[Mindfulness is] The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.
- Jon Kabat Zin
Meditation…is pure concentration: training the mind to dwell on an interior focus without wandering, until it becomes absorbed in the object of its contemplation. But absorption does not mean unconsciousness. The outside world may be forgotten, but meditation is a state of intense inner wakefulness.
- Eknath Easwaran
Even if you have never meditated, you’ve probably already meditated.
Think of a task you have performed that has required your intense, unwavering focus. Perhaps it was asana. Perhaps you’ve climbed into a Crow Pose, or held Warrior 2 with such total concentration, that the time spent within the pose ceases, and all there is…is.
Though many things call themselves meditation, only one act is truly meditation: anchoring the mind’s full attention, no matter its complaints, to the this present moment. Single pointed focus.
There are tools to get you there. We’ll explore a few, including attunement to breath, sensations of the body, and mantra.
Before we begin practicing, there are a few essential things to note:
Find a comfortable seat. Contrary to popular belief, there is no virtue in suffering. Your meditation will not be any “better” if you jam yourself into full lotus; your knees will hurt, and you’ll be too distracted by the discomfort to actually meditate. Find a comfortable seat—that may mean sitting in a chair, or padding your behind and knees with a few blankets and bolsters.
Find a tall spine. The mind will find many ways to distract you, and one of those ways is sleep. You may find that the first few times you dedicate yourself to this practice, you’ll get crazy sleepy, like going to nod off any moment sleepy; it won’t help your cause if you’re slouching toward supine. Sit up, and find a tall spine (you might find this easier if you sit atop something so that the bowl that is your hips can tilt forward, and your spine can thereby lengthen).
Commit to your practice. However you are directing your single pointed focus, whether it be mantra, breath, or body sensations, commit. Make a pledge to yourself to meditate, and then follow through. Or, as my meditation teacher says, “just do it, dammit.”
Now, we will practice paying attention to “what is.”
You will sit, and you will direct the mind to focus on a single point. Despite all your enthusiasm and effort, the mind will wander. You will return the mind to that single point. Moments later, the mind will be down the street, writing your grocery list, signing a tune, and judging something. You will again return the mind, this time with a stern pat on the bottom. You will demand the mind sits and stays. We have work to do! you will declare. And, moments later, like the little puppy it is, the mind will have (absentmindedly-ha!) wandered away.
Why does the mind insist on not staying put? Why, oh why, in the irony of ironies, can we not control the thing inside our very own head?
The answer is simple: for most of your life, you probably haven’t trained your mind; rather, it has trained you. Meditation is the training of the mind. Just as you wouldn’t begrudge a puppy for not knowing what you didn’t train it to do, be gentle with your mind.
Additionally, we are biologically predisposed to searching for things we lack. Dissatisfaction is our untrained natural state, as it’s a matter of survival that we continue to search for sustenance, and opportunities to procreate. We are biologically set up to do this work of meditation: we are seekers by nature. In meditation, we turn the effort within.
And know this really important truth:
The mind having wandered is essential to the very process of meditation. In order to strengthen the muscles of meditation, the mind must wander so that you can bring it back. Returning the mind to the present moment is the meditation. If you were to attach to a single moment, and then not budge from that point, the mind would find itself in the past in no time. The present moment is ever-unfolding. To attend fully to the present moment is to attend to a succession of present moments. The mind must stay alert! And in order to stay alert, the mind must be strong! And strength comes from dedicated, repetitive movements, i.e. repeatedly returning the mind to the place of focus.
Slowly, but surely — if you commit — your mind will find more and more stillness. More and more openness. More and more vastness will appear, and whole moments will pass within the infinite space within, a kind of emptiness the buddhists call sunyata. You will have moments of such fullness within that spaciousness, the lines between you and everything else will blur, and your body will know for a moment what all those yogis were talking about.
And then, you’ll think “wow this is cool,” and poof! it’ll all melt away. Don’t worry, it won’t ever go too far…
The most important thing you can do when your mind wanders is this: Practice compassion. If you are sitting there judging yourself for your mind having wandered, then you are not meditating.
Compassion is the key, because compassion is presence.
Judgement is duality. Judgement requires comparison — the self that “failed” mediation, compared to the ideal self. Judgement immediately removes you from presence, because where judgement is dual, presence is singular.
Therefore, make the practice of compassion your meditation. When your mind wanders, simply, compassionately return it. Pick it up like that sweet, soft, floppy little puppy that it is, bring it back, and try again.
You will begin to suffer less and less, because you will judge yourself less and less. You will experience, with more and more regularity, the thing called joyfulness. Which makes sense, because joyfulness is your birthright.