Ever wonder how Buddhist monks and nuns achieve that seemingly unflappable peace of mind? The truth is, they had to start from scratch – just like everybody else. As you work your way from distracted beginner to seasoned meditator, you’ll go through different stages too, even though you’ll need to leave the linear notion of progress behind. The focus is on the essential parts of the journey, rather than the goal.
Goal orientation is important when you’ve got a project, but it’s an obstacle for meditation. When you have a goal, you are here and the goal is there. But the objective of mindfulness is to be present with your mind in the here and now. In reality, you’re already here, it’s always now, and you can’t escape your mind – think about it! When you sit, you’re simply resting in the present moment: nothing to attain, nowhere to go.
Let’s explore some important points of meditation that can help you chart your path. And remember, rather than focusing on stages of meditation, as Mahatma Gandhi put it, the path is the goal.
Meditation: 5 essential points
1: awareness of the present moment
When we first start meditating, we’re learning to work with distractions. These can be perceived as external – sounds or smells, for example – or internal – sensations, thoughts, and emotions. We should have the firm intention to let go of distractions before we begin, preferably for a set period of time – say five or ten minutes. This kind of focus is essential. Without this intention, chances are the distractions will pull us away from our meditation before we even know it.
We also strive to free ourselves of any judgments, perceptions, or concerns that might divert our attention from the present moment. Some meditators find it helpful to think of themselves as an empty vessel with no history and no memory of the past. Beginner’s mind is a mind that is open to whatever occurs, and not stuck in any habitual pattern or rut. Rather than spend our precious practice minutes mulling over the past or inventing an improbable future, we relax and let go of those thoughts and worries we’ve been carrying around. Being present is so rich and enjoyable! Our old habit is distraction, so gaining a new awareness of the here and now takes some practice, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
2: subduing the negative mind
Do you have a critical inner voice that talks to you about all sorts of issues? Maybe it pipes up from time to time, persuasively expressing your emotional storylines and internal chatter. It can be quite destructive if it suggests that something’s very wrong with your life, your relationships, and who you are. Even if you recognize that the “negative inner voice” is a source of suffering and discontent, it isn’t easy to know how to get a handle on it.
Developing present-moment awareness is an effective way to work with this critical inner voice. One of the essential thrusts of meditation is to be aware of whatever arises in the mindstream and to learn to let go, moment by moment, whether the mental activity is alluring or objectionable. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by what feels like a continuous stream of thoughts. In one technique that helps us let go, we focus on noticing the gap between two successive thoughts. Attending mindfully to this silent pause, however minute, fosters awareness. If we practice with diligence and purpose, over time our inner narrative will naturally ease up and we can let go of the negative inner chit-chat, one gap at a time.
3: mindfulness of the meditation object
A key aspect of meditation is to learn to settle your mindful awareness on one single thing. This might be your breath, the flame of a candle, a repeated word (chant or mantra), physical sensations, or other focal points. The breath is the most common and widely practiced object of meditation. By concentrating on one thing, it’s easier to let go of distractions and embrace the present moment. It’s comfortable for your mind to have an anchor such as the breath to come back to. Read more about mindfulness of breathing here.
Positive experiences that can accompany this balance of letting go and paying attention include feelings of happiness, peace, and calmness. By focusing on a meditation object, your mind can filter out the jumpy distractions that give rise to anxiety and stress and rediscover its natural spaciousness.
4: dawning awareness
Meditation can be a portal to true personal transformation. The many benefits of simply sitting and practicing with the breath have been well-documented, but there’s another technique can take us even further: awareness practice.
As we meditate, we become more familiar with our mental patterns and psychological makeup. We begin to notice all of the spaces, or gaps, between the in-breath and out-breath, between one thought and the next, between one mood and another. Awareness of the gaps puts us in sync with impermanence and change, and we realize that we can actually let go of old views and obsolete habits. We can actually transform the way we think and act. We can afford to be genuine and honest about looking at ourselves, our perception of the world, and, most importantly, our impact on others. This dawning of awareness brings joy and a powerful motivation to continue practicing. Read more about the benefits of mindfulness and awareness meditation here.
5: unwavering commitment
When you’ve been practicing meditation for some time, you naturally discover a potential for awareness that you hadn’t known was there. Your mind now settles itself with little effort; distractions have lost much of their power over you. If you’re watching your breath, your mind happily follows your wonderful breath. If you’re drinking tea, you’re fully present while drinking tea. If you’re driving a car, you’re fully present behind the wheel.
This presence continues outside of your formal practice as well. The boundary between “sitting” and “other activities” is less distinct. When mindfulness and awareness have become second nature, you can engage in the world with honesty, kindness, and humor. You experience a joyful plenitude that no longer depends on outer circumstances. Now that the results of your practice are apparent, your commitment to working with your mind and making the world a better place is unwavering.
In the Mindworks program, we teach both mindfulness and awareness practices. Mindfulness provides relief by calming and settling the mind. Awareness develops clarity and understanding, resulting in genuine personal transformation. When practiced together, they result in lasting positive change.
There you have it: five essential points that will help you get the most out of your meditation practice. Let your practice be natural and truthful… and enjoy yourself!