The Curious Mind, Episode 5: An introduction to Meditation
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Introduction to meditation
05. An introduction to meditation In this episode I provide a basic background to meditation and discuss an aspect which is necessary in order to make our meditation successful - 'mental home'. This is the place we usually occupy in our mind and which we need to change so that the meditation can serve as a real 'vacation', to support our self-development and the experience of joy. For online therapy visit: https://www.elliscounselling.com/ https://www.facebook.com/elliscounselling/
Today I would like to provide an introduction to meditation, not in the sense that I would give you a meditation instruction or do a guided meditation. There are plenty of apps, audio tapes and YouTube videos for that. I rather want to discuss what meditation is all about, to provide some historical context and the logic behind it all.
first, to give you a little bit about my own background: after some general interest in philosophy and spiritual traditions, around the year 2000 I came across a translation of the oldest Buddhist texts and was immediately fascinated. Then I read and studied them and finally in 2004 I went to Shri Lanka to attend my first extended meditation retreat for about 3 months. Since then I have had a more or less continues meditation practice with extended retreats and monastery stays anything between 3 and 9 months and also continued my scholarly research. Two years ago I started my PhD thesis about early Buddhism at Warsaw University and will finish writing my thesis at the end of this year.
In terms of meditation my focus was mostly on historical Buddhism in the so called theravada tradition of Thailand and Myanmar - which simply means that I didn't deal much with Zen or Tibetan meditation So what was the meaning of meditationat the time of the Buddha and before? If you look into esoterik literature many traditions will claim that their spiritual practice and for example yoga has been around for thousands of years. These claims are not scientific and are based on legendary accounts. What we can historically confirm is that before the Buddha there was some ritual devotional practice, and some sort of meditation, but not in the sense that we understand it today.
What spiritual seekers practiced back then was severe practice of austerity, like fasting, standing motionless for hours, or lying in the direct sun on the ground for the whole day. These austere practices were meant to eliminate the attachment to the body and to free oneself from sensual desires. but they were very painful, which was kinda the point.
The Buddha basically agreed that our attachment to sensual desires leads to many problems - this attitude was a shared attitude of north east India at that time. But we can also say with certainty that the Buddha introduced to the world stage meditations which were utilizing the experience of pleasure and even extatic joy, the so-called Samadhi.
This was not just a pleasant alternative to the severe previous practices - he saw Samadhi as absolutely necessary in order to liberate the mind step by step until the eventual final liberation of the mind, which is also known as Nirvana or Nibbana, whatever that means.
So what is necessary in order to bring about this joy, freedom, or Samadhi? You will often find methods that involve concentrating on the breath, a light, a mantra, some mental image, or an attitude of loving kindness. Or you will find instructions for mindfulness, to 'let go' and not be attached to your thoughts. I think that all of these methods can eventually be effective. But what I would like to do is to shed some light on something more fundamental that needs to happen in meditation. What the ancient Indians, and especially the Buddha, understood is that the mind, which can be open and flexible is nevertheless usually fixed in a very specific place, a fixed location, a home base. In most cases this home base if fixed at the point which deals with our accomplishments, frustrations, fears and hopes. This is why so many people say that they can't stop thinking - the fixation of the mind is exactly where they try to figure out how to solve their problems. It's like binding someone to a chair and force them to watch a particular TV channel.
The solution for most people is to take the mind on a vacation, be it with sport, dancing, sex, an actual vacation, recreational drugs, shows, or music. All these tools are valid within themselves, but they have some disatvantages as well: They are relatively close to the fixation point (which means the mind can go back to its fixed state relatively quickly) and they are dependent on some objects to make them happen - which means that my real or metaphorical vacations have to be organized in the outside world, with more or less success.
I meditation on the other hand what is necessary is that I become aware that I AM STUCK WITH THE EMOTIONS OF THE ISSUES because I am stuck at a very specific location in my mind. If I don't change my mental homebase, if I don't move to an entirely different neighborhood in my mind, then it doesn't matter if I concentrate on my breath for an hour - the moment I stop the thoughts will be back, because I built my house in 'thought-city', so to speak.
So what is necessary is that while I'm doing my concentration or mindfulness exercises I am very aware that I have to move my mental homebase to another location. What are the characteristics of this new place, and how do I get there? These are of course the questions which nonetheless can't be answered in a simple way. BUT I know what is NOT happening in this new homebase: for sure no negative thoughts and feelings, and for sure this new samadhi homebase is not a war-zone - it's free from friction, free from the fear to be taken over by negativity. It's even free from POSITIVE thinking, because in the mind positive thinking and negative thinking take place at a very similar place.
At this point this new homebase sounds like a magical island with no actual map to go there. And in a way this is true. We might have learned in our past how to navigate life more or less, but we tipically have not learned how to move the fixed location of our minds.
I would argue that we can still go there, namely by giving our unconscious precise instructions for where you want to go. It's as if Aladin tells his flying carpet: "please take me to that place that is peaceful and free from thoughts and normal emotions". Now, of course this won't instantly work. Because over the past decades you were telling your flying carpet: "Please take me to the land of thoughts, unfulfilled fantasies, and the fear of failing".
What it means is that it's necessary to do course corrections all the time. This is where the alertness is essential - to catch myself sending other messages to my carpet ride and to do a course correction, stating again very clearly where I want to go. You might recognise the implications if you have done some meditation before. Of course I need to have a gentle attitude towards myself doing this. How else would I expect my flying carpet to take me to a new peaceful place, if I have over-critical or even resentful attitude towards myself? If I have made myself comfortable living in a self-critical home I cannot expect my unconscious to take me somewhere else. So the first step would be to become UNCOMFORTABLE at this self-critical home, doubting that this is where I'm supposed to be, and by developing an accepting benevolent attitude towards myself. And this is how ideally a personal development, an ethical development, and meditation would go hand in hand - by continuously becoming more comfortable at a new place, a new home base of mental peace and making myself UNcomfortable at my habitual mental place of overthinking, worries, and self-criticism.
As I said in the beginning, this is not really a meditation instruction, but an attitude and a perspective which is necessary so that whatever meditation practice you do has a chance to be fruitful and go in the right direction.