Far from being an exotic or elite practice, meditation is a normal activity common to all human beings. What we call ‘meditation’ is really just self-awareness. There is no one who is not self-aware to some degree; however, not everyone is consciously self-aware, or deeply self-aware. To start, I want to make the distinction between ‘self-awareness’ and what is commonly called, ‘self-consciousness.’ Being conscious of the self is ‘self-awareness;’ being insecure about the self, is what is usually meant by ‘self-consciousness’ – an unfortunate misuse of language. Self-awareness is absolutely necessary for self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is absolutely necessary for full self-empowerment.
To avoid a similar misuse of the word ‘meditation,’ in this essay it will refer to the methods used for conscious and deliberate cultivation of a deepened self-awareness. As with the acquisition of any skill, success and speed of success will be deepend on the degree of conscious effort. One may fairly ask why something as seemingly automatic as self-awareness requires a conscious effort? The answer is that our normal level of self-awareness is automatic and doesn’t require much effort at all. We can sleep walk our way from birth to death with little or no effort, but experience as taught us that life is more friendly to effort than non-effort, and to conscious, rather than unconscious living. Pain is always waiting to remind us of the heavy price we pay for unconscious living. Pain is not just physical impulses; much of its power is psychological. In my personal experience, nothing reduces pain better than the acquisition of deeper self-knowledge. As self-knowledge deepens the foundation for life becomes more solid, an inner atmosphere of peace and joy arises, and hidden capacities begin to reveal themselves.
There are many methods of meditation, but the key element in all of them is conscious effort. In its broadest sense, meditation can be defined as a ‘conscious effort aimed at increased self-awareness.’ Meditation and mindfulness are just degrees of that same conscious effort. In mindfulness we are outwardly active but remain inwardly self-aware and mindful of our purpose and intent. In meditation, our purpose and intent is entirely inward, there is no division of our focus at all. Our concentration is one-pointed and fully focused.
In the beginning and for a long time after that, you will want a place for meditation where external distractions are minimized. This will help you develop the one-pointed concentration required to penetrate all the internal distractions arise within us. One might ask, “What is there to penetrate?” The answer is anything that detracts from, or disrupts the silent stillness of our meditation – the ‘noise’ of random thoughts, disturbed feelings, restlessness, anger, self-doubt, insecurity, even physical pain. The Zen phrase ‘dropping off body and mind’ means stepping away from these distractions for long enough to commune peacefully with our deeper self.
Human consciousness is a lot like an ocean, the deeper we go, the calmer it gets. Don’t worry – nothing is actually dropped. Body and mind continue to function in meditation, but we consciously ignore the sensations they create. We turn our attention away from all sensations and allow ourselves to be drop down into a deep inner silence. In one ancient teaching essay it was said, “Even if 84,000 idle thoughts arise, each and every one of them can become The Light of Indiscriminate Wisdom, if you deny them your attention and simply let them go.” In the ordinary mind, we attach ourselves to and identify with thoughts and feelings, we cling to them constantly. In the enlightened mind, we let thoughts go their own way, while we identify with the luminosity of inner silence and the deep self.
An Exercise in Silent Self-Observation
Sit comfortably in meditation. Take a few deep breaths. Begin by observing your body and posture. After a few minutes, move your attention inward, and observe your thoughts without caught up in them. Observe the energy created by those thoughts, however subtle it might be. Don’t judge, negate, or try to correct anything; just observe. Thoughts and feelings usually begin to subside when observed in this way. Finally, turn your attention away from all thoughts and feelings and dive deep into the silence within.
If you are worried or feeling upset when you begin to meditate, you may find unwanted thoughts and feelings becoming ‘louder’ and more assertive or even more extreme. There are two effective ways to deal with this. The first is to completely ignore them and concentrate entirely on the silence within. If you can do this, unwanted sensations will fade away. If you are unable to focus on silence, then focus on a sound, image, or single pleasant thought. Concentrating on a mandala, candle flame, or icon (spiritual image), or chanting a mantra (OM for example), or singing a devotional or light-hearted song can dispel the unwanted disturbance. It must be said that while ignoring disturbing thoughts and emotional pain can be an effective way to dismiss them during specific periods of meditation, persistent depression or emotional disturbance should be addressed as a medical problem requiring professional attention.
Don’t be surprised if you find you cannot completely silence your thoughts, or cause negative feelings to completely disappear. Complete success in meditation is an advanced skill that takes years of dedicated practice. In the meantime, don’t make the hope for perfection the enemy of the good. Just practice faithfully with your best effort. Results will come. Right from the beginning, meditation brings rewards and each step forward leads to deeper and more lasting satisfactions