Time to get down to basics. What is meditation? How do I (Manu) meditate? What meditations do I recommend? Since I’ve been teaching meditation for a while, I figure it’s about time I answer these questions. To start off, meditation itself is almost a meaningless word in English, it can mean just about anything from just focusing to something very esoteric. With that said, even within the Buddhist tradition, you’ll find a really broad set of definitions. This is why I want to start off by defining terms in the most spiritually useful way that I can. I’m really not interested in trying to prove this or that philosophy. I just want to share what I believe is the most practical way of defining these words so that we can use them in a way that helps us grow.
The broadest definition of meditation that works for me, from a spiritual perspective, is that it’s the practice of consciously becoming more mindful (mindfulness – being the cultivation of detachment and awareness).
The key point here is that it's a practice, meaning that it's something done repeatedly in order to train the mind. The reason we practice meditation is to get to a state of higher consciousness or to gain insight into ourselves. One thing I want to add here is that some people consider just being in a higher state of consciousness meditation, however, if we are using my definition, it wouldn't be. The reason is that just being isn't a practice. A good rule of thumb is that if it doesn't take effort (effort in the Buddhist sense) and intention, it probably isn't a form of meditation. Meditation is something that can be done all the time, but really only very practiced individuals will be able to pull this off. Mostly what you find is people claiming they meditate all the time because it sounds cool or they've redefined meditation to just being aware. Sitting meditation, with eyes closed, is really the best way to meditate because it keeps our attention from going outwards and it has the fewest distractions. Even if you can pull off having your eyes open and walking, it'll never be as deep as sitting for meditation.
The second characteristic of meditation is that it’s done consciously. This is important spiritually because the idea of becoming an “awakened being” unconsciously just doesn’t hold water. It’s almost like saying you’ll learn how to swim by simply being in the water, but not by practicing swimming, studying swimming, or thinking about swimming. One of the premises of almost all spiritual traditions is that it does take effort, which is one of the aspects the Buddha talks about in the Eightfold Noble Path. Now while this may seem kind of obvious, what this means on a more practical level, is that drugs or other mind-altering activities are not meditation. This doesn’t mean however that these experiences couldn't be useful under the right circumstances. I just don’t think they qualify as meditation. This is important because if someone thinks it can be done unconsciously, they will push themselves to extremes thinking that it will get them closer to enlightenment, however, the Buddha himself tried this and as a result renounced it for “the middle path.”
Mindfulness is such a buzzword now I almost don’t like to use it. Mindfulness is one part of the Eightfold Path in Buddhism and really, for meditation to be effective, it needs to be understood within this broader philosophical framework. This is why Right View and Right Thought are also part of the Buddhist path. With Buddhism especially people tend to water it down without first understanding it, which leads to a lot of misinformation. Mindfulness, as I pointed out, is really being the cultivation of detachment and awareness. Mindfulness ultimately is the tool that allows us to increase our capacity to see, but what we then look at with that additional vision is where these other paths come into play. The practice of changing where we are looking from after developing mindfulness is what I like to call contemplation.
So now that I’ve roughly defined meditation you can then further divide it into the positions: walking meditation, standing meditation, or laying meditation. There are also open-eyed and close-eyed meditations. You can also have meditations which include chanting, mantra, being aware of the breath, contemplation, body scanning, or a whole bunch of other things. You also have mundane (stress relief for example) and super-mundane (meditation that is more about transcendence). All these things work because they are practices of some form, done consciously and involve you maintaining a mindful state of mind.
I usually do a mantra to start out with which is the repetition of a sacred text or word. When I lived at a Theravada Buddhist temple in Thailand they practiced repeating Buddho (Buddha) over and over. This helps very quickly quiet the mind and has honestly been the fastest way to distress I’ve found. When I was at this same temple, I asked the head abbot, who I really respected because he was one of Ajhan Bua's (a famous forest monk) most senior disciples, if people could use any mantra, even a Hindu one and he said it was fine. Since I grew up in a Shaivite ashram, I’ve always liked using a Shiva mantra. For those who don’t have any particular leaning or want to use something more Buddhist, Buddho is a good one to start with. After doing that mantra for some time, I move to being aware of the breath and when I am happy with my level of concentration, I do a form of slow body scanning that I learned from the SN Goenka Vipassana retreats. There have also been times that, after doing this for a period of time, everything seems to just disappear and I go into a deep absorption state. After this point pretty much everything is intuitive and no instructions are really needed.
Now that we’ve covered my own practice, I want to finish up with what I recommend for most people. I believe that the western mind is extremely active and for this reason, contemplation – the ability to hold a question in mind and allow yourself not to settle on any answer – is really the best course of action. This is why the majority of my meditations are philosophical in nature. Even during the guided meditation parts, I recommend that people focus on their breath and just listen while being as mindful as possible.
Since I really got deeply into meditation from the SN Goenka tradition, I’ve always really loved group meditation. Something about having a bunch of people around me who are also dealing with their own internal struggles has always given me the feeling that I’m not alone. It’s also given me the courage to persevere in meditation when things have gotten hard. This is why especially if you’re new to meditation I think group sits are great. One other thing that I’ve taken from the SN Goenka tradition is that in order to really properly learn deep meditation, you have to do a longer retreat. Doing even one hour of meditation will not take you nearly as deep as a week in an environment where all you’re doing is meditating.
That’s why my meditations are not really about quieting the mind but getting that active western mind to focus on the deeper more meaningful questions. These questions can then allow us new openings for actions and to look at critical points that help us in our spiritual development. May you all be happy, peaceful, and liberated.