Meditation is to ‘focus upon something over a period’. We can literally meditate upon anything: working in a office, driving a car, eating food, walking, sitting. Wherever and whenever we are using focused thinking over a period, we are meditating. We can meditate consciously or unconsciously. It’s a function of our mind that helps us to get by through everyday life situations and demands. We can meditate on positive and negative aspects of life. Stress is also a kind of meditation that helps us to resolve ongoing issues with focused thinking. The only problem with stress though is that it has a very negative effect on our body and mind and it is very addictive in nature. Other than that, it is also not a very efficient way to deal with life’s challenges. It impairs our judgment and keeps us from looking at the big picture. It’s a very negative and destructive habit that has long-lasting adverse effects on us.
The meditation that we are discussing today is ‘focused self-observation’. To focus on observing our body, thoughts, and emotions followed by focusing on the observation itself. First, we need to bring our focus from outside world to inside our body, and then with practice and some patience, we can learn to maintain that focus over a period. Just to clarify, we are not only focusing on our body, thoughts, and emotions but also focusing on observing our body, thoughts, and emotions without being involved with them: Like a spectator. By doing this we are hoping to see ourselves in an unbiased and rational light. To clearly see what is right and beneficial for us and what is not, we must become our own unbiased and non-judgemental audience. Once you can see what is harming you (and stress is definitely harming you), it becomes easy to take the right decisions and not to use stress as our mind’s automatic ‘go to’ mechanism to deal with a difficult situation. It becomes easy, to break the vicious cycle of wrong choices. Once we can achieve unbiased self-observation, we can use it to help generate positive thoughts and emotions. We can learn to be watchful of stress, negativity, and depression. We can stop the chain of negative emotions and replace them with positive ones at will. For once we can truly be in control of ourselves. Being in control of oneself really is the only kind of viable and real control. Anything that depends on someone else or on an external situation can never be truly in your control. Any amount of investment in ‘other’ can never guarantee to yield a good return. Control of ourselves, and of our reactions to our environment is the only learned behaviour that can guarantee the outcome of a happy, stress-free life. Becoming emotionally self-sufficient is what we achieve through ‘Meditation’. If we are incharge of our own happiness irrespective of our environment no one can ever take it away. People can only take away what they give to us. They can’t take away what we have created ourself.
Inner happiness can be cultivated by choosing the right emotional state of mind, and the right emotional state of mind can be achieved by choosing the right emotions with the help of self-observation and self-awareness.
To develop self-awareness, one needs consistent effort and hard work.
First, we need to identify the bad mental habits. Then with the help of meditation, we can replace them with the good ones. For example, just going to a gym and working out is not enough to develop good health and strong muscles. We also need to change our food habits and ensure quality recovery time for the muscles to get bigger and stronger. It’s an all-inclusive lifestyle. There is no magical shortcut to improve our mental wellbeing either. It’s a process that changes and affects all areas of our life. Our mind is the centre of everything and the smallest change here, will have a much wider impact than we can anticipate.
We are hoping to make really big changes at the very fundamental level of our being, including a conscious update of our epigenetic inheritance. It’s a big overhaul. It will need a huge amount of consistent effort and some serious commitment.
Physical meditation will only take about 50 minutes a day: 25 minutes in the morning and 25 minutes in the evening. Contemplation, however, fills rest of the day. Associating all our thoughts and emotions to their epigenetic roots, to our learned behaviour, and to our social conditioning. Realising the limitations of our mind through self-observation and self-awareness and putting it in practice is an ongoing process. It needs to be done consciously and repeatedly to develop an ‘understanding’ of why we do what we do. Consistent contemplation will help us make effects of physical meditation permanent. We have acquired the bad habit of ‘Stress’ through years of practice, and it has now become a part of our automatically generated response system. It will take, at least a few months to give up this bad habit through conscious decision making and to re-train our mind to acquire a good habit of generating positive emotions in response to the environmental challenges. Living consciously and being self-aware is a full-time job.
If this bothers you, and you feel unprepared to invest so much time and effort towards this, stress probably is not such a big issue for you after all. You can carry on as you were, but with the knowledge that although stress is a bad habit, it’s a choice you have made, and you can live with it. It’s a bit like smoking, we all know it’s not good for us, but people who smoke make a choice to keep doing it and expect to bear the ill effects it may have on their health at some point of time. Whichever course we take we should bear one thing in mind that: we are responsible for our own habits, good or bad and to make a change we must work on ourselves. No amount of outside help can change what is coming from inside.
If you still think that stress is an issue for you, and it is affecting your potential to achieve happiness and keeping you from living a healthy and content life, then read on.
Meditation that I recommend has two main parts:
1. Sitting Meditation
Sitting meditation: What comes to mind when we think about this kind of meditation is the Buddha, sitting in the lotus pose with his eyes half shut, and with an expression of eternal peace on his face, expressing something from beyond.
Most religions have a few images that depict this kind of ideal. What we are learning, however, has nothing to do with any religion or any religious practice or imagery. It is just to go on an inward journey, to find ourselves, and be able to move in a positive direction to deal with stress.
The first thing to understand about sitting meditation is, that we need to induce, a ‘Calm and Alert’ state of mind. This, although sounds very easy but is not something that comes to us naturally. Normally we are either ‘calm and relaxed’ or ‘anxious and alert’. ‘Calm and alert’ is not a combination that our social conditioning teaches us, or we learn as we grow up. Our mind is not familiar with ‘Calm and Alert’. We need to teach this to ourselves, through regular practice, and this is where ‘Yoga’ comes to our rescue. One of the eight branches of Ashtanga Yoga is ‘Pranayama’. which in simple English means ‘Breath Control’. Yogis have realised this very early on, that our ‘state of mind’ at any given time influences our breathing. When we are calm we breathe in a certain way, when we are angry we breathe in a different way. Most emotions have a corresponding breathing pattern. What’s more interesting is that vice-versa is also true. If we can control our breathing, and breathe in a certain way, we can generate the corresponding emotion. Yoga has experimented with different breathing exercises and used these exercises to create certain states of mind that are helpful in achieving certain goals.
One of these pranayamas is called ‘Anulom-Vilom’ or alternate nostril breathing. Which is extremely effective in generating a ‘Calm-Alert’ state of mind. This is the first step towards the meditation that I recommend and teach. This is a preparatory step. With the help of Anulom-Vilom, we can induce a calm and alert state of mind which is very helpful in self-observation and self-awareness training.
Anulom-Vilom: There are many videos on ‘How to do Anulom-Vilom’ or ‘Alternative nostril breathing’ on YouTube, and there are many variations of this breathing exercise. In simple words, it’s breathing in, through one nostril while blocking the other nostril with a finger or a thumb, holding your breath for a few seconds and breathing out through the nostril that was blocked so far by realising the finger/thumb. Next is, breathing in through the nostril we just breathed out from while blocking the other nostril, holding your breath for few seconds and breathing out from the blocked nostril by releasing finger/thumb. This is one cycle. There are recommended ratios of time periods for breathing in, holding the breath and breathing out. The easiest and most effective one for this purpose is 2:4:3. That is breathe in, to the count of 4 seconds, hold your breath for 8 seconds and breathe out to the count of 6 seconds. Doing this for 10 minutes while trying to keep your focus on breathing calms the mind without making it sleepy or lazy. One requirement for Anulom-Vilom, however, is a good sitting posture with a straight back. Purists swear by a full-lotus pose, most Yogis are happy with a half lotus pose. But for those of us who find it difficult to sit on the floor, we can do it sitting on a chair as well. If the back is straight, and we can hold this posture for 25 minutes, it works quite well. The routine should include 10 minutes of breathing exercise, followed by 10 minutes of ‘Body-Scans’ exercise and 5 minutes of self-observation.
Body Scans: ‘Vipassana’ or ‘Insight Meditation’ (Burmese Buddhism) is a process in which you direct your focus through your body in a certain sequence. This is mostly a guided meditation but can also be done with self-guidance. It includes scanning your body from inside by moving your focus from the head to the stomach and then back to head. This is done in a sequence i.e. focusing inside your head followed by moving your focus to the jaws then shoulders, then chest and ending at your tummy. Relaxing each part as we move further and further down towards tummy. Then we repeat this process in reverse. (A detailed explanation is done later).With practice, this scanning can be turned into an automatic movement that can be observed consciously. For most people, this happens within a few weeks but can take longer. Once you can observe your focus moving up and down your body without effort, you have split your consciousness into two, and one part is observing the other. This observation process can then be extended to observing your thoughts and emotions. By observing our thoughts and emotions we are hoping to reach a thought-emotion neutral state to re-set our mind’s thought-emotion function. Once we have achieved that, the next thing to learn is to train our mind to generate positive emotions and by repetition learn a new ‘good’ habit so that the next time we face a difficult situation, we try to resolve it without getting stressed, and even if we do get stressed we can observe ourselves without getting involved with the emotion.
The process of body scan follows straight after Anulom-Vilom and starts with moving your focus to the inside of your head. Then you suggest yourself to relax your head and ease out any stress or tension that you feel in this area. For example, to ease a creased forehead or tensed eyebrows, etc. Then you move your attention to your jaws and suggest yourself to relax your jaws. Follow the same procedure for shoulders, chest, and stomach and then do this in the reverse order- from the stomach to the head.
After a few weeks of doing this, you can skip the ‘suggestion of relaxation’ part, as relaxing becomes automatic and happens on its own. In addition to this, the movement of focus needs to be one continuous movement without any breaks. Once this is achieved, you can then take a jump from being a part of the process to being an observer of the process as the ‘Movement of the Focus’ doesn’t require any effort and starts to happen on its own. So, you can sit back and watch it like a spectator. You then extend the ‘watching’ or ‘observation’ to your thoughts and emotions. Once you get used to watching your body, thoughts, and emotions as one unit in their entirety, you can extend this practice from sitting meditation to the rest of the day as well.
It’s a long process and becomes a little easier when done under the guidance of a teacher but can be successfully achieved on your own too. For example, we get faster and better results if we follow a fitness instructor in a gym, but it’s not mandatory.
Just to recap, the sitting meditation involves performing Anulom-Vilom (alternate nostril breathing) for 10 minutes, followed by Body Scans for 10 minutes and observing your thoughts and emotions without being involved in them for 5 minutes. It’s a 25 minutes routine that is done twice a day. Once in the morning and once in the evening (at least 2 hours before bedtime).
In my next post ‘Understanding Self-awareness’ I will write about the second part of meditation that is contemplation.