There is no shortage of writing or awareness on meditation, as it has reached a height within our collective cultural consciousness that few would claim to be unaware of the practice.
The image of a cross-legged yogi is likewise burnt onto our retinas so much so that it’s tempting to recoil at the constant buzz that surrounds meditation, mindfulness, and other well-being practices that hold the promise to relieve your stress and tension.
And how? Simply following the breath; in and out, at the tip of your nose. The wisdom of millennia condensed into the length of a tweet.
But this is where we go wrong.
This trivialised version of meditation has become so endemic that it is hard to escape. Even finding out what meditation really means is difficult and so we find ourselves in our present predicament.
We all think we know what it means, many of us have tried it for a few weeks before some other fad takes over, even if we experienced certain changes during that time.
What we lack is a refined understanding of what meditation consists of, and a word I used earlier, which is often used but often overlooked, which helps to demystify meditation, is practice.
This is something we all understand, be it practising a musical instrument or a sport. It is developing and adding to a set of skills which allow you to perform in a given set of circumstances.
It often involves a number of different elements and we tend to progress; improving as we go, depending on feedback or our own self-critique.
Then when we’re faced with a new challenge, a new song to master on guitar, for example, we can handle it, employ what we’ve learnt, and adapt our skills to the new situation.
The word practice applies equally in the context of meditation, and this is where we begin to glimpse the incredible power of meditation and its true meaning.
It gives us a set of skills to control the attention of the mind, and in meditating we build a catalogue of methods to hone and direct our conscious experience depending on what condition we find ourselves in.
On occasion, we’re focussed and can keep our attention fully on our breath, yet on others, our thoughts are scattered and there exists a plethora of techniques to grapple with the multitude of states of mind that we can be faced with.
Often, our lack of introspective awareness leads us to overlook these various states we inhabit, we simply notice their after effects; a bad day at work, days when you can’t stop talking and others when you can barely think of a word to say, mornings when the gym calls you and others when the thought of donning your gym kit fills you with dread.
Once we pay closer attention, we learn to notice these states of mind and what they mean for our meditation sessions, and ultimately for our lives.
But how can focusing on the breath make you more aware of your thoughts?
The breath is often chosen by meditators as a ‘meditation object’ as it is ever present; so long as we live, we breathe. Having a constant and internal object like the breath sensations then gives us something to focus our attention on, which in fact serves a double purpose.
Firstly, we can examine closer and closer the subtleties in the sensations and, in turn, hone the quality of our concentration, and secondly, and most importantly, it directs us away from our thoughts. This is the root of the profound effects that continued practice can bring.
We quite soon discover after attempting a meditation that we can’t maintain our attention on the breath for long. It is tempting to throw in the towel immediately but here it is essential to realise that failing to maintain the attention on the breath, realising that you have wandered, and guiding it back to it, is precisely the practice that I referred to.
With time, you become more aware of these mind-wanderings; what is their content, what is their emotional quality, what led me to think of it… and as this faculty improves, we develop another loaded and misconstrued term: mindfulness.
That is to say, we become mindful of our thoughts; aware when one enters our awareness and therefore able to analyse them before they become an impulse.
A sudden urge to check your phone? With greater mindfulness, you begin to recognise this for what it is, simply an impulse, and you can let it pass. Just this one simple example is a powerful illustration of what meditation can achieve.
The same principle can be applied to negative emotions or nagging thoughts; all in all anything that passes through our mind, with enough mindfulness, can be overcome, and we can begin to construct a new self and a new life that is guided by careful consideration instead of automatic impulse.
As a final note, it would be irresponsible to pretend that the brief and superficial overview of meditation and mindfulness presented here is in any way sufficient.
My aim is simply to give a glimpse of what meditation can be beyond the usual cursory explanations that are commonly bandied around, and hopefully provide a little inspiration to pursue the practice that little bit further. With some dedication, the results can be potent.
Book recommendations to get started with meditation: