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What springs to your mind when you hear someone advocating the practice of meditation?
Possibly someone promoting some evangelical adherence to an Eastern form of mysticism? Perhaps someone promoting vegetarianism? Or maybe some hocus-pocus, hippy-dippy practice of sitting in uncomfortable positions and basically turning off from the world?
A way to drop out perhaps? Or to rip off the gullible by dressing up snake-oil nonsense in a cloak of respectability by associating it with an ancient wisdom? You can be forgiven for that.
Perhaps you are not so cynical and see it as a means to attain some form of insight or spirituality, but feel that it’s just not for you?
Put these thoughts aside. See this as your first step towards the practice of mindfulness.
The practice of meditation is central to the exercises that accompany mindfulness. See it as a tool. If you are new to mindfulness have a look at this introduction and overview.
If you do some DIY, you don’t need to understand how the internal mechanisms of your power tools work, or where they were made, or how they came to be developed. Neither do you see any tool as having any inherent moral or ethical qualities.
A tool is just that: it either does the job as required, or does not.
Or perhaps the tool is fine but you just don’t know how to use it. But you are not assessing the tool, you are just using it.
The Practice of Meditation as a Means to an End
It is a bit unfair to suggest that meditation is somehow equivalent to a power tool, but it’s actually not a bad analogy with which to start.
Meditation is not the end you desire. You don’t want to learn all about meditation. No, you want the benefits that can arise if you use it correctly to develop mindfulness.
It’s a means to an end. Can you live with that?
Approach meditation with an open mind. It is a pretty complex practice and you may never become a master of it. But you don’t need to.
Meditation is used in many different contexts and to different ends. You will learn it and use it in as far as it is useful to improve your ability to be mindful. No more.
And if you think that the finer points of meditation, and its more extreme practices and objectives beyond what is required to develop mindfulness are nonsense, then that’s fine. That can be a defendable position.
But that’s of no interest to you. Just make sure you don’t allow any fears or negative associations that you may have about meditation to get in your way in achieving your objective here. Do this by just accepting meditation for what it is.
Critiques of Meditation
Be aware, that what is written above is by no means universally accepted. There are two main reasons.
The first, which is legitimate, is that meditation is used in different religions, cultural practices and for different purposes by people with different objectives. So there is no universally accepted practice that is ‘meditation’ and certainly no universally accepted way to ‘do it correctly’.
That’s fair enough, each to his own, and it is very important that you meditate in the manner that best suits your own level of knowledge and your immediate objective. You can always move on if these change.
The second reason, which is a more direct criticism of the views I have expressed, is less legitimate in my mind at least.
It is claimed that meditation is a deep practice that requires a lot of time to learn and loses its meaning if ‘watered down’ in some way. Rather than a tool, it is more akin to a link in a chain, or a step on a path, on the way to enlightenment.
A single link of a chain is not of much use and is certainly not a chain. Furthermore, if you don’t master meditation then you will have a weak link in the chain. And you know the old saying about the chain only being as strong as its weakest link.
In summary, the criticism is that this is a practice that is being taken out of context and used for purposes for which it is not designed and that meditation, as a concept, is therefore somehow defiled.
This is a big debate and you won’t have to look far on the internet to uncover lots of text and arguments. We’re not going to find a resolution of this debate and, frankly, it does not interest me.
To my mind such a debate will inevitably generate far more heat than light. Even engaging would also be an acceptance of ownership of meditation by adherents to some set of greater practices or those with some alternative objectives.
I don’t accept this any more than any claim that public knowledge can only be used for specific purposes when alternative, legal and legitimate uses are also known to exist.
If mindfulness is useful – and it is – and meditation helps get us there – and it does – then we use it. We’ll get where we want and let others expend hot air criticising us if they wish.
There is an Objective
There is a very important point here. You have an objective. It’s not to find enlightenment. It is not to become a master of meditation although you will wish to become somewhat skilled in this direction. It’s not just to become more mindful.
It’s to use mindfulness to help you through life.
You set targets for yourself in life. You might want happiness, greater intellectual ability, power, or just more money. That’s up to you.
So you may be learning meditation to get better at making money. That’s just about as far as you can get from the often portrayed purpose of meditation as a sort of ‘tune in, turn on and drop out’ activity.
Make sure you are comfortable with that.
What Meditation is, and What it is Not
So, having that out of the way, let’s get a slightly better understanding of what meditation is by summarising some things it is not.
Keeping these in mind will help you to assess how well you are doing when you start the practice of meditation.
Meditation is not:
- just a way to relax, although you will relax. It is also about concentration. And both of these contribute to the increasing awareness that is at the heart of mindfulness;
- about going into a trance or some higher state or ‘tuning out’ of the world around you. You will not be aiming for some level of unconsciousness and you will certainly not be trying to suppress emotions. Quite the opposite in fact;
- about little known secrets or ancient mysteries. You may not fully understand the psychological changes, but you don’t need to. Good car drivers are not necessarily the best car mechanics. You will learn it only by practice, and learning the practice is enough;
- concerned with the paranormal or any claim to external higher powers. You are not tapping into some ‘cosmic energy flow’. That’s just nonsense. There is nothing in meditation that confounds or contradicts the laws of physics in any way. You just want to become more aware of the world around you;
- dangerous. You will not be tuning out of the real world or trying to suppress real issues. Nor will you get ‘high’, although you will begin to feel higher levels of contentment and happiness. No, you are looking for a way to deal better with the real world. But don’t push too hard at the start. You are not looking to become a master;
- about turning you into a better person. How could it? It is a tool for you to use. But it can help you to be the best you can be;
- a panacea for all problems or ills. It will help you to deal with them and perhaps find solutions. But the key figure is you.
However, meditation is not all about you and your ego. It’s focus is how you understand and work with the world around you. So while you are enhancing your skill, the skill is to work with the world outside you.
Different Forms of Meditation
Although various meditation traditions and techniques exist around the world, they can be roughly divided into four broad categories: concentration meditation, reflective (or insight) meditation, mindfulness meditation and creative meditation.
The ability to concentrate your mind is essential for effective meditation. Concentration allows you to overcome distractions and maintain mental focus.
If you just let your mind wander freely then you will have very limited mental capacity to address issues and challenges. In contrast, a concentrated mind is a powerful means to realise our potential.
It’s a bit like if you pour water onto a flat surface. It will simply disperse into a shallow wet area with some slighter deeper part randomly arranged according to where there are any depressions in the surface.
However, if you change the surface so that you channel the same water in one direction and keep it under pressure, it can become a source of great power.
Your mind works similarly. But your mind is also infinitely more complex than the dynamics of liquids – complex and all as that area of study may be.
Having the ability to concentrate means your mind can acquire greater calm, stability and clarity so that problems such as confusion, anxiety and lack of attention are overcome.
Reflective meditation, also described as contemplation, can be defined as disciplined thinking.
You choose an idea, a situation, or a question and you focus your contemplation on it. When your mind wanders, you bring it back to the subject of your reflection gently but firmly.
Reflective meditation is traditionally used for gaining greater insights into the nature of death, life, the meaning of life, or the question of your own mental quest, be it relationships, a scientific puzzle, or daily problems.
The basic premise is that your ability to develop insights rests on your ability to direct your attention repeatedly to your chosen theme and to be open to whatever arises in your mind from that experience.
While the objectives will differ, you will find that there are some reflections of this in the mindfulness approach.
Creative meditation aims to transform and apply the habits of the mind with greater efficiency by developing and strengthening particular qualities of a person’s nature.
For example, creative visualization, one of the most used methods of creative meditation, can assist in fulfilling personal desires, such as succeeding in professional life or attracting happiness.
The premise is that our subconscious mind does not discern between imagined and real stimuli.
As a result, while an imagined impression may last only seconds, the subconscious mind can trigger similar emotional, mental, and psychological reactions repeatedly.
Thus, by bringing desirable emotionally charged images into our awareness a practitioner can exercise productive control over our imagination and influence the positive qualities of our mind.
In support of this approach it is argued that the mind can be trained in the same way that we can train our body to develop stamina and flexibility.
There is certainly evidence that mental training can help to develop greater intelligence, creativity, and other mental capacities. It is less clear that this practice can actually result in this enhanced potential being realised but the possibility is created.
However, such validity as there may be in this approach has been greatly undermined in recent times by the misapplication of creative meditation.
The most visible manifestations of this are in claims relating to the ‘law of attraction’. The claim here is that by imaging a certain outcome you will bring it about in some manner by some strange forces.
Be clear: there is no evidence to support this application of creative meditation as a coherent approach, despite its popularity.
This has an important implication. There are no easy short cuts.
Meditation, simply thinking about something, is not going to achieve the outcomes you desire. But it can help, if done properly.
Your ability to perform is not infinite. Outcomes are related to your starting capabilities and your ability to put your skills into practice. Mindfulness and the meditation exercises that accompany it are about using your skills and abilities, not about giving you super-human skills.
In line with the definitions above, mindfulness is a state of awareness in and of the present moment. It requires that your mind is relaxed and conscious of your experience, including thoughts and feelings, along with sensations and breathing.
In this state you accept everything with an attitude of non-resistance and equanimity. You accept what you find because it is. No further analysis is required.
When this happens you can experience everything fully without self-criticism or clinging to your personal identity and importance.
Notice immediately that there is no concept here of getting away from reality, as could be said about reflective meditation. Indeed, it is exactly the opposite.
And while relaxing, it is certainly not a way to go into a trance or any sort of an ‘altered state’.
In contrast, someone practicing a mindful approach to life could reasonably contend that it is the person who fails to live in this way who is the one who is trying to escape from reality, albeit that they may be doing so inadvertently.
Above all else, this is a reason why mindfulness is so amenable to being integrated into modern lifestyles and being used to improve performance in work situations.
The meditations you may encounter in a mindfulness course are not about sitting awkwardly for a painful length of time, or chanting, or changing your appearance.
Far from it. The meditations you will encounter will be almost wholly taking place within your own mind. There will be few outward signs. And they won’t even take up much of your time.
However, they are an integral part of any course on mindfulness. The good news is that the meditations you will learn are very accessible and you will find them quite easy to pick up.
If you are interested in learning how to use mindfulness in your life, download and follow this free online course Mindfulness in a Busy Life.
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While working in a corporate environment, Aedie saw that many people lose track of who they are as they go about their jobs and building their careers. This is not good for their personal development, their careers or how well they do their jobs. She writes and teaches on how to reconnect with your own self and the world while continuing to meet the demands of modern living.