First things first: before we discuss mindfulness and meditation itself, and its techniques, my basic Mantra is this: Stop Thinking – It Gets in the Way! Most of the time we simply don’t need it. What I mean here is that tendency towards analysing, comparing, judging, naming, checking, recalling, criticising, predicting, pondering and entertaining useless mental distractions.
In spite of all we’ve learned through the ages, imbibing wisdom from the written word, listening to the advice of mentors, parents and teachers, thinking as such does us little real good. (In mindfulness and meditation practice, of course, no good whatever.) Thinking is a secondary function that’s useful in the right context, but it has nothing to do with immediate experience, with life as it’s really lived – ‘in the moment’. In the Now. To make progress with meditation you just have to stop that incessant train of thought.
This occurs every day of your life. We’re so used to thinking that we can’t stop ourselves any more. Stray thoughts whirl around our head like a permanent merry-go round that never seems to end. This is why Eckhart Tolle called Thinking a ‘disease’. And there always seems to be some kind of outer distraction – doorbells or phones ringing; an urgent email you should answer. This only adds to the mad soup of ideas and impressions that you’d rather not have.
Then there is how we try to deal with excessive thinking. Take worry, for example. You may think you can just tell yourself to stop worrying and that’ll be the end of it. How wrong! (You may even try to avoid the issue – telling yourself you’re not really worried, even though your mind keeps returning to the issue and you feel uneasy all over again.) Worry is usually a misguided attempt at being in charge: we fret over situations we can’t control. (Our kids going off on a foreign holiday, a stray pet, our partner late home from work who can’t be reached by phone.)
We can’t control that unknowable future, and thinking about it doesn’t help. Obviously, worry isn’t any good for your health either – anxiety brings on all kinds of undesirable things like hypertension, intestinal problems, indigestion, fatigue or irritable bowel syndrome. This kind of anxiety induces the so called fight/flight syndrome – our ancient stress response to fear. In real physical danger we call upon our survival instincts and either run like hell (calling on extra reserves of adrenalin) or stand and fight. But the habitual worrier engages their stress response pretty much all of the time, and this is wearing on the mind-body system. But it needn’t be like this.
In my experience of mindfulness and meditation, the inner distractions can be the worst – your mind is always going off somewhere. Clearly, it needs to slow down. You need silence. The Chinese sage Lao Tzu was dabbling in understatement when he said that ‘silence is a source of great strength,’ and I’d say that Francis Bacon expressed it better when he wrote, ‘silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.’ Silence (and its undoubted powers) is what remains when the chattering monkey that is your conscious mind has finally shut up and gone to sleep. Mahatma Gandhi once wisely noted: ‘In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.’
TRUE MINDFULNESS AND MEDITATION – GET STARTED
In the simple mindfulness and meditation exercises that follow you will bring yourself into harmony with the Silence. I’m not talking about just a lack of noise, but a real ‘something’ – what Eckhart Tolle calls Presence, for example. It has many other names, but the Tao te Ching describes it as ‘empty and marvellous’ – for this is the power that real silence brings, when Thinking is absent. Leonardo Da Vinci said that among the great things common to humanity, ‘the existence of Nothing is the greatest.’ He didn’t mean nothing in the everyday sense (like having run out of something). He meant the power of new potential, a great spiritual Fullness of ‘space’ which appears when extraneous clutter is removed. Like all those intrusive thoughts. But this ‘space’ is not nothing – for those who meditate, it is Pure Awareness, unfiltered spiritual presence. Enter the Silence, pursue the Taoist Nothing!
This first technique involves nothing more than observing your own breathing. So, find somewhere where you can actually obtain quietude. In this day and age, this is probably no mean feat in itself. It is for this reason that I suggest that your meditation is done late at night when there’s a good chance of some peace and quiet from your environment. (If you live alone then you have more freedom; if you share a household, then you must arrange a time when you can be alone.)
I want you to be aware of nothing other than your own breathing – listen to the sound it makes in its perpetual rhythms. Just focus on this, and nothing else. Become intensely aware of this one action. Don’t worry if your mind suddenly starts up a new train of thought. Stop and move your awareness gently back to your breathing and keep it there for as long as you can. Repeat this exercise every day, again, for as long as you can.
Though silence is, I stress, a must have, this will be impossible without ‘silence’ in the body. You will note how the body influences the mind – if you are tense it is impossible to be mentally focussed and calm. So, in either a comfortable armchair or lying on your back (with arms loose), curl your toes as tightly as possible and hold this position for about ten seconds. During this time, become aware of the sensation of tension, of what it feels like — let go and relax, and then tense once more. On relaxing the second time you are to visualise ‘streams’ of tension leaving your feet and toes as you sense them becoming more and more relaxed. Let go and allow your feet to relax.
The same technique may now be applied to the muscles in your thighs — tense your thighs and visualise the release of energy as you relax — the muscles in your stomach, arms, shoulders and face. Simply tighten the muscles in these parts of your body for a duration of ten seconds, let go, and imagine a flow of tension/energy being released from that area of your body as you let go. Perform this exercise for not less than five days, say, for a duration of fifteen minutes. These mindfulness and meditation techniques work – I’ve used them myself hundreds of times. You will soon see how much better focussed you are on the Present. You have Entered the Silence!