When we think of meditation, the mind often conjures up an image of monks sitting in a buddha-like pose, with serene calm, detached from the world, mind full of lofty thoughts.
And that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Meditation is not a retreat from the world. Nor is it for renunciate monks. Nor is it a soothing technique, though it might very well give you a blissful calm.
The real goal of meditation is liberation. But liberation from what?
Liberation from the vagaries of our mind, which causes most of our suffering.
If our neighbor wins a lottery – we feel jealous. Someone is nasty to us and we seethe with anger for months. Similarly, hate, fear, guilt, shame, and a zillion other emotions make our life miserable, sometimes even in the most favorable of external circumstances.
So no matter how much wealth or success we earn, we can’t outrun unhappiness – our mind is capable of conjuring up suffering. And it will. Liberation from these vagaries of mind is what meditation aims to achieve.
Today, in this newsletter, I would like to share specific ways in which different meditation techniques can help us with some of our most painful experiences, problems, and even disorders.
Here are a few powerful meditation techniques and their benefits:
A. Mindfulness of breath:
How it is done: In this foundational technique, we rest our attention on the sensation of the breath. There are many variations of this technique. One can count after the out-breath or before the in-breath. Also, one could focus on the sensations at a particular point (e.g., at the tip of the nose or in the belly) or just be aware of the flow of in-breath and out-breath.
Though it sounds simple, this practice can go very deep. One can practice this for decades and still may not have explored its full potential.
Meditators who practice diligently can get into deep meditative states called ‘jhanas’, which are extraordinarily blissful experiences. There are whole books written about this. If you want to understand this further, refer to the translation of ‘Anapanasati Sutta.’ I would also recommend ‘Breath by breath’ by Larry Rosenberg, if you are inclined to read more about it.
Benefits: If you are feeling a hum of low-grade anxiety or mental turbulence, or just craving some peace of mind, this is the perfect technique.
It helps with calming the mind, building single-pointed concentration, improving our ability to focus, and breaking the grip of anxiety. Also, it can give you immense joy and bliss. This is the technique I practice daily.
B. Loving-kindness meditation
How it is done: In this technique, you offer good wishes to yourself and others. You bring to mind different people, and then you wish them well.
You do this through silent repetition of certain phrases, such as, “May you be well. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May no harm come to you. May you be free from pain. May you live with ease.”
You silently repeat these phrases or any other such phrases at a slow, comfortable pace, wholeheartedly focusing on the recipient.
Typically, you start with yourself, then a benevolent person or a loved one, a neutral person (for whom you don’t have any strong feelings), and a difficult person (someone you don’t like). Finally, you give your good wishes to all living creatures.
If you are feeling angry or resentful towards a particular person or towards life in general, this is a wonderful practice. It is also a great practice for depression and anxiety. It helps us overcome our narcissistic tendencies which tend to make us ruminate and feel unhappy.
C. Walking meditation
How it is done: In this technique, you slowly walk on a clear path either in circles or back and forth. While walking, you focus your attention on the sensation of each foot as you move. I find it useful to also be lightly aware of your breath in the background. If your mind wanders, you gently bring it back to the feet.
Benefit: It is a great technique to feel grounded. If you are feeling anxious or caught up in rumination, this can help a lot. If you are tired of sitting, this exercise helps you combine movement with mindfulness. And very importantly, it is a great technique for bringing mindfulness into our daily lives instead of just consigning it to formal meditation sessions.
D. Eating meditation
How it is done: You eat your food mindfully, fully engaging your senses of taste, smell, sight, and touch, focusing on the food. One common exercise is called ‘eating a raisin’, where you eat a raisin (or some fruit) while fully experiencing it through all the senses.
More broadly, it can be done with our regular meals – just eat it slowly and mindfully, instead of gulping it down.
Benefits: It allows you to enjoy your food and also, you eat in more controlled quantities. If you are trying to control your weight, this is highly recommended. When we are eating absent-mindedly, we don’t get the satiety signals and end up overeating. Mindful eating is the antidote to it.
Also, it is a good way to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life.
E. Meditating on thoughts
How it is done: Start by sitting down comfortably. Close your eyes or keep your eyes half-open. After focusing on your breath for a few minutes, take your attention to your mind and notice what thoughts are coming up in your consciousness, if any.
See the nature of the thoughts – are they coming continuously or sporadically? See if the thoughts are changing. Are they permanent or in flux? Try to not get sucked into the thoughts – if necessary, note ‘I am having this thought’.
Think of thoughts as clouds that come and go, without changing the blue sky. Some thoughts create emotions – just notice how those emotions feel. Then gently bring your attention back to the consciousness and start noticing your thoughts.
Benefits: This is a great technique to handle worrying, rumination, depression, and anxiety. It is simple but very powerful. Also, this is a bit hard and will need conscious practice. So if you struggle initially, don’t give up – keep trying.
One of the books that does a good job of explaining this is Pema Chodron’s ‘How to meditate.’
F. Meditation on emotions
How it is done: This is very similar to the meditation on thoughts. Here you focus on the raw experience of emotions. E.g., if you are feeling angry, just observe every manifestation of the anger in your body in fine detail, without getting caught up in the story. Leave out the story of why you are angry – just notice the experience of anger as you perceive it. Imagine that you had to describe it to someone in great detail – how would you observe it in that case? That is the kind of fine observation you need.
Often, emotions trigger thoughts, which can further aggravate the emotions. When that happens, just notice the thought (make a mental noting), and gently come back to the emotion.
Notice how the emotion feels – is it stable or does it change? Where exactly in the body do you feel it? What exactly does it feel like? Does it strengthen or weaken over time?
This meditation will change your relationship with the emotion – instead of suppressing it, you will get used to just treating it like another sensation.
Benefits: It can help with anxiety, depression, negative emotions, and low moods.
How it is done: Vipassana means insight. This is the ultimate meditation technique – this is how the Buddha is supposed to have attained enlightenment.
The goal of vipassana is to realize three fundamental truths –
- Impermanence of everything.
- The unsatisfactoriness of daily experience.
- No self.
If the above seems daunting or confusing, just think of it this way – Vipassana aims to help us realize at an experiential level that everything is impermanent. And that our natural reaction of craving and aversion is what causes all our suffering. So we train our minds to break the cycle of craving or aversion and by stepping out of that, our suffering is also gone.
There are many ways of doing vipassana. Mr. SN Goenka brought a technique from Burma, which is based on body-scan. You just sit comfortably and observe the sensations in your body, and your own reaction to them.
Another technique is called ‘choiceless awareness’ or ‘open monitoring’, in which you observe anything that arises in your consciousness – it could be a thought, a sensation, an emotion, or anything at all. Observe these things come and go, without getting entangled in them. This technique requires guidance and training and is not easy.
There are many other techniques as well but this is a good place to start.
Benefits: Vipassana is the ultimate tool to overcome your suffering, especially that created by our mind. And in reality, all suffering comes from the mind.
There are hundreds of other meditation techniques but the above ones cover a lot of ground.
Remember – no matter what your mental struggle is, meditation can help. In fact, a lot of therapy is now increasingly using these techniques. Hope you try them out.
Thank you for reading. May you be well. May you be happy.