What is the motivation behind the 500 million meditators around the world? Many are allured to the promise of a relaxed and peaceful state of mind or to rejuvenate their brain cells. Others hope to escape from their unhappiness and problems. Some even aim to reach the much talked about enlightenment or to gain supernatural powers. Whatever their aims, many mistakenly think meditation is a means to their personal goals, when in fact, the importance of meditation lies in its process of self-discovery and to be in the present moment.
Just as social distancing is practiced to protect ourselves from harmful viruses, meditation allows us to distance ourselves from our own adverse emotions and thoughts as well as social expectations. Most of the pain we experience in life is caused by our own thoughts and emotions; comparing ourselves to others, fear, sense of loss, jealousy, bitterness, greed, attachment, etc. Of course unexpected situations arise in the outer world, such as natural disasters, pandemics and fluke accidents but they are beyond our control. What we can manage is how we mentally and emotionally react to any events.
Meditation allows us to look inward to identify the true sources of our problems. Setting goals and conditions to meditation is counter- productive because they distract and limit us from the main purpose of the practice. Meditation is the practice of distancing one’s awareness from thoughts and emotions and simply witnessing them.
For example, when you feel angry, your awareness is identifying with the emotion of anger and the attachment to it traps you. You can no longer differentiate the emotion of anger from your awareness. Meditation allows you to peal your awareness away from the emotions, with no expectations of outcome. You simply observe your inner world. By doing so, you learn to witness your thoughts and emotions without judgement and only then can you slowly learn how to release them. If you set an aim and say to yourself, “I meditate not to be angry and become peaceful,” you put pressure on yourself to succeed and you are frustrated and, consequently, peacefulness is out of reach.
The more pressure you put on yourself, the more you are under the grip of your thoughts and emotions. Meditation is about experiencing the process and not about setting aims. It is about being in a present moment and enjoying the moment as a seer.
Meditating with the correct attitude and approach
Yoga is an ancient science teaching us the correct attitude, approach and awareness to meditation so that the practitioner may experience his or her own journey to self-discovery. Yoga shows us the process of meditation and not its goal. As outlined in Sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, the sequential yoga practices are there to facilitate meditation. All the mentioned practices are equally important to develop the awareness and self-witnessing attitudes necessary for meditation. Observing personal and social codes of conducts (Yama and Niyama) is the first two preparatory, but indispensable, steps towards meditation.
A sincere effort to become responsible and moral individuals, who have the wellbeing of the entire community in mind, is a prerequisite to developing awareness of our actions. There is no room for self-centered attitudes in meditation. Body awareness is developed through asana practices (physical postures). The main purpose of physical practices is to prepare the body to sit still in meditation. Breath awareness is fostered through pranayama practices (controlled breathing) to settle heightened emotions and racing thoughts and ushers awareness to the present moment. Isolating awareness and ability to withdraw the senses are developed through the pratyahara practices. These practices relax the mind and deepen your awareness inward to prepare for meditation. Yoganidra is the most powerful and accessible pratyahara practice, to disconnect with the outer world and be in the present moment. It is the first step towards practicing meditative detachment. Bringing the awareness to a one-pointed focus is learned through dharana practices. Trataka, a single-pointed gazing dharana practice, subdues restlessness and fosters concentration, both qualities necessary for meditation. Armed with awareness of our actions, bodies, breath, senses and some ability to isolate, detach and focus, we have finally reached at the doorsteps of meditation. Beyond this point, you are on your own to experience your inner world.
Dhyana (meditation) is the practice of self-witnessing attitude. The purpose of meditation is to bring awareness to the present moment and in doing so, a self-witnessing attitude is developed. Through this process, we discover who we really are and let go of who we thought we were.
Gaining peace of mind is not the aim of meditation because as soon as you place expectations, it fuels attachment to the desired outcome and sabotages the self-witnessing process. There are times we can meditate with ease, calmly observing our thoughts and being able to detach from the negative or positive emotions associated with them. We feel peaceful in those instances. However, there are times when strong emotions, deeply rooted in our memories, disturb our self-witnessing ability because of strong attachments. These instances are difficult but are valuable experiences of the self-discovery process.
Meditation allows us to shed the limiting aspects of our personalities and brings us closer to the core of our being. Meditate without expectation but heighten your self-witnessing ability. Try not to identify with your thoughts and emotions and just observe them as if you are looking at scenes through a window. If your awareness should lapse, and thoughts and emotions take over, realize what has happened and just go back to observing them again without self-judgement. Meditation takes patience and practice, but as you progress, you will reach a state where you feel equanimity towards any situations, good or bad. This means you will no longer be dictated by your emotions, tainted by your attachments and instead, can accept reality as it is. When we see ourselves for who we are, and have can assess situations as is, we develop discernment, allowing us to make the best decisions and course of actions in our lives. Drop all preconceived notions about meditation now and focus on the self-witnessing process.
There are many different meditation practices which foster self-witnessing attitudes. Inner silence meditation (Antar Mouna) is suitable for practitioners of all levels to learn to observe thoughts and emotions without attachment. Ajapa Japa is another practice where total awareness is developed by mindful concentration upon the breath, synchronized to the Soham mantra. Vipassana meditation is also a popular self-exploration and self-observation practice. It is important to learn how to do these practices under the guidance of a competent teacher to develop the correct attitude, approach and awareness of meditation.
Finding the right teacher
A good teacher guides students into the experience of meditation and does not plant ideas of unrealistic aims in them. Sadly, some teachers who claim to understand meditation attract students with their flowery language or bombards them with theoretical jargon way over the students’ heads. This causes the students to have false expectations and frustrations, robbing the students the opportunity to experience the meditative process for themselves because they are keen to live up to the teacher’s expectations. As a result, the student does not develop a self-witnessing attitude. The result of such misguided exercise is simply not meditation. Each student’s experience is different and therefore the significance of meditation is in the process of self-discovery. Emphasis should not be placed on the outcome of the meditative experience.
Finding the right teacher takes discernment. Make sure the teacher has proper qualifications and decide for yourself if the focus of his or her guided meditation is on the self-witnessing process, or on something else. As discussed earlier, there are many practices leading up to meditation to develop awareness in the present moment. Does the teacher incorporate those practices? These are all relevant questions you need to ask yourself. In the yogic tradition, it is said there is an appropriate guru, a spiritual teacher, to suit different personalities of students. Your guru can best direct you on your meditative journey. With diligent practice, you will one day be able to awaken your own inner wisdom (the guru within), thanks to the mentorship of their guru. A guru challenges your understanding of reality and helps you broaden your horizons. In the same manner, the student too must challenge conventional stereotypes of a teacher and decipher the right mentor for yourself.
Meditation is the science of wellbeing and the road to self-discovery, helping us to observe our deeply rooted fears, suppressed thoughts and desires. By learning to self-identify our issues, we can then release them from the sheaths of our personalities (koshas). Our sense organs receive enormous amounts of information daily, leaving both positive and negative impressions which need to be processed.
In effect, meditation acts as a detox of the mind to keep it balanced and allowing you to accept reality as is, without judgement or wishful thinking. To see things as they are is empowering because only then can you assess your options realistically for the future. Meditation is a journey of your personal evolution to arrive at your own destination. Your awareness frees you from limiting attitudes of self-judgement and social images of success and empowers you to live your life fully. Let yoga guide you through the process of meditation so that you can face life’s challenges awake, without delusion. Ultimately, meditation will be your state of being. Meditation will no longer be just practiced on your cushion. You will live fully awake in the present moment for every moment because even one moment in life is too precious to waste unaware.
Benefits of meditation
Meditation is the science of wellbeing and the road to self-discovery, helping us to observe our deeply rooted fears, suppressed thoughts and desires. By learning to self-identify our issues, we can then release them from the sheaths of our personalities (koshas). Our sense organs receive enormous amounts of information daily, leaving both positive and negative impressions which need to be processed. In effect, meditation acts as a detox of the mind to keep it balanced and allowing you to accept reality as is, without judgement or wishful thinking.
To see things as they are is empowering because only then can you assess your options realistically for the future. Meditation is a journey of your personal evolution to arrive at your own destination. Your awareness frees you from limiting attitudes of self-judgement and social images of success and empowers you to live your life fully. Let yoga guide you through the process of meditation so that you can face life’s challenges awake, without delusion. Ultimately, meditation will be your state of being. Meditation will no longer be just practiced on your cushion. You will live fully awake in the present moment for every moment because even one moment in life is too precious to waste unaware.
Sanjiv Chaturvedi, Divine Yoga Bangkok