There are two levels of distraction: external and internal. The outside world is full of sensory stimulation — sights, sounds, smells, tastes. These are the external distractions that constitute the material world. Due to the increasing reliance on technology, the material world contains a secondary level of “unnatural” external distractions that divert attention from our immediate environment. These are technology induced distractions. They include social media notifications, on-demand television, the internet and, sooner rather than later, virtual reality.
It’s no surprise then that for beginners, meditation seems so foreign. Switching off from external distraction and focusing on the breath is so simplistic and devoid of stimulation that it may appear futile. Even pointless. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. As I’ve detailed in my personal journey with meditation, the impact can be profound.
By sitting down and focusing on the breath, you become increasingly aware of internal distractions. Some internal distractions are physical, such as aches and pains. Others are mental, from emotions to spontaneous thoughts running through the mind. In Buddhism, those spontaneous, impulsive thoughts are referred to as the monkey mind.
Beginner’s Meditation And The Monkey Mind
Becoming aware of the monkey mind (or the spiritual ego) and your inner-world is one of the most powerful and life-affirming things you can do. Why? Because it’s the first step in taking responsibility for your self-fulfilment and happiness. See, the problem with the monkey mind is that it’s nature is hyper-critical and unfulfilled. It seeks fulfilment in the “I’ll be happy whens” of external distraction. It takes hold of your emotions and causes feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, depression, paranoia… the list is endless.
By meditating, and turning awareness inward, the monkey mind is exposed as the neurosis that holds us back, closes our hearts and leads to fear-based decision making.
I’ll be honest — when I initially sat down to write a beginner’s guide to meditation, I wasn’t going to mention the monkey mind/ego at all. I was going to tell you that this practice is an effective way of becoming more relaxed, more insightful, more compassionate. But here’s the thing — in the West, meditation has been rebranded. Many people who become familiar with specific techniques are accessing a distilled version, a “mindfulness 2.0” if you like. I strongly believe that meditation without a spiritual purpose is a commodity. It’s another self-improvement tool adapted by an economical system to increase productivity.
As I’ve highlighted before, Mind That Ego‘s ethos isn’t to increase productivity. It’s to help direct you towards self-fulfilment. Consequently, I will be left personally unfulfilled if I introduce you to this fascinating, fruitful and ultimately life-changing practice without framing it through a spiritual perspective. I’m not saying those who practice mindfulness or meditation without the added spirituality are doing anything wrong — after all, any form of self-improvement or increased self-awareness can only be a good thing — but there’s a rising trend in the West of removing meditation from its source as a spiritual practice, thus reducing its impact.
Right, rant over, back to it. Basically, your monkey mind makes you sad. It prevents you from experiencing life fully by distracting you from the external world and obscuring positive emotions. Fortunately, meditation and spiritual practice helps you realise that you are not what you think. You are not the thoughts, or the emotions — you are the observer behind thoughts and emotions. Considering these thoughts and emotions have a negative impact, this is liberating news!
Within your inner-world, there is a rich and vibrant source of contentment, peace, tranquility and even bliss. These are natural states that we all have inside of us, drowned out by the sound of the monkey mind’s chatter. That’s why, with habitual practice, those who meditate are able to move beyond that blockage of self-criticism and access the inner states mentioned only seconds ago.
Meditation Is Not About Attainment
Now, you’re probably rubbing your hands together at the prospect of accessing these states. Necessary reality check time — meditation is not about attainment. It’s not about goal setting. It’s not about run streaks or meditating longer than others or being zen in any given situation (even the Dalai Lama gets angry at “small things”). It’s about accepting everything the monkey mind throws at you in a relaxed, non-judgemental manner. The paradox is that by not attempting to reach any goal, by not seeking to silence the mind, it tends to happen naturally. But for those just starting out, heed this warning: meditating with the aim to silence the mind will not silence the mind.
I’ve spoken to people who try to meditate with this expectation, which is a common misconception many beginners have. It’s safe to say they don’t stick with the practice for too long. This is for two reasons. The first is that resistance to thought only increases the significance of thought and the likelihood of it returning. In psychology, this is known as the “ironic process theory,”¹ or more commonly, the “don’t think of a pink elephant” phenomenon.
When you sit down thinking: “I am going to silence my mind,” you’ll swat away at thoughts like a mental Whac-A-Mole. That’ll only make you feel more anxious, agitated, and likely to give up. Meditation silences the mind only after you accept and let go of thoughts and emotions, and let them arise without judgement.
The second reason beginners stop meditating is that many of us have lived our entire lives without turning attention inward on the hustle and bustle of thoughts and emotions. When starting with meditation, it can be overwhelming to witness just how frequent and frantic these thoughts and emotions are. It’s also disarming to see how self-critical the inner chatterbox is. This causes the misunderstanding that meditating increases anxiety, or makes you more depressed, or more restless. It doesn’t. It uncovers thoughts and feelings that were there all along, unnoticed due to external distractions from the material world.
I know this because I’m also talking from experience. In my personal journey, I note that I initially tried meditating but gave up because my mind was too frenetic. Closing my eyes opened the floodgates of thoughts, beliefs and emotions that’d be motoring away outside of my control, as if my mind were Times Square on Christmas Eve, and the shoppers neurological impulses. Had I known then that meditation wasn’t about attainment but about acceptance and letting go, I probably would’ve stuck with it longer. I would’ve got a mental coffee and enjoyed people-watching as those impulses went about their journey.
The Different Types Of Meditation
If you’re ready to accept the nature of mind, and the necessity of being a non-attached, relaxed and non-judgemental observer, great! It’s time to pick a technique. There are different “styles” of meditation, the main ones being:
- Mindful meditation. This is what I practice, and is most popular in the West. This meditation focuses the attention fully on the present moment, anchoring oneself on the breath.
- Mantra-based meditation. The focus here is on the repetition of a mantra. One kind, Transcendental Meditation (TM), gained popularity in the ’60s with high-profile practitioners, including The Beatles.
- Loving kindness. A Buddhist practice that cultivates love and compassion towards the self, others, and the entire universe. That’s pretty great isn’t it?
- Visualisation. Meditation focused on visualising a shape, spiritual guide or many other interesting things.
Beginner’s Guide To Meditation
- Sit in a comfortable position, upright and alert. Using a chair is fine, but make sure your back is supported.
- Take a few deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth.
- After a few minutes, close your eyes. Focus on the sensations of your body. The feeling of your feet on the floor, your hands in your lap, your legs on the chair beneath you.
- Next, pay attention briefly to the sounds surrounding you. Don’t judge them, just observe.
- Bring your attention back to your body. Mentally “scan” from head to toe. Notice the sensations and emotions within you.
- Turn your attention to your breath. Each in breath. Each out breath.
- You’ll begin to notice the inner distractions of the monkey mind. Whenever you become distracted by thoughts or emotions, return to the breath. The odd thought or trail of thought is fine, but when you realise you aren’t focusing on the breath anymore, bring it back. You become “aware” the moment you notice you are distracted.
- When you are ready, stop focusing on the breath and give yourself some time to let the mind be completely free. No focus. No attention.
- Then return your attention to your body. The feeling of your feet on the floor, hands in your lap. Notice the sounds and smells around you.
- Open your eyes.
- Smile (optional).
Some Final Tips
- This sounds a little bit serious, Ricky? And that wasn’t a question so why the question mark? It’s important to note meditation isn’t serious. It’s a playful, lighthearted practice. Enjoy it! And this is my blog and I’ll leave question marks if I want to??
- How long should I meditate? Like that annoyingly smug secondary school teacher, I’d respond, how long is a piece of string? Anywhere from 5 minutes, to 10 minutes, to 20 minutes or more are common. Start off and see how you get on. The main aim is simply taking the time, any time. Try not to see it as a “set slot” where you “should” meditate. Following “shoulds” sets an attainment-based framework of success and failure. Meditation is not about attainment. You can’t fail.
- Do I need to meditate every day? What if I forget? When I first started meditating I became militant about it. I’d force meditation into my day, feel stressed if I didn’t meditate, think about how I should be meditating when not meditating. Life’s busy, some days you’ll forget. Don’t make yourself feel bad for skipping in a practice aimed at your wellbeing. Now I see meditation more as exercise. I try to every day, but if I skip a few sessions, I won’t allow myself to feel bad about it.
- Do I join a group or meditate alone? Again, up to you. I’ve used meditation as a personal practice. However, a close friend has benefitted hugely from meditating at the local Buddhist centre. Different strokes, different folks.
- Wegner, Daniel M. (1989). White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control. Viking Adult. ISBN 978-0670825226