The gist of meditation

I stumbled into doing meditation when my friend asked me to check out together a group meditation session in Calgary. It is one of those things when you randomly go to a social event and a deep imprint is etched on your mind after the event. In retrospect, I am grateful I stumbled into this as meditation is one of the profoundly unique human experiences. I intend to share my experience, challenges and the pitfalls associated with this practice.

I went regularly for these sessions for a period of 6 – 8 months in 2o13 and the sessions were hosted by a Zen practitioner under the Soto Zen lineage. A typical session consisted of 40 minutes of meditation followed by informal discussion with the attendees while sipping herbal tea. The discussion allowed the attendees to reflect on their meditation experience and ask questions on this practice. Most of the content in this article is developed from the discussions I had with the sangha.

Meditation at its core is to sit silently and focus on breathing and posture. Postures can vary across meditation schools but focus on breathing remains the unifying thread. Focus on breathing allows the mind to transition from a chatter state to a state of thoughtlesness. Your mind will keep going back to real world thoughts, but focus on breathing allows the mind to return neutrally to no thought. You cant fight the thoughts, instead sift them through focus on breathing. Before I share my post meditation experience, it’s crucial to understand the challenges and misconceptions around this practice:

  1. Purpose: There is no objective purpose in doing meditation. You do this because it has to be done. We do everything in life with some definite intention or purpose, except possibly unconditional love from parents or loved ones. Meditation can be understood as one singular activity to be done with no purpose so that you can do all the rest of purposeful activities in your life better. It is often misunderstood that meditation is done to get either peace of mind, clarity or calmness. Various scientific studies on mindfulness support that school of thought, but those are beneficial side effects of meditation, not the purpose. The lack of purpose and necessity ends up being the biggest deterrent to curious newcomers, as some drop out with not being satisfied with the perceived side effects. In other cases, people seeking quick enlightenment are sorely disappointed and they move on.
  2. Self discipline: Even if you overcome the first challenge, this one is another beast to tame. It is so mentally tough to motivate yourself to sit down in one corner of your house for an extended period of time and focus on breathing. It is so easy to move on and do other worldly activities. This is when a community doing meditation together (sangha) helps a lot, as the sangha members help to reinforce the self discipline within each other to commit to a regular sitting schedule.
  3. Bodily sensations: Sensations like restlessness, drowsiness, boredom, numbness in the legs can discourage people in the initial phase, but such sensations do reduce with time as the self-discipline goes up.
  4. Physical environment: It is obvious to sit for meditation in a quiet environment to avoid distraction. Natural lighting, incense sticks and Tibetan singing bowl sounds in the background can serve as additional aids to make you sit down voluntarily.

I was pleasantly surprised at myself that I was somehow able to overcome the first 3 challenges and gain some insight into some unconscious aspects of human behaviour:

  • We are so selfish: This is not really revelatory. We go about doing many things in the real world without completely realizing the selfish motive behind our actions or intentions. When you do meditation regularly, you could feel the slightest hint of selfishness emerging from your intention. You are conscious of your selfishness to a point that it stinks. This feeling is uncomfortable to begin with, but you gradually rectify your actions and thoughts to eliminate that modicum of selfishness. Another important thing to remember here is once you stop doing meditation, you will return to the old ways where selfishness gets buried in the unconscious mind.
  • Appropriate behaviour: Meditation helped me to assess and develop appropriate behaviour for any given social situation. You learn to respond instead of reacting. You may start talking less and listening more to the people around you. You feel more at ease with your judgment and decision making.
  • Increased sensitivity and initiative: This was very pronounced for me. You get more sensitive to the developments around you, whether they are societal or environmental changes. You may take initiative, without expecting others around you to do so. You may end laughing more at the same jokes or feel worse for the previous unpleasant things. You become more human may be a better way to put it.
  • Reduced confirmatory bias: We develop this bias so easily and unconsciously due to the fast pace of our modern lives to go along with constant influence of social media and societal norms. Meditation helps to declutter the mind and assess the developments around you in a clean slate mode.

It is very important to do regular meditation to truly appreciate the aforementioned aspects. This is one thing I am struggling with for now and it will always be a struggle at any given point of time. The burning question still remains: do we really need to do meditation? The apt way I can think of to answer this question is through an analogy which came to my mind during one of the sittings. When we clean our house, we don’t really need to clean all the corners and crevices. But if we do, it’s better. In the same sense, meditation helps us to pay attention to all dusty corners and crevices of our existence and gives us an opportunity to clean it up.