Friday 19 January 2018

Wellbeing: Be here now... meditation is a state of mind

Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Can I meditate while lying in bed? Can I meditate while walking? Can I meditate while listening to music? These are just some of the common queries that have been typed into the Google search bar regarding the topic of meditation.

Meditation is now taught in schools and promoted by world leaders, but these questions suggest that many of us still don't know where, when, or how exactly it should all unfold.

This isn't surprising. There is an awful lot of unnecessary ceremony around what can - and perhaps should - be a very simple practice.

Prohibitively expensive schools of meditation make the practice seem elusive, while exotic-sounding forms of meditation make it appear esoteric. Add gongs, mantras and those incommodious wooden stools and most people would prefer to clean out their cars instead.

It doesn't help that some people insist on bragging about the near-orgasmic states of nirvana that they reach when they sit cross-legged. Competitive meditation - it's a thing.

Mindfulness was supposed to be the antidote to all of this. However, the associated bumph of 300-page books and eight-week courses gave many people the impression that they simply didn't have the time to learn it, let alone practise it.

These are the people who think of meditation as something that one takes up, like French or tai chi or rose gardening. Or worse, they think of it as something that they simply can't do, like public speaking or creative writing or falling asleep on an airplane.

The truth is that everyone knows how to meditate. In fact, they probably already do it when they're not thinking. When you strip away all the bells and whistles, meditation is simply absolute awareness.

If you can get lost in the beauty of a sunset or the rhythm of a song, you can meditate. If you can dance unselfconsciously and laugh unreservedly, you can meditate. If you can speak authentically and listen actively, you can meditate.

The late Annamalai Swami said: "Meditation is not something that should be done in a particular position at a particular time". Eckhart Tolle says "One conscious breath... in and out... is a meditation", while the Dalai Lama believes "Sleep is the best meditation" of all.

Perhaps the greatest misconception around meditation is the idea that it requires an empty mind. Nonsense. The thoughts will come, and some will be more persistent than others. The challenge isn't to stop these thoughts. The challenge is to cultivate what is known as the 'witness consciousness' and watch them rather than wrangle with them.

I've heard meditation teachers describe the thoughts that punctuate the practice as clouds floating through a clear blue sky. "Just watch them float past," they say.

I prefer to think of the supreme awareness - or witness consciousness - that watches the thoughts as a shepherd looking over his flock from a mountain top. Somehow this visual helps me transcend the chatter of my mind.

The thoughts that initially poke and prod for your attention start to become less frequent after a little practice. Eventually you'll notice that they only arise when you give them attention.

This is the beauty of meditation. It is an introduction to an aspect of our being that is pure awareness. It's a higher state of consciousness that is immutable just as it is indefinable. It isn't coloured by our emotions or dependent on the weather. It isn't good or bad. It just is.

It's much the same with the practice itself. You don't need to burn incense, or sit in lotus position or chant 'om' to meditate. These rituals are certainly helpful for some people but they aren't essential to the meditation experience.

Can you meditate while lying in bed? Of course. The only reason people advise against it is because it can induce sleep. On the plus side, you'll have the most restful and rejuvenating night's sleep possible if you do snooze off.

Can you meditate while walking? Absolutely. Just bring awareness to your body and really feel the sensation of your feet as they hit the pavement. Better still, walk in nature and take the time to appreciate your surroundings. Appreciation is yet another form of meditation.

Can you meditate while listening to music? For this one, I'll defer to philospher Alan Watts, who believed that those who can't meditate in a boiler room can't meditate at all.

Of course, the bedrock of meditation is breathing. Make sure you're practising diaphragmatic breathing. These long, steady breaths that press down the diaphragm and cause the abdomen to rise will instantly calm the nervous system.

Many people find the Thich Nhat Hanh mantra helpful for guiding their breath. The condensed version is: 'Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.'

Otherwise, you could try counting your exhalations (always start again when you get to five) or you could breathe in for the count of four seconds, hold for three seconds and breathe out for five seconds (don't do this one more than five or six times in total).

When you have these techniques in your toolbox, you begin to realise that you can practise meditation anywhere, any time. Although here and now is always preferable.

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