(Photo: Simplicity Meditation Shawl in Rust.)
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Meditation is not about believing something. It's about paying attention to your experience. When the mind can be concentrated and focused, it calms. And once the mind calms, it is easier to see the truth of our experience. But because our minds are restless, it is often difficult to observe the truth of our experience.
In the book Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, meditation (or yoga) means the cessation of the modifications or fluctuations of the mind. Thoughts, ideas, feelings, emotions keep bubbling up all day long. Cessation of that is meditation. Simply put, it is the mind chatter that draws our attention away from what we experience in the present moment.
For example, let's say you sit to meditate. You begin to focus on your breath. You feel the sensation of air on your nostrils as you inhale. You notice your chest rise and fall with the breath. Then suddenly you wonder "What am I going to have for lunch today?" Your mind just fluctuated and you are no longer present with your experience. This is an example of the modifications of the mind that meditation is trying to quiet.
The goal of meditation is simple, but not always easy. Our minds are so conditioned to follow thought strands that take us from topic to topic. That constantly take us anywhere, except where we currently are. Becoming caught up in thoughts feels so natural to us because we do it almost all the time.
Why even bother to shift our attention to our experience rather than our thoughts? What is the point? What happens when our mind calms?
As stated in the third sutra of Yoga Sutras of Patanjali...
"When all thoughts cease, the self, the witness remains or stabilizes in its own nature, own form, our essence.”
Thoughts often cease when you fall asleep. Also, it happens sometimes in meditation when you doze off. But that isn't the same as meditation. When you are asleep you are not conscious and aware. In meditation, you are conscious and aware as the mind calms and thoughts cease.
When our mind has calmed and our attention is focused on the breath, the body, the moment or our awareness...space opens up for seeds of insight to be planted. Realizations that bring us close to our true nature.
Take the example of a lake. The water of the lake is absolutely still. There are no waves or ripples. And the water is also very clear. There is no mud. A still and clear lake allows you to see all the way to the bottom of the lake. But if the water has ripples and is muddy, it's almost impossible to see the bottom of the lake. Similarly, in the lake of the mind when it's calm and clear, you can realize your true nature, the very essence of who you are. To realize, in this sense, is to experience it. It's an immediate experience. And that is the purpose of the meditation.
You now know what can happen when thoughts cease. But what if thoughts don't cease? If thoughts are there, then what happens?
When there are thoughts in the mind, you become identified with those thoughts. You think I am so and so. I am happy. I am sad. I understand what this person says. I don't understand what this person says. I want this. I don't want this. I like this. I don't like this. All of these are thoughts. And then you become identified with them. The True Self can be experienced when the mind is without thoughts. And that is the purpose. That is what is called Self-Realization.
Nowadays, meditation is used for relaxation, stress management, hypertension management and to look young. And yes, meditation provides all those benefits. But that was not the original purpose of the meditation.
There was a story I once heard from Swami Sarvapriyananda that I'd like to share. The story goes like this...
The yogi, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who popularized Transcendental Meditation here in the west was once asked why he was teaching meditation as a method to be calm, control hypertension, manage stress and stay young, given that these were not the real purposes of meditation. His response was "I give them what they want so they will want what I give them."
They want calmness. They want relaxation. They want less stress. They want to live long and look young. It's all possible. He went on to say "As they practice and get those benefits, they become more and more curious about the real purpose of meditation, which is what I want to give them. Then they want what I want to give them."
We wish you all the best in your journey to Self-Realization. And no matter what reason you have for practicing meditation, you will reap the benefits.