Recently, a couple of my closest friends have been recommended to start meditation from their physician as a means for improving their general well-being. My friends asked me a few questions about it and the line of questioning leads me to believe that it is highly likely that they are going to struggle. A few other friends have also asked me on how best to get started so I figured I will use this opportunity to write about beginning meditation.
I have been on a long arc of meditation for 18-20 years now. The journey is like a sine curve, some good stretches followed by troughs. I have gone through numerous meditation practices before settling in on my current practice. When I started, I hunted books to find practices. Hunting for the right teacher was much much harder. Nowadays, you have a few dozen apps on the App Store (I have thought about writing one too), a million practices on youtube and a Guru is a click way. This compounds the problem for beginners. Paralysis by Analysis - anyone?
This blog is meant for my friends but more so something that I wished I had when I started out so that I could’ve shaved a half-a-dozen years of searching for the right practice. So here goes:
Figure out your reasons for meditation. Drop them!
Before starting, figure out why you would like to start. Is it stress management? Happiness? Equanimity under all conditions? Enlightenment? Doctor recommendations? Or a friend who is passionate about it ;-)?
Take a few moments and write them down on a piece of paper. Now dump the paper and all your expectations. When you have expectation, every session is run against a barometer of your expectations and no matter how great that session is, it never matches the expectations.
Take it from my experience, the expectations suck out a few years from actually meditating!
Replace the expectations with something simple - I recommend “I am going to spend about 15 minutes a day being quiet and with myself”.
What is meditation?
Simplest definition - Meditation is an extended attention to a particular thought or train of thought. In meditation, the mind should be a like a tranquil lake - clear, relaxed (it is an indescribable experience when you achieve this state). We will use the Indian word “Dhyan” for meditation to get away from pre-conceived definitions. Wikipedia defines Dhyan (or Dhyana) as contemplation, reflection or profound, abstract meditation. It further states that Dhyan is a sustained attention and application of mind to a chosen point of concentration. This definition breaks from the rigidity of “blank your mind” and frees us to dive deeper into meditation.
The closest word in english is focus and this word is good enough to last multiple years actually.
What meditation isn’t?
Ask 10 people and you will get 10 different definitions of what meditation is. However, most commonly used explanation is to blank your mind and prevent thoughts from coming in. The problem with this definition is that it is a very difficult (if not the most difficult) way to practice meditation. In Indian meditation theories, mind is often compared to as a drunken monkey and the drunken monkey will keep jumping from thought to thought - blanking your mind as a meditative practice for beginners is a not a recipe for failure but a recipe for disaster. I believe, only advanced Gurus (and I don’t mean it in the definition of “American Guru” but real masters achieve this state).
I really want to emphasise this: if you aim to completely blank your mind you are going to fail. If it helps, in my practice, my mind runs away on an average of 3 - 6 breaths and it comes back after running behind about 3-6 thoughts.
Benefits of meditation
I asked you to drop any pre-conceived notion on what meditation is and I am going to flip around and talk about few of very tangible benefits that I have seen over the years.
Some immediate benefits are:
- Great take off to the day: If I start my day with a 10-15 minute meditation, I find that I am really calm, composed and ready to deal with anything that the day throws my way. This calmness carries through the day.
- Great end to the day: If I end the day with a short practice (usually ends up being a long one), I find that all the stress of the day dissipates. Not to mention the benefit of just drifting off to sleep 😃
- Stress dissipator: The biggest benefit is really the ability to handle stress. If I find myself getting angry or detect a huge build up of stress, I realise that I have fallen off the meditation wagon for a few days. Two sessions (morning and evening) and I am back. For me, meditation is a couple of orders in magnitude better at busting stress than exercise.
- Building Visualisation/Imagination: My meditation practice ends up with visualisation exercises. There is enough literature out there on the benefits of visualisation. Visualizing what I want to do and where I want to go is tremendous fun.
Longer term benefits include:
- Calmness in adversity I used to be someone who got angry fairly quickly, looked at things half-empty - no longer. It is fairly hard to get me angry and I look at things half-full. These two changes have been worth all the time that I have invested.
- Happiness I am just happier - it is wonderful to be in this state and know very well that I can move to this state if I am away from being in the happy state.
In summary, a lot of things to look upto. In my next blog, I will cover the fastest way to start a meditation practice.