Let's meditate, shall we?
Meditation — surely the cliche of our age.
Still, there must be a reason why everyone is talking about it. Just what does it mean to meditate? Is it bliss, or is it therapy? And if it’s so simple, why is it so difficult?
There are many perspectives on what meditation is all about. There’s concentrative meditation, for example, where you focus all your senses on one limited object or idea, tuning out everything else. Spiritual meditation is often practiced to connect to something greater, and mindfulness meditation involves quietly observing the world around you. I often enjoy walking meditation in nature, and practice what the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh once said: “Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”
No matter the style or how you define it, meditation, for me, is simply our natural state of being. I know you have probably heard that before, but I also know it can be hard to believe when trying a meditation practice feels like anything but…
Let’s take the example of watching a movie recommended by a friend;
- At first you try to watch the film, but before you know it, you’re distracted from your screen by a train of thoughts. ‘I should call so and so...’ ‘Have I finished…?’, ‘Is the cat alright?’
Once you’ve checked your messages and made sure the cat has enough to eat, you finally settle into the movie — again.
- As your interest in the film grows, thoughts continue to cross your mind. ‘Who is that character…?’ ‘What is happening here?’ ‘I wonder why my friend recommended this to me...’
- Then, as your viewing persists, fewer and fewer interrupting thoughts cross your mind. You come to a place where you are observing without thought, although you are still aware that you are watching the film.
- If the movie is good, you continue to focus and eventually reach a state where you become completely absorbed in the show. You lose your sense of self. You lose all sense of time.
Sounds simple, right?
Ancient Indian Wisdom
These (1.- 4.) are the four stages of meditation as described in the classic Yoga Sutras, which were compiled by the ancient Indian sage, Patanjali.
Stage 1: Pratyahara. This is when your senses are distracted from your object of focus, and through your continued choice to focus on your object the distractions lose their strength.
Stage 2: Dharana. This is when you have continued focus on your object, but the focus is interrupted by thoughts.
Stage 3: Dhyana. Here, your focus is continuous without any interrupting thoughts, but you still have the awareness of ‘yourself’ and your ‘object’.
Stage 4: Samadhi. Now your sense of self has disappeared — you ‘are’ the object. This is the state of non-duality, when you lose all sense of time.
Of course we can experience this ‘loss of sense of self’ with any object, and I’m certain that your favorite activities all bring you to this place. Maybe it’s drawing, reading, listening to music, exercising, gardening, talking with a friend…
This is often referred to as ‘being in the zone’ or ‘getting in the flow’. You’ve certainly heard athletes talk about this and nowadays, anyone into peak performance states that getting yourself into that zone, where everything flows, is the ultimate path to self-fulfilment and success.
The expression ‘getting in the flow’ represents a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity, and was first coined in the 1960s by positive psychologist Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
“The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
So how do we get into that flow, that zone? There’s the obvious, meditation, but the experts agree, there are also more ways to achieve flow. Here are the basics.
First, focus on one thing at a time. Remove distractions. Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by complex tasks or situations, and break big endeavors up into small steps you can easily achieve. To find flow, there has to be a balance between challenge and skills — it must be challenging enough to demand your total attention, but not so difficult that it is unachievable.
As Dr. Csikzentmihalyi wrote, “Flow is important both because it makes the present instant more enjoyable, and because it builds the self-confidence that allows us to develop skills and make significant contributions to humankind.”
Falling out of Flow
But what about when something traumatic happens, like a loss or relationship break up? Of course you're upset, so you might turn to your favorite movie, in hopes of losing yourself and your pain in someone else’s story… But you can’t. The four stages of meditation do not occur — or if they do, chances are that you’re not able to sustain them. The trauma has inhibited your ability to ‘meditate’. This is referred to as a sankara.
According to the teachings of yoga, the sankaras we hold in our minds are what create our suffering. They are past traumas and erroneous beliefs that we have not yet healed or released. They reside in our subconscious mind and hold a charge that attracts similar repeated circumstances, that is to say more suffering. These are the natural laws of attraction. The sankaras continue to exist until we become aware, realize the truth of them, and release the held emotions.
The act of intentional meditation engage a process of healing these sankaras. Meditation develops and increases our awareness, and in doing so, these patterns that cause our suffering lose their strength and dissolve, layer after layer. As you practice meditating regularly, the four stages of meditation happen more and more easily. It’s just like anything else: the more often you repeat it, the easier it becomes.
Over time, being in the ‘flow’ becomes increasingly normal and you can more easily come to this place of oneness, contentment, and joy. You become aware and sensitive to the 'flow' being absent, and then present… And the objects that you need to bring on the flow become increasingly subtle in nature.
The example of watching a movie may seem like an oversimplification, but I promise you, it is not. With continued meditation practice, you no longer require such a stimulating object as a movie — it’s enough to just feel your body breathing, all of your sensations, and the gentle sounds around you.
With increasingly subtle objects and prolonged focus, the fourth and final stage of meditation, Samadhi, can be deepened to subtler and subtler experiences of reality.
Are you ready to dive into your flow? There are many places and teachers where you can learn meditation. My recommendation is the highly effective Vipassana meditation (www.dhamma.org).