Since the turn of the millennium, the scientific research on meditation has exploded.
While meditation was formerly seen as an exotic phenomenon that belonged in religious or esoteric circles only, meditation is now increasingly explored and understood, accepted and integrated into different areas of everyday life.
Some people might still think it’s kind of spooky but many have already begun to experience the benefits of this simple, but effective, scientifically-validated mind exercise.
In this post I attempt to answer a number of questions about meditation and more posed by our beautiful contributor Eli in her blogpost about her first full-on meditation session in Paris. To see the full list of questions and read about her experience and the inspiring life lessons learnt, click here.
What is meditation?
Meditation is the practice of bringing the attention inside, of breaking the constant flow of external input and resting the awareness in the moment.
‘We have to learn to dwell in the freshness of the present moment – the past is gone, the future is not yet born – and when we dwell in pure awareness and freedom then the annoying thoughts come but they also disappear without leaving a trace – that is meditation.’ -Matthieu Ricard
To practice meditation, it is best to find a quiet spot somewhere where you can sit comfortably for about 10 minutes and close your eyes. The visual silence is important to stay focused and to avoid getting distracted by outside stimuli. You should sit in a position that works for you; whether you sit on a chair, on your bed, on the floor does not matter, as long as you are comfortable. You can focus on keeping your back relatively straight so that you stay alert – and also to avoid having pain in your back at the end of your meditation session.
When sitting in meditation for a longer time it is totally okay to change the position whenever you feel the need to.
Your body will take its time adjusting to the new habit and sitting style and that’s fine. Meditation is not about being able to keep a certain posture but about being able to calm the mind – which is much less likely to happen when your legs are falling asleep.
Another thing to keep in mind when you’re about to indulge in a long meditation session is that your body temperature might drop as you’re going to be sitting still in deep relaxation. To avoid feeling uncomfortable and having to interrupt your meditation session to get a jumper, have a cover or a scarf close or already wrapped around you that will keep you nice and warm.
To be able to actually stay focused over an extended period of time, it is often helpful to put the attention on a meditation object like the breath, or a mantra. When meditating with a mantra you can use a meditation ‘Mala’, which is a long necklace with 108 beads made of gemstones. A 109th ‘Guru bead’ indicates the beginning – and the end – of the mala. When meditating with a mala you slide the individual beads through your fingers while repeating a mantra – one bead for each repetition.
The combination of physical and mental engagement allows for more concentration and often leads to a transcendence of the mind during meditation.
In addition to that, each gemstone is understood to have a different spiritual quality which influences and colors the meditation experience. Check out my dear friend Urvashee’s website Heartofallhearts.com for more inspiration and Mala beauties like this one:
What is the goal of meditation?
While it can be counterproductive to formulate a ‘goal’ for meditation, I do want to point out the deepest spiritual purpose of this practice:
The direct experience of your own highest Self which is pure and free, forever unchanging and uninvolved.
This Self, as pure awareness, is very subtle and shines when the grosser elements like thoughts, emotions, and physical realities subside for a moment. It is in the silence between thoughts where only awareness, watchfulness remains. This is the state of a peaceful mind, of total liberation of the soul.
And that state will change again as new thoughts and feelings come up and involve your mind and heart. But simply knowing that space inside of you that remains completely uninvolved and that can be attended to at any moment, creates a relief and relaxation that will color your everyday life.
So what we try to ‘achieve’ in meditation is freedom from thoughts. This does not mean that there are no thoughts whatsoever – it means that you can let the thoughts come and go without being affected by them. It means that you stay aware of the space that you encountered in the gap between your thoughts even when new thoughts arise.
Your mind will continue to feed you with all kinds of thoughts, worries, and ideas and it is also normal that your attention will get absorbed in one of those inputs every now and then.
The practice is to bring your attention back to the space between the thoughts, or the meditation object if you have one, whenever you realize that your mind has wandered off.
If you give in to the mind and get involved with the input it presents you without being aware of it, the concentration, relaxation, and deepened understanding aimed at in meditation will not unfold, as you have no chance to go beyond the field of grosser realities.
The good news is that as the subtle space is the basis of every manifest form or thought, the grosser level can be transcended in any moment. You can actually watch how the thoughts form and appear from nothing before they dissolve and disappear into the same space that they originated from. Knowing that space helps you disidentify from your mind and can change your entire life experience.
What is Satsang?
Satsang, directly translated, means company of truth. It is used to describe settings where people meet to talk about the underlying, most subtle truth of our existence, which is Oneness.
As that Oneness, or pure existence, is understood as the most profound reality, it surpasses the distinction that happens in religious categorization. That being said, anyone can join a satsang no matter what their spiritual belief or religious affiliation is.
The practice of having satsangs, which usually take place in the presence of a master, Guru, or Swami, originates from the Eastern world and has been a vital part of Buddhist and Hinduist traditions for as long as these religions have been around. It is in these gatherings that the realized teachers pass on their knowledge so that the disciples may be freed from their sense of separation, which causes suffering and pain, and may be enlightened to the vision of Oneness. The Sanskrit word Swami means ‘the One, who is one with the Self’ and describes a spiritual teacher or Guru who has gained the absolute knowledge and understanding of Oneness as his own Self.
When joining satsang in a temple or meditation center the shoes will have to be taken off before entering to show respect and to keep the facilities clean.
At the end of the satsang ‘Prasad’ is offered to the deities and masters and then given out to everybody as a sweet blessing. This is usually a small piece of cake or a cookie, which will also help to bring back some energy into the body after sitting is satsang for hours.
In her blogpost „What is Satsang?“ Chelsea elaborates more on the meaning of the practice and talks about her own experience with it. Check out her blogpost here.
One truth – many different paths
There are thousands of ashrams and spiritual communities around the world that focus on different aspects of the spiritual journey. Most communities have meditation as their focal point but the techniques they use for the practice itself can vary widely. The focus can be on certain meditation techniques, different forms of yoga, pranayama, singing, praying, chanting, and more.
The reason not all of these communities only focus on sitting in meditation all day is that practices like yoga and pranayama (breathing exercises) can be very helpful in centering the energy in the body and to prepare body and mind for meditation.
In that way, all these activities can facilitate and lead into meditation and it is up to you to find a practice that suits your path.