Meditation has been practiced in various forms for thousands of years. There are hundreds of different meditation techniques. But every type of meditation, whether Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Jewish, is based on an often neglected yet basic underlying principle: The mind can contain only one thing at any given moment. Right now, you are reading this word, and that is the only thought your mind can contain. Now, in the next moment, you are focused on something else: this next word, or what you want for lunch, or something that happened twenty years ago, or your future career goals.
Meditation is a method of introverting. Like sleep and dreaming, meditation is an introverted activity, the difference being that during sleep we are unconscious while during meditation we remain conscious. (See my prior post on sleep.) Generally speaking, introverted types are more receptive to meditation than extraverted types, who tend to avoid it like the plague. The last thing an extraverted type wants to do is engage in an introverted activity like meditation. So chances are, if you are attracted to meditation, and find it relaxing, you are an introvert. If you are an introverted type living a more extraverted existence, meditation might be just what the doctor ordered.
The purpose of practicing meditation is to learn to discipline the mind to focus on what it contains in this moment only. Right here. Right now. On what we choose to have it focus upon rather than it focusing on whatever comes into our awareness in the moment. To limit, minimize or eliminate such distractions as much as possible and to remain attentive to the focal point of the particular meditation technique, be it one's breathing, a candle flame, one's body or some mantra, as in Transcendental Meditation.
Actually, the ultimate goal during meditation is not to think at all in this moment. That is what meditation really is: no thought. An empty container. But we all know how difficult it is not to think. This is why Buddhists liken the mind to a drunken monkey, incessantly leaping and bounding about. The point of meditation is to tame that drunken monkey. And, thereby, to achieve and maintain peace of mind. Serenity. Stability. (See my prior post on the Dalai Lama.) And that takes practice. Lots of it.
Meditation--and its derivative, mindfulness--is a skill. Like any other skill, be it tennis, playing the piano, or baking a cake, practice is required to become proficient. Practice, practice, and more practice. The very first time you try to play tennis or piano or bake a cake, you’ll probably be pretty bad at it. That’s par for the course. But as you practice doing it, your skills start to improve, and you get better at it. It is exactly the same with meditation. Initially, you will be terrible at it. Your mind will be a drunken monkey. A runaway train of thoughts, ideas, fantasies, feelings, distractions. Naturally. If you weren’t terrible at it, you wouldn’t need to learn how to meditate! You would already know how to focus your mind, how not to think. So if you try meditation, you must be really patient with yourself. Expect to be bad at it at first. Very bad. But don’t be discouraged by that. Stay with it. Keep practicing and, as with anything else, you will start to see results.
Here is a basic Zen meditation technique I sometimes teach my patients if they express interest or when I feel it could be beneficial for them and their symptoms. This is an elegant but deceptively simple breathing technique:
Sit comfortably in a chair with your feet on the ground, back straight, hands resting one on each thigh. Or you can sit cross-legged (no full or half-lotus needed) on a bed or sofa with your back supported and hands in your lap. Do this at a time when you will least likely be disturbed or interrupted by visitors, telephone calls, crying babies, etc. Before sitting down to meditate, set a timer for fifteen or twenty minutes, whichever you prefer. Once you’ve been seated, close your eyes. Breathe through your nose, not mouth. Focus your attention on your breathing as you inhale and then exhale, inhale and exhale. There is no need to do anything different with your breathing. You are already breathing. Just breathe naturally, in and out, and stay focused on the breath itself as it enters your nostrils, moves up your nose, through your throat, and down into the lungs as you inhale. Envision your breath as a ribbon, moving down to the bottom of your lungs and below into your belly, and then, as you start to exhale, turning around in your belly and rising back up into the lungs, through the throat, and exiting the nose. Now, in your mind’s eye, see this ribbon of exhaled breath extend out to a foot in front of your face, turn around in space, and return through the nostrils as you inhale again. Remain focused on this continuous, unbroken ribbon of breath, moving effortlessly into and out of your body. If you get distracted by some internal or external stimulus, simply observe it, don't judge it, and note the fact that now you are no longer focused on your breathing. Bring your awareness back to your breathing.
That’s it. A very simple technique of following the breath, with a little visualization thrown in to help stay focused. But, as you will find, this may be simple, but it’s not easy. Use a timer so you don't need to think about when to stop meditating. Just continue sitting until the alarm sounds. Staying focused on the breath is difficult because of the drunken monkey in your mind. Once you start to focus on your breath for a few seconds, your mind will be off and running: thinking about what you want for dinner, the bills you need to pay, what happened to you yesterday, what you should be doing right now, and why you are wasting your time meditating. The moment you start thinking about such things, you are no longer focused on your breathing. You cannot concentrate on both. Because the mind can contain only one thing in any given moment.
But all is not lost. Don’t give up. This is invariably what happens when you try a new skill that you’ve never practiced before. It is a completely natural part of the meditation process. Stay with it. When you notice yourself thinking about things, just observe those thoughts, take note, plan to explore any interesting ideas later, and then gently bring yourself back to the breathing. Focus only on your rhythmic breathing. In and out. Out and in. Now you are practicing meditation. You may have to bring yourself back to the breathing a thousand times in the first sitting. But that’s fine. Meditate for the full session, until the timer goes off. Then you can go and analyze, think and worry all you want. Soon, with daily practice--find a time of day that works best for you--you will get better at it. Your mind will gradually quiet down. As you spend more consecutive seconds focused on your breathing rather than thoughts, you will briefly experience the pure bliss and inner peace of silence. This is like taking a deeply relaxing mini-vacation for the mind and soul. And, as mind goes, so goes the body.
Meditation is not for everyone. While such a meditation might benefit extraverts and overly extraverted introverts, it is not recommended for anyone already too intensely introverted. There is a potential risk of becoming pathologically detached from outer reality. (See, for example, my prior post on alleged mass muderer Jared Lee Loughner.) The excessively introverted person needs not to meditate, but to extravert. Jung's notion of individuation--the ongoing process of becoming more whole or balanced--requires introverted types to develop and integrate what he called their "inferior function," their extraversion. And for extraverted types to cultivate their capacity for introversion. (See my prior post.) So this is why extraverts need to meditate. Once an extraverted type recognizes the imbalance between introversion and extraversion in his or her life, they are more ready and receptive to try meditation. And many learn to love it as a welcome counterbalance to their constant whirlwind of extraverted activities. Finding balance is the key.
For both types, however, this is exceedingly difficult work. What comes naturally to the extravert, requires enormous effort for the introvert. And vice-versa. But individuation cannot be accomplished by denying one's innate typology and trying to replace it with its opposite. Though, as often happens in the psychotherapy process, the pendulum may swing from one extreme to the other before finding balance. The introverted type must learn to extravert, honing his or her extraverted skills, but always essentially remains an introvert. Just as extraverted types must learn to introvert, but will forever fundamentally be extraverts. Balance is the secret. Balance and acceptance. As with much of psychotherapy, it's all about accepting oneself and restoring one‘s soul. And recognizing that refusing to respect and honor our innate typology--and that of others--is ultimately self-defeating and destructive.