A Quick Request
Do you have trouble managing your emotions?
Are you angry one minute and crying into your coffee cup the next?
Let’s face it, mastering this little life experience can be pretty darned difficult.
After all, we’re rarely taught the psychological skills needed to navigate the choppy waters of existence while we’re tiny humans.
Which means, as adults, our emotional health often leaves a lot to be desired…
A life of misery for some, or as Thoreau stated, “quiet desperation” for many.
While wrestling with such existential questions, the majority may wash their hands and say, that’s just life.
But that’s like telling a baby there’s no point in trying to walk because balancing is hard.
In the same fashion, isn’t it best to work towards improving our psychological health?
I think it is.
The art of presence
Before you say it, I get it.
Isn’t meditation just for a bunch of naked weirdos running around the forest with their spirit animals? Possibly.
But, it’s also for semi-normal people who avoid such dark forests of delight.
Admittedly, I too was sceptical when I stumbled across the technique.
I was at a friend’s house when I noticed an interesting meditation book.
I’m all for little life experiments and this one would let me decide for myself whether the practice was beneficial.
The book outlined an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation, a program developed and tested in conjunction with the English National Health Service, showing extremely positive results.
What’s more, the explanations in the book were clear and secular, devoid of the normal religious dogma that so often obscure valuable teachings.
I quickly found myself absorbed in the writing, eager to give the techniques a try.
But even though they were simple, they certainly weren’t easy.
I’ll reveal why shortly, but first, we’d better cover what meditation actually is.
What is meditation?
Meditation, for me, is a way of waking up to the present and accepting whatever’s happening in that moment, good or bad.
Let’s face it…
We spend so much of our lives on autopilot, going through the motions and lost in thought, that we barely pay any attention to what’s happening around us.
Whether we’re fantasising about an upcoming holiday, or thinking about the cutting comeback we should have used in a recent argument, we’re mentally adrift for much of our lives.
Often we exist in a mind-made illusion, an imaginary world created by our thoughts and feelings.
Thoughts and feelings
Here’s the problem…
We don’t really know our own minds at all.
We have the impression that we’re this little entity in our heads, controlling our thoughts and feelings.
When you have your next thought, as you undoubtedly will in a moment, consider…
Is that you thinking the thought, consciously directing the process, or is it bubbling up out of nowhere, of its own volition?
Perhaps you’re thinking that this article is pretty amazing and deserves sharing 😉 If so, splendid.
But the fact is, most of us feel we’re the master of our minds, directing the movie of our existence, when really, it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Frequently, we’re dragged along by our thoughts, slaves to their every whim.
Negative thoughts arise, seemingly from nowhere, absorbing us in their narrative before sucking us into a pit of despair.
They emerge from our subconscious and we have absolutely no free will in deciding their content or context.
These thoughts then create emotions; bundles of charged feelings with positive and negative signatures.
Take stress at work, for example…
It’s initiated by thought before snowballing into stressful feelings, tightening our backs and necks into iron rods.
The illusion of the self
So, if we’re not in control of these thoughts and feelings, why do we mistake them for who we are?
I mean, most of the time our thoughts can be pretty vicious.
How often do you beat yourself up by telling yourself you’re not sexy, skilled or sociable enough?
We rarely need enemies when faced with our own self-talk.
Well, this mistaken identity is partly because our thoughts have always been there, conditioning us to conflate our mental abilities with our persona.
We feel that there’s a separate someone in our heads running the show, thinking our thoughts, feelings our feelings and perceiving everything “out there” in the world…
So much so that we feel we’re the subject to every external object.
But is that really true?
When you take the time to examine what’s actually happening, the boundaries begin to fade.
Instead of the dualistic world we’ve always come to know, the examined life shows us that actually, all we are is consciousness, a space in which thoughts, feelings and perceptions form before fading away and being replaced.
Instead of the ego and the “I”, we’re simply a screen of consciousness playing out the story of life.
Through meditation, the subject-object relationship begins to dissolve, giving rise to a Buddhist-esque oneness.
Anyway, I’ve been experimenting with the following meditation techniques and exploring their effects.
Samatha is one of two states of mind or mental qualities identified by the Buddha (we’ll cover the second in a minute).
The word Samatha means ‘tranquility of the mind’, which is achieved through the Buddhist practice of focused attention meditation, which we’ll explore now.
Focused attention meditation
Focused attention, sometimes known as single-pointed meditation involves choosing an anchor on which to, surprisingly, focus on your attention.
This is often the breath (as in Samatha), but can also include other objects of attention, such as candles, mantras etc.
Firstly, you can perform the meditation in any position, at any time of the day. It is, however, advisable to avoid times and positions which make you sleepy.
So let’s run through the steps:
- Choose your preferred position – I normally opt for an unsupported sitting position which allows me to maintain an erect spine, relax my breathing and improve my concentration.
- Set a timer for two minutes initially. I like to use the Insight Timer app, which allows you to track your meditation.
- Bring your attention to your breath, wherever you feel it most strongly. This may be in your nostrils or around your diaphragm and stomach.
- With a relaxed awareness, maintain your attention on the sensations you experience moment to moment.
- Invariably, your mind will start to wander, as thoughts arise. Whenever you notice that you’ve become lost in thinking, gently bring your awareness back to your breath.
- Continue for two minutes.
Congratulations, you’ve just meditated.
Truth be told, it may feel pretty difficult at first and you might feel frustrated that you can’t maintain your attention on your breath for very long.
Some people, when starting meditation, mistakenly assume that they need to go into a Zen-like, monk trance and devoid of thought, but that’s not the case.
Thoughts become our teachers, allowing us to train our minds more effectively, so don’t get upset.
The practice of meditation and where the benefits really lie, is from the act of noticing that you’re lost in thought and the process of bringing your attention gently back to your anchor.
By repeatedly noticing and re-centring the mind, we can slowly become the masters of our mind.
Vissipana and mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness has been developed from Vissipana (insight) school of meditation, now largely adapted for a Western Audience.
Mindfulness builds upon the focused attention meditation and uses a technique called open monitoring.
Open monitoring meditation
By simply inspecting our current experience, moment to moment, without trying to change or modify it, we can experience profound insights.
This simply involves seeing what arises in the mind; from thoughts to sensations and sounds and observing them non-judgementally.
Stepping back in this capacity allows us to see these phenomena for the mind-made creations they are.
Stripping back our moment to moment experience of consciousness and its contents allows us to reconnect with our senses more effectively, which have often been submerged by years of overthinking.
By honing our attention through mindfulness we can bond with the present moment in a way that removes us from the endless cycles and repetition of our thinking mind.
This is a liberating feeling, removing the reactiveness to thoughts and feelings that we usually experience.
Direct path meditation
One is focused attention, as outlined above, where I choose a stimulus upon which to train my attention, like the breath.
However, it can also include bodily awareness and the shifting sensations of energy that continuously ebb and flow, or sounds that come and go and even the contents of my visual field.
This type of meditation is a perfect way to learn how to manage our mind in a new way, reclaiming our attention and building the attention muscle that brings us repeatedly back to the present moment, developing deep states of calm in the process.
However, I’ve also practised another form of mindfulness, called Direct Path, whereby I turn attention on itself and become aware of the one who is looking, or in other words, consciousness itself.
This is a form of practice common in the Tibetan Dzogchen tradition and popularised in the West by an English practitioner called Douglas Harding, who spoke of the Headless Way.
Whereas object meditation takes time to bear fruit, and in some ways can feel like we’re missing the point of meditation and unable to attain further depth, the Direct Path is said to provide a jolt, resulting in a profound perspective shift on reality.
When people seek the source of the attention, they’re said to discover only emptiness, breaking down the illusion of a separate self or ego. In this space, one may experience a timeless and deep connection to the world around them.
However, according to a teacher like Sam Harris, contrary to the implication that some organismic revelation awaits, instead it can come across as a rather mundane experience. As a result, many of us may discard it in favour of the subject-object tradition of focussed meditation.
According to Harris, however, it’s through direct path meditation that it feels like the practise is really paying off, containing a greater depth of experience than can be found in training one’s attention on an external anchor.
Furthermore, contrary to popular practice, the direct path can be experienced outside of monastic retreats and their gruelling meditative regimens. Indeed, contends Harris, we possess access to such insights whenever we reach over for a glass of water while watching TV.
Harris does follow a graded practice of exposure in his own app, however, whereby he introduces the lay practitioner to object meditation first to begin training the powers of concentration and awareness, thereby quieting the monkey mind.
As for my own practice, having a reasonable grounding in object meditation, I’ve begun to mix the methods to try to access the direct path experience.
Firstly I tend to mix my meditation with both approaches and find it helpful to begin with object meditation. When I’m holding my attention on my breath (subject-object), I’ll quickly try to turn attention in on itself in the space of a finger snap in order to search for the one who’s looking.
The mental state that results is one that I try to inhabit for as long as the feeling lasts, after which I return my focus to the breath or body. Done repeatedly, this can provide mini-snapshots of the absence of ego.
Throughout the day, I also try to retain an awareness of that which is aware. In other words, I keep some of my attention trained upon that knowing feeling we have when a new thought, emotion or experience pops up on our mental radar.
It’s not so much that I’m searching around in my head for a particular insight, but more that I relax inwards, or lean backwards to be aware of that which knows things. You can’t actively search for it, because what you’re searching for is also what you’re searching with.
Try it now. Take your attention away from the article and lean backwards into your awareness, becoming conscious of that which is knowing. It might feel that the external objects of consciousness, like your visual field, or thoughts, dimish in intensity without the same amount of attention you were paying them before.
A bit like after waking up, external focuses can feel a bit fuzzy, taking up less mental space, although you can still function and interact in the world as normal. It’s simply that the usual preoccupations of the mind, with its incessant mental chatter aren’t as predominant as they were.
I’ve also experimented with this while in conversation, although find it harder to maintain the feeling. What I’ve found through this is that minute to minute experience does seem calmer and my mind has less tendency to wonder. However, I’m still unsure whether I’ve truly experienced the boundless and timeless feeling that direct path meditation is supposed to induce.
Another method, as taught by Douglas Harding, is to actually imagine you have no head, an insight he received while walking in the Himalayas as a spiritual seeker. The sense that he did not know whether he actually had a head and where his subjective experience originated, was experienced with a deep connection to his surroundings.
Since then, various perspective exercises have been developed and can continue to be taught by Douglas Harding’s followers. These exercises usually involve visual cues so as to identify the subjective source.
Rather than us being a little person or entity in our heads (the ego) and everything else we experience outside ourselves, instead, they are the same thing – just representations appearing in our consciousness, whatever or wherever that might be.
In this way, this feeling of a mini-me running things is just another appearance within consciousness, similar to the sensation of picking something up in my hand.
Direct path meditation aims to break this illusion by providing the realisation that every input we receive it just an extension of our own consciousness.
Like waves in the ocean, everything we experience, from taste, touch and sounds to thoughts, feelings and emotions are just waves made from our own consciousness, rather than anything outside of us.
From this, the little entity of “I” begins to feel like a contraction of the mind or a fleeting sensation that can be released readily to reveal plain old peaceful awareness.
If you’re picking up what up I’m putting down and want to give the practice a go, I salute you.
I’m certainly no expert, but meditation has helped me perceive the world in a whole new way.
And that’s why I’ve committed to this as an ongoing practice, knowing there’s no destination to be reached.
After all, there are still lots of fun corners of my freaky little mind to explore!
So what are you waiting for?