We’ve touched on the topic of meditation as one of the eight limbs of the Raja Yoga path outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. People are often intrigued by the idea of meditation, but find themselves stymied by the fact that the practice itself can be elusive and often difficult to begin. The beneficial effects, however, are frequently profound and life-changing. While I don’t have anywhere near the education or experience to consider myself an authority on the topic, I do have enough personal experience to at least offer my unique insights and opinions about the practice. Without the slightest hint of hesitancy I can affirm that daily meditation has improved the quality of my life: I have fewer bad days now, I experience much lower anxiety levels, and I feel more blessed. No small feat!
All this and I’m kind of a puny meditator. I fit my 20 – 25 minutes a day in where I can, rather than at a consistent time and place, which seems to be the typical recommendation. Occasionally I bump the time up to 30 minutes, but this is nothing compared to the people I know who rise at 4:30 every morning to sit for an hour and a half. I am at least consistent about the practice itself, and I can tell a difference when it is lacking from my life. Sometimes I actually crave it, on the occasional day when life seems to be swirling around my head like a wind-frenzied leaf, rather than emanating from me. On those days meditation is literally a tangible grounding place, a centered home with a mud room for the soul’s dirty boots and psychic loose change. On other days, most days, the days that are smooth and soft as air, I drop easily into the open space created by hours of sitting in stillness, as the world breezes past unmolested by worry and angst.
This continuation of the meditative state throughout daily life is one of the reasons that meditation is the gift that keeps on giving. We introduce ourselves to the meditative state during practice (of both asana, or the physical practice and dhyana, or meditation) in part so that we can access it at other times and thus achieve an overall more peaceful and balanced existence. Sometimes, however, meditation can feel like a tedious chore, and twenty minutes can metamorphose into something that feels more like four hours. During these times our minds are trained to accept the difficulty, to breathe through it, and to come out the other side stronger and more centered, still imbued with enhanced or renewed abilities to more easily navigate the journey of daily life. Whether a short-lived struggle or a blissful oasis, meditation yields favorable results. What an incredible gift we have the ability to give ourselves.
But how exactly are we supposed to meditate? So many styles and methods exist, and I personally believe the most important thing to do is pick one and go with it. A very accessible technique for beginners which I used myself when I was first getting started is to simply sit quietly with closed eyes and, breathing slowly and deeply, count your breaths, up to 42. Go longer if you like. This counting method provides an obvious focal point for the mind, while also articulating the importance of breath. Another straightforward approach is to simply sit quietly and focus on the breath, observing the life-tide moving into and out of your body, in and out, allowing the body, mind, and breath the opportunity to merge.
From here the sky’s the limit. Some schools practice meditation standing up with the eyes open. Some people chant mantra, either silently or audibly. Some use visualization techniques, gratitude practices, and internal dialogue with their higher selves. All of these methods require focus, practice, and dedication.
While it may seem appealing to test out a bunch of different meditation techniques and in a way get to “play” with them all, many experts liken this dabbling approach to going place to place trying to find water, digging a bunch of shallow wells. They say you’ll never find the water unless you stay in one spot long enough to plumb the source, practicing one style of meditation. All approaches are equally valid -- the important thing is the practice, not its definition, as each path will eventually wind its way to your soul’s interior zen-garden. You just have to stay on the path, patiently stepping one foot in front of the other. And always remember to breathe… .