The Art of Meditation
Where do you come from? Do you know?
No doubt you know what town you were born in and who your parents are. You can list a huge number of other facts about yourself. But do they answer the question?
It seems not. Many people know these things and still have a haunting sense that they don’t know where they come from. They may even feel that deep down inside, they don’t know who they are.
So facts alone can only tell you so much.
That is where meditation comes in.
You have probably heard a lot about meditation by now. You have seen endless books, TV shows, DVDs, lectures, and so on about it. Even if you haven’t practiced it, you probably have at least a vague idea of what it is. You may have heard that it can reduce stress, improve your health, sharpen your mind, and do many other wonderful things.
Meditation can help you accomplish all these goals. You can even do various types of meditative practice that are designed for these specific purposes. But they are not really what meditation is all about.
It is about where you came from. Where you came from really. It is a place that you’ve never left and never can leave. The only problem is that you’ve forgotten that it’s there.
Mysterious enough for you?
Imagine for a moment that everything you know—from atoms to galaxies—consists of objects floating on the surface of an immeasurable ocean. (Although this may be hard to imagine, the oceans on earth are themselves just things floating on this surface.) All these things crowd and jostle against one another, restlessly moving without cease.
You did not come from any of these objects on the surface, past or present. You came from this immeasurable ocean underneath them all. So did everything else.
What do you want to call this great ocean that lies under all things? Some have called it the ground of being, the infinite, the All, even God. These names can be illuminating, but they are in the end just names.
Reconnecting with this great ocean of being could be said to be the goal of meditation.
As long as your mind is preoccupied with things on the surface—which, as you know, come and go constantly—you will not be aware of the ocean of being. You will forget it. Worse, you will forget that it even exists.
Meditation is a way of stilling the mind so that you can reconnect yourself with the great, silent ocean of being. If you do this regularly, your mind will take all the things on the surface—that is, all of visible reality—less seriously and with much less anxiety. This is in part how meditation calms the mind.
How do you practice meditation? As you probably know, there are many types, some connected with the great world religions, some connected with none. Most meditative practices involve focusing the mind on a single point such as a sacred sound, or mantra, a visualized mental image, the breath, or the sensations of the body. How do you know which one is right for you?
It is not the purpose of this leaflet to endorse any particular type of meditation. But some things can be said in general.
In the first place, it is best to have formal, practical instruction in meditation. This means learning it in person from someone who is qualified to teach this type of meditation. (Some teachers charges for instruction, but many don’t. Cost has no relation to quality.) Ideally this teacher will be available to check up with afterward, at first on a fairly frequent basis, then less often. Checking in helps you make sure that you are doing the meditation correctly: frequently all the teacher has to do is to remind you of basic instructions. The mind likes to wander and play games, and this is true above all in meditation.
Are you free to teach yourself meditation? Of course you are. There is no one who can tell you what or what not to do. Simply remember that self-taught meditation can run into difficulties.
Having said this, we can give a simple exercise that will give you some of the flavor of meditation practice. You can try to follow the directions as you read, although it will probably be easier if you have someone read it slowly and carefully to you or if you record the instructions audibly and play them back for yourself.
Choose a place where you will not be disturbed for, say, fifteen minutes. Turn electronic devices off (except for the one that is playing the recording if you do it that way). Then sit down in a seat that will enable you to maintain a comfortable but erect position. (It is not necessary to sit cross-legged. In fact, avoid doing this unless you can do so with complete comfort.)
Now, as you are sitting, allow your eyes to close. Take two or three deep breaths and exhale slowly, making a conscious effort to relax.
Bring your attention to the sensations of the body. You will perhaps feel your back against the chair, your feet on the floor, or whatever else comes up. You can pay attention to any sensation and then let it go as another one comes up. Your attention may go to different parts of your body from moment to moment. This is fine, as long as you remain focused on the sensations of the body.
Do this for two or three minutes.
At this point you will have noticed that your mind has continued to produce thoughts, which come in an endless stream. Now turn your attention to the thoughts. Watch them pass before your eyes as if they were images on a movie screen. Allow anything to come up, but do not hold on to any thought, however fascinating. Do not avoid unpleasant thoughts. Simply let them all pass through your mind as if you were watching a movie.
Do this for two or three minutes.
You have observed your sensations. You have observed the images in your mind. You will have noticed that you can watch all these things as if from a distance, as if you were a spectator of them.
What, then, is YOU?
Now let your attention rest in the silent watcher that observes all these things. You will never be able to see it, because it is that in you which sees. But you can become more aware of it by centering yourself in it.
Do this for two or three minutes. End by bringing yourself back to the sensations of the body. You can stamp your feet on the floor as a way of grounding yourself. Then gently and naturally open your eyes and return to your ordinary state of consciousness.
This silent watcher, by the way, has been called the Self. The Hindus call it the Atman. The Gospels call it the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God. (“The kingdom of God is within you”: Luke 17:21). There are many other names for this silent watcher that is you in a way that your body, your social identity, and your personality are not.
Becoming aware of this Self gives you a glimpse of meditation and what it is supposed to do. To use the metaphor we started with, this helps lead you back into the immeasurable ocean that you came from.
By the way, there is no stopping point in this ocean. It is infinite. There is always further to go.
John Cianciosi. The Meditative Path: A Gentle Way to Awareness, Concentration, and Serenity. Wheaton, Il.: Quest, 2001.
Lucy Oliver. The Meditator’s Guidebook. Rochester, Vt.: Destiny, 1991.
Alan L. Pritz. Meditation as a Way of Life: Philosophy and Practice. Wheaton, Il.: Quest, 2014.