Updated: Jun 15, 2021
Wondering what meditation really is and how to truly do it ? Well, in this piece I’m going to cover just that and give you a little ‘How To’ guide as a bonus.
First of all, I’m going to clear up some uncertainties around what actually meditation is because there’s a real distinct difference between different types and they’ve become all mixed up and blended together.
Now, there are two basic concepts of meditation and then they can be simplified down to the Western concept and the Eastern concept.
Western Meditation and Eastern Meditation
Now in the West when we think of the word ‘meditation’ perhaps one of the first uses or earliest uses we can think of is in Marcus Aurelius and his book Meditations.
Marcus Aurelius really used the term meditations in the context of wisdom, on deep thinking about political issues and philosophical issues, and even moral issues.
Marcus Aurelius was known as the philosopher-king in Roman times so this is really where the Western ideas began regarding what meditation is.
Now, the Eastern notion, which has become very popular in this day and age is the opposite of the Western in that it’s about not thinking at all.
Now that can seem really weird when you first come across that idea because it’s something that you just never consider.
“How could you stop thinking?”
We’re going to get onto how you can do that and how the Eastern teachers advise you to go about it.
First, let’s look into the differences between eastern and western meditation from a spiritual perspective.
As I said, in the East meditation tends to have a transcendental notion, perhaps this is best articulated in the famous vision of the Buddha sitting down with his eyes closed and his legs crossed in perfect peace.
It’s similar to that in the Christian tradition but one of the major differences is that in the West it tends to focus more on an idea.
For instance, in the Christian tradition, it’s more about focusing on a word, so you might sit down and focus on the word ‘love’ or ‘peace’ or ‘selflessness’ or ‘goodwill’.
In this tradition, you sit with that word and you draw every last bit of meaning from it and let it seep into your soul, or if we’re to be really ‘spiritual’ we let these concepts meet their own reality in your soul.
Now, in the Eastern tradition, it’s not really about focusing on words, but about being in silence, so very often the only thing you’ll hear in the Eastern tradition that you should focus on is your breath.
This is because that’s something that your mind can think about while you’re trying to remain in peace, this is a really important distinction between East and West, and in our day and age, we tend to blend the two which makes people confused.
There are just millions of videos on YouTube that do this, but just remember that distinction.
In my journey into meditation, I’ve tried both forms but I’ve always felt, despite being more Western-ly inclined (if you like), that I’ve always felt more of an identification with Eastern meditation.
I’ve always found it truer and I’ll explain why.
Eastern meditation focuses on not so much of a doing as an undoing.
In this form, you’re not really doing anything.
In fact, the more you do the more you get stuck thinking, and the idea is to transcend thinking.
Now this can seem impossible if you’ve just come across that idea, but this is where it gets so fascinating, because simply stopping thinking just seems all too simple.
Yet the notion is that when you stop thinking you stop creating a false image of the world and of yourself.
One of the best ways to put this is by a spiritual teacher called Eckhart Tolle. Tolle is a world-famous spiritual teacher and he puts it like this:
If you buy a goldfish and you call the goldfish John, and then John the goldfish dies, that becomes a tragedy because ‘John’s died’.
However, if you just saw a goldfish and never named him John and you never gave him a story, when the gold fish died you wouldn’t think anything of it. This is because the mind has created a story and a narrative around John the goldfish. Obviously the goldfish isn’t really called John, it’s just the name that you gave it, so Tolle is using this story as a metaphor to explain what the mind does in each of our lives.
He is showing how we create stories about everybody about everything – most notably ourselves – we give ourselves a name, we give ourselves a backstory, and we think this is who we are.
But in reality this is just the mind’s interpretation of what we are.
You can start to see how profound this notion is.
In fact, practitioners of Eastern meditation would say it’s not even a notion, they’d say it’s beyond a notion, it’s a reality of recognising you’re in a place of complete peace beyond your mind’s interpretation of the world and what you are.
Now, what does that tell you? Well that tells you that they’re pointing to a greater reality and the way that we see reality is false and illusory.
This notion of transcendence isn’t alien to Western spirituality, however, it’s not part of its meditational tradition.
As you expand into your meditation practice and you start to embody a deeper sense of peace and you start to realize the illusion of the mind.
Crazy as that may sound now, it actually starts to seem increasingly normal and you start to realize things such as ‘I’m not my body, my body is constantly changing; my skin sheds every week and new skin forms, new blood is always flowing through my body, the senses – hearing, sight, taste, smell – they all work without me having to tell them to work, so it seems that the body is already in a state of flux.’
In reality, we are much deeper than that the body, which just holds what we are in essence, which is the pure still spirit and that’s the source of meditation.
In meditation, you’re abiding with the spirit.
Now meditation practitioners, gurus, expert teachers and masters all bring back messages from this place of transcendence and they tell us when you come to this place all is peace, all is calm, and all is love.
This is love beyond the concept of love.
From this state of pure love we see that suffering and pain comes from us trying to force our false idea of an individual self on the world and not realizing that everything in the world is actually one.
This is a very radical teaching, yet it is at the root of all religions and spiritual traditions
Now, I’m not saying that every person who meditates is necessarily consciously trying to achieve that state, as I said earlier, if you’re trying to achieve that state you’re stuck in your mind again.
The idea is to purely be in the present.
So now you’ve got a rough idea of what Eastern meditation is and Western meditation is I’m going to lay out some simple ideas to get you started with your own meditation practice.
How to Meditate
As prior stated, meditation is more of an undoing than of doing, so you need to find a nice quiet place where you’re not going to be disturbed.
Noise becomes less of a factor as you meditate more, but when you begin it can be very distracting.
At the beginning for me, I found it difficult to sit for 30 seconds if there were noises around me, but as you really get to know that silence inside you, external noises don’t bother you so much.
However, in the beginning, just find a nice quiet place where you know you’re not going to be disturbed.
Now try and cross your legs, if you really struggle with that you can sit on a chair, but try and keep your back arrow straight.
You’ll often see in the cliched famous meditation ‘lotus pose’ that people have very straight backs, the reason for this is that it stops you from going to sleep.
Secondly, it allows breath to flow in a nice and free expansive manner.
On that note, breath is a really important part of the meditation practice.
As I said earlier, the eastern transcendental notion really chimes in with the breath because the breath is like the spirit; it is invisible, and many like to think about it as the meeting point between the physical and the spiritual realms.
It’s also a good idea to have the same count for an out breath as we do an in-breath.
I usually find 4 to 5 seconds is good for me but that’s probably related to my height my lung capacity, so find your own rhythm.
My technique goes like so:
A 5 second breath in
Hold for 4 seconds
A 5 second breath out
Now get into that routine and slowly it becomes natural.
The reason why we count the same in and out is because the in-breath activates the sympathetic nervous system – that’s the fight-or-flight response, the awareness part of us.
The out-breath activates the parasympathetic – rest and digest nervous system – and that calms us down.
Now, if we have the breath at a symmetrical point, we’re finding an internal harmony within.
I also like to hold the breath for four, as I find this just lets my body calm and find homeostasis. I also do the same on the exhale for five seconds.
Once you’re settled in, this is where the real simplicity (or difficulty) comes in, depending how you see it.
Some people find it impossible to think that you can exist in a place where you’re not controlled by the mind, where the mind isn’t telling you everything.
However, if you continue, sooner or later you’ll have a moment where you realize, ‘Oh you truly don’t need thought to exist’, and that moment is a moment of, well, transcendence.