On learning to meditate
Lucia Cockcroft of Satvada Retreats says it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters when we’re learning to meditate
I’m sitting on a chilly, unyielding floor with 50 other students. It’s 5.40am and pitch black; the October northern-California dawn still an hour away. I’m cold, uncomfortable and frankly fed up with focusing (or attempting to) on my breath. I long for this meditation practice to be over, yet there’s a long 20 minutes still to go until the end gong is sounded. Running away is not an option, as I’m spending a month training to be a yoga teacher, and a no-show leads to a black mark, and possible failure at the end of the course. Reeling back exactly six years, I’m recounting a typical morning during my first intensive experience of meditation, having dabbled for half a dozen years beforehand, mainly in the context of attending yoga classes. It’s safe to say I’m not enjoying this aspect of my yoga teacher training – and looking back, I understand why.
At the best of times, meditation is not easy. It’s not by chance ancient yogis called the human mind ‘monkey mind’ and modern Spiritual leader Ekhart Tolle said that, without awareness, ‘the mind, which has incredible momentum, will drag you along like a wild river.’ It seemed there were a thousand internal wild rivers inside my head over that extraordinary month, all competing to drag and bounce my thoughts one way, then another, without – it seemed – a moment’s peace. Looking back, although I loved the yoga side of the course (which was brilliantly taught), I have real misgivings about how the meditation aspect of my teacher training course was presented. The instruction was simply to ‘focus on the breath’, or ‘come back to the breath’. And because every micro-second of trying to do this – trying to control my mind enough to ‘focus on the breath’ – was a struggle, I thought I simply wasn’t able meditate, and rebuked myself constantly for being a ‘bad’ student.
Unfortunately, albeit in a less intense setting, this first real experience of meditation – the apparent impossibility of the task and self-directed frustration I experienced – is common, and a massive reason why many people have a go at meditation, and then, disillusioned, never try again. Furthermore, a combination of inaccurate reporting in the press and poor teaching have combined to create a string of misconceptions about what meditation is and how to ‘do it’.
In my experience, here are the most pressing general inaccuracies:
- Meditation is about blanking one’s mind of everything: thoughts, feelings, fluctuations.
- Meditation is just about being with the breath.
- Meditation is about thinking about the breath.
- Meditation has to be practised in Lotus position or crossed-legged on the floor.
Whereas a more accurate summary (in the mindfulness tradition) might be:
- Meditation is not about suddenly having no thoughts. In the words of perhaps the world’s most foremost secular meditation teacher practising today, Jon Kabat-Zinn, if you try to clear your mind of thoughts, you’ll end up with a gigantic headache.
- Rather, meditation is a process of becoming familiar with our minds by observing its tendencies (are you a forward or backward planner?) in a patient, open, non-judgemental way.
- The task is not to think about the breath but to feel or sense its flow within the body. This is key.
- There are an unlimited number of ways to meditate. We can be lying down, standing, walking, sitting. In fact, everything we do can be a meditation, if we are present to the task at hand, whether it’s eating, showering, chatting to a friend, washing up.
In fact, the endless versatility of the mindfulness practice and its potential to transform everyday experience – together with its disarming simplicity (which is not to say ease) – are major reasons for its current massive popularity in the West.
Mindfulness simply means attending to our current experience, usually through the body’s direct sensory experience: the tastes and smells accompanied by eating; the temperature of water on skin; truly being present to what your friend is saying; noticing the bubbles in the washing-up bowl!
Good meditation teachers will continually point out that getting caught up in the mind’s thinking and chatter is everyone’s experience, and in no way bad or wrong; the task being to continually and patiently return to the object of focus – breath or otherwise.
I can’t help wishing my early experience of intensive meditation practice had been more positive and it had been explained – just once – that if I was still thinking a lot, I wasn’t ‘doing it wrong’.
But I’ll always be grateful that I stuck with it after the course ended, and hope that – if you’re interested – you will have a go for a few months and see where it takes you. Just remember it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.
- Home practice: Mindfulness of Breathing
Sit on a chair, or, if you are comfortable on the floor, on several blocks or cushions, hips higher than knees. Otherwise, lie down with a blanket over you. Give up any intention to breathe in any particular way. Simply become aware that you are breathing. Feel (or sense) where the breath is resting in the body; its tone, and texture. Notice whether the inhale or exhale feels longer, naturally. The idea isn’t to change the breath in any way, or to think about it, but to feel its presence. Be open, curious and patient. Thoughts will come crowding in. Allow this to happen – it’s natural and in no way incorrect. Patiently keep folding the layers of your attention back to the felt breath, when the mind wanders. Oserve kindly where the mind has gone – planning an event in the future, perhaps, or mulling over something that happened last week. Allow the breath to be an anchor for your awareness.
Aim to practice every day for ten minutes, building up to 20 in time.
Explore mindfulness more
Yoga and mindfulness teacher Lucia Cockcroft of Satvada Retreats organises brilliant, accessible mindfulness and yoga retreats around the world. Find out more about them or contact Lucia directly from our reviews on Satvada Retreats in England and Morocco. You can also read Lucia’s thoughts on being mindful, on embracing resistance, on technology and on mindful travel in our Journal.