Jiddu Krishnamurti once said: “Meditation is one of the most extraordinary things, and if you do not know what it is, you are like the blind man in a world of bright color, shadows and moving light. It is not an intellectual affair, but when the heart enters into the mind, the mind has quite a different quality; it is really, then, limitless, not only in its capacity to think, to act efficiently, but also in its sense of living in a vast space where you are part of everything.”
He also said, “Meditation is the movement of love…”
Meditation is a “present” moment experience. It is a vehicle to become more aware of self and everything around oneself. Although we may have goals, directions and aspirations, meditation practice is focused on the moment we are in and not the promise of the future or remembrances of the past. When we can be in the present moment, we are on our path to understanding, calmness, freedom, and peace. Meditation is a technique to assist in the re-discovery of these mind states so that we become more in touch with one’s own consciousness and body.
By being more in touch with one’s consciousness, our actions towards goals and aspirations will become more mindful.
My first experience of meditation was over 50 years ago in Irvine Park, CA, and it changed my life. On that day, a small inkling of seed was planted telling me meditation could be part of my life and, if cultivated, might actually change my experience of life. I was right. I tried various types of meditations (see below) to learn more about myself and others. But it was only until I committed sitting Vipassana Meditation every day did I begin to have insights allowing me to experience real changes in my life. Vipassana is about insight into the truth of how we are and the nature of things. Having this understanding automatically changes one’s experience of life and how we behave in life.
On my path, I sat with many different teachers and groups. I’ve sat with lay yogis and meditators, such as myself, to people who use meditation in their religions and religious practices. I’ve sat with monks in their monasteries as well as caves. I’ve sat with large groups and one on one with abbots and other teachers. I’ve sat in formal structured groups as well as unstructured retreats. I’ve sat short one-day retreats up to long ninety days in hermitage retreat silence.
My structured retreats took place in the U.S., England, Germany, Canada, and India. Unstructured retreats took place in various locations in the U.S., England, India in Jain and Sikh meditation halls, a forest monastery in Thailand, Vietnam, and Tibetan monastery halls in India, Nepal, and Tibet.
Fact is, with practice, one can meditate almost anywhere, including, airplanes, SF Muni buses, trains, and local parks. It takes a bit of practice but one can hear the noises of life and let them immediately pass through you as “noise” while being present with the breath.
Lastly, I’ve led meditation sitting groups in my home, at places of my employment, and at other small venues.
Benefits of Meditation:
The benefits of meditation are physiological, psychological and spiritual.
Physiological - Studies report that meditation:
Decreases metabolic rate, lowers heart rate, and reduces workload on the heart.
Lowers of levels of cortisol (the so-called stress hormone) and lactate, two chemicals associated with stress.
Decreases blood pressure.
Lowers cholesterol levels.
Raises skin resistance (lower skin resistance has been correlated with higher stress and anxiety levels).
Assists in and with pain management.
Reduces free radicals which are unstable oxygen molecules that can cause tissue damage.
Improves airflow to the lungs.
Decreases the aging process.
Psychological - Studies and experiential reports show that meditation:
Enhances depth, quality, and texture of present awareness.
Increases brain wave coherence.
Assists in creativity.
Improves memory and learning ability.
Increases feelings of vitality and rejuvenation.
Decreases irritability and moodiness.
Increases emotional stability.
Spiritual Benefits - Experiential reports show that meditation:
Increases desire for self-awareness.
Increases interest in the realm of spirituality.
Increases understanding and self-acceptance.
The benefits of meditation come over time. Many people experience some changes right away, but deep and profound effects are generally noticed years down the line.
Goal and Types of Meditation:
Vipassana Meditation has the simple, yet difficult goal of letting the mind release itself from its thoughts and internal dialogue long enough to receive and accept the truth as it is, not as we are.
There are many different types and forms of meditation. Many of them reside, in some way or another, as part of a spiritual or religious practice. Some styles are focused on relaxation, pleasant, or deeply profound enjoyable experiences (Jhana). However, Vipassana Meditation is the vehicle for gaining insight to see things, including ourselves, as they are. There are six basic types of mediation, and they are:
Mindfulness (Awareness): Mindfulness meditation has a specific goal of seeing into the true nature and reality of self and things outside of self. It uses Insight (Vipassana) and Contemplation as vehicles for seeing reality as it is. Often in Insight meditation, paying slight attention to the breath, allows the breath is used as a way to help the mind let go of thoughts. In Contemplation meditation, questions or koans are used as tools to cut and break through the typical noise of the mind of the meditator.
Concentration: The idea behind a concentration practice is to focus the mind on one thing thereby reducing the amount of natural internal scattered chatter of thoughts and noises the mind creates. In a concentrative focus, over time, the mind sort of gives up and releases itself from the internal chatter allowing clarity to arrive. Items used in concentration practice include: Counting, Mantras (TM), Visual cues (image or object like a candle), and Sound cues.
Meditations of Motion: Motion can also be used to assist in freeing the mind of its everyday chatter and noise. Types of motion meditations include: Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and Chi Neng. Often during formal retreats, Walking and Eating mediations are introduced to bring a deeper awareness to everyday activities. There are branches of Yoga that include meditation as part of its practice.
Guided Meditations: Guided meditations are used to transport the meditator through a “story.” Often this story will create a sense of peace and relaxation. Guided Loving Kindness meditations are often used to assist the meditator in being kind to oneself and others.
Transformational: These meditations are solution based. There is a goal of being able to see or do something differently than how the meditator has seen or done it before.
Prayerful: Meditations of a prayerful nature are found in religious groups or contexts. They often serve as a way to bring a group to think about and share good will towards a particular person, group or subject.
Qualities and Foundations of Meditation:
Nearly all meditation traditions and forms share the following qualities:
Attention: The ability to establish ourselves in the present moment with focus and simplicity.
Awareness: The ability to develop a consciousness that is light, unburdened, sensitive, and clear.
Understanding: The ability to understand the forces that move us in our actions, speech, relationships, and beliefs to gain deeper wisdom.
Compassion: The ability to not be narcissistic or self-interested. Compassion is the foundation on which we build love, integrity, and respect into our daily lives.
Mindfulness: Being aware of your present moment with the heart and mind as one. You are not judging, reflecting or thinking. You are simply observing the moment in which you find yourself. Moments are like a breath. Each breath is replaced by the next breath. You're there with no other purpose than being awake and aware of that moment.
Seven Foundations of Mindfulness:
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. is an author, founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at UMASS Medical School, and founder of the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program has defined seven foundations for mindfulness when practicing meditation. These foundations are:
Non-judging: Mindfulness is cultivated by being an impartial witness to your own experience.
Patience: Patience is a form of wisdom. It demonstrates that we understand and accept the fact that sometimes things must unfold in their own time.
Beginner’s Mind: To see things as they are, many who practice meditation cultivate “beginner’s mind”. Beginner’s mind is the quality of seeing everything as if for the first time.
Trust: Developing a basic trust in yourself and your feelings is an integral part of meditation. Buddha said, “Trust your own deepest experience.”
Non-striving: Almost everything we do in our lives is for a purpose. In meditation this attitude of striving can be a real obstacle. Just watch. We are simply allowing anything and everything that we experience from moment to moment to be here, because it already is.
Acceptance: Acceptance means seeing things as they are in the present. Acceptance does not mean you have to like everyone and everything and that you have a passive attitude, abandoning your principles and values. Acceptance as we are speaking of means that you have come to a willingness to see things as they are and can then act appropriately.
Letting go: If we pay attention to our inner experience, we quickly discover that there are thoughts and feelings our minds want to hold on to. With good thoughts we keep the story going because we enjoy what we think. And with unpleasant experiences we sometimes bring them up over and over again thinking about what we could have done differently to make it a good experience. (An example of letting go is when we sleep, we let go just as we fall asleep).
Misconceptions of Meditation
There are numerous misconceptions about meditation. And specifically, these pertain to Vipassana Meditation. I’ve included a link at the bottom of this listing so that you can download a PDF file of these misconceptions.
Misconception #1: Meditation is just a relaxation technique.
The bugaboo here is the word 'just.' Relaxation is a crucial component of meditation, but Vipassana-style meditation aims at a loftier goal, insight into our self and the world in which we live. Nevertheless, the statement is mostly true for many systems of meditation. Most meditation procedures stress concentration of the mind, bringing the mind to rest on one item, area of focus, or field of thought. Do it actively and thoroughly enough, and you achieve a deep and blissful relaxation which is called Jhana. It is a state of such supreme tranquility that it can amount to rapture. It is a form of pleasure which lies above and beyond anything that can be experienced in a normal state of consciousness. However, Jhana experiences are not an insight to self, they are just experiences. Many forms of meditation stop at right there. They have this enjoyable experience, Jhana, as the goal. This experience is repeatable; however, it is not insight. Not so with Vipassana meditation. Vipassana seeks another goal — awareness. Concentration and relaxation are considered necessary concomitants to awareness. They are required precursors, handy tools, and beneficial byproducts. But they are not the goal. The goal Vipassana is insight. Vipassana meditation is a profound practice aimed at nothing less than the purification and transformation of your everyday life.
Misconception #2: Meditation means going into a trance.
Here again, the statement could be applied accurately to specific systems of meditation, but not to Vipassana. Insight meditation is not a form of hypnosis. You are not trying to block out your mind to the unconscious, nor are you blocking out the outside world into non-existence. You are not trying to turn yourself into an emotionless vegetable. If anything, the reverse is true. You will become more alive and attuned to your own emotional changes. You will learn to know yourself with greater clarity and precision. In learning this technique, individual states do occur, which may appear trance-like to the observer. But they are really the opposite. In a hypnotic trance, the subject is susceptible to control by another party, whereas in deep concentration the meditator remains very much under his own control. The similarity is superficial, and in any case, the occurrence of these phenomena is not the point of Vipassana. As previously said, the deep concentration of Jhana is a tool or stepping stone on the route of heightened awareness. Vipassana, by definition, is the cultivation of mindfulness or awareness. If you find that you are becoming unconscious in meditation, then you aren't meditating, according to the definition of the word as used in the Vipassana system. It is that simple.
Misconception #3: Meditation is a mysterious practice which cannot be understood.
Here again, this is almost true, but not entirely. Meditation deals with levels of consciousness which lie deeper than symbolic thought or feelings. Therefore, some of the data about meditation doesn’t fit into words. That does not mean, however, that it cannot be understood. There are more profound ways to understand things than words. For instance; you know how to walk, yet you probably can't describe the exact order in which your nerve fibers and your muscles contract and relax during that process, and if you did, explaining it to someone else is difficult. But it’s not impossible. Meditation needs to be understood the same way by doing it. It is not something that you can learn in abstract terms. It is to be experienced. Meditation is not some mindless formula which gives automatic and predictable results. You can never really predict exactly what will come up in any session. It is an investigation and experiment and an adventure every time. In fact, this is so true that when you do reach a feeling of predictability and sameness in your practice, you use that as an indicator. It means that you have gotten off the track somewhere and you are headed for stagnation. Learning to look at and be with each second as if it were the first and only second in the universe is most essential in Vipassana meditation.
Misconception #4: The purpose of meditation is to become a psychic superman.
No, the purpose of meditation is to develop awareness — an insight into an understanding of being here now. Learning to read minds is not the point. Levitation is not the goal. The goal is liberation from the self we confine ourselves. There is a link between psychic phenomena and meditation, but the relationship is somewhat complicated. During early stages of the meditator's career, such events may or may not arise. Some people may experience some intuitive understanding or memories from past lives; others do not. In any case, these are not regarded as well-developed or reliable psychic abilities. Nor should they be given undue importance. Such phenomena can be somewhat dangerous to new meditators in that they are too seductive. They can be an ego trap which can lure you right off the track. Your best advice is not to place emphasis on these phenomena. If they come up, that's fine. If they don't, that's fine, too. It's unlikely that they will. There is a point in the meditator's career where he may practice special exercises to develop psychic powers. But this occurs way down the line. After he has gained an intense stage of Jhana, the meditator will be far enough advanced to work with such powers without the danger of their running out of control or taking over his life. He will then develop them strictly for the purpose of service to others. This only occurs after decades of practice. Don't worry about it. Just concentrate on developing more and more awareness. If voices and visions pop up, just notice them and let them go. Don't get involved.
Misconception #5: Meditation is dangerous, and a prudent person should avoid it.
Everything is dangerous. Walk across the street, and you may get hit by a car or bus. Take a shower, and you could slip, fall, and break your neck. Meditate, and you will probably dredge up various nasty and unpleasant matters from your past. The suppressed material that has been buried there for quite some time can be scary. It is also highly profitable. No activity is without risk, but that does not mean that we should wrap ourselves in some protective cocoon. That is not living. That is premature death. The way to deal with danger is to know approximately how much of it there is, where it is likely to be found, and how to deal with it when it arises. Vipassana is the development of awareness. That, in and of itself, is not dangerous, but just the opposite. Increased awareness is the safeguard against danger. Correctly done, meditation is a very gentle and gradual process. Take it slow and easy, and the development of your practice will occur very naturally. If you have a primary teacher or guide, check-in with them, and discuss what is going on. Often, talking about the experiences take the emotional charge off them. Nothing should be forced. Later, when you are under the closer scrutiny and the protective wisdom of a competent teacher, you can accelerate your rate of growth by taking a period of intensive meditation, like week-long, or longer, retreats. In the beginning, though, easy does it. Work gently, and everything will be fine.
Misconception #6: Meditation is for saints and holy men, not for regular people.
You find this attitude very prevalent in Asia, where monks and holy men are accorded an enormous amount of ritualized reverence. This is somewhat akin to the western perspective of idealizing movie stars and sports heroes. Such people are stereotyped, made larger than life, and saddled with all sort of characteristics that few human beings can ever live up to. Even in the West, we share some of this attitude about meditation and meditation teachers. We expect the meditator to be some extraordinarily pious figure in whose mouth butter would never dare to melt. A little personal contact with such people will quickly dispel this illusion. They usually prove to be people of enormous energy and gusto, people who live their lives with incredible vigor. It is true, of course, that most holy men meditate, but they don't meditate because they are holy men. That is backward. They became and are sacred men because they meditate. Meditation is how they got there. This is an important point. A sizable number of students seem to feel that a person should be completely moral, pious, and holy before beginning meditation. This is an unworkable strategy. The first step is having enough mental fortitude, control, and willingness to sit in meditation and let what comes up come up and invite a curiosity towards change.
How these changes will begin revealing themselves to you is exciting. For example, one day you've got a problem — like handling how do I tell my child that you think they’ve made a poor choice in a relationship partner. You just can’t seem to come up with the right words or way to share your love and concern. It looks and feels unsolvable and full of 'maybes' that could give Solomon himself the willies. The next day you’re washing the dishes, thinking about something else entirely, and suddenly the solution is there. It just pops out of the deep mind, and you say, “Ah-ha! That’s how to say it.” The answer simply arrives.
This sort of realization occurs when you disengage the logic circuits from the problem and allow the deep mind to let the solution arise from within. The conscious mind was getting in the way. Meditation teaches you how to disentangle yourself from this thought process. It is the mental art of stepping out of your own way, and that's a pretty useful skill in everyday life. Therefore, meditation is not an irrelevant practice. It has immediate application in our daily life. Meditation is not otherworldly, it isn’t an instantaneous cosmic revelation, complete with angelic choirs. What you’ll usually get is a more efficient way to take out the trash or a better way to deal with your child. However, don’t become disappointed because broader and more profound results of meditation will arrive over time. In other words, the trash solution comes first, while the voices of archangels take a bit longer.
Misconception #7: Meditation is running away from reality.
Incorrect. Meditation is running into reality. It does not insulate you from the pain of life. It allows you to delve so deeply into life and all its aspects that you pierce the pain barrier; you go beyond suffering. Vipassana is a practice done with the specific intention of facing reality, to fully experience life just as it is and to cope with precisely what you find. It allows you to blow aside the illusions and to free yourself from all those polite little lies you tell yourself all the time. What is there is there. You are who you are and lying to yourself about your own weaknesses, and motivations only bind you tighter to the wheel of illusion. Vipassana meditation is not an attempt to forget yourself or to cover up your troubles. It is learning to look at yourself exactly as you are. See what is there, accept it fully. Only then can you begin to consciously change it.
Misconception #8: Meditation is a great way to get high.
Well, yes and no. Meditation does produce lovely blissful feelings (Jhana) sometimes. But they are not the purpose, and they don't always occur. And like most thoughts, feelings, and emotions, they arise and fall away. None of these sensations are you, they are your experiences.
Furthermore, if you do meditation with the purpose to get high, it is less likely to occur than if you just meditate for the actual meaning of meditation, which is increased awareness. Bliss results from relaxation, and relaxation results from the release of tension. Seeking bliss from meditation introduces tension into the process, which blows the whole chain of events. It is a Catch-22. You can only have joy if you don't chase it. Besides, if euphoria and good feelings are what you are after, there are other ways to get them. They are available in taverns and from dealers standing on street corners everywhere. Euphoria is not the purpose of meditation. It will often arise, but it to be regarded as a by-product. Still, it is a delightful side-effect, and it becomes more and more frequent the longer you meditate. You won't hear any disagreement about this from advanced practitioners.
Misconception #9: Meditation is selfish.
It certainly looks that way. There sits the meditator parked on their cushion, just sitting. Are they out giving blood? No. Are they busy working with disaster victims? No. But let us examine his motivation. Why is someone doing this? They intend to understand and purge their own mind of anger, prejudice, and ill-will. They are actively engaged in the process of seeing, acknowledging, and getting rid of greed, tension, and insensitivity. Those are the very items which will obstruct their sincere and genuine compassion for others. Until these items are gone, any good works that they do are likely to be just an extension of their own ego and may be of no real help in the long run. Impressive historical examples of this sort of thinking include the grand inquisitor during the Spanish Inquisition, who spouted the loftiest of motives. The Salem witchcraft trials were conducted for the public good. Yes, these are outlandish examples, but you can quickly see how our ego can get in the way of genuine compassion.
Examine the personal lives of advanced meditators, and you will often find them engaged in humanitarian service. This service is a result of their shedding themselves of greed, tension, and insensitivity. Their actions of service come from their cultivation of compassion.
You will seldom find them as crusading missionaries who are willing to sacrifice specific individuals for the sake of some pious idea. The fact is we are more selfish than we know. The ego has a way of turning the loftiest activities into trash if it is allowed free range. Through meditation, we become aware of ourselves exactly as we are, by waking up to the numerous subtle ways that we manifest our own selfishness. Then we truly begin to be genuinely selfless. Cleansing yourself of selfishness is not a selfish activity.
Misconception #10: When you meditate, you sit around thinking lofty thoughts.
Wrong again. There are specific systems of contemplation in which this sort of thing is done. But that is not Vipassana. Vipassana is the practice of awareness. Awareness of whatever is there, be it supreme truth or crummy trash. What is there is there. Of course, lofty aesthetic thoughts may arise during your practice. They are certainly not to be avoided. Neither are they to be sought. They are just pleasant side-effects. Vipassana is a simple practice. It consists of experiencing your own life events directly, without preference and without mental images pasted to them. Vipassana is seeing your life unfold from moment to moment without biases. What comes up comes up. It is effortless.
Misconception #11: A couple of weeks of meditation and all my problems will go away.
Sorry, meditation is not a quick cure-all. You will start seeing changes right away, but really profound effects are years down the line. That is just the way the universe is constructed. Nothing worthwhile is achieved overnight. Meditation is tough in some respects. It requires great discipline and sometimes a painful process of practice. At each sitting, you gain some results, but those results are often very subtle. They occur deep within the mind, only to manifest much later. If you are sitting there always looking for some substantial instantaneous changes, you will miss the subtle shifts altogether. You will get discouraged, give up, and swear that no such changes will ever occur. Meditation is a practice, and patience is the key. One must be patient with the practice. If you learn nothing else from meditation, you will learn patience. And that is a precious lesson.
Photo of Palden Gyatso is a photo of an original Phil Borges photograph I own. Palden was arrested at his monastery in 1959 and spent 24 years in prison, where he was tortured frequently - losing 20 teeth in one beating. He managed to flee Tibet in 1987 and came to Dharamsala, India. He told Phil “I no longer have anger for my captors. However, I feel it is my responsibility to let the outside world know what is happening in Tibet.”