Meditation is as old as human spirituality itself. The oldest Aboriginal cultures of the Earth used meditation as a tool for spiritual fortification and communion with the infinite self. Today, meditation is gaining traction in the world of modern medicine as a treatment for many physical illnesses. Its time we got caught up.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is the act of contemplation or reflection, and serves two purposes – to (1) gain tranquility, and to (2) gain insight.
Tranquility meditation helps you to develop a still and tranquil mind; to cut through the endless babble of your thoughts, the non stop rambling of your internal dialogue.
In order to gain true consciousness, lose your mind. - Asad
The easiest way to approach tranquility meditation is by realizing that your thoughts are not you. Hell, sometimes they dont even belong to you. You are the consciousness that is observing those thoughts. You are the thinker, not the thought.
Insight meditation, helps you to realize the true nature of the body and the world. In ancient Asiatic and Aboriginal cultures insight meditation was called “vipassana”, and consisted of four areas of concentration:
Kayanupassana (meditation on the body, including breathing and internal sounds)
Vedananupassana (meditation on the emotions)
Cittanupassana (meditation on consciousness itself, the observer becomes the observed)
Dhammanupassana (meditation on an object – in some cases, a dead body. Concentrating on a dead body helps one to realize the true impermanence of the physical, and therefore helps one to let go).
Insight meditation is hard to understand and practice without a skilled teacher, and these teachers are rare. You cant find them by doing a Google search, and they usually dont have European names. In fact, beware of anyone trying to teach you anything from a culture they are not a part of or havent been accepted into.
I happened to live in Okinawa for a few years and was able to advance into cittanupassana training with a Japanese Roshi, but you can still learn breathing meditation (kayanupassana) without advanced instructions.
I will break it down in the section on how to meditate below, but the key here is that you arent just thinking about the body, the emotions, consciousness, or an object – you are actively observing them.
The Benefits of Meditation
Many people I personally know suffer from high blood pressure, attention deficit disorder, migraines, and a number of other illnesses that meditation has been shown to treat. For Black men and women as a whole, meditation can prove to be a life saving practice. The psychological benefits of meditation are just as important for us as the physical benefits. From Psychology Today:
The brain waves of meditators show why they’re healthier. Neuroscientists have found that meditators shift their brain activity to different areas of the cortex—brain waves in the stress-prone right frontal cortex move to the calmer left frontal cortex. In other words, they were calmer and happier than before.
Not only can meditation help you achieve calmness and happiness, research has shown that regular meditation also provides the following benefits:
- Increased self-actualization and spirituality
- Increased acceptance of oneself
- Discovery of the power and consciousness beyond the ego
- Decrease in restless thinking
- Higher intelligence growth rates
- Improved reaction time during stressful events
- Increased ability to solve complex problems
- Increased ability to ignore petty issues
- Increased focus & concentration
- Increased creativity
- Increased brain wave coherence
- Improved learning ability and memory
- Increased feelings of vitality and rejuvenation
- Increased emotional stability
- Improved relationships
- Decrease in anxiety (meditation lowers the levels of cortisol in the blood stream)
- Increased blood flow and slower heart rate.
Step by Step Basic Sitting Meditation
Ok, ready to try it for yourself?
Step 1: Change into loose fitting clothing, turn off any electronics that might disturb you. Find a quiet place where you wont be disturbed by family or pets. If there is snot in your nose, now is the time to get up and blow it out. If you need to make any adjustments your clothing or surroundings, do so.
Step 2: Sit in a chair or on the ground with your legs folded and your hands either resting in your lap (Figure 1) or on each knee (Figure 2).
Step 3: Close your eyes, inhale deeply using your belly, and exhale slowly until your lungs are empty. This is a “preparatory breath”.
Step 4: Breathe in while mentally counting “one-two-three-four-five”. Fill your lungs from the bottom of your belly to the top of your chest. Hold the full breath for one second before breathing out, counting “one-two-three-four-five” in your head.
During practice, thoughts, pain, itches, fatigue, and sensitivity to temperature will arise. You will hear sounds and may even see flashes of light while your eyes are closed.
Dont try to ignore these sensations, but dont let them pull you away from practice. Simply observe your body’s reaction to the itch. Feel the cool breeze. Hear the children playing outside. Let the clouds of thought drift by the mind’s eye and disappear. Be aware of the world inside of you and around you, but stay in the moment – in the now.
You are the consciousness that is observing those thoughts and sensations. You are the thinker, not the thought. You are the consciousness, not the body.
Follow this routine for just five minutes a day until you can maintain full awareness for the entire time. Then you may chose to increase your sitting time, but there is no pressure to do so. Quality is more important than quantity here.
If you find your mind wandering or you fall asleep, thats ok! Open your eyes, refocus yourself, and go back in to meditation.
(Side note: **In Zen schools of meditation, group leaders will walk around with a wooden staff and smack meditators to keep them focused. If devoted students have trouble, surely you will too. If you miss a day, start again the next day. Whats important is for you to remain committed to the process and get back in the saddle if you fall off).
There are three tools that I use to help me “get in the zone”:
A sitting pillow
A Meditation timer
There are also a number of guided meditations out there that you can use. Dr. Malachai York was famous for his guided meditations, one of which I found on Youtube awhile ago.
I also use this great video featuring western Zen master Alan Watts (one of the few qualified Western spiritualists that I trust).
Dont think of meditation as just another chore or “thing to do”. Rather see meditation for what it truly is: an opportunity to truly see yourself and the world.
The end result of proper and prolonged meditation is a life lived in pure and perpetual consciousness; seeing, hearing, and feeling everything in the moment.
Eventually, you will be able to meditate in every action, every day. You will come to see that you have missed most of life, and with that realization, you will begin to truly experience what it means to be conscious.