What do you actually know about meditation?
Posted May 20, 2020
“Meditation is to the mind what exercise is to the body—it warms and invigorates.” —David Lynch
If you are familiar with some of the stuff David Lynch has produced as a filmmaker (i.e., Dune, Twin Peaks), you probably think it wasn’t too much of a stretch for him to become a transcendental meditation guru. You know, transcendental meditation was introduced in the West in the mid-1950 and became famous when the Beatles joined the movement. It is one of the only types of meditation that is not freely accessible, requiring you to join a specific school to follow an accredited guru. I am probably heavily biased against this form of meditation, despite many scientific papers emphasising its benefits, for the simple reason that I don’t feel comfortable with having a "guru." It sounds like a sect to me. It feels like giving too much power over your life to a single person, which is not you … which is exactly the polar opposite to any modern empowerment mantra. However, it shouldn’t put you off entirely, as "meditation" is not limited to its transcendental form.
Reducing meditation to transcendental meditation would be like limiting physical activity to cardio (minus the whole guru thing): it is not for everybody despite numerous proven health benefits. There are as many meditation techniques as there are types of sports, and no you don’t need to practice yoga to be interested in meditating. I feel that nowadays meditation has been lumped together with being vegetarian/vegan, practising yoga every day, and being a tree-hugger (nothing wrong with any of those things). You need to do it all, or you can’t do any. Well, guess what? You can be the most selfish person, the bigger meat-eater on Earth, and still enjoy meditation. Actually, meditation (any type of meditation) has a lot of personal health benefits and meditating can improve your own self without impacting the environment or others. So, being selfish should really push you to find the kind of meditation that works for you, because why would you deprive yourself of being the best version of yourself?
As there are many different kinds of meditation, some will work better for you than others, just like you might enjoy some type of sports more than others or like some diets might work better for some people than others. It is not a one-size-fits-all type of thing, more like a find-what-work-for-you. Meditating is not just done by seating in a lotus position, legs crossed, straight back, hands on the knees with the first finger to thumb. Meditation can be dynamic and can involve movement. Just like exercising is not all about jumping around and burning hundreds of calories per session. It is about mobilising muscles and moving. Well, meditation is about sharpening your mind and taking another point of view once in a while. It is a way to train the mind, just like fitness is a way to train your body.
So, what are the different types of meditation techniques? Good question. From various searches, it seems that five categories can be defined:
- Buddhist meditation techniques, like mindfulness meditation. (I’ll talk a bit more about this one below.)
- Hindu meditation techniques, like mantra meditation, transcendental meditation of yogic meditation (involving third eye and chakra and many other variations using senses and sounds).
- Chinese meditation techniques, like Qigong involving movements if the idea of staying still is unbearable for you.
- Western monotheist meditation techniques, like Christian or Sufi meditations involving a sense of connection to the divine.
- Guided meditation, probably the most popular in the West nowadays, involving visualisation and guided imagery.
If you have ever spent time laying on the grass watching the clouds high above your head, spent time looking at the waves come and go on the beach, or enjoyed a walk in the forest looking around at all the shades of light and colours around you, you have meditated before. You don’t need to believe that there are natural forces in the world connecting everyone to everything. You don’t need to believe in a higher power. You don’t need to do yoga or be a Buddhist monk. Meditating can help you find balance within you; it can help you face your emotions and take control. Meditation can bring a sense of peacefulness and relax the body, which in turn will lower your blood pressure and your heart rate while increasing your blood circulation. It lowers your stress level and your anxiety. Don’t assume it is not for you; assume you haven’t yet found the shoe that fits you.
How will you know when you found the one? It’s a bit like knowing you are enjoying a type of exercising despite the (mild) physical pain/discomfort felt during the practice. How do you know whether you like running or not? You associate a purpose with it. If you find a type of meditation that gives you a purpose, that tickles your interest, you’re on the right track. Next, if you enjoy the practice or part of it, it’s a good sign. Keep trying, keep practising for a while, you know what we say: you can’t say you don’t like something until you’ve tasted it 10 times. Finally, be patient with yourself. Don’t expect a miraculous change in how you feel or deal with situations. You wouldn’t expect your biceps to double volume after one gym session, would you? Well, don’t expect to notice changes after one single meditation session. And just like with the gym, there is no point starting your journey by doing meditation thrice a day for one hour each time. It’s too much, too soon and the only result you’ll get is making yourself sick of it.
The type of meditation I am most familiar with combine mindfulness and guided meditation. The practice starts by anchoring yourself in the here and now by focussing on your breath; then, you go on a journey. It can be a walk in the forest, stargazing, or sitting by the fireplace. It brings your awareness to how you’d feel in those situations, helping you summon them when needed. It can also focus on various parts of your body, to bring awareness to tightness or discomfort in different places. It can focus on the way you feel right here right now.
There are other activities that can bring your full attention to here and now: drawing, dancing (I wanted to write about the benefits associated with dancing but thought I’d keep it for a time we can actually dance), or running. Anything that requires you to focus mind and body on a single goal is a form of meditation. You might have been meditating without knowing it. Who cares what name you give it, just remember to check in with yourself once a day. In the end, meditating is choosing between the discomfort associated with becoming aware of our mental suffering and struggles and the discomfort associated with letting them in charge. What will you choose?