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Meditation - A Practical Approach to the Art of Relaxed Awareness

by Martin J Handy(more info)

listed in meditation, originally published in issue 70 - November 2001

When I meet my students who have decided to embark upon the great task of learning to meditate, I am constantly bombarded with their need for reassurance and encouragement. This is the most important responsibility of what I think is the role of the meditation teacher. When a novice sits in a meditative state, one is thinking all the time: "Am I doing it right?" "Am I meditating?" "Is this it?" In my experience, meditation teaching is all about encouraging your students to let go and let it happen. Meditation is also quite demanding in the amount of knowledge that needs to be passed on - the behaviour of the brain and its electrical activity, posture, the nature of mind, earth energy (ki), the spiritual anatomy and the seven chakras. That is just part of the beginners' course, not including all the different techniques that beginners need to experience in order to find the one that suits them.

Relaxed Awareness

Meditation is the art of awareness in a state of relaxation. It is one practice that offers so much to so many people. Whether you suffer from physical aches and pains, digestive problems, mental and emotional stress, tension, depression, high blood pressure, weak immune system, allergies, hormonal imbalances and nervous disorders,[1] meditation can accumulate its benefits over time to relieve them.

When students begin to meditate, I encourage them to listen to their intuition. You will know when you need to meditate! Learning to meditate is like learning anything - go with the flow and take one step at a time. I don't push students to meditate. I encourage them to meditate at least once a week on top of the weekly class. When I teach meditation to beginners I emphasize the importance of 'approach'. It is necessary to approach meditation with the need for peace. One must relax and let go of the tension and stress in the shoulders, arms and hands (this relaxes the heart chakra), let go of any tension in the jaw (this relaxes the throat chakra), let go of tension around the eyes and forehead (this relaxes the third eye chakra). Let go of all your thoughts and feelings (nothing else matters), focus on the breath, a word, an image or a natural scene and meditate. If you are distracted, never give up, just come back to that method and continue. Never flog yourself for failing. It takes time and practice.

Intrusive Thoughts

One of the common difficulties with meditation is the constant intrusion of thoughts and thinking. In our day-to-day lives we are constantly thinking - "The bus is late"..."What shall I get for dinner?"..."What's next on my agenda?"..."Get the kids to school"..."Is there enough paper in the photocopier?" This is where you decide whether meditation is for you. If you want to be able to meditate and stop these thoughts for about 20-30 minutes a day so you can truly rest and energize then meditation is good medicine. Only practice will see you right. I only recently heard a report on TV that the average human will have approximately 60,000 thoughts a day. Most of them are completely unnecessary and certainly do not contribute to a healthy mind. In our meditation groups the Buddhist definition of 'mind' brings a great deal of clarity to what happens to the mind during meditation.

The Nature of Mind

In Buddhist definition,[2] the mind has two parts - inner and outer. The outer mind is the 'normal' part of the mind. It thinks, it processes information, conceptualizes this information and stores it. It is often termed 'beta' brain wave activity and resides in the left side of the brain. To people learning to meditate, it is like an animal on a long lead and often takes us around the block a few times with little or no control. It is constantly projecting its awareness outwards and away from the individual, creating a reality that shapes the individual, not the individual creating the reality. It leads us on from one thought to another with no break and no time to rest. It is prone to internal dialogue, inventing fantasies and unrealistic situations whereby you are drawn into it and become almost a second person. This outer mind is subject to act upon emotional situations, and makes judgements and opinions based on one's emotional responses to them.

This is the part of the mind that constantly distracts you from your meditation. It wants to be up and ready for anything. It refuses to be put to bed and quieted. It's like the naughty child who won't go to sleep. It requires discipline and perseverance. Getting annoyed with this child is counter-productive. It requires a firm unmoving frame of mind. Peace, calm, patience and steadfastness are essential.

The inner part of the mind is the cool dude of the two children. It is surrounded and obscured by the outer mind. Where the outer mind projects outwards and causes confrontation and frustration with the world, the inner mind is the inner source of one's being. It is at peace with nature and the universe. It is often termed as 'alpha' brain wave activity. This type of brain wave activity is associated with the right side of the brain. It is the receiver of information and the five senses. It doesn't think but its strength lies in its intuition - your inner knowing. If you imagine the blue sky as your inner mind, it is deep and clear, spacious and open. Sometimes you may have the occasional thought that obscures the sky, like a cloud. Other days may be overcast with thunderclouds of depression, frustration and negative thoughts. Don't hold onto the clouds, but focus on the blue sky and the rays of sunshine that try and break through the thunderous clouds. And remember that every cloud has a silver lining. Out of every negative experience comes a learning experience that is far more valuable than any gem.

Posture

I encourage all students to meditate in an upright position (never lying down). It is of utmost importance to meditate with a straight back - in that way your central energy channel, which joins your seven chakras, is open to 'ki' energy. If you are still falling asleep in your meditation you need to review your posture and adjust your technique slightly. This can be done by the symbolism of the mountain and is just as effective if you are sitting in the lotus position or on a chair. The posture is symbolic of your view in meditation. The mountain is a symbol of nature, no matter how strong the winds batter it, no matter how thick the clouds that swirl around its peak, sitting like the mountain will let your mind rise, fly and soar. Your posture should embody the following points:

* Head - should be balanced comfortably on your neck. I see so many wobbling heads. Keep it still!
* Shoulders/upper back - hold with strong poise, without tension;
* Eyes - if you are falling asleep, open them. Looking down at a 45-degree angle calms the mind. Looking up at a 45-degree angle helps when you're dull and sleepy. Looking directly ahead increases clarity of thought. Your gaze should be like the ocean - all-pervading, open and limitless;
* Mouth - slightly open.[2]

The Mountain Top

One of the most powerful meditations that receives great feedback is the Mountain Top Meditation:

Visualize yourself on a mountain top, breathing in the peaceful, clean air. Let go of all your thoughts; if any come, return to the visualization and the breath. Be aware of the other mountains around you, the breeze on your face, the clear blue sky, the golden sun, the forest on the mountain slopes, the rivers or lakes in the valleys. Come back to your breath and visualize a brilliant, bright white channel of light flowing from the sky into your violet crown chakra. Let this chakra fill with light, do the same through the other six chakras (indigo - third eye, blue - throat, green - heart, yellow - solar plexus, orange - sacral and red - root). Let this channel of white light branch into two and flow down each leg into your feet and into the mountain. You are now connected between sky and earth. Breathe in peace, healing and light. Hold the image and breathe with it. Nothing else matters. You are in the process of inner healing with light. Stay focused and aware of your experience.

Meditating in a seated position
Meditating in a seated position

Client Experiences

My clients find peace in their weekly group sessions. One client in particular - Carmen - is so confident and happy compared with how quiet and introverted she seemed to be when she first came to the group. Sam found great relief in the Nature meditations, since they absorbed a lot of the daily tension that accumulated throughout her day - she experienced moments of clarity where she could solve the her problems. My clients talk about their experiences with their stressful lifestyles and have commented upon how they find their peace again so quickly even after a short spell of meditation on the breath, for example. With 4-6 months of practice, Pat found she could 'centre' herself and feel more grounded and connected with her life. Decision-making is easier and life seems to become easier. Nicola could find a sense of support and strength in her meditations when there was little support in the people around her. Through our thoughts we create our own reality.3 In mental health terminology, it is the point of personal strength, optimism and positivity that changes our lives. The moment we decide to create the positive intention, we let go of our negative outlook and redefine the 'I Am'. Meditation is a great source of optimism in our lives. It just takes some patience and perseverance, mixed with a positive and affirmative mental attitude.

References

Harrison E. Teach Yourself to Meditate. Piatkus. 2000.
Rinpoche S. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Rider Books. 1998.
Stevenson S. The Awakener. Gateway Books. 1997.

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