There’s So Much More in the Genre of Meditation than Just Sitting Still and Doing Nothing
As a teacher of Kundalini Yoga, often I meet people and get into a conversation about meditation. Sometimes they confide in me, somewhat disheartened, that they’ve tried to meditate but “just couldn’t get into it”. They say things like that they couldn’t sit comfortably, that they were too fidgety or that their mind was too busy to meditate. Sometimes they say that they found it just plain boring…
Now “boredom” is a whole other topic for another day, but for now, let it be known that when beginning a new meditation practice, it should definitely not be boring. Quite the contrary, you should find yourself excited, even giddyat this new amazing thing you’ve found, eager for the next opportunity to practice it.
If you aren’t feeling this way, then something indeed isn’t right. Usually people blame themselves saying things like “I’m just too stressed” or “My mind is just too busy to meditate”.
But what if the problem isn’t you? What if you just haven’t found the right form of meditation? Did you know that this business of “sitting still and watching the thoughts” is just one style in a vast ocean that is the genre of meditation? There are literally dozens of ways to meditate. You needn’t be silent or sit still to meditate, or even sit at all!
Don’t get me wrong. The “sitting still” meditation is a very valid practice. But why for 99% of people in our modern culture is it the first and only thing they think of when meditation is mentioned? Where does this practice even come from?
The answer is Zen Buddhism. This type of meditation actually has a specific name. It is called “zazen” and it’s the core part of the Zen Buddhist practice. Zen is also the basis for the whole “Mindfulness” practice which has become very popular. In some sense, Mindfulness is Zen philosophy reduced down to a more Western–palatable dose. The popular meditation app, Headspace, was founded by a former Buddhist monk. Zen is a great practice and if it’s working for you then wonderful, but there are reasons why it’s not always the best fit for us.
One reason is that practically speaking, it is very difficult to go from the hi-octane state of mind in which many of us find ourselves in modern living, and drop immediately into a Zen–style meditation session. With the mind in it’s hyper-stimulated state, and the body restless from insufficient exercise, for any meditator, especially a beginner, it’s like trying to stop a train and reverse it. Keep in mind the traditional practitioners of Zen Buddhism were monks living a much more simplistic (though not easy!) lifestyle than many of us find ourselves in.
A Brief Tour of the Genre of Meditation
It’s my hope that this article will expand your notion of what meditation is and inspire you to find a style that’s most suitable with your personality and that you can enjoy. So let’s take a look at some of the techniques in the diverse genre of meditation…
If you have a busy mind, mantra — the chanting of primal sounds and sacred phrases — is one of the best tools to help you meditate. Rather than encouraging you to disengage from the mind, it gives the mind something to “chew on”. The word itself breaks down into “man” which means “mind” and “tra” with means “to project”. In other words, we project our thoughts away from the mundane, onto elevated states through the primal sounds of the mantra.
“Japa” is the simplest form of mantra meditation. This is where you repeat a simple a mantra over and over again rhythmically, perhaps getting yourself a nice mala (string of beads) to help count. Now both your fingers and the mind have something to “fidget” with. Try this one for ecstasy: “Wah Hey G’roo, Wah…”
Singing along to mantra set to devotional music is a powerful meditation which elevates the mood. Or if you want something a little trippier try chanting along with 21 Brahmins to the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra in this video!
Pranayama (Breath Meditations)
“Prana” is the yogic term for the life force of the body. “Pranayama” are meditations that work with the subtle flows of this energy, mainly using the breath. Pranayama is itself a vast genre covering all kinds of purposes and intensities.
Nadi Shodana, or Alternate Nostril Breath, is a classic. Also try Minute Breath: Inhale for 5 seconds, hold for the same time and then exhale for the same time. Gradually build the time up to 20 seconds for each of the three segments. Slowing the breath down has a deep impact on brain functioning, the mood, emotions, cognitive ability, creativity and other aspects, particularly those involved with coordination between the two hemispheres.
Interestingly there is another component of the Zen Buddhist meditation practice that, traditionally, is intermixed with the sitting “zazen” sessions. Mindful walking uses the same principles but instead of sitting you walk in a circle with a steady, measured pace and downward gaze.
In the Kundalini Yoga tradition of Yogi Bhajan there is an ancient technique rebranded in modern terms as “Breathwalk” which involves synchronising breath, mudra (hand/finger positions), eye focus and mantra as you walk. It can turn a 30 min walk into a surprisingly profound and blissful experience.
Dancing, itself, originates as a meditative and holistic mind-body-spirit practice. The idea is rather than disengage the mind, you involve it fully in order to enter into a flow where eventually it relaxes into pure presence. The Sufi Whirling Dervishes have practiced this art for centuries.
The Greco-Armenian mystic Gurdjieff worked extensively with this practice creating mesmerising, multi-person sequences. The gestures contained within them speak the symbolic language of the subconscious and the experience of the dancer as she loses track of her individuality is one of a blissful merger with the surroundings and a keenly heightened sense of the present moment.
Visualisation meditations involve harnessing the imaginative mind where you concentrate — literally image in — to create virtual sensory stimuli: sights in the minds eye, sounds in your inner ear, imagined sensations on your skin. Concentration, as we learned previously, is a prerequisite to meditation.
In Yoga Nidra for instance, you relax the body while keeping the mind alert as a narrator walks you through your senses and eventually into a detailed imaginative journey with various open ended portions which allow you to explore hidden components of your subconscious mind.
Another form of visual meditation, yantras, are like visual mantras. We see them frequently as those circular works of art that contain geometric patterns or “mandalas” with beautiful ornate deities or Buddhas or aerial views of a temple layout. Meditators sometimes attempt to visually memorise them so they can be reconstructed in detail in the mind’s eye.
In the European Hermetic traditions, practitioners develop potency of thought and speech by honing the imagination. The 20th century English mystic W. G. Gray describes a simple meditation: Imagine you are holding a glass ball in your hands observing keenly its texture and weight. Then imagine the ball is wood, then ice, then gold, stone, feathers, and so on. With each you concentrate the imagination until eventually the sensations are as if the experience is real.
“Kriya” is a whole genre of meditative practices spanning many cultures often in different names. They include single as well as sequenced combinations of mudra (hand, arm, or other limb gestures), breath control, mantra, and asana (held or dynamic body positions). Their benefits tend to be quite specific ranging from healing the body to experiencing various states and aspects of higher consciousness such as universal compassion and subtle bodies beyond the physical.
Here are a few examples of kriyas from the Kundalini Yoga tradition. Also you might want to check out the Yogananda Kriya Yoga schools, Osho, this Sivananda inspired book, and Tibetan Dzogchen (practiced by the Dalai Lama).
Meditation Belongs to Humans
Meditation, whether trendy or obscure, is not a fad or hobby. It’s as fundamental to a healthy human life as brushing our teeth and getting sufficient exercise and rest. No group of people own it and it requires no belief system in order to experience it’s effects. Meditation is another operation of the mind distinct from logical computation. In fact, it is a meta-operation, one through which we can see behind the inner workings of the other mind processes and consequently is an antidote to many of the ills of our modern civilisation from depression to aggression, relationship troubles, and even physical health. I hope this brief tour has give you some fresh inspiration to pursue your own meditation practice.
Please don’t hesitate to ask questions or recommend other genres in the comments...
Hari Karam Singh