Saying that there is a right and wrong way to meditate can in many instances be like saying that there is a right and wrong way to pray, hope or love. One of the most important elements is the intention – to learn how to be less reactive or non-reactive. Non-attachment.
The process of calming one’s adrenalin system down enough to simply sit (or lie, or walk, or talk…) with non-attachment can involve a range of techniques, as some methods suit some personalities more than others.
Many books, including centuries of Buddhist philosophy in particular, have discussed this term of non-attachment. Perhaps one clear way to define it is to see non-attachment as acting, or not acting, from non-reactive spaces because in my own personal practice and teaching I have found the following experiences and misconceptions about meditation. Here are some of these misconceptions that move us away from non-attachment:
‘Meditation is about achieving a blank space, an empty space where there are no thoughts’ – this might happen on occasion, and particularly as one practises for longer and deeper periods of time, however, this is more commonly not the everyday experience, and if one has this as an aim and feels disappointed when this does not happen, then there is clearly attachment to unnecessary and unrealistic outcomes. And for some of us, if we don’t feel we are any good at something, we give it up. So, don’t set yourself up before meditating, but rather intend to remain open and develop the witness to whatever comes as a way of developing non-attachment.
‘I had this amazing experience where I saw colours and other things. I love visualising and will definitely meditate this way again if this is what happens’ – obviously this is attachment. However, what do we do with this interesting or even the fascinating stuff that might come up? We accept that this was an experience in the moment, but we do not aim for a similar or more powerful experience the next time. And we try to take care not to conclude things about our meditation when not meditating as the connections and associations we make about experiences can so often be misleading. Meditation is not meant to be a high, but rather an experience where different connections can take place in our brain as we slow our metabolic system down.
You, your teacher, and your practice does not need to be brilliant or anything else with a hook, rather it needs to be natural and always available to you as the expert and empowerer of your own experience.
‘But I could never slow my thoughts down’ – I thought this myself once. And sometimes, as I meditate, my thoughts don’t slow down straight away. In fact, I sit there and become acutely aware of my riotous mind. It’s often like a ‘wow, I am really doing this to myself’ moment and then as I watch my breath my thoughts tend to slow down anyway. The first step is to develop the witness and become aware of our thinking, our emotions, the parts of the body that need attending to or relaxing, or anything else that comes up. We don’t need to do it on a mountain top. The sounds around us can all help us develop the witness, whether it is the washing machine whirls from the other room or more ‘spiritual sounds’ like bird calls or recorded bells.
‘But I have thoughts and feelings that I don’t want to think about’ – this is a big and completely understandable concern. Some experiences are so deeply overwhelming that why would a person voluntarily return to these moments of anguish.
There are a few answers to this – the psychological one is that when a person is ready, facing and releasing some of one’s grief can provide catharsis for body, heart and soul. What we have previously felt and experienced is what we carry around in our body regardless. So it can help to release some of our burdens when we are ready. Most importantly, meditation can help with the ‘when we are ready’ part because in a meditative state the limbic system in the brain is less reactive This is the area of the brain which generates strong emotions such as fear, apprehension and anger. So, in meditation we can sometimes cope more easily with deeper emotions than at other times because the reactive adrenalin-producing sympathetic system is calmed and the balancing action of the parasympathetic system is supporting us by slowing down the reactivity of the body and in this way cradling us at a higher level of safety.
While all meditation methods will hopefully lead to a less reactive but more open and safe state, there are wide differences in techniques. For the person who doesn’t want to start by witnessing his or her thoughts, focusing on parts of the body, the breath, a real or imagined candle flame, or a repeated mantra or sound can assist in staying in a focused or concentrated state. More physical-based focuses are usually recommended for people who suffer from depression as relief from incessant thoughts can allow for the meditative switch-off button. Using these techniques, some people can let go of all or most thought for some duration of time, and when thoughts enter awareness the meditator is encouraged to let them pass by and move on.
On the other hand, sitting and consciously watching one’s thoughts as a practice (with non-attachment) is a great revealer and separator from ongoing mental chatter as it can reveal connections between thoughts. Patterns of thought can be witnessed and as they are witnessed they tend to drop away, disintegrate, bring insight and/or untangle lived experience. In meditation thoughts will come and go, just as body aches will sometimes come and go. Pain itself can be used as a great focus of meditation. As one sits and inquires into the nature and qualities of physical, mental or emotional pain, some relief can often be found from the reactivity to this pain. In other practices, rather than letting thought free-fall, we can choose to start by focusing on a particular thought, such as gratitude, or even a topic or area of personal challenge, and then see what thoughts and experiences arise.
I have found that people tend to have a preferred way to meditate once different techniques are acquired. For instance, some people are not particularly visual, and therefore trying to focus on an image, such as an imagined candle flame, can bring up frustration and disappointment. Some people are very aural and therefore repeated sound awareness such as silent or aloud chanting is a great way to move inwards. Body scanning techniques where the focus moves slowly from body part to body part is often recommended for beginners, but this is available to all of us at all times, as we are all in essence beginners. It is important to note that different meditation techniques are not suited to all mental health conditions, but there are ways each of us can stay present, even if briefly.
For everyone, the breath is always present and available. We all know how to do that, so by just watching our breathing we tend to slow our system down. Here witnessing the natural breath flowing at the nostrils is sublime. They do not need to be long breaths. Often, any instruction to ‘slow the breath down’ is too active and activates the adrenalin system in decision-making and thereby moves us away from subtlety and deeper knowledge. Here, the one goal is to watch the breath AS IT IS, in its natural state.
Meditation is the observance and accepting of things, as they are, in their natural state. Try it, it can’t fail you.
Suzanne Frydman ©