What is Meditation?

by Colleen Deatsman
Author of Seeing in the Dark: Claim Your Own Shamanic Power Now and in the Coming Age

"Mindfulness is the miracle by which we master and restore ourselves." ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Meditation is a systematic technique for taking hold and concentrating to the utmost degree our latent mental power. It consists of training the mind, especially attention and will, so that we can set forth from the surface level of consciousness and journey into the depths, according to Eknath Easwaran in his book, Meditation, An Eight-Point Program. Meditation is a practice of mind control and focus known as mindfulness. Mindfulness is bare awareness in the present moment. In the singular silence of the present moment there is no past or future. A still mind, without the whirl of churning thoughts, anchors the heart in the present and opens the path to clear vision. Clear vision facilitates relaxation, inner peace, joy, and calmness and is the foundation for the development of a liberating wisdom that Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh refers to as the Great Awakening. In this great awakening, we become aware of our true self, our motivations for what we think and how we act, and of the details of our surroundings. With this mindfulness, we can free ourselves of old patterns and programming that limit us. We can find a peaceful centeredness in this freedom. The practice of mindful meditation creates an attitude and an awareness that carries over into everyday life.

What is Meditation

According to Thich Nhat Hanh in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, A Manual on Meditation, beyond awakening, another benefit of meditation is total rest. Even a night of sleep doesn't provide total rest. Sitting in meditation is nourishment for your spirit and nourishment for your body, as well. It is possible to find total rest in a sitting position, and in turn to advance deeper in meditation in order to resolve the worries and troubles that upset and block your consciousness.

There are many ways to meditate but the way that works for you and is most enjoyable is the best. If you aren't enjoying your experiences, chances are you will begin to find that you are too busy and unmotivated to continue. Nothing in our society prepares people to be able to meditate effectively. We have been taught to look for easy quick fixes rather than to savor the victory of a well-honed discipline. As simple as it is to institute a meditation practice, it is amazingly difficult to nourish it. We often become bored, feel we aren't accomplishing anything, or get too busy. People also are surprised to find that meditation brings them face to face with themselves. Those thoughts that they attempt to shut out through a constant barrage of doing, television, and background noise are suddenly in their face. This rush of thoughts is often a deterrent to continuing for some, when just sitting quietly through these first introductions one would witness a beautiful soul evolve from behind the chatter. Since the goal in meditation is not to explore these thoughts and feelings but rather to simply become aware of them, with commitment, focus and discipline experiencing a new healthy way of being becomes possible.

The common theme in all meditative practices is focus of the mind. The actual object the mind is focusing on varies with the many differing forms of meditation, but the goal of mind focus, including or excluding any other action, remains essentially the same. The goal is to free the mind of mental dispersion, thus creating the state of mindfulness or bare awareness. Meditations focus on the breath or a movement, others an actual object, with concentration. There are far too many variations of meditation to illustrate here; indeed there are many books written about this technique for deeper inquiry. Therefore, I will limit my description to the techniques that I utilize.

To begin, the practice of meditation requires quiet focus without interruption. Create a space that is comfortable and set aside a regular time for your practice. Make a commitment to meditate daily if possible, this will make it easier to maintain your practice. Remember this is your time to relax and enjoy, so relax and enjoy. Sit comfortably with your spine straight. Gaze softly a yard or two in front of you. Relax and let everything go while continuing to keep your spine straight. You will be able to sit comfortably for a long time if you don't slouch. Begin to follow your breath as you breathe in and out. Place your left hand, palm up in your right palm and allow all the muscles in your arms and shoulders to relax. Relax and let go. Do not push away thoughts that come, simply allow them to flow through. Notice them and let them go. Watch the breath as it comes and goes, and let go of everything else. Try this for 15 to 20 minutes per day working up to longer if desired. Keep your practice doable and enjoyable. The goal here is not to achieve anything.

In Vipassana Meditation one focuses on the breath with concentration. This can be practiced with your eyes open or closed. Sit comfortably. Do not force your breathing rather breathe naturally and easily. Notice the breath passing in and out of your body. The goal of this meditation is simply to notice the passing of each breath, nothing more. Breathe in a long breath, and mindfully think, I am breathing in a long breath. Breathe out a long breath, and mindfully think, I am breathing out a long breath. Attempt to keep the inhalations and exhalations deliberate, slow, and similar in length. Repeat until finished. When thoughts come in they are let go, and concentration returns to the breath. Gradually, concentration and awareness increase, while intrusive thoughts decrease.

A variation of this meditation focuses the attention of the mind on a particular chakra or energy center in the body, as well as the breath. By mindfully focusing on the inhalations and exhalations of the breath and the chakra area, one may become aware of the movement or blockages of energy there. The intent is not to do anything with this energy, but to simply be aware of it. For example, focus on the inhalation, thinking, I am breathing in a long breath. Focus on the exhalation, thinking, I am breathing out a long breath. At the same time, bring your awareness to your solar plexus. Notice what you feel in your center. Are there any physical sensations? Keeping your mind focused on your center check to see if you are feeling any emotions. Mindfully breathe in and out thinking about your breath. Maintain the focus of your mind in your center and notice anything and everything that moves through this area. In this way, we can begin to know our bodies and how the movement of breath and energy affect us. I use this technique when I am experiencing illness symptoms or pain as a way to become aware of the messages of my body. The awareness and the relaxation have a positive effect toward healing and symptom relief.

The Dissolving of Self Meditation moves the focus from self to an external object. Simply sit comfortably and choose a mark, like a small hole, on the wall that you will stare at. This mark will become your universe for the duration of the meditation. Stare at the mark on the wall with concentration and allow all thoughts to move through you and drift away. You may stare at the mark with "hard eyes" that really bore into the mark, or with "soft eyes" that stare at the mark and the close general periphery. Relax and breathe normally. Allow thoughts and external sounds to drift through your consciousness. Soon, the wall dissolves, the world changes, and your self dissolves. Lose yourself in the moment.

The Insight Meditation has music as the focal point of mind concentration. Choose flowing music with no lyrics. Sit or lay down comfortably. Take in a deep breath and relax your body. As you exhale, close your eyes, relax your mind, and focus only on the undulations of the music. Be aware of your mind flowing with the rhythms. Breathe normally and easily. Notice any thoughts or feelings, and then mentally flush them away. Imagine flushing them down a toilet. The thoughts and feelings swirl away with the water and your focus returns to the music.

The Chanting Meditation involves chanting throughout the meditation with mindful intent on the chant. This meditation helps you find your voice and feel the reverberations of it within your body. Any word or phrase that has meaning for you can be used. Some chant the name of a deity over and over. Some chant a healing phrase such as, "I am healthy". Sit comfortably and breathe easily. Speak the chant repeatedly and be aware of how it feels in your throat, your head, and your whole body.

Movement Meditations utilize movement of the body as the focal point of concentration. One such meditation involves sitting cross-legged with your hands on your knees, palms down. Turn the palm up on your right hand and then place it on your solar plexus. Turn the palm up on your left hand and then place it on your heart. Bring your right hand back down to the right knee palm up, and then turn it back over to palm down. Bring your left hand down to the left knee palm up, then turn it to palm down. You should be back in the position in which you began. Repeat these movements for the entire meditation. Be mindful of your body, of your movements, and of your feelings and thoughts.

The Walking Meditation moves the body and connects the soul, facilitating internal and/or external awareness. The repetitive movement of walking helps to quiet the chatter of the mind, thus allowing stillness. It is different than just going for a walk in that it is walking with intention. You first decide whether your focus is internal or external. Once decided, you walk with your hands lightly clasped behind your back with concentrated awareness of every detail either inside yourself, or outside in the environment, depending on the focus you chose. A more difficult variation of this meditation is to walk with focused intention on both the internal and the external details. In meditation, the most important aspect is mindfulness, therefore it is most easily practiced in quiet solitude. I practice this meditation at a nearby quiet park. The green of the forest and the cat-tailed ponds lull me into a place of stillness where I connect with both Mother Nature and my soul-self.

Many variations can be employed to the Movement Meditation. Any repetitive movement can be effective. Menial tasks such as washing the dishes or splitting wood can become movement meditations when we engage our awareness and focus our concentration on the task. Many hobbies and leisure time activities can also be movement meditations such as quilting or woodworking. Because I am athletic and love to run, I enjoy practicing running meditations. We often hear of athletes "being in the zone", this is what it is like for me. While visiting a beautiful retreat center in Connecticut called the Wisdom House, I had the opportunity to run the exquisite Labyrinth on the hillside. To illustrate the flowing movement and insights of this meditation the following is a brief description of that enlightening experience.

Meditation is a skill that was difficult for me at first. I am a very type A busy, busy person so it was difficult for me to quiet myself down enough to be successful. Thoughts would often interfere with my attempts to achieve a quiet mind, but with practice and focus, meditation has become a very important component in my healing practices. After moving through a period of lack of concentration, my discipline paid off with pleasurable results. Meditation began to help me lose my external everyday world focus creating an opening for a calm, quiet connection that facilitated an ongoing awareness of my body and soul-self. With this awareness I am able to check in with my body's feelings and needs so I can better attend to my physical health. Emotional and mental balance is another subtle reward, as I find that I am calm, alert, and focused from my meditation practice. Meditating on a regular basis helps me feel awake, alive and intuitive in my everyday life.

Colleen Deatsman is the author of Seeing in the Dark: Claim Your Own Shamanic Power Now and in the Coming Age (Red Wheel Weiser 2009), Energy for Life: Connect with the Source (Llewellyn 2006) and Inner Power: Six Techniques for Increased Energy and Self-Healing (Llewellyn 2005), is a Masters Degreed Licensed Professional Counselor, Licensed Social Worker, Shamanic Practitioner, Reiki Master, Certified Hypnotherapist, and Certified Alternative Healing Consultant at Circle of Life Counseling and Healing Services in Mason, Michigan. colleendeatsman.com

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