Creating Space in Meditation

One of my meditation clients asked me recently if I would write about the concept of space and its importance in meditation. I’m grateful for what is sure to be a challenge, so here goes.

Let’s start with a definition. Space is one of the five elements along with earth, air, fire, and water. Also referred to as ether, space is both a container for all that is and a vast expanse and emptiness. The experience of space, at least for me, is a key component that arises out of meditation practice.

Form does not differ from Emptiness
And Emptiness does not differ from Form.

Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form.*

As an element, or something of which we ourselves are comprised, if we have an imbalance of ether, either too much or too little, we will experience that symptomatically. Too much and we may feel literally “spacey” or have difficulty concentrating. Too little and we may be quite preoccupied with insignificant details or feel lack of divine connection. A balance of the element results in harmony and inspiration.

So, I don’t want to give the impression in writing about space in meditation that there is anything one should or must do in order to experience or foster space. Space is always there. We simply need to be aware of it. But if you’ll forgive me, I will bring the reader’s attention to three aspects of space for contemplation.

BODY

While we meditate, our breath itself can be the entry point to our awareness of space as we feel the space of the lungs filling and emptying. We can bring our attention to all the empty spaces in the body…between the bones, the organs, between the cells, and even between the atoms of the cells. When we feel pain, we can work to bring our breath and a sense of spaciousness into the pain and notice any shifting that results. As we sit still, we can turn our attention toward the body in space and feel how our awareness expands beyond the body.

MIND

We can also bring our attention to the space within the mind. This is accessible through the senses, such as noticing the bed of silence upon which sounds in the environment are occurring, for example, or by noticing that one perceives a smell in the room and how that odor might originate in one location and spread upon air molecules through the open space to our nostrils. We can also utilize an awareness of passing thought. When we place our attention on the silence and the gap between, it is as if we are expanding space. It seems to grow. But as I’ve said, it was always there. With this cultivated spaciousness in the mind, we can question our thoughts and inquire into our true nature.

SPIRIT

The final point, if there was a final point, could be said to be the expansion of spirit. It is the recognition that we are, in fact, both within and without that very spaciousness that we are noticing. We are both form and formlessness.

Finally, I will share a message that came to me in a dream the night that mother died. She was quite ethereal but unmistakable herself, yet she didn’t speak. We stood at a window, the sill at about waist height. She pointed with great insistence to a spot on the window sill, as if it held great importance. I followed her finger, gazing at the tiny details of dust particles that had collected. And then, we began to rise off the ground, her finger still pointing, but as we rose, more and more came into my awareness. From a focal point of a spec of dust, to the color of the paint, to the panes of glass, to the frame itself, and outward. Up and up we went, my awareness expanding to include more and more, out from the window now, to the wall, to the house, to the city, to the country, to the earth, to the sky, to the universe…and every detail was contained within the space, but the space was eternally expanding and more and more inclusive and aware of not only everything inside of itself, but of itself as well.

Rather than impose any further interpretation of this dream on you, I will refrain and let you sit with it yourself.

Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha*

(Gone, gone, gone to the Other Shore, attained the Other Shore having never left)

*from the Heart Sutra

Wait! Stop Trying to Meditate!

Despite that fact that there is now almost daily new evidence that supports the importance of and benefits received from meditation practice, there is still a lot of resistance to actually doing it. I’d like to take a look at that today. Why is it that so many people, often the people who need it the most, believe they can’t meditate or think it cannot help them?

I’m not saying it is the answer to everything nor am I claiming that one size fits all. (The latter idea is as far from my philosophy as it could be!) However, I do believe with every inch of my being that there is a form of meditation available for everyone be it through physical yoga, chanting, mindfulness, music, breathing, mudra, cooking, painting… One just has to discover what works best and then approach the activity with the proper intent.

So, what exactly are the reasons that come up for why people don’t want to meditate?

I can’t sit still that long!

I’ve heard a lot of people lay claim to this. The idea of “doing nothing”, even for 10 minutes, is too much to bear. The moment a person sits still, all the feelings, thoughts, and problems that she’s been pushing away with constant activity come flowing in like a tidal wave. It isn’t a comfortable feeling.

Early one, when I was forced to silently meditate sitting with my teachers years ago, I would be in absolute hell waiting for them to just get on with the teachings. I would hear myself begging for it to come to an end. Somewhere along the way, that agony left me. Gone. No trace. Poof!

Restlessness is a completely expected stage of meditation, often much worse in the beginning, but it also comes and goes throughout a lifetime of practice. (I can still feel restless from time to time.) If you aren’t willing to work through it, you are giving it power over you. If this is your sole reason for avoiding meditation, I urge you to simply sit with the resistance. The payoff is so worth it!

It’s boring.

There are those who experience meditation as boring. Being still, following the breath, focusing on the body is not enough to entertain the raging monkey that is the mind. These types tend to need constant stimulation and input. They need the radio or TV on, even if they aren’t listening or watching. What do they think all that stimulation is doing? It is distracting them. It is stealing their energy and making it harder for them to know themselves. It is filling them up with worthless noise and making it impossible for them to hear their own answers. It has trained them away from the subtle of life to such an extent that they actually believe the universe could ever be boring!

I actually feel worse when I meditate. My mind is so loud!

Similar to reason number one, this resistance presents itself when people have a misunderstanding of what meditation actually is. They think they are supposed to have no thoughts at all, a blank and quiet mind. But that just isn’t realistic. The stream of thought is incessant. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s a misconception to think one isn’t meditating if one is thinking. Let the thoughts come. Watch them as they do. Then watch them as they morph and go. They are fleeting even if they are torrential! Don’t give them your attention and run around trying to extinguish them. Let them be. You keep quiet!

I’m too busy/I don’t have time.

This is such an empty argument. All it means is that the person doesn’t really want to do it. Sure, meditating for 20-40 minutes is ideal, but even 5 minutes before bed is better than nothing, and I’m sorry but everybody has 5 minutes before bed. Heck, even 3 minutes of focusing on the breath and body is sure to impact your sleep and dreams in a positive way.

I meditate on my own.

There’s nothing wrong with this. I meditate on my own all the time. But when I have groups at the house, I am always blown away by the force in numbers. I’m inspired by their challenges, insights, and energies, and I am often amazed at the depth of my own meditation when others are present and we are all supporting one another. The experience is enhanced. So, if you find yourself making excuses not to go to a meditation group or class, ask yourself if you are cheating yourself of a deeper experience. There is a reason that Buddha made the Sangha one of the three refuges.

Meditation is a waste of time.

Perhaps they’ve tried and “failed”, or they’ve never even bothered to try; they’ve simply decided. Really, if someone holds this idea, then they probably just aren’t ready to meditate for whatever reason, be it deep-seated fear, religious judgment, or some self-sabotaging beliefs. But it is based on a misconception. Meditation cannot be a waste of time. It can only be wasted.

The gifts one receives from a regular meditation practice are so glorious and liberating (and yes, challenging and difficult at times), but if you remain blocked by any of the above excuses, they are a treasure you will never discover. But don’t “try” and work through these blocks; none of these block, not even the latter, are substantial. Stop trying so hard. Meditation is an effortless state of simply being.

Don’t worry. You’ll find your way. Only you can!

 

 

Meditation: Beyond the Trend

medI recently came across a fascinating article about how different types of meditation affect the brain differently written by

The article distinguishes two main types of meditation: directive and nondirective. For the sake of clarity here, directive meditation requires a focusing of the mind on something whether it be one’s breath, an object, or a thought. Nondirective meditation, on the other hand, allows the mind to rest or wander freely. In other words, there is very little effort mental exerted.

The research discovered that those in the study practicing nondirective meditation actually had more neural activity than the directive group.

Nondirective meditation led to higher activity than during rest in the part of the brain dedicated to processing self-related thoughts and feelings. When test subjects performed concentrative meditation, the activity in this part of the brain was almost the same as when they were just resting.

These results suggest that nondirective meditation is more helpful when it comes to processing our thoughts and feelings. If the whole point of one’s meditating is to “know thyself”, then it is clear which form of meditation would be more beneficial.

Last night, my meditation group worked with a Gyatri Mantra meditation, listening to a drone and powerful chanting created by one of my favorite online resources for chants, Dr. Nipun Aggarwal. Afterwords, one of my fellow meditators wanted to know whether what we had just done was the first type, directive, or second type, nondirective type of meditation.

I realized that it wasn’t so much the technique as it was the meditator that would determine which “type” of meditation was experienced. This woman expressed that she was mentally focused on counting the lines of the mantra and so felt as though it was a directive meditation. I, though, had had a nondirective experience allowing the sounds of the mantra to simply wash over me. Thoughts came and went. I do remember at one point turning my attention toward the practice of circulating energies of the Microcosmic Orbit, so there was for several minutes, a more directive experience for me as well.

This all has me asking more questions. Is is possible that these two forms of meditation, or what are classed and treated as two distinct forms of meditation, are really only one form of meditation experienced at different levels of ability? Is the goal, in other words, always nondirective meditation? Assuming the person meditating is doing it to “wake up” to the self, then wouldn’t nondirective meditation be a higher form of meditation than anything directive? In fact, what are the benefits of a more directive form of meditation if such a form doesn’t help us process our thoughts and feelings? It is merely reduced then to a form of relaxation or exercise for the mind?

I recently shared a post on Facebook how meditation is a growing trend. I commented that I was happy to see more and more people learning to meditate but not at all happy it was “trendy”. One of my friends asked me why: More people are exposed to it with greater benefit; what’s bad about that?

At the time, I didn’t much feel like trying to explain how when things go trendy, especially spiritual things, they also get watered-down and greatly misunderstood. It happened with yoga, and now, while there are of course those who do understand, many turn to yoga as a mere physical challenge, completely and ironically ignoring the body in the process. It is likely to happen with meditation as well. If people do not understand the differences between directive and nondirective meditation, there is a grave danger in masses of people thinking they are meditating when all they are actually doing is concentrating and bending the mind to will. Worse yet, there will be those who take The Mystery out of meditation completely sterilizing it in the process. I’m not saying just because it is trendy that people won’t benefit from meditation. That didn’t even cross my mind (until someone I know explained that’s how they read this). I just want everyone to have a chance to experience the best that any meditation has to offer.

Setting aside the “trend” debate, everything has its place. We all have to start somewhere, and often, directive forms of meditation are the easiest. It’s where I started. I suspect it’s where most of us start. I’m not claiming to know that nondirective meditation is somehow superior to directive forms, either. I’m merely asking the questions and sensing what has been true for me. I love many different forms of meditation, including directive. But I must say, for me, the most transformative of experiences have been resting in the wide (and wise)  open space of the self, being still but observant, free from efforting, concentrating, and controlling anything. It took a nondirective practice for me to experience that.