Meditation, at least the way I practice it, is a simple proposition. We try to sit upright and still, and we bring our attention to the breath and mantra. When our attention wanders off, we do our best to notice, and to bring it back to breath and to mantra. That is all.
It seems odd that such a simple practice can offer such incredible benefits, physiologically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually – but research shows that it does.
Based on my own experience and study on the matter, here’s how I think meditation works, and the stages that we progress through as we become more experienced meditators.
Frustration and Perseverance
Early on, it is often a struggle to keep our attention where it is placed, or even to notice when it wanders off. We spend most of our time during practice with our thoughts wandering here and there, and may come to the end of the session feeling frustrated (and even ashamed). Our minds seem unruly, and turbulent, and we may wonder if we are wasting our time.
Fortunately, even during this early stage, there are significant benefits to the daily practice, and as we glimpse even brief small moments of stillness and clarity, we begin to sense that the pursuit may be worthwhile if we can just stick with it.
Learning to Pay Attention
Eventually, if we practice every day for awhile (and it doesn’t take hours every day, only twenty minutes a day or maybe twenty minutes twice a day) we begin to find it a little easier to notice when our mind goes off track. At this stage we still wander off quite a bit, but we “catch ourselves” more often and more quickly. We wander off. We come back. We wander off, we come back. Believe it or not, this is significant progress. We may find ourselves feeling even more frustrated at times, but that is only because we have learned how to better pay attention.
At some point (it may take weeks, or months, or even years, so hang in there) it begins to get easier to stay on track for a larger portion of the time we spend in practice. Most of the time we notice pretty quickly when our mind begins to wander, and we begin to learn how it feels to stay with breath and mantra for several minutes at a time. This stage of practice opens the gate to a truly amazing, exponentially powerful stage.
The Space Between: Truth and Joy in the Great Ocean of Consciousness
Once we are able, more and more of the time, to keep our attention on breath and mantra, we begin to experience the moments between the breaths, between the mantras, in a new way. It is difficult to describe, because what we experience is a profound sense of stillness, or emptiness, or perhaps nothingness. Our mind collapses into a quiet place where we are not experiencing thoughts, we are not experiencing emotions, we are not experiencing sensory information. We are experiencing only the sense that we are awake, alert, and alive as part of what Tony Nader calls “one unbounded ocean of consciousness.”
Such moments may be fleeting, but when we drop into them even briefly, they are moments filled with truth, beauty, wholeness and great joy. We begin to understand, in a direct firsthand way, that the consciousness at the core of our being is an expression of the source of everything that exists. We are not our bodies. We are not our thoughts. We are not our feelings. We are light. We are love. We are eternal. All is well.
It should be noted that this experience is not something reserved for hermits or nuns or monks or gurus or lamas or other spiritual masters. It is a fairly common experience reported by legions of ordinary household folks who develop the habit of meditating daily.
As amazing an experience as that may be, there is yet more. If we continue to practice each day, we begin to notice moments throughout the day apart from practice when we drop into something akin to that same stillness. We may find ourselves in a tense situation where we would normally display a knee-jerk tendency toward anger or lashing out, and realize that we don’t want to feel that way, and don’t want to act that way. It begins to seem that we actually have a choice. The spaces between stimulus and response expand, and we begin, at least some of the time, to enjoy real freedom. We are liberated to behave as we would truly wish to behave. We are at last free to be our very best selves.
These moments may be rare at first, as well, but with continued practice, day in, day out, they too become more common. We begin to spend less time in negative states of mind, and more time as a living presence of peace and lovingkindness.
The great masters tell us (and demonstrate) that eventually, after a lifetime (or perhaps many lifetimes) of practice, we can rest in that space filled with light and love during each and every moment of the day, without regard to what may be going on in the world around us, without regard to whether life offers hardship or ease. We can live a life filled with that truth, beauty, wholeness, and joy – and compassion toward all beings – come what may.
Wouldn’t that be something?