Skills of meditation
Meditation. Often described as clearing your mind. Following your breath. Relaxing. Although the most common descriptions, they are the least interesting activities of meditation. They do not capture the rich depth of the techniques that can be found in the many contemplative traditions throughout history. During this weird time of a global pandemic, I believe these techniques can be especially helpful.
A clarifying analogue for meditation is that of physical exercise. One way of comparing exercises is by their discipline. Weightlifting vs running, yoga vs cross-fit. If you are looking for what the benefits are from these exercises, the style is less important than the specific exercises you do within them. All of these styles can be good for you but doing the exercises from each that give the biggest boost to your physical fitness is the best way of approaching them. Meditation is the same. When comparing the different styles of meditation, the common theme is living a good life. What exactly a good life is can differ between them but this just gives us a buffet of techniques to choose from while trying to improve our own lives.
Let's look at some of the "mental muscles" you may want to target and how these techniques developed over thousands of years can help. At this point I want to say, I will be providing examples from meditation traditions I am more familiar with. This is not to say other traditions do no have techniques for cultivating your thoughts in similar ways. I prefer to stick to subjects I have personal experience with.
I came to meditation in a rather round-about way. Around 2009 I was running 60+ km a week. I heard about some Tai Chi classes nearby and thought I would try it out as a kind of cross-training for my legs that didn't cause so much injury. Although the Taoist Tai Chi and Kung Fu school had its form of meditation, my teacher also taught mindfulness. She encouraged me to try it and was always willing to talk about my experience and give pointers. Mindfulness appealed to me as it made no esoteric claims about the universe like Taoism did.
My formal meditation practice was an on-and-off affair for the next few years. I would have a good run for a few weeks or months, then get busy and stop. Then I would get stressed, and go back to it, seeking relief. And looking back at it I had a very different view on it than I do now. No matter the level of understanding though, meditation has something to offer.
Then in 2014, I moved to a new city. I not only left my friends, family, and fiance behind; I left my faith. I had grown up in a religious home and had believed my whole life but years of asking questions had led me to an answer. I could no longer believe without sufficient evidence. As chance would have it, I decided to listen to a lecture series on meditation on the 9-hour drive to my new life. To live a good life without faith.
I think we can all agree that a good place to start with living a good life is by reducing suffering. The word suffering can be misleading because everyone has their understanding of it. Suffering can be the mental, emotional, or physical anguish that occurs from traumatic events in your life. It can be from well-known sources like stress. Another lesser-acknowledged source is from change. Everything changes and holding on to anything can be an exercise in futility, and a source of great suffering. In 2014 I learned how change can cause suffering. That too was impermanent though, for I finally cultivated the habit of meditation.
One way that formal meditation helps alleviate suffering is by training you to recognise when you are lost in thought. We all know that feeling of remaining angry because you replay in your mind how someone wronged you. The technique often referred to as Mindfulness is the practice of observing a thought, and then bringing attention back to something like the breath. The breath is an easy object to focus on though because it is always with you. Once you are comfortable with the practice, anything can be an object of focus, even thoughts themselves. A common misconception of meditation is that you are trying to keep your mind free of thought. The real benefit is that each time you recognise a thought, you get to do a "rep" and practice letting go of that thought. This is the practice. Notice the distraction and let it fade away. We cannot in-fact control our thoughts, we can only control where we place our attention.
Epictetus, a well known Stoic philosopher, summarised the source of our suffering well:
"What upsets people is not things themselves, but their judgements about these things".
The idea Epictetus is putting forth here is also a core theme in Buddhism. That we suffer because we cling to things. Both the Stoics and Buddhists are often maligned on this point. Accused of not caring. The key point here is that clinging to things, good or bad, will cause suffering because everything is impermanent and we are shaped by what we place our attention on.
And these are the types of meditations of the Stoics. They do not sit and breathe but instead meditate on the wisdom passed down to them, and their thoughts. They visualise how they want to approach situations with wisdom and courage. One example of a Stoic practice is described by Seneca:
"Set aside a certain number of days during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with a coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while, ‘Is this the condition that I feared?".
Many people fear losing everything, or not having every need met. By putting yourself in the situation and reflecting on it, the fear will often dissipate. This brings me to one last example of a fear that many have. Fear of dying. There is a technique in some Buddhist traditions called Corpse meditation. Even back in South Africa, I could not find a corpse so I had to content myself with imagining myself dead and slowly decaying. Although it seems macabre, it familiarises you with death in a way that reduces the unknown, and so also the fear. In my apartment in 2014, confronted really for the first time by my mortality, this practice was invaluable. I can attest to its effectiveness. This practice has another benefit which I will touch on later.
I will end this section with an amusing story. A General of an army conquers a town and then hears about a Zen master who lives nearby. The General goes to the Zen master and on not being afforded the reverence he feels he deserves, his anger rises and he draws his sword. "Do you not realise you stand before a man who could run you through with this sword without blinking an eye?" shouts the self-important General. Unperturbed, the Zen master responds, "Do you not realise you are standing before a man who could be run through without blinking an eye?".
Being kind to others
A common theme of philosophies that are serious about how to live well is that of treating others well.
"Call to mind the doctrine that rational creatures have come into the world for the sake of one another, and that tolerance is a part of justice" - Marcus Aurelius
In Buddhism, there is a technique for actively cultivating feelings of compassion for yourself and the world around you. It is the practice of Metta, otherwise known as loving-kindness. In this practice, you generate a feeling of compassion. You start with those you already have this feeling for and wish them happiness, freedom from suffering, and fulfilment in life. You then expand that to others. This may feel awkward initially but recall that our thoughts about people are just running through neural pathways. Reinforcing these pathways in positive ways can lead to new ways of thinking and feeling.
While in lockdown, this can be an enriching technique to apply to keep your sense of connection with others and may inspire you to reach out to people you might otherwise not.
"Meditate often on the interconnectedness and mutual interdependence of all things in the universe. For in a sense, all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other." - Marcus Aurelius
We are social animals, even the more introverted ones like myself. The richness of experience is not only determined by our actions but who we share those actions with. This is easy to take for granted until you are thrust into isolation by the world being in the grip of a pandemic.
If you can, get out into open spaces. Walk around and greet any stranger you can (from a distance). Be mindful during these times and be thankful for the things you can do, the people you see, and the occasional smile you get back. This simple practice has made a huge difference for me during this pandemic and I am grateful for the possibility to move around.
"All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way." - Marcus Aurelius
Developing a practice of being thankful daily for every little thing you can muster will provide a bulwark against the bad things that come your way.
I said I would come back to the meditation on death. By considering that any day could be your last, it can bring into focus what is important and what your energy should be spent on.
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” - Seneca
With our options of things to do drastically diminished these days, it is easy to fritter away our time on things of little substance. Instead of visiting friends and family, we scroll endlessly on social media. Rather than go to the gym, we binge-watch shows. Not only can meditating on your own mortality make you more cognizant of what you are spending your time on, it can help you to appreciate the moment.
I hope I have convinced you that there is more to meditation than following the next breath. To be clear, this practice of Mindfulness is an important part of the whole. It provides the foundation of focus and awareness of distraction that is critical for many other techniques.
Taking that foundation and layering other practices from other traditions can provide a holistic collection of techniques that add practical knowledge. This knowledge can be honed into practical skills.
One last thing. Just like the fear of death can be lessened by analysis of it, so the journey toward happiness is an analysis of your mind. The more you observe how it works, the more you can steer it towards your goals.
Once you have control, only then can you decide where to go.