Nowadays meditation is quickly going down the road that yoga has travelled as well in recent years. Almost everybody has heard about it and many think they know what it is all about. In a matter of decades yoga and meditation have seen a huge transformation—be it in branding, image and association, as well as the range of practices and concepts associated with it. Where in earlier days a true yogi was often pictured to be a scarcely clad skinny man sitting on a bed of nails or standing on one leg, some of the most famous icons of yoga are now scarcely clad skinny women sitting on a beach or standing on a mountain on one leg. Okay, fair enough, the scarcely clad, skinny and the one leg still remain, but the loincloth and the yogi that was more of an outcast than a part of mainstream society have successfully made way for designer outfits that are sometimes not too different from a bikini, and the successful and sought-after corporate trainer or wellness coach.
Meditation, sometimes being a part of yoga practices as well, has evolved along with it, and in the process a lot of its essence has been lost, while some other elements were added. In an effort to make it more ‘secular’ and even easier to market, the term ‘mindfulness’ became popular, almost as if it was a miracle solution that finally stripped meditation of the cultural baggage that was weighing it down. Mindfulness became another–and more preferred–word for meditation, and some of its most essential aspects were forgotten, or deliberately brushed aside.
So, before we embark on our journey of discovering the treasure that is meditation, let us first clear some of the jungle that has covered it and understand a little better what it is, and what it is not.
One of the best explanations of the difference between meditation and mindfulness as it is usually practised nowadays was given by my Master when he was interviewed by Vishen Lakhiani, the well-known CEO of Mindvalley, an online learning platform. The special session was part of a big international conference in Bengaluru organized by the Art of Living that saw many distinguished leaders in their respective fields, be it various industries or government from all over the world and I was fortunate to be present there as well.
When Vishen asked Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar about meditation becoming more popular in the West as mindfulness, and his thoughts on the same, he beautifully replied: ‘Mindfulness is not (the same as) meditation. Mindfulness is like the driveway, it is like the balcony or portico of the house, but there is so much more beyond that, beyond mindfulness. The real house lies beyond that.’ Mindfulness can get you into the garage but sitting in the garage is not the same as sitting in your living room.
Mindfulness practices are basically all about making an effort to be fully with what you are doing, or what is happening, at that very moment. It is about becoming aware, or ‘mindful’, of what is happening right now. This may sound simple, or very natural, but unfortunately our modern lifestyles and society have conditioned us to multitask almost anything we do, including thinking and paying attention.
While having breakfast you are watching the news on TV, while at the same time also scanning through the emails on your phone to see if anything important came in last night. And because you are sitting at the same table at the same time as some of the other family members, it can also be classified as ‘family time’, so you save some time there as well. Even when doing simple actions like making coffee or taking a shower, our mind is simultaneously planning, worrying, and so much more. This is where mindfulness becomes beneficial.
When we start to look at our mind, we realize the mess it is in, and doing things consciously, with attention and awareness, becomes a practice to consolidate and slow down the mind. We are training the mind to become less scattered again, more focused, and thus more in the present moment. It is like consciously making an effort to eat fresh and healthy food again, like fruits and vegetables, because our modern lifestyle has made us so habituated to having ‘junk’ food. It’s sad, maybe even alarming, that in today’s world it may often require extra effort, and sometimes even extra expenditure, to eat healthier and natural food that was the common staple diet for all a century ago. But nobody else is to blame, as we have ourselves created the fast-food lifestyle, just like we created the mental overload of impressions that we are facing today. And this is where consciously going back to a more simple and natural way of life can already benefit us a lot, both when it comes to diet and when it comes to our mental activity.
Mindfulness can help us in settling the mind, slowing it down and creating more space and awareness to consciously observe the mind and all its tendencies and patterns. Reducing the overload of impressions that we tend to expose our mind to also has proven scientifically to have many benefits, such as reducing stress and anxiety and improving overall mental health.
The truth is that, for many it is quite scary to just sit down, maybe even close their eyes, and then do nothing but observing their thoughts—because it is like opening a cupboard full of junk that you have consciously avoided during spring cleaning for many years. The moment you open it a little and the dust and stench comes out, there are suddenly many more reasons to just leave the thing closed and try and forget about it than actually opening it and start on trying to clean it out. Think about it. For someone who is really worried, stressed, agitated or afraid, the last thing that will make them relax or come back to their centre is sitting and doing nothing but thinking about or looking at that fear, worry or problem that is disturbing them.
Trying to tell your mind to be quiet, or force it, is like trying to intellectually explain to a child why it is supposed to sit quietly. You can give all the arguments you want, but it is not going to have any effect on the tantrum in front of you—except maybe an adverse one. It is in the nature of the mind to be active, so rather than trying to wrestle with it, wisdom is to transcend it.
The main things that disturb us, even more than the thoughts, are actually the feelings behind them. More than the ‘thought’ of insecurity, it is the ‘feeling’ of insecurity that is bothering us. Despite trying to rationalize things and explaining to yourself that there is no reason to feel upset, annoyed, insecure or scared, you still end up feeling that way because feelings are subtler than thoughts, and thus more powerful. So, to really address our problem effectively and efficiently, we need to attend to levels of our consciousness that are even more nuanced than our thoughts—we need to transcend the logical mind and go inward even more. Just like with anything else, the crux here is learning how to do it.
• Meditation is not concentration or focus–it is the art of de-concentration or letting go.
• Effort can steady and focus the mind, but to transcend it you need effortlessness.
Sit quietly with your eyes closed in a place where you will not be disturbed. Find a position in which you are comfortable so that the body can relax. Take a few normal deep breaths in and out, and for a few moments keep your attention on the breath, observing it as it goes in and out of the body on its own, effortlessly.
Now become aware of your thoughts. Whether good thoughts or bad thoughts, do not resist, analyse or judge them. Just let them come and go on their own, like waves rising and falling again in the vast ocean that is your consciousness. You do not entertain or hold on to pleasant or positive thoughts, and you do not judge or resist any negative thoughts. Not giving any special attention to either, you are not analysing them, nor are you focusing on anything. Just remain there as a witness to your own mind and whatever is happening right now.
The more the mind starts to settle down, the more it expands. Allow the mind to expand in all directions. As the mind continues to expand, you will further relax. Let go of all effort and unwind.
Whenever you notice that your mind has started galloping on some or the other thought again, or if it has begun planning something, gently bring it back again to itself. Take a gentle deep breath in and breathing out once more let go and relax in the here and now.
Do this for some time and then observe how you feel afterwards. With some practice, you will notice that the mind naturally feels fresher and becomes more aware and alert afterwards.
Excerpted with permission from 'Looking Inward: Meditating to Survive in A Changing World' written by Swami Purnachaitanya, published by Penguin Random House. Swami Purnachaitanya is the Director of Programs for the Art of Living.