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The trouble with meditation

The trouble with meditation

The trouble with meditation!   

The trouble with the word ‘meditation’ is that today it is a catch all for a diverse range of mental and physical activities to achieve on the one hand calmness and relaxation or altered states of consciousness and on the other hand to attain spiritual awareness. How one chooses what kind of meditation to do from the myriad of choices is a problem.

For followers of a specific belief system, the type of meditation to be used may already be defined by their code of practise. But for the rest of us, there needs to be serious consideration of what type of meditation to follow. It may be helpful to look at various systems and what they do before embarking on any particular one.

Physical meditations can include walking meditation, tai chi, qigong and yoga. These are generally carried out in a slow, measured way so that each aspect of the activity can be fully experienced gradually to the point of awareness at a cellular level. These practises take concentration, focus and physical effort to attain such awareness. The mind and body are honed to focus on the physical activity to block out any other thought, sensation or movement other than the action in progress.

Contemplation on a fixed inanimate object such as a candle flame, a flower or a crystal also requires a level of concentration and focus. This method certainly quietens down the activity of the mind and body, but it is easy to feel distracted and disappointed in one’s ability to stay focussed. Again it takes regular practise to attain a state of unity with the object, and it can be disheartening and may begin to feel pointless.

Concentration on a particular theme is another form of mental activity that can be used to experience a particular type of energy. For example, you can contemplate and focus on a quality embodied in a sage or saint such as compassion, truth, love, peace, by envisioning the quality in the human form. Or you can use an energy such as light, contemplating on a sunset. This type of inner work is done with the specific intention of bringing a certain energetic quality to help one resolve a personal difficulty.

Creative visualisation is very popular and often described as meditation. These are readily available on CDs in many styles. For the most part, the listener is taken on an imaginary journey as a means of relaxing mind and body, which of course can be very enjoyable and escapist. Some creative visualisations are a  journey to help the listener communicate with higher energies, or to seek the answer to a problem. If the creative visualisation is used for relaxation, then the CD can be used over and over, but if it is used for the latter, it can become limiting very quickly, as one’s imagination tends to repeat itself given the same CD. Creative visualisation work relies on someone else’s ideas to influence and stimulate your imagination. There is no right or wrong way being judged here, just that it is important to question the purpose and value of the visualisation before using it, and to recognise what is taking place.

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Meditation using sounds, as in chanting and mantras, spans the centuries and are used by many different cultures. The most frequently used mantras, like ‘Om mani padme hum’, come from the Vedic tradition and are written in Sanskrit. Repeating the words of a mantra is one very helpful way of developing meditation practise, as it can be carried out in any situation without any ‘props’ and a state of inner quietness can be achieved quite easily. Some mantras have no meaning, so the mind cannot get distracted by thoughts about the words. The sound of the mantra creates an inner vibration which is said to clear the body of negativity and is used in self healing. Thomas Ashley-Farrand’s book ‘Healing Mantras’ is an excellent reference for anyone interested in this form of meditation. There are thousands of different mantras to be intoned for different spiritual purposes. Some are used for sending love and healing energy to others, and to the planet. For example, the Buddhist meditation called Metta (Loving Kindness) meditation is derived from the Vedas, and is a form of meditation frequently used for oneself and others.

Meditation on the breath is a technique found mostly in the many traditions of Yoga and Buddhism. There are various methods used in breathing meditations and interpretations to go with them. For example, breathing in through one nostril and out through the other, alternating mouth breathing with nose breathing, or holding the breath and counting. It is quite surprising the number of variations there are, and so it can be confusing for a beginner to understand the purpose of the techniques.

I have worked with many styles of meditation and do use various techniques for different purposes. But I always start the day with the simplest meditation of all which is sitting in silence, noticing my breathing pattern that takes me to stillness within. The benefit of this meditation technique is there is no effort, or concentration required, just simply conscious awareness.

This overview of meditation techniques, with no doubt many omissions, has been given to stimulate your curiosity to find out more about meditation and which style will best suit you. Now you may need to know where and how to learn to meditate.

Until fairly recently, there were only exclusive groups teaching meditation; these were brought to the West by Masters who charged large sums for the privilege of sharing their system, or by individuals attached to religious organisations. These are still available, but in truth there is nothing exclusive about meditation. It is as ancient as mankind! If you look in your local paper or locals complementary therapy magazine you will find a meditation group you can join. Before you go along check out the style of meditation being taught and avoid religious based methods (unless that is definitely your path).Meditation in a group setting can be really beneficial. The energetic rapport of the group increases over and above the sum of the individuals taking part. It is also an opportunity to ask questions about your own meditation experience. The downside is the possible element of competition among members, and the tendency for the group to use each meeting to try different styles.

When you first learn to meditate it is better to stick to one basic style for at least a month before trying other techniques. Of course, the mind loves to be entertained by different ideas and experiences, but in order to achieve inner calm, you have to let your mind and thoughts settle, and one basic style is the best way to achieve this.

You may prefer to learn meditation on an individual basis with a teacher. This is also a good way of learning because you are able to validate your experiences with someone else to reassure you that you are doing okay. In the beginning all sorts of doubts can arise and it is so helpful to get these checked out with an experienced meditator. As with the group, find out beforehand what method is being taught, what time is involved and the cost before you commit to it.

There are thousands of books, CDs, and websites selling meditation techniques. Some of my clients have bookshelves full of instructions on how to meditate in this style and that. Unless you are really committed or have had some previous experience of meditating it can be really difficult to learn from a book especially when the technique seems complicated. It’s a bit like learning to ballroom dance from reading a series of foot positions in a book. You have to keep stopping to see what the next steps are! Using a CD is a better way to learn to meditate as long as you don’t come to depend on it .The aim is to be able to meditate without any aids. Avoid CDs with music as this can lull the listener into a dream like state. Choose a CD that avoids explanations and be sure you like the voice of the teacher or you’ll soon give up. Even if your choice is to go to a group or a teacher, you will be meditating at home on your own in between meetings. So whatever way you choose to learn, developing a meditation routine at home is the key to success in order to establish meditation as part of your daily life. In my experience it is most beneficial to meditate for twenty minutes early morning and early evening. But if your schedule will only allow ten to fifteen minutes a day, choose the morning; for two reasons. Firstly, the morning meditation, when you are fresh and alert, sets you up for the day and secondly there is always a tendency to make excuses to miss the early evening session! Choose a place in your home where you can meditate everyday. Make this little area feel pleasant, perhaps some flowers, a candle or an oil burner. Use an upright chair so that when you sit down your back is straight and your head and neck are unsupported. If you prefer, sit crossed legged on a cushion (but only if you feel comfortable like this). Have a little clock in view so you can check how long you have been meditating. Then begin your daily meditation and enjoy it! What could be simpler than this? The hardest thing about meditation is making the commitment and turning up to do it.

I am keen to make meditation mainstream and accessible to everyone.Meditation has been part of my daily life for 25 years and since 2002 I have been teaching meditation to individuals and groups. In 2008 I was encouraged to produce a CD and book about meditation by my students. The title is “Just Turn Up”. There is no other CD/book that explains the technique in plain language, and removes the myths and mystery surrounding the subject.The book, CD and website have reached many people, and I hope it has changed their life for the better.

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