For many people, the idea of sitting in silence and "observing the mind" can sound like a subtle form of torture. But this fear is usually based on an incorrect (or at least, incomplete) idea of what meditation actually is.
The many methods and styles of meditation often leave beginners feeling overwhelmed. Rather than getting lost trying to choose the right technique, posture, or physical space, it’s better for beginners to focus on getting themselves in the right mindset.
As the adage says, attitude is a little thing that goes a long way, and one could argue that in meditation, the practice is actually just as much about the approach as the practice itself. To elaborate on this idea, let's first discuss what meditation is, and what it is not.
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What is Meditation?
At its most basic level, meditation is the practice of settling into your breath. Once we have found a comfortable posture, we simply devote our attention to the breath dissolving into the space around us and notice when the breath comes in again.
Instead of allowing our brains to jump from thought to thought (as they are often prone to do), we are allowing ourselves to relax into a basic, fundamental human experience. We are giving ourselves permission to prioritize the simplicity of the present moment over the demands of everyday life. It is a process of choosing the experience of the present moment over reflections on the past or plans for the future.
That is why, in meditation, when thoughts arise, we actively choose to let them go and return instead to the beauty and the sensation of breathing. The thoughts themselves are not a problem to be solved. Thinking is just as natural to the human experience as our heart beating or our breath going in and out.
We are not rejecting thoughts as bad or unwanted, they are a part of the experience and therefore our meditation practice. However, in meditation, when we notice thoughts arise, we do not give them more credence than we would any other sensation of feeling or physicality. We simply notice when our mind is focusing on thought and actively choose to drop the thought in favor of being present in a more holistic, unnarrated experience.
Meditation as our Path to the Natural State of the Mind
It’s easy to view meditation similarly to how we view other tasks in our life. We work to eat well, exercise, keep up to speed on our workloads and housekeeping tasks. While meditation is a practice that requires ongoing engagement in a similar way to these other items, meditation is actually the opposite in that it is not about striving, completion or accomplishment. It is in fact the opposite.
Meditation is a deep form of relaxation for the mind. "Wait," you might be saying, "when I sit down to meditation, it's anything but relaxing." That is because when you first sit down to meditate, you are experiencing the mind as it has been behaving outside of the practice of mindfulness meditation. As we apply meditation to the mind, the relaxation of the practice sets in and we have a glimmer of the respite and relief that is possible in a meditative state.
Because we are so conditioned to be productive, active beings, we forget that the mind’s natural state is in fact open, friendly, aware, and available. If this were not the case, we wouldn't be “returning” to that state in the practice of meditation. Of course, as humans, we experience uncomfortable emotions like agitation, stress, and anger but underneath those difficult experiences is a resilient, steady mind that is capable of holding your complete being in a state that is uncluttered, accepting, and compassionate.
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How to Approach Your Meditation Practice
Sadly, we have been culturally conditioned to discipline ourselves in a judgmental and even aggressive manner. In meditation, we have the opportunity to train in relating to ourselves in a gentle, compassionate way. The attitude that we practice in meditation is one of friendliness to the self. When we sit down to begin meditation, we are not so much practicing meditation, as we are practicing being kind to ourselves in the most basic form of existence, watching ourselves breathe.
As we follow our breathing in meditation, our aim is to notice how we relate to ourselves. When we encounter self-antagonization, we choose in that instance to shift to a kinder, gentler approach. We use this basic exercise of sitting with our breath to discover how we are actually relating to ourselves in our day-to-day.
The basic message of meditation is to be okay with what is. By building up the strength to be honest with ourselves about what arises in our own minds, we are giving ourselves permission to befriend our whole being. It is only from this place of fearless self-acceptance that we can create a lasting and meaningful friendship with ourselves. From there we can take the opportunity to evolve and grow, working with our Higher Self to make choices that lead us to our life’s true purpose.
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The Importance of Gentleness in Meditation
The importance of gentleness in meditation cannot be overstated and yet, meditation is often spoken about in terms of the length of time practice, the quality of the practice, or the frequency. This is a side effect of our culture’s inclination towards performance, productivity, and effectiveness.
In reality, if meditation could be measured, it would be measured in how willing we were to relate to our true experience as it is arising while we sit in simple stillness. The role of meditation is to teach us how to be open to the reality of our experience, rather than go to war with the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise.
In meditation, we learn to be true to who we are, and to bring a sense of curiosity and gentleness to the experience of being ourselves.