Meditation is the key practice for spiritual growth.
For me, it was what started me on the spiritual journey aged 29, which is coincidentally the same age that the Buddha left his home to discover the world outside of the palace walls, leading him to, you guessed it – meditate.
Meditation gives you an insight into the functionings of your own mind, which is where suffering comes from. As spiritual masters from the Buddha to Eckhart Tolle have taught, it is not the outer circumstances of our lives that make us suffer, rather, it is our reaction to them. How we perceive the world becomes what we experience. And how we perceive the world depends on an underlying system of beliefs that we have, that, unless we examine them, are usually a combination of the beliefs of our parents and teachers in early life. What we think, we become.
When we establish a meditation practice, it may be the first time in our lives that we have spent time just watching our thoughts. It may be such a foreign experience for us that it becomes painful. We may be overwhelmed by our thoughts when we see that there are so many and that they come in such a constant stream. But the more we persist in our meditation practice, the more the thought stream will slow down, and the quieter our minds will become.
There are many different levels to a meditation practice.
The First Level of Practice: Observation of the Breath (Samatha Meditation)
To start out, you sit in a comfortable position, and start observing the breath. You watch the in breath and the out breath. In Buddhist practice this is called Samatha meditation. You pay close attention to the breath and how it feels. You stay with that. You observe. And if thoughts come into your head, you come back to the breath, and you observe. If the wind or the temperature annoys you, you come back to the breath and you observe. If your thoughts start screaming ‘get me out of here now!’ you come back to the breath and you observe. You sit, and you watch your breath. That’s all you do. The amazing thing is that it is a very difficult thing to do. It is one of the most difficult things that you can ever do: to be fully present with yourself.
It was Blaise Pascal in his ‘Pensees’ who said
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
So if it is difficult for you at first, know that it’s very difficult for everyone at first. Your mind will tell you to do any number of things to escape this meditation practice. It will invent any number of excuses. Because your mind likes to have you, the consciousness behind the mind, identified with it. It wants to keep you occupied with thoughts. I wants you to think, like French enlightenment philosopher Descartes who famously said ‘I think, therefor I am’ that you are those thoughts. That your thoughts are what make you, you.
But don’t be fooled like Descartes was.
Breathe in, and breathe out.
And slowly, over time you will start to see that you are not your thoughts. You are actually the presence behind your thoughts; the consciousness. This consciousness knows nothing of time, and it is not identified with anything. It just is. It is just there. That is who you are.
The second level of Practice: Insight or Vipassana (Seeing the True Nature of Reality)
When you are well practiced with the observation of the breath, eventually you can progress to the next level of practice, what the Buddhists called Vipassana – clear seeing or insight. In the practice of insight meditation, you start to use your meditation practice to understand the nature of the mind and of existence itself.
Through the investigation of the nature of mind, you start to investigate the nature of consciousness. You see that the self is impermanent, and that its nature is that it’s constantly changing. You start to see that the nature of the mind and of our thoughts is that they are constantly changing. There is nothing solid there. Insight meditation is more challenging than the meditation of watching the breath, because you start to see and investigate the true nature of reality. You start to discover that there is nothing to hold on to. This can be a bit scary at first. Sometimes guiding Vipassana meditation practice I have seen on the faces of people just how much pain they are experiencing in seeing these truths. The realisation that there is nothing to hold onto, that your true nature is emptiness and that everything is in a constant state of flux can be very challenging to a mind that has been accustomed to holding on.
The Truth of Anatta or ‘Emptiness’
Our true nature is actually beyond self.
If we have a very powerful inner critic which has demonised us for a long time though, we need to do the work of self-love before we can come fully to the understanding that the true nature our our consciousness is selfless awareness. Everything that you think of as you, or your ‘self’, is actually an impermanent phenonmenon which arises and passes away constantly. Whether it is your thoughts, you feelings or your body, all of these are not-self. They are not you. They arise and they pass away. They are born, live, and die.
Just the same as all of your possessions are not you, all of your inner experiences are also not you. You are the space, or the witnessing consciousness that is beyond all passing phenomena.
So that’s why we meditate.
We meditate so that there is time and space for our minds to relax, so that with practice over time, we start to see that we are not our thoughts.
We start to dis-identify with our minds.
Then slowly we dis-identify with out bodies, and from there we can see that we can let go of all identification – with our past, with our family background, with what has happened of not happened to us so far. This inevitably leads to the understanding of who and what we truly are: which is consciousness.
We are the experiencer, experiencing this incredible adventure called life. When we can stay in this state of realisation for the greater part of our day, then we are free.
This becoming free can take many many hours and days and weeks and months of practice, or it can happen in an instant. It is essentially the realisation and the deep understanding of the nature of reality. Many spiritual masters, including the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Eckhart Tolle, Wayne Dyer and many others have had these moments of sudden realisation, when they were able to penetrate the mind and see the true nature of reality and thus free themselves.
Then for most of these people, their life’s mission becomes to help free others.
Starting Your Practice
Meditation is not so complicated. To begin, you just need to sit down and do nothing. Watch what arises. Try using the breath as your anchor. As you breathe in, feel the breath entering your nostrils. As you breathe out, really notice the out breath.
And watch what arises in your mind space and your heart space during this process.
Slowly over time, you will become more and more adept and becoming the witness.
Please feel free to leave a comment or question if you have one.