Some of the most profound journeys have been said to begin with a single step. That first decisive, purpose driven step towards a new you, charged with a romantic play of fanciful scenes, trial, and triumph, culminating in an explosive climax of revelation from which a new, happier, revitalized version of yourself emerges.
There’s something about this kind of journey that the mind finds insatiably alluring. But, what happens when that exciting new expedition is meditation? Suddenly we are in pursuit of a cataclysmic realization, dismantling all of our preconceived ideas about reality, arriving at a state of everlasting transcendental bliss. But really, how many steps does it take to arrive at yourself?
Though somehow we find ourselves suffocating beneath books, teachers, and methods shrouded in mysticism and speculation, searching for the perfect methodical system guaranteed to carry us to our hopeful destination. The harder and more complex the methods, seemingly the better so says the mind.
But what if I told you that you already are that which you are trying to be? That all of the searching and efforts does nothing more than help you to eventually arrive at this same conclusion yourself? Now I digress, I don’t mean to confuse the reader; there is a definite purpose behind the philosophy, theory, and methodology of esoteric disciplines.
Additionally, there is nothing inherently wrong with a systematic, scientific approach to liberation. Having a series of methodical progressions and practices to build a road-map so to speak, of where we are and where we need to go to arrive at ourselves. The problem is we begin to externalize our spiritual growth, seeking validation, always searching for the next sign.
In so doing, we become so caught up in the process, in believing that freedom is just outside of our grasp, that we become trapped in this belief, cemented in the delusion of separateness. We begin to pursue landmarks along the path. This creates more goals, more desire, more thought and ultimately, more distraction which pulls us away from ourselves. We begin to feel that maybe it just isn’t for me, even though this couldn’t be further from the truth.
What I propose is that instead of being enchanted by words and systems compelling us to run off to the highest Himalayan peak in search of a great sage who will deliver us to ourselves, we begin at the realization, allowing the rest to unfold. There is a Zen saying “if you want to climb a mountain, begin at the top,” in other words, you already are pure consciousness, pure spirit, a transcendental embodiment of pure love and boundless bliss. You can never be any more or less what you already are, and your only job at this moment is to believe it.
From Hollywood fads, to psychology and science, corporations and college students, meditation has weaved its way into our modern culture in overly complex, and oversimplified ways. In so doing, the very essence of what meditation is has been lost between labels of fiction and fact. With so many resources to choose from, it’s far too easy for any interested aspirant to fall in-between the seams, sometimes giving up or indefinitely postponing their search, fed up and frustrated. This is a tragedy indeed, but also an unnecessary one. How then, does one navigate the endless styles, and systems, to decide on a practice that suites them?
The first requirement is in understanding what meditation is, and to do that we will begin by addressing what it is not. Meditation is not religion, is not owned by any particular doctrine of beliefs, culture, era, country, or social class. It is not a new age fad, or reserved for mystics and artsy rebels. Meditation is not a specific series of exercises devised to transport you to a new state of consciousness. Meditation is in fact, not a “doing” or an effort; it is a relaxing away of effort, of thinking, of doing, and what’s left is known as presence, or pure being.
We live in a world driven by desire stemming from fear and conditioning. Although most desires revolve around the pursuit of happiness and aversion to pain, somehow in most cases that happiness has become nothing more than a momentary release within our daily lives from a constant barrage of stress and utter chaos. It seems, the societal imposed means for happiness, has also become the end. In that I’m referring to money and all that having money assumes; a sense of security, food, clothes, a nice home, cars, entertainment, travel, and technology; all wonderful things that provide us with comfort and convenience.
Yet, even when we obtain something that we so strongly desired, that happiness is short-lived, and we are off pursuing the next thing, seeking to acquire more. For some people, though, they don’t even have the convenience of thinking about comfort. Their basic needs are their only priority; survival.
Happiness, though, is something that comes from within and is not merely a side effect of external circumstances. No one can truly make you happy, not an object or an adventure, because happiness has always existed within you. The very pursuit of happiness is a distraction from the state of happiness that exists within.
There’s been a major misconception about meditation in that its eventual goal is happiness. This isn’t the truth, this isn’t the aim, and this isn’t the goal. Life is a beautiful, majestic canvas painted with an awe-inspiring diversity of colorful sensations, experiences, and emotions. Many of these are enjoyable like love, whereas some we find less than enjoyable, like pain, and anxiety.
Meditation is not about dismissing one experience for another. Instead, it is about allowing each experience, each sensation, to be as it is without resistance, without judgment, without interference. It is about the realization that all of these things are not you. Soon you come to realize that all of these things are fleeting, and there remains a single constant, your awareness of them. It is in this state of awareness, being, mindfulness, or the self, that we find freedom, and our entire life becomes an expression of joy.
It is most important to understand that meditation is by no means simply a practice one takes up for a few minutes each day only to move on, hoping to reap the benefits while moving about life in an unconscious manor, reacting to all that occurs. Meditation is a state of being; a way of life.
It is the way in which we perceive our world that affects our experience. In this very instant, everything that you perceive is like a mirror reflecting reality back at you. It is not what is seen, it is not what is known, it is the one who sees, it is the one who knows. Of all the forms of meditation, the books, teachers, and texts, it is this truth that is pointed at, and it is in this moment that this realization can be known.
The Screen of Consciousness
Imagine for a moment that you are looking at a transparent screen. Behind this screen is a luminescent glow emerging out of a transcendental all-pervasive nothingness. This brilliant divine light is indiscriminately illuminating everything within reach with its warm, loving embrace.
With no restriction, this light effortlessly fills and shines through the screen. Now imagine for a moment that you have a marker, and without any conscious will of your own, you begin to draw all over the screen. You begin to write down all of your thoughts; drawing pictures of your ideal life and dreams. You write down all of your fears, concerns, and all of your worries.
You make note of all of your most fond memories, and your beliefs both old and new. Continuing in this way, you write until suddenly you realize that this once beautiful illuminating brilliance is just barely showing through the ever growing cluster of words and images.
This beautiful light is the source of your existence; it is your very nature. There is nothing which is not of this light. This screen is your consciousness, what is written is your conditioning, your thoughts, and emotions.
We become identified with the decorations upon this screen, and so this forms our ego, or sense of self. In meditation, what we are doing is essentially wiping this screen clean, making room for our brilliant nature to freely shine through.
Awakening is first the recognition that you are not what is written, or what is thought, what is experienced, but instead, you are the space in which these things emerge, the screen itself. Next, the realization dawns that you aren’t this screen either; instead, you are this brilliant divine light and that by which it can be. Elegantly depicted by the Zen Enso, there is nothing which you are; there is nothing which you are not.
Meditation practices vary in complexity and content, often cycling around similar themes. Consciously we rest our awareness on a certain movement, breathing exercise, or visualization, while simultaneously ensuring that we are relaxing away any tensions that arise, and if we are swept away by a thought or feeling, we gently redirect it back onto the practice.
Our minds are so used to moving from one thing to the next it can be difficult for people to relax and allow the waters to calm. Thinking is in short, an addiction. This addiction is so wide-spread that it has become accepted as the norm. This is often referred to as the monkey mind. So to help in this endeavor, we give our monkey mind a task to keep it occupied, so that as stated by Rumi, we may “flow down and down in ever-widening rings of being.”
From the moment of birth, breathing sustains the body through an exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, but more than this, it is directly linked with your mental and emotional states. How you breathe, so you are. How you are, so you breathe. This is easily seen in your own daily experience, when we are angry breathing becomes forceful and quick, in times of anxiousness, our breath becomes shallow and faint, in times of joy or relaxation the breath becomes deep and full. I implore you to observe this within yourself and others.
On a physiological level, shallow, forced, and faint breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system. This is responsible for the state known as “fight or flight.” Due to the brain’s inability to distinguish between a real danger, and an imagined crisis, you can easily see how the constant barrage of thoughts we give attention to, namely those which induce fear or stress, can have a detrimental effect on our physiology.
Inversely, deep, slow breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for rest and digestion. Most people seem to be perpetually trapped in this fight or flight mode, and so it puts a major strain on their mind, body, and emotional wellness. How you breathe, so you are. How you are, so you breathe.
The breath has been strongly associated with spiritual traditions for all of history. This intimate connection is due to the breaths connection to not only your mental, emotional, and physiological states, but as a vessel to transport the vital force known as prana, chi, pneuma, etc. Additionally, the breath is always rooted in this present moment whether you are consciously aware of this or not. If you were to stop breathing, you wouldn’t be long for this world.
This being said, due to this intimate relationship with our well-being, the breath is a vital means to affect change on all levels of our being. Though a seated meditation practice is strongly encouraged, true meditation doesn’t begin and end on your seat. With this knowledge, you begin to see how at all times throughout your life you have the ability to consciously rest your awareness on your breath.
Ensure that you are breathing slowly and deeply; as you do this, things will arise, just observe the affects certain thoughts or sensations have on you without judging, labeling, or diagnosing them. Always gently bring your attention back to the breath. Allow things to rise and fall upon the screen of your consciousness. In doing this, you will find that this brilliant light of being begins to once again shine through as your nature.
Your only job is to relax and allow it. It is said that if the mind could stay with the breath throughout the whole day, great spiritual progress would be made. Let this be your practice, let this be your work.