Quite a few years ago, I was going through a particularly bad stretch of migraines that my local doctor didn’t seem to be able to do anything about, so I saw an acupuncturist. In between sticking in needles and burning herbs on my skin, his advice was that I should take up meditation and tai chi. I think I laughed at the time, actually.
I did have a very vague notion of what they were about, but I had never considered taking up either. Funny looking back on it now, (how we change), because now one of my favourite lines (especially if I’m talking about health), is that the 2 best things that anyone can do for themselves are, you guessed it, take up tai chi and meditate. Become quite the evangelist I have!
Although my first reaction had been a little
healthy cynicism, I did soon decide to try the meditation, (the tai chi came a
little bit later). I began to read everything I could find on the techniques, I
read about Transcendental Meditation, guided meditations, all sorts of
meditations. I read about mantras, about Chinese buddhist monks, Japanese zen,
koans, hands clapping, (well at least one of them), and it seemed for a while
that the more I read, the more confused I got. While I was devouring all these
printed words, I was locking myself away in the bedroom with warnings to the
family of the dire consequences if I was interrupted. (It can be really hard to
make kids, understand that Dad needs to sit on the floor for half an hour or so
in peace and quiet).
I remember my first attempts were very frustrating. I somehow had this notion of sitting and blissfully floating off into never-never land, and I didn’t realise just how difficult that could be. No matter what I did, I just couldn’t seem to stop the constant "chatter"…(anyone who’s ever tried meditating knows just how hard that is). When my reading started to catch up with the lack of success in the practice, I slowly began to learn what it was I was doing wrong, and one day I read something that turned a little light on in my head. Let me share with you the fruits of all that hard work.
I know there are 3 conditions that have to be met for meditation to be
successful. The first of these is relaxation. Your body needs to be
relaxed. That’s the reason for the full lotus position, because it puts the
body in a balanced posture and makes it so much easier to relax. If, however,
you find it impossible, (like I do), to intertwine your legs like a yoga guru,
it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that you can get relaxed
(without falling asleep). Sitting in a chair is ok, or even lying down, although
the danger if you lie down is that you’ll find yourself sleeping, not
meditating. I eventually finished up sitting on the floor, on a cushion, with my
back leaning against the wall and legs crossed in a manner not even vaguely
resembling a lotus position. Whatever position you choose, it is vitally
important that the first thing you do is learn how to relax the muscles of the
body. Invest the time in just doing this. Forget about the meditation at first,
and spend time just learning to relax. There are lots of ways to do this, and
there are even some good tapes around that will lead you through ways of
relaxing muscles, techniques that you can practice at lots of opportune times….sitting
at your desk at work….in the car….watching tv.
The second thing you need is a point of focus, something to concentrate on. It takes many years of practice before you can just simply sit and think of nothing, and even after years it is still really difficult to do. I remember reading a comment by a buddhist monk who had spent many years practicing, and was lamenting the fact that the times he was successful in thinking of nothing were so few. If he found it hard, what hope have the rest of us? So, realise that the point of meditation is not to sit and think of nothing, but to give yourself something else to focus on. (Sound familiar? Think of "moving meditation"….tai chi…the co-ordination of body and mind, focusing on the forms). Some of the books talked about counting the breath, or watching the breath flow into the lungs. None of that worked for me, I kept losing count! I use two props, first I use a candle, something for the eyes to look at while they get ready to close of their own accord, and I use music. The music of course has to be something soothing. Jimmy Barnes and Joe Cocker are very good in their place, but the music for meditation needs to be something soothing. No words, or at least none you can sing along with, (Enya sings in Gaelic and I definitely can’t sing along with that), and preferably not with a definite beat or rhythm. Something unobtrusive. The point is not so much to listen to the music, but just to hear it.
Now to the third essential. It was this I was referring to when I talked before about reading something that turned on a little light. It’s simply a correct "attitude". When I started meditating, I used to get so frustrated because I would constantly find myself thinking of something, anything, (….everything!) No matter how hard I tried, it just would not stop and in fact, the harder I tried, the harder it got. I started to get annoyed and think I’d never be able to do this. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to read this particular book at this point, I would never have persevered with it. We have to realise that everyone has this same problem. It’s normal. Nobody can sit down and just turn off, (well, almost nobody). The key to all this is that when you do realise you’re off the rails again, (note I said "when", not "if"), that your brain has gone off all on it’s own and is busily thinking about something entirely irrelevant, be kind to yourself. Smile at the digression, accept it, and then gently come back to your point of focus, whether it’s a candle, music, or your breath. You know it’s going to happen again, and when it does, smile, and take yourself back again. Keep doing this, and no matter how hard it seems, you WILL find that the quiet periods in between the bouts of thinking actually start to get longer. The secret is simply understanding and accepting your thoughts, and happily leading yourself back to quiet again. I’ll never forget an example I read once of how difficult it is to quieten the mind. This author told me to close my eyes and picture a white horse…see it in a field…watch it for a few seconds. Now, said the author, see the same field, but DO NOT see the white horse. Yeah, right!! If you remember this, and understand that everyone has the same trouble not seeing the white horse, it makes meditating suddenly seem a whole lot easier.