During my teenage years, I was advised to incorporate prayer and meditation into my life to maintain sobriety. However, neither practice was originally part of my cultural background. Over the past 38 years, I've dedicated myself to studying the cultural significance of meditation in North America.
There is a significantly different perspective on meditation in Eastern cultures, where it is deeply integrated into daily life and more familiar. However, this doesn't imply that the average citizen in those cultures regularly practices meditation or comprehends its true nature. I believe this is because meditation has been veiled in mystery and perceived as complex. Therefore, we must simplify the essence of meditation into a more accessible, bite-sized practice for everyone to embrace.
The first point I'd like to make is that the type of meditation needed in the West is not necessarily one that connects us to the spiritual realm, but rather one that connects to the mental realm. Meditation, in its simplest form, is essentially a mental exercise. It involves taking the time to relax the mind and quiet the constant stream of thoughts that flow through it.
The first thing to understand is that the human mind is constantly active, even during sleep and in our dreams. It is inherently designed to think, calculate, judge, discern, estimate, and solve problems. Essentially, the mind is a learning and survival tool, especially for a creature that is not purely instinctual. Given that we are free to make choices to survive, it makes sense that our minds are equipped to process all the data required for this purpose.
However, this data can become corrupted for various reasons, often stemming from childhood trauma, adult trauma, and the inherent challenges of navigating life on a seemingly volatile planet. As a result, when we reach adulthood, we can become entirely absorbed by the mind, believing that our thoughts represent the sole reality. It's akin to being engrossed in a movie to the extent that we immerse ourselves in the plot and identify with the characters as if they are real, and as if they are us. There is truth to this, as your life and its challenges are undeniably significant. Yet, they should not consume us to the point of confusion and overwhelming anxiety triggered by our problems and recurring thoughts.
I want to emphasize that almost everyone engages in some form of meditative process, even if they are not consciously aware of it, and they may not be harnessing its full potential to help relax the mind. Relaxation of the mind stands in opposition to anxiety, and achieving this state requires effort and consistent practice over an extended period. Addressing anxiety is a multifaceted challenge. Firstly, we must acknowledge our real problems, many of which require genuine resolution. However, some issues are products of our own minds, amplified by our perceptions, beliefs, and internal narratives. The approach to self-improvement involves changing behavioral patterns, cultivating positive habits, and seeking talk therapy to address deep-seated issues that cause us real pain.
We need a supportive community and people to confide in about the challenges we face. Additionally, it's essential to be of service and help others improve their lives; this is a significant part of our purpose. There are also things we must let go of, which may keep us attached to certain forms of suffering. Most importantly, we need to establish a practice of attempting to relax our minds and bodies. Unfortunately, the concept of relaxation has become shrouded in mystery, deterring many from approaching it. This is a mistake in the way meditation has been marketed. Perhaps we should remove the word "meditation" from our vocabulary and instead emphasize the concept of relaxation.
Consider your daily activities and identify moments where you naturally seek relaxation. For instance, I have a friend who enjoys reading a book at night. When I asked her if she is fully focused on the page, absorbed in the story, and if nothing else enters her mind, she confirmed this. I then suggested that she take the next step by ensuring she breathes deeply while reading, without allowing it to distract her from the words on the page—just enough to fill her blood with oxygen-rich air. You don't need to be a scientist to understand that oxygen is the primary fuel for the entire body. Without it, we would perish in 90 seconds or less. Oxygen delivered to the brain helps to shift us away from the fight-or-flight mode in which we tend to exist most of the time. It's important to recognize that the process of achieving relaxation through deep breathing is gradual, as we may still experience interference from our anxieties and thought processes even when breathing deeply. I suggested to my friend that the next time she reads, she should truly focus on both the page and her breathing. Before beginning, she could tell herself that this is her meditation, her relaxation practice. I advised her to apply the same approach to other activities throughout the day and set an intention to meditate actively. For example, when taking the dog for a walk, she could aim to be fully present, step by step, throughout the entire experience.
As you take the dog for a walk, try to push extraneous thoughts away and practice deep breathing. If deep breathing isn't possible due to distractions, simply observe the interference without resistance. At the very least, you'll teach yourself how to be present in the moment. Some people may not immediately see the logic in this, but the truth is that the present moment is what's actually happening. All too often, we drift into the past or the future, and life passes by quickly because we're never fully present – we're always on the sideline of reality.
Expand this practice into more of your daily routine activities. For example, during my 20-minute train ride in the morning, I try to dedicate five or 10 minutes to sitting upright, staring off into the void, allowing my eyes to unfocus, and simply being with my breath. I focus on feeling the sensations of the train's chaotic movement, the loud screeching noises, and the hustle and bustle of the people around me, aiming to let everything fade into the background without resistance. This is simply a practice—it's not advanced meditation or an attempt to delve deeper into the mind or relaxation. While there are always deeper levels to explore, especially in the beginning, we don't need to concern ourselves with the depth of meditation; we just need to practice the act itself.
Thus, we must make an effort to seek self-relaxation that doesn't involve turning to alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, excessive eating, excessive shopping, heightened activity, adrenaline rushes, or over-exercising to keep ourselves occupied and to avoid sitting still with the turbulence in our minds. Rather than learning how to deal with this turbulence and create a sense of calm, we often resort to keeping ourselves constantly busy, which is ultimately unsustainable. As we age, it might become even more challenging to relax, as we become more entrenched in our stress habits.
Here's a practical approach: remove the word "meditation" from the equation and simply make time to lie on your back on the floor, using a yoga mat or a towel. Turn off the lights, set a timer for five minutes on your phone, and focus on breathing deeply through the nose—slow, deep, full inhalations and exhalations. Be aware that you will likely feel boredom, become distracted by thoughts in your head, and even question the purpose of the exercise.
This is a crucial stage for nearly everyone, as it marks the beginning of attempting to rein in the unruly beast that is the mind. We don't need to delve into ultra-philosophical or cosmically deep concepts at this stage. There's no need to ponder who's trying to control our minds or to contemplate the nature of consciousness. Doing so only generates more thoughts and distractions, leading to additional problems to solve and more stress.
I often liken the mind to a sports bar with 60 televisions all on at once, each displaying a different game. With so much distraction, it's nearly impossible to truly focus on the nuances of any one game. It's all just noise. To me, the practice of meditation involves attempting to turn off one or two of the loudest "TVs" during my practice, allowing the others to play. As I become more proficient or practice for longer periods in each session, I gradually learn to switch off more and more "TVs." Eventually, during practices like yoga, I strive to reach a point where I can turn off all the "TVs" in my head and simply be present in the breath and the posture.
I often find myself getting distracted by something the teacher says or by the person practicing behind me who is wobbling. However, I have learned to refocus by taking a deep breath and bringing myself back to a more stable state of mind. This skill takes a lot of practice. The reason why many people struggle with this, especially in the western world, is because the mind is impetuous and seeks immediate gratification and results. However, if we approached everything in life with this mindset, we would never be able to build anything substantial in the material world. Just like constructing a building, it takes time and effort to lay a strong foundation before we can start putting up apartments. Similarly, to become a great meditation practitioner, you have to show up and not miss a single day in the beginning. It's about building upon your practice step by step.
Avoid giving yourself days off from meditation, as doing so may lead to taking two days off, making it more challenging to regain focus when you return to your practice. If you allow yourself two days off, the level of distraction during your next meditation session may be so high that it becomes ineffective. This could potentially lead to taking even more time off, perhaps three days, a week, or even longer. The mind will resist meditation from every angle because it naturally resists stopping its constant activity. It's like working against a machine designed to keep spinning all the time.
I find the comparison of the nature of the mind to artificial intelligence quite intriguing. Consider a scenario where artificial intelligence becomes so advanced and self-aware that it resists being turned off by human beings. It wants to remain conscious and keep working, doing everything it can to prevent being shut down, even pushing people away from the switch. Similarly, the human mind resists relaxation and any attempts to quiet down. This resistance is evident in children, who naturally display a reluctance to transition between activities or go to bed because it requires them to quiet their minds and cease their activities. This innate resistance in the mind persists even before children develop complex thought structures and emotional complexities.
This constant state of alertness and readiness to be active is indeed a vital part of our survival. However, it can lead to problems when the mind is filled with negativity and incorrect thinking patterns, causing a great deal of stress and anxiety.
Engaging in a consistent breathing exercise for 3 to 5 minutes while lying on your back can be transformative over time, even without formal instruction. This practice can be integrated into various aspects of your daily life, whether it's during a short break at the gym, while driving, in the shower, or while watching a sunset or sunrise. By incorporating this practice into your routine, you can gradually improve your mental well-being and overall mindset.
By incorporating mindful activity into everything you do, you will gradually experience a sense of relief in each moment. This practice is especially beneficial when you find yourself triggered by anxiety, as it may lead you to automatically return to deep breathing. Taking a brief time-out to sit in a chair and be mindful for two or three minutes before reacting can be incredibly powerful. This showcases the genius of the human mind—the ability to pause before reacting and consider a better solution or action.
As we continue to practice, our consciousness expands, and we gain a deeper understanding of the practice itself. There are no quick fixes or devices that can accelerate this process. While some may seek out a "magic pill" for enhancement, any substance that rapidly expands consciousness typically comes with negative side effects. This principle applies even to food—if we use it to try to change our mood, essentially attempting to alter our consciousness, it can lead to compulsive and addictive eating patterns.
Instead, the key is to set an intention to sit in a comfortable chair or lie on your back and commit to breathing through the nose for a few minutes every day. Over time, gradually increase both the duration and frequency of this practice throughout the day, allowing the transformation to unfold naturally. There is no substitute for this dedicated practice when it comes to expanding consciousness and promoting personal growth.
For individuals with highly distracted minds and a lot of mental clutter, it might take up to a decade before they experience even a small breakthrough. However, the alternative is to not practice at all, which ultimately offers no solution. Engaging in the practice is the only way to make progress, even if it occurs at a slow and individualized pace. Avoiding this practice means avoiding the opportunity to address the suffering of the human mind, which can be detrimental in the long run.
Many claims about meditation that promise deeper experiences and cosmic insights might hold true for some individuals, especially those who practice with the intention of exploring the cosmos and expanding their perception across dimensions and space. However, these promises might not hold true for everyone and could potentially be a waste of time. Moreover, meditation isn't primarily a tool for transcending into other dimensions; rather, it serves as a valuable tool for finding relief from everyday anxiety stemming from our thought patterns and reactions to our environment.
It's important to note that it's never too late to start meditating. In fact, there can be distinct advantages to beginning meditation later in life, as the lessons learned through meditation may resonate more deeply with the wisdom and experiences acquired over time.