Although this post is about meditation, and I’ve taught basic meditation techniques to people for years, I’m not a daily meditator, myself. I think of meditation as an ancient, effective psychotechnology – a tool/skill for controlling mental activity. I’ve found it to be helpful in many situations, and have described learning to meditate as learning to “turn off your mental radio” at will.
A Buddhist text describes the mind as a “drunken monkey bitten by a scorpion,” and thinking is the source of much human suffering. Many people that I worked with as a therapist often felt overwhelmed by the unending press of their own thoughts, resulting in high levels of stress and distress – often in the form of anxiety and depression. People suffering from insomnia complained that they couldn’t stop thinking when they needed to be sleeping. I’ve written about rational thinking as a learnable skill in previous posts, but meditation gets at the root problem of runaway thoughts – regardless of content. Practicing it can prevent a thought from becoming an unwanted “train of thoughts” that might take you to places you don’t want to go. In a meditative state one can be aware, without being aware of any thing.
I’ve never had chronic sleep problems, but my rare experiences of insomnia used to be hellish, as I tossed and turned in bed, telling myself that I was having a terrible time. Now, when I have trouble falling asleep, I can avoid being aroused by the content of my thoughts. I can turn off my mental radio and experience getting needed rest, until I fall asleep again. I no longer torment myself with unwanted thoughts that keep me awake. There are other benefits that come from learning to meditate. You can learn it all by yourself. All it takes is practice.
There are many ways to learn how to meditate, and you don’t have to learn yoga or tai chi to discover how to control your mental activity. Daily meditators extol the benefits of their practice, but even occasional meditation can be a helpful skill, enabling you to keep your focus and to reduce your stress. As a therapist, I felt obligated to remain 100% present in the here-and-now with each client. Sometimes I would do a brief meditation between therapy clients, to clear my mind.
I started out with what I call one-point meditation, and went on to learn to maintain awareness, without any object of my awareness – no-point meditation. There are many different focal stimuli that can be used to learn one-point meditation. Probably the most popular method is to focus on your breath, to the exclusion of all thought. But learners can also focus on a visual stimulus such as a candle flame in a dark room or a mandala, or an aural stimulus – a ringing bell or a mantra such as “Om.” In mindfulness meditation, you focus on your present surround or activity, to the exclusion of thoughts about the situation or activity. Walking, or washing the dishes, can be a meditation.
Other than mindfulness meditation or movement meditations such as tai chi, most meditators sit, keeping a straight spine. As you follow your breathing, or try to lose yourself in a mandala or a candle flame or a mantra, thoughts will intrude on the purity of your concentration. One thought can easily lead to a train of thoughts that distracts you from your focal point. Learning to meditate involves learning not to let these thoughts carry you away from the object of your concentration. You notice the thought but don’t follow it, letting it pass, while focusing back on the candle flame, the mantra, your breath, or the activity you’re engaged in. When you first achieve a meditative state, you’ll know it; but as soon as you think, “I’m meditating!” you’re not. Repeat. With practice, you can extend the time that your awareness is one-pointed, uncontaminated by thought.
Once you make progress in one-point meditation, and can let intrusive thoughts drift by without distracting you from simple awareness, you can start to practice turning off your mental radio altogether, with no focal stimulus. I know from long experience that I can be alert and aware, without being aware of any thing, including my own thoughts. In the meditative state, I’m free from stress. I can meditate briefly, to clear my mind between mentally taxing activities. I can clear my mind of intrusive thoughts when I want to fall asleep.
Rhythmic breathing is central to learning meditation, even if you’re focusing on a candle flame or a mantra or an activity. Breathing is a constant, automatic activity. When you bring it into conscious awareness, you can learn to empty your mind of thought – if that is your goal. (Pranayama yoga teaches people to alter their consciousness in a variety of directions, by altering their breathing in prescribed ways.) Your initial practice sessions need not last long. If you set aside ten or fifteen minutes, several times a week, you can teach yourself how to turn off your mental radio.