A few years ago I read a life changing book which set me on a path of meditation that has quietened my mind and allowed me to really think. It could help you too.
My meditation practice isn’t anything fancy. Indeed when asked “where’s mummy?” Miss H will be heard to say that she’s sitting quietly ignoring her family! I clearly don’t look like I’m doing anything special, but for me, meditating is special, and I get a lot out of it.
So what was that book you ask? I was reading The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma. To be honest I was three quarters of the way through before I realised it wasn’t a true story but a personal development book! Duh!
It talked about allowing yourself space to cultivate your mind so that you can really blossom. That success on the outside begins within and that the quality of your life ultimately comes down to the quality of your contribution. That was a life changing moment as I thought about the legacy I would leave to my grandchildren and the wider planet and decided I needed to step up!
“We are what we think.”
We’ve all heard it before, but do we live by it? Do we really see that our mind is both the problem and the solution? Our thinking is not fixed, we’re not a tree rooted in the ground. If we don’t like our thinking we can change it. But much of the time we are not even aware of what we are thinking and we are certainly not in control of it.
Everyday our mind goes into autopilot and runs on by itself and more often than not we are at the mercy of our immediate reactions. If someone cuts us up in traffic or ignores us in the playground while we’re doing the school drop off, we get angry. If we tuck into the tub of ice cream we want another mouthful whether we are full or not. If someone upsets us, we repeat it over and over to ourselves, adding to the hurt.
Our minds can be out of control and we need to do something about it. But in order to do that, we need to become self aware. We need to know when our mind is running away with itself and bring it back to the here and now. To be present in the moment.
Meditation was developed by the Buddha but there is no single word for meditation in the original language of Buddhism. Mark Epstein, author of books on the interface between Buddhism and Psychotherapy explains, the closest is one that translates as “mental development.” Meditation, as taught by the Buddha, was a means of taming the mind by bringing the entire range of thoughts, feelings and physical sensations into awareness, making the unconscious, conscious.
There were various forms of meditation widely practiced in the Buddha’s day, and continued today. They were all techniques of concentration. Buddha mastered each of them but still felt uneasy. It was fine to rest the mind on a single object: a sound (or mantra), a sensation (the breath), an image (a candle flame), a feeling (love or compassion), or an idea.
This gave strength to the mind, a feeling of stability, of peace and tranquillity, a sense of what Freud came to call the ‘oceanic feeling’. While this could be relaxing, it did not do enough to change the mind’s complexion. Buddha was after something more.
The meditation that the Buddha found most helpful was moment-to-moment awareness of what is actually happening to us. This did not mean resting the mind on a single object, as he had been taught, but meant observing the mind in action. We are able to be self reflective, to observe themselves even as we are in the process of doing or thinking something. The Buddha’s method harnesses this ability and develops it. It’s like sitting at a pavement café watching the world go by but where you are also part of the scene and can hear your thoughts.
Try your hand at Meditation
To experience a taste of this, try sitting quietly in an upright position with your feet firmly planted on the floor. It could be in a chair or on the sofa or cross-legged on the floor. Keep your back straight. Or lie down if you would rather – but beware, I usually fall asleep!
Let your eyes gently close. And just listen. Listen to the sounds and the silence that does or does not surround you depending on where you are. Let the sounds come and go without choosing one over another. Try to listen to the entire sound, noticing when your mind identifies it as whatever it is: the hum of the fridge, a car engine, the heat coming on, children’s voices, the dog, or nothing. Don’t let your identification of the sound stop you from listening. Simply note the thought and return to the bare sounds, to the act of listening.
If your mind wanders, as it will, bring your attention back to the sounds. You might realise your mind has wandered after a short moment or it might be after a whole cascade of thoughts, it doesn’t matter. At some point you will realize, you’re not listening, you’re thinking, and at that point you can return your attention to the sounds.
Treat your mind the way you would a small puppy, be gentle but firm. You wouldn’t admonish it, you’d train it to do what you want. Your mind is just the same, it just needs gentle training. Meditation means bringing your mind back when you notice it has wandered, it’s not about keeping your mind from wandering in the first place. You will notice that you instinctively prefer some sounds over others (the heat switching on that means you’ll be warm when you move into the kitchen for instance) but don’t let this influence your listening. Just observe the liking or the not liking - then let it go.