What is Meditation?
Meditation is an experience unlike any other. It is an experience of absolute peace. Yogis say that it is an experience of your own true nature.
In general usage, there seems to be much confusion about what meditation actually is, and people use the word to mean a variety of things. Sometimes it is used to mean something that you think about a lot. But, in the yoga tradition, meditation is beyond thinking. Nor do yogis equate meditation with ‘contemplation’ as in many Western spiritual traditions; meditation is seen an experience of Oneness, not an experience of communicating with some divinity.
Many people have the idea that meditation is a sort of blissful mental massage – a relaxing bubble bath for the mind. They are surprised that meditation requires focus, mental exertion, and commitment to a regular practice, but brings an unequalled sense of balance and well-being.
Some yoga students mistakenly refer to the relaxation at the end of class as the ‘final meditation’. However, relaxation is not meditation. When you meditate you are having a universal experience which changes your mind, attitude and awareness which may be likened to the biblical “peace that passeth all understanding”.
Meditation is not relaxing your mind, concentrating your mind, controlling your mind or letting go of stress. These are actually descriptions of ‘how’ to meditate rather than ‘what’ meditation actually is.
Trying to meditate does calm your mind, but this is the step before meditation (dhyana) – yogis call it concentration (dharana). Meditation itself is that experience where your mind is absolutely calm and absolutely peaceful. Many people confuse concentration with meditation. Even most of the scientific studies that claim to be on meditation, actually are about concentration. These studies take a point, have people concentrate on it, and study the effects of the concentration. There is nothing wrong with concentration, but it is not meditation.
Much of this confusion comes from the fact that meditation, like all experiences, cannot really be expressed in words. You understand things in terms of your own experience. This means that you can’t understand anything unless you’ve experienced it yourself.
For example, if you say to a blind friend “that is a really nice blue dress”. Your friend might ask you “What do you mean by ‘blue’?” If I answer, “blue is a cool colour”, does that really explain things properly?
Maybe your friend was born with sight and something happened. Perhaps she was in an accident; maybe she was ill and lost her sight. She might not understand the exact shade but she’ll understand the concept of colour. But if your friend is blind from birth, how will you describe ‘colour’?
How can you understand meditation in terms of your own experience?
Meditation: an Experience of Peace
For many people, meditation may not be an everyday experience. However, everyone, at some time in his/her life, has probably had some experience of meditation. It is a natural state, a universal experience – or an experience of universality. Most people have had some experience of meditation without even knowing what it is.
Think of a time when you were doing something that you really enjoyed. People have different things that they enjoy. Some people like to listen to music; others love to cook or garden. People who enjoy listening to music can sometimes go on listening for hours; time ceases to exist.
Some people become so engrossed in reading a book that the outside world doesn’t seem to exist for them. They don’t hear the phone ring or feel hungry when it is dinner time. They may sit for hours, even days, without feeling tired. We’ve all heard stories of great painters or musicians who became so inspired that they didn’t sleep or eat for days. We can say this is a low-level mediation, not that it is bad, but there is still duality. When “I am listening to music”, the music is separate from ‘I’.
While you are doing something you really enjoy, the only things that exist are you and the experience. The mind is concentrated. Imagine this experience intensified many times. Imagine your mind becoming so one-pointed that you become that experience. Perhaps this would be a good way to describe meditation.
Meditation is an experience unlike any other. It is an experience of oneness and of ultimate peace. Yogis say that meditation enables you to experience your true nature.
Where to meditate: setting up your practice place
Meditation room / area
You have probably noticed that the ambiance in an airport lacks the inwardly centring energy of a yoga centre or other place where people regularly practice meditation. While it may be true that an experienced meditator can meditate at any time, in any place, for a neophyte a peaceful venue is important and can prove to be extremely helpful in establishing a regular meditation practice.
It is a good idea to create a personal meditation space, either a room or portion of a room that is used only for meditation. If you keep this area free from other vibrations and associations, you will be better able to set up powerful peaceful vibrations. You mind will soon begin to associate this area with a meditation energy that can be helpful when you feel distressed or have a problem. Whenever you sit in this meditation area, you’ll feel comforted by its peaceful vibration.
Be sure that:
- The temperature of your meditation area is at a comfortable level
- The room is well ventilated
- Dim the lights or turn them off completely
- The area should be quiet, with as little outside noise or distractions as possible
Altar/ meditation table
Setting up an altar /meditation table creates a focal point for your meditation practice and opens the door for you to experience a rich inner life. The purpose of the altar/ table is to bring a suggestion of peace when your mind is restless, stimulate positive energy when your mind is sluggish and inspire you to experience deeper states of consciousness. It is an area where you can meditate, pray and express your gratitude.
Begin by dedicating a space. Cleanse the area, first physically – then have a dedication ceremony, invoking positive energy and setting an intention of peace. Some people choose to do a psychic cleansing by waving lights and/or incense – and chanting mantras.
It is best to use a low table, covered with a clean cloth, as your meditation table. Place items on it that elevate your mind; this may include pictures and symbols that you find inspiring. Some people find that deity pictures and/or statues inspire them, whereas other people don’t like them. A picture of a spiritual teacher may remind you of the teachings. It is usually best to not put pictures of family or friends on your meditation table, unless the person is sick or in need of special prayers. You may choose to put a symbol on your altar, such as OM, a Cross, Yin-Yang or a star. Or you may prefer to opt for a simple altar with only a candle and some fresh flowers. Always keep your meditation area clean and pure.
It is best to place your table so that you are facing north or east when you sit in front of it; this can help you to tune into favourable magnetic vibrations. However, this is not a hard and fast rule and may be adapted to your living circumstances.
Place a mat / folded blanket so that you can sit facing your meditation table. It is best to keep this mat only for meditation. You may also like to sit on a cushion. The issue of sitting positions is dealt with separately.
Light on your altar / meditation table
Light is a common symbol of spiritual enlightenment. Place a candle or oil lamp on your meditation table. Some people choose to keep this light burning at all times to enhance the build-up of positive energy in the area, however uou will probably prefer to have the light burning only when you sit for meditation. The act of lighting the lamp sends a suggestion to your mind: “now it is time to be centred and tune to the inner light”.
Sandalwood and frankincense both have a calming and centring effect on your mind. Indian tradition uses sandalwood; churches use frankincense. Scents such as rose, patchouli or jasmine stimulate your mind. They may smell nice but it is best to not use them for the purpose of meditation.
If you don’t like incense, don’t use it.