This article appeared in the Sunday Independent 14 January 1996 by Andrew Purvis
Today I teach meditation in a more relaxed and accessible way, which you can find in my book ‘The Power of Modern Spirituality’.
WHAT IS MEDITATION?
In India it is known as ‘tethering the drunken monkey’, quelling the babble of thoughts to focus on the profound silence within. Another metaphor compares the human mind to a constantly flickering flame; meditation is the technique used to still it.
For William, meditation is ‘a way of getting the mind, body and emotions into a receptive, fluid and calm state so the core consciousness can become present’. To understand this, he says, we must understand something about the duality of human nature. ‘Everyone knows what we mean when we say there are two aspects to the self. There’s the social-psychological self, made up of everything we internalise from our family and our national culture, all our social patterning and our ambitions. Then there’s the core self, the essence of a person. It tends to be relaxed and wise in its own way, inclusive, expansive, understanding about who it is.’
The purpose of meditation is to reach this core self. In practice, it feels like that blissful moment of drifting off just before you go to sleep; ‘like a warm ocean of consciousness.’ What it requires is for the mind to be simultaneously relaxed and focused, which sounds like a contradiction. If it isn’t both, then you’re daydreaming , or thinking or sleeping. Meditation is none of those things.’
SCHOOLS OF MEDITATION
One of the most confusing things about meditation is the many different schools, all with contrasting techniques and varying degrees of religious involvement. One much publicised in the West is Transcendental Meditation, in which practitioners repeat a sound (or mantra) silently to themselves until a state of ‘bliss’ is reached. The initial aim is to achieve deep relaxation and eliminate stress, which is why many GP’s recommend it, but advanced meditators (or siddhas) use that relaxed state to explore aspects of consciousness in yoga-like exercised known as asanas. TM teachers insist on 20 minutes of meditation twice a day; siddhas meditate for several hours a day.
In other traditions of mantric meditation, the mantra is repeated over and over again, centred in the head , in the heart, or in the throat. Attention is focused on that specific area of the body. Hatha yoga teaches pranayama (‘control of the stream’) techniques which use intense breathing to achieve a state of calm. Practitioners focus on the breath- the number of inhalations and exhalations, or the ‘shape’ of their breathing- until the required state of consciousness is reached.
Buddhist meditators might explore a particular idea such as compassion in their meditation, reviewing their behaviour throughout the day and resolving to treat people differently in future. Or they might focus inward tapping into their compassion by thinking of someone they really care about. Then they expand the emotion by including more people and situations in their thoughts.
In other schools pupils could be given a visual pattern (or mandala) to focus on, or a paradox such as the notion of a one-handed clap. ‘There is another form, where you simply sit very still watching and waiting, watching and waiting. You have a teacher who is so sensitive to you that he will beat you across the shoulders if you waver.’
‘There is a postmodern holistic approach to meditation. Until this century, the different traditions were isolated by their geography and culture. That’s no longer the case. They have all become accessible, so instead of being firmly on one particular path because there are no choices, people can taste different methods.
The five steps outlined below underpin all forms of meditation from asanas to Zen.
‘How you experience the physical body is crucial. When you’re sitting, you must feel that you are completely ‘in your body’ as opposed to just bobbing around in your head. You must feel that your feet or bottom connect with the earth, or the chair you’re sitting on. If you don’t, your mind will be in a mode of escape from the situation.’ One way of achieving this physical awareness is to focus attention on each part of the body in turn.
It is best to meditate once or twice a day for 20 minutes – preferably an hour or more after a meal, and never when you feel tired. You will simply fall asleep. If these constraints are too limiting, ‘remember that it is better to meditate for 60 seconds once a day than not at all.’
There are no hard and fast rules about where to practise (though it obviously helps to be private and quiet), or what posture to adopt. You can sit in a chair, or in bed, or on the floor with your legs straight; crossed legs and the lotus posture are optional, though keeping a straight spine helps and it is good for the body, too. Wear loose clothing, and take your shoes off; the important thing is to feel comfortable. The ideal minimum meditation time is 20 minutes, so you must feel comfortable for that period.
‘You can’t be truly calm, unless your centre of gravity is down in your abdomen. Look at a statue of a big fat Buddha, and copy him – or copy a pregnant woman. Anyone who is carrying a child knows exactly what it is like to have a centre of gravity down there.’ Changing your centre of gravity may sound like something outside your conscious control, but it can be achieved just by using the imagination.
There are specific mental exercises to help. ‘One method is to sit there with a sense of your energy and body fluids flowing downwards to the centre of the earth, feeling the heat at the core of the earth and coming back up again.’ Another is to imagine that you are like a tree, with your torso as the trunk and the roots going down deep into the earth.
If the centre of gravity isn’t low, there will be a tendency, as you start to relax, to take that as a signal to go to sleep. ‘Ninety-five per cent of people who fall asleep or daydream during meditation are not grounded. You should be sitting there comfortably and as solid as a rock, not like a nervous rabbit. If you’re solidly in your body, you can start to feel your true consciousness.’ A frequently used Zen image is that of being like a mountain.
USING THE BREATH
Once grounded, the next stage is sitting quietly for a while to allow the body and mind to settle. A useful way of doing this is to focus on your natural breathing and be aware of it.
William begins his own meditations simply counting his breaths to 100, or sometimes to 200 or 300. While counting, it’s useful consciously to relax the abdomen, chest and throat and concentrate on keeping the breaths regular and rhythmic.
‘Very gently guide your breath so the out breath is similar in length to the in breath. The exhalation slides gently into the inhalation and vice versa – or put a little pause at each end. It’s as simple as that: it’s something quiet not noisy.’ This is not self-conscious breathing, in which you make yourself breathe. The secret is to become conscious of your natural breathing.
Using the breath is useful in another context, too. There are times during meditation, when you will feel ‘squirmy’- either physically or mentally uncomfortable, or anxious about the practice itself. ‘A lot of people, when they are about to sit still for 20 minutes, start to feel uncomfortable. They might suddenly think meditation is awful or that they’re not doing it properly. The mind becomes a critic and says, ‘This is pointless.’ Or it starts to wonder what time it is, whether the cooker is still on, or the phone is about to ring.’
Physical discomfort can usually be controlled by simply relaxing the area that feels uncomfortable. ‘Send out a little signal to anywhere that feels tense. Think about the shoulders, or the muscles at the base of the spine.’
Mental ‘squirminess’ can be countered using the breath. ‘Just stay gently guiding your breathing, until the irritation goes. People who have meditated for decades still have squirmy days – but they have many more that aren’t.
‘The next stage is just to feel comfortable and happy, to sit there breathing and bobbing along in your quiet and relaxed state. As you sit, anything can crop up in your mind and your feelings. Be comfortable with it. Accept anything.’
Now comes the difficult bit. What you have to develop in meditation is a sense of observation, of watchfulness. No matter what is going on in your head, your emotions or the environment around you – voices, birdsong, traffic noise – you must always be aware that you are meditating.
‘There must be a voice that is able to say: ‘Here I am, calm and observing’. If ‘squirmy’ thoughts arise, don’t simply listen to them and give up. Observe them with compassion as part of the meditation process. If you have positive and happy thoughts, don’t drift off and come back to consciousness minutes later. That is daydreaming. In meditation, it’s important to remain an observer of the daydream rather than allow yourself to get lost in it.’ Imagine your thoughts are like clouds drifting across the sky’ watch them but don’t engage with them.
This achievement of focus and relaxation is the key to meditation and anyone can do it. ‘We’re talking as if there’s some trick, but there isn’t. Anyone can learn to be an alert observer. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t have a degree of self-observation and humour about themselves. People are naturally watchful. The problem is sustaining watchfulness.’ This is why a device like a mantra can be useful at a particular stage in meditation, to help maintain alertness. ‘But it’s not essential. It is the tool for taking you into the state, not the state itself. Basically, when your eyes are shut you have two choices: you go to sleep or you don’t. If you don’t, then you’re being watchful, you’re meditating!’
DEALING WITH THOUGHTS
‘Some schools say this is all you have to do. Just sit there watching, and everything will come and pass, come and pass. But there is another form of meditation which is more active and engaged.’ There are two aspects to this. One is learning to deal with thoughts as they emerge, treating this as an opportunity to look at situations, feelings and relationships afresh. The other is to introduce thoughts and ideas to explore how far the human mind can go.
As random thoughts emerge, it’s important not to regard them as unwelcome interference. In the Tibetan tradition, meditators are urged to be ‘a good host’ to all thoughts that turn up, to have an attitude of goodwill and compassion rather than resentment.
“The things you think about when you’re bobbing along are mostly to do with yourself, an inappropriate communication with your boss, what he or she said, how you deal with your children, your relationships. As these thoughts surface, give them your attention in a very gentle and comfortable way.”
This is contemplative meditation, in which people, problems and situations are viewed from other angles. ‘It should be done in a very relaxed, intuitive, non-intellectual way. Ask why a situation occurred, what it was about, how you could handle it differently if it happened again.’
In contemplation, William argues, you get fresh insights into the kind of person you are. ‘Because of your relaxed and watchful state, you’re looking at yourself in a totally different way – who you could possibly be, how you could possibly behave in that situation. Anyone who is grounded and breathing, and shuts their eyes and decides to watch, can do it.’
The conscious introduction of thoughts can be more challenging. As the meditation draws to a close, ‘expand your consciousness away from the city, to take in the trees and fields and countryside.’ To wind down, sit quietly for a couple of minutes before opening your eyes.
Learning to meditate may be easy, but sustaining the practice is a different matter. ‘There will be an initial resistance and it takes anything from two months to two years for people to feel they’re doing it properly.’
An analogy with art classes might be, ‘When people are learning to draw, they think they’re doing it wrong until they’ve had lots of practice. They get disappointed and they give up. For drawing you need an implement and something to draw on; for meditation you need your mind, body and emotions to be in a particular state. For that you need no outside crutch – just you.’
But it isn’t as simple as that. Regular meditation interferes with your other commitments, wreaks havoc with your diary and your social life and makes some people view you as a crank. Why carry on?
‘The only reason is because it feels so good. If you like something enough, you will carry on doing it. Being quiet, grounded and aware is a very pleasant experience.’ Refreshingly, he thinks there are other ways of achieving the same ‘altered state’ – dance, sport, art, music and looking after children, for example. ‘In coming to meditation, you’re simply recognising that this, for you, is the most effective way of having that privilege.’
FIVE STEPS TO MEDITATION
1. GETTING GROUNDED: to begin meditation, you must feel that you are wholly in your body. Adopt any comfortable sitting position, preferably with your spine is straight. You should sit solid as a rock, with your centre of gravity low.
2. USING THE BREATH: to allow the mind and body to settle as you sit quietly, focus on your breathing and be aware of it. Don’t consciously make yourself breathe; the secret is to become conscious of your natural breathing.
3. ACHIEVING WATCHFULNESS: while in a state of complete relaxation, it is important to be aware of your thoughts, but not absorbed by them. Imagine your thoughts are like clouds drifting by; watch them but don’t worry at them.
4. DEALING WITH THOUGHTS: as random thoughts emerge, try not to regard them as unwelcome interference. Be ‘a good host’ to all thoughts that turn up, giving them your attention in a very gentle and comfortable way.
5. SUSTAINING PRACTICE: while it is better to meditate for 60 seconds than not at all, the ideal minimum is 20 minutes. Learning is easy; keeping it up is a different matter. But the main reason to keep going is that meditation feels good.