someone whose vibe feels safe and attractive. Meditation is as much caught as it is taught.
Finally, a small safe start on the Journey. You can do this almost anywhere at any time, quite unobtrusively (not on the motorway or crossing the road!):
1. Snuggle your feet into the earth
2. Tickle a star with the crown of your head.
3. Breathe in fully and think the word BE.
4. Breathe out fully and think the word HERE.
5. Rest briefly in the stillness. Think NOW.
BE HERE NOW.