About a year ago, I finally decided to try and put the small amount I’d learned about meditation into practice and start sitting for 20 minutes a day.
I downloaded one of the popular apps, found a quiet and comfortable spot where no one or thing could bother me, put on some loose clothing, and started the timer.
Then the floodgates opened.
Am I doing it right? Should I focus on my stomach or my nose? Should I feel happy feelings? This doesn’t feel so enlightening. I could be checking Twitter. I NEED to check Twitter. Breakfast soon. Mmm pancakes. Oh now I’m in the future, I wonder what Buddhists think about thinking about the future? Ahhh I have cramp!
19 minutes and 59 seconds later, with a sigh of relief and a pat on the back for effort, I grabbed my phone, thinking that maybe all this mindfulness stuff just wasn’t for me.
But several weeks after that first attempt, a feeling remained that I just couldn’t shake. No, it wasn’t a sense of tranquillity or ‘being one with nature’, it was something deeper. Something much, much deeper. And it came from a post I read about the benefits of meditation.
Woahh. It can boost concentration, reduce stress, strengthen memory, slow aging, improve cardiovascular and immune health — and all by a significant margin and proven through rigorous clinical studies. All this cold hard data (and the no doubt many more benefits that are yet to be documented), was too much to ignore.
Add to that the fact that mindfulness had been picked up by every big media outlet, and I knew there had to be something to this meditation thing.
Yeah, maybe it’s not the first place you think of when it comes to starting a spiritual journey. But for many of us in the West who perceive the world through ‘the thinking mind’ and understand things mainly with our intellect, it was the perfect place to begin.
Twelve months and several hundred hours of meditation later, I felt great. But still, every time I meditated I found myself asking the same questions and saying the same things over and over again…
Am I doing it right? Should I focus on my stomach or my nose? This doesn’t feel so enlightening…
But then I had a breakthrough.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been sitting down with a group of students studying to become monks at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (that’s the short name — seriously), located in the beautiful setting of Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
After a handful of questions about what they think of Selfies and what happens when they have naughty thoughts about girls, I put the big one to them:
How long, how often, and HOW should I meditate!?
Following an incredibly long pause for which the whole time one of the monks gave me an unwavering stare that put me on the verge of either falling asleep or falling in love, he said:
That was just the start of everything I thought I knew about meditation being turned on its head. A year of study and practice and I figured I was getting pretty good at this mindfulness thing. Turns out, I was still barely getting started.
The list below brings together some of the nuggets of wisdom I accrued from the many conversations with these young monks. Each point debunks a common misunderstanding or myth about meditation or how to meditate.
1. Thinking it’s boring
In the beginning, meditating almost always leads to boredom. If it does, you know you’re still in the thinking mind. Once you sit for longer and start to tame the monkey mind, you get beyond this level of thinking and begin to uncover what’s underneath.
2. Always being at peace
If you have a particularly busy mind, sitting in complete solitude and silence is a great way to begin. But after a while, many people think they’ve gained some mastery over their thoughts and get stuck in the familiar state of peaceful boredom.
As the essence of mindfulness is to practice observing, letting go, and returning to the breath, it can help to immerse yourself in an environment full of new stimuli. This way you can strengthen your focus muscle and push way beyond the brick wall of boredom.
3. Expecting it to feel great
It’s meditation, surely it should feel good, right? Well, it depends on what type of meditation you’re practicing. Vipassana is all about self-observation and gaining insight into the true nature of things. It says the only way to truly understand reality is to observe it, and that to observe reality and see it clearly you first need to train your concentration.
This can be really hard work, and isn’t always going to feel great, but it’s guaranteed to pay off in ways you can only imagine.
4. By focusing on your breath
But everyone says focus on the breath? Well, yes, but it depends what ideas you have of the word ‘focus’. One of the biggest meditation mistakes happens when students use the thinking mind to focus on breathing. We picture the air flowing in and out, creating a concept in our minds and controlling the process rather than observing. This way we stay in the thinking mind and even become attached to the breath. Self-observation and detaching from your senses may sound easy but learning to observe yourself in the same way you do the birds or the wind is a whole different matter.
5. Seeing the internal and external as different
We see thoughts, feelings, emotions and anything else happening inside the body as a part of ‘I’ or ‘me’. Everything else that is outside of us is a part of the external world we live in. In Vipassana meditation, you train to experience internal phenomena, like the feeling of hunger, and external phenomena, like a car horn, as one and the same.
6. Trying to understand through the thinking mind
Brought up in a world where it pays to use the left side of our brains, we approach spirituality under the impression that if we consume enough books and information, then we’ll eventually understand every single one of the Buddha’s teachings. Nope. Not gonna happen.
Even the Buddha himself said you need to discover his teaching for yourself. Believing you’ll understand the true nature of reality using the thinking mind is your ego talking and a sure-fire path to failure. Understanding is not merely a mental process; it also comes through the body and physical inquiry. The thing is this takes a lot more effort: you first need to overcome the monkey mind, open to the greater mind, and sit for many, many, many hours of practice.
7. Defining yourself as a feeling or emotion
How often do you hear people say meditation just isn’t for them, that they’re not spiritual, too anxious, or their minds are too busy for it? The only barrier here is not stress or the inability to sit still, but identifying with feelings and emotions.
Without taking the time to practice, we become so caught up in emotions we begin to define ourselves by them. Saying I’m this or that type of person. Anyone trying to meditate without being aware of this is fighting a losing battle; you first need to step back and learn more (using the thinking mind) before engaging in sit-down practice.
8. Without knowing what you’re practicing
As there are many different types of meditation, there’s a lot of confusing information online. This can make self-teaching a little tricky and your meditation session more of a mash-up than a pure, defined practice.
And so you may wonder why it’s not working for you when you’re actually doing a mixture of Zen, Vipassana, and loving kindness meditation rolled into one. Find one and stick with it. For anyone working in the digital world, I recommended Samadhi or Anapana meditation — a practice of achieving a still mind and complete awareness of the present moment. Samadhi is the last element of mental training in the Noble Eightfold Path and is a great practice to begin with.
9. Without knowing what type of meditator you are
In Samadhi meditation, there are six kinds of meditators or ‘temperaments’. It used to be customary for students to seek guidance from a teacher who was competent in their particular temperament, and today it’s still recommended to pick one that is most suited to your natural state.
The six primary temperaments are lustful, hateful, ignorant, devout, intellectual, and discursive. By combining the six with one another, and adding on one more (speculative) you get a total of 64 types. It’s difficult to find good information on these, but if you use your own judgment and choose a temperament that suits you best, you can then use it to help you find the right meditation practice.
10. While judging and being hard on yourself
Due to discomfort and harsh self-judgement, many people give up well before their practice even gets underway. After 10 minutes they realize they’ve been lost in some daydream or fantasy and blame themselves for being so unfocused and quit.
But the path to enlightenment isn’t a stroll in the park, it’s a long trek up and down peaks and through dense jungles and across unforgiving terrain. You wouldn’t climb a mountain only to give up when you encountered some rocks to maneuver or a stream of murky water to wade through.
Every time your attention wanders or you experience an unpleasant emotion, and you acknowledge what the thought or feeling was and bring your attention back, you haven’t wasted 10 minutes, you’ve just crossed a river or scaled a peak on the way to pure insight.
11. In fight/flight or ego mode
You can’t find pure insight by means of brute force. Yet this is the attitude many people bring to meditation. They make the commitment to sit for half an hour every day, and through sheer willpower alone don’t get up a second before. They shoot thoughts down even quicker then they arise, and when they’re done, they jump to share their serene and enlightening experience on Facebook.
Steaming ahead in the pursuit of insight in this way is a one way ticket to burn out. To make progress on your journey and deepen your practice, a more subtle approach of noticing phenomena, letting it go, and moving back to your center is necessary.
Bonus: 12. Expecting to find the answer to life’s big mysteries
After asking the monks every possible question I could think of, I realized they kept coming back to the same thing:
Some things in life cannot be understood through the thinking mind — through reading, listening, and mulling things over. Some things cannot be explained with words or communicated through language.
Big meta questions like ‘Who am I if I’m not my thoughts?’ And, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ fall into this category.
Again, this is why the Buddha said to discover the truth for yourself — nobody can teach you it. He discovered the true nature of reality after many years of practice, taming the monkey mind, strengthening his concentration, removing the veils of dissolution, and opening to complete awareness.
Rather than something you do once or twice a day, meditation is a philosophy — a way of life — that consists of many parts and takes a lifetime to master. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start seeing the benefits today. Take on board these points and remember, understanding will come with time and practice.
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