Saturday, January 13, 2018


Meditation, at its most basic, is the simple art of taking time to contemplate.  Contemplation, in turn, is a kind of relaxed, controlled thinking, which lets the mind rest on its object of focus.  So, if you sometimes find yourself looking at a leaf or a tree, or even a person's face, and dwelling peacefully on its features and nature, then you meditate, whether you are aware of it or not.

One way of thinking about meditation, is to consider what would be its opposite.  Have you ever seen a person in the middle of road rage, spitting with anger at something another driver has done?  Have you ever been in the middle of an argument with someone close, and said a lot of things that you later regret?  These things are the opposite of meditation.  When you have road rage, or when you shout at someone else in anger, then you are showing three things:

  1. You are not in control of yourself.  Your mind and body seem to take on a life of their own, not listening to anyone or anything.  You, literally, 'lose it'... 'it' being the ability to master your actions.
  2. You are not aware of your surroundings.  You may notice, when in a rage, that the world reduces to the size of a pinhead.  Some people call it tunnel vision.  You are so incensed, that you have no resources left to observe, as if from a distance, what is happening.
  3. You are selfish.  That is to say your own needs in the particular situation outweigh everything and everyone.  That is why we do so much damage when we are in a temper - because we have become so afraid of what we might lose, that we cannot bend to the perspective of others.

Meditation is often associated with Buddhism, but contemplation has a long tradition in most religions.  Islam relates that the Prophet Mohammed often withdrew to a cave to meditate and pray.  In the Hindu tradition, meditation is a practice of self-awareness whereby a wise person comes to understand their relationship with others, and with reality.  In Judaism, an individual may set themselves apart to contemplate, either intellectually or intuitively, bringing greater insight.  The Christian tradition uses meditation as a time of reflective study and focus.  Buddhists meditate to develop mindfulness, concentration, peace and insight.  And so on.

Common to almost all types of meditation are a few basic steps, which can be the background to any meditation practice.

  1. Preparation - make sure you are settled in an environment which enables you to focus, and be sure that you yourself have established an intent to take time to contemplate.
  2. Bodily alignment - you can adopt a comfortable sitting position, or lie down, or kneel, or even stand or walk slowly; the important thing is that your body is aligned, or arranged, in a way that enables you to focus.
  3. Focus your attention on a single object of contemplation.  It may be your own breath; you could listen to it enter and exit your body.  It may be an external object, such as a sunset, or a candle, or a tree.  Or it could be a particular piece of wisdom or scripture that means something to you.
  4. When you sense your attention disappearing (perhaps your usual worries and distractions begin to reappear in your mind), then gently realign your focus onto the object of your meditation.
  5. Remain in that contemplative state for a period of time, returning your mind to the object of meditation whenever you sense it straying.

What is the power of meditation?  Remember the list above, of things that are the opposite of meditation.

  1. You are not in control
  2. You are not aware of what is going on around you
  3. You are obsessed by your own needs

You may notice that these three symptoms are characteristic of a lot of mental illnesses, and certainly of a lot of distress.  Meditation, on the contrary, seeks to establish three opposite things:

  1. Control - learning to focus in a peaceful state brings you the ability to control your thoughts, and ultimately your feelings.
  2. Awareness - learning to observe and contemplate, and to apply this to yourself and others, gives you greater awareness, as you are less distracted, and therefore make fewer mistakes of observation.  You see more clearly.
  3. Kindness - learning to set your own worries and internal chatter aside, makes you better able to listen and attend to others.  Because you are not attached to any one outcome, you can more easily flex your perspective and see life how others see it.  Therefore, you will be better able to match your actions to the wider context, and should experience greater flow in your movement and thinking.

There are many cognitive reasons why meditation works, but perhaps they can all be summed up in the above.  If you wanted to drive someone mad, you would make them lose their sense of control, blur their sense of focus, and make them fear for their own safety.  In contrast, then, if you want to bring yourself peace, then to practice mastery over your thoughts, to enhance your awareness, and to widen your perspective beyond your own attachments, seem entirely logical.

Mindfulness usually refers to a state of enhanced awareness, in which you observe and accept your own feelings.  A state of mindfulness contains all the things we have talked about above: self-mastery (so that you have not 'lost your mind' any more), awareness (so that you are not 'driven to distraction' any more), and kindness (so that you are not obsessed with your own needs any more).

Mindfulness, therefore, is pretty much the name we could give the meditative state.  In an argument, a mindful person would be one who showed their ability to keep control of themselves, to see the whole context clearly, and to act without self-obsession.

Setting aside time each day to meditate has a number of benefits.  In particular, do you notice how, in the course of a normal day, you are subject to aggravations, distractions, frustrations, difficulties?  A bit like a computer, you need time to get your house in order, and regain your focus.  You need to clear up loose ends, let go of what is bothering you, and return to 'place zero', a place of rest from which you can face the world again.

Using another analogy, imagine you are a Formula 1 driver.  Would you be a good driver if you spent all your time racing round a track at breakneck speed?  No.  You need rest, you need recuperation, you need focus.  Nature is full of rhythms to be wisely respected: there are day and night; there is activity and reflection; there is expenditure of energy and regathering of energy.  In the same way, part of your daily practice is to take time to regain your control, awareness, and perspective.  To refocus.  Otherwise you will be good for nothing, a bedraggled wreck.

There are wider benefits too.  We have focused on the individual.  But wider societies and ecologies can benefit from mutual self-mastery, awareness and selflessness.  An ability to take different perspectives, and not just act out of fearful self-defence, is sorely needed in the political and environmental world today.

Meditation is the practice of taking time out to focus peacefully.  It enhances self-control, awareness, and kindness.  Daily meditation sets an example to everyone that you are prepared to calm your own 'road rage', to see the other side, to take account of the whole picture, to take responsibility.  If you learn the art, then eventually it will become part of your normal behaviour.  You will find life easier, and others may find you more helpful and companionable.  Moreover, you may find your mental health improving, as you attend to the wonderful being that is you, and let it accept its wider place in the universe.