by J. Brown
Hype surrounding meditation abounds. Wherever you look, someone is extolling the virtues of meditation while unwittingly sabotaging its occurrence. The intent is to help people better manage stress and enjoy more fulfilling lives. But what many refer to as meditation is often nothing of the sort and, with all the grandiose claims being bandied about, easily engenders more problems than it solves.
From a technical standpoint, there are rarely any distinctions being made between the yogic concept of meditation and what are readily being called “mindfulness exercises.” Even among yoga teachers and experienced practitioners, there is not much clarity regarding the last three limbs of Patanjali’s eight-fold path. The principles of dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (enstasy) are often being lumped together. Without getting mired in the semantics of ancient sanskrit words or in the subtle aspects of mind and experience, what is important to note is that there is little guidance being offered as to how any of the ideals being touted might be brought to fruition. Consequently, meditation becomes a magic pill that relies upon placebo effect and creates a dissociative hamster-wheel of seeking.
This happens with particular irony in the yoga world, where meditation is heralded as a badge of legitimacy. To say that “I meditate” is a way of signifying depth, that someone’s practice is not just a physical workout. Yet, more often than not, the practice is just a physical workout with a few minutes of sitting thrown in at the end so that people can tell others that they meditate. The actual practice amounts to a sweaty aerobic activity involving yoga poses where the heart rate is up, the mind goes out, and the “flow” takes over. Meditation is thought to happen when the focus goes inward and the mind is brought present and calmed. However, the few minutes of the runner’s high buzz that is enjoyed for some brief moments following the barrage of a standard vinyasa class are not likely to produce the many benefits that teachers espouse and we see listed throughout media outlets.
As J. Krishnamurti, one of the first pioneers of yoga philosophy in the West, put it: “Don’t fool yourself by all the books they write about meditation, all the people that come to tell you how to meditate, or the groups that are formed in order to meditate. We must be clear what it is that we are seeking, each one of us. When we say we are seeking truth or we are seeking God or we are seeking a perfect life and so on, we must already have in our mind a pattern or an image or an idea of what it is. So in seeking, is there not implied in that word, that we have lost something and we are going to find it? The first thing to realize is not to seek.”
The suggestion is that the context in which an endeavor for understanding meditation takes place determines the outcome of the endeavor. When we are told that meditation will alleviate everything from emotional imbalance to Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and will bring about everything from increased fertility to a knowledge of our true selves and maybe even enlightenment, its kind of hard to not be seeking for those things when we are sitting uncomfortably waiting for the allotted time to be done. And if we are seeking for something, whatever it may be, then we ensure its absence.
Listening to Deepak Chopra give a guided visualization about our inter-connectedness to nature and universal consciousness is a beautiful thing that likely has a positive affect for many. But this is not meditation. Nor is observing breath, chanting mantras, performing physical postures or sitting still. These sorts of techniques are intended to be a vehicle for concentrating the mind and easing the body, whereby some conditions are encouraged that tend towards an experience of meditation. But these techniques are not meditation in and of themselves.
The distinction between “mindfulness exercises” and the potential gifts that come from engaging in them is profoundly important. Yoga classes that are working the body in an aggresive manner or are placing too high an emphasis on accomplishing form are not setting a stage that allows for meditation. If the student is striving in practice, inadvertently or not, then this will most certainly find its way into any seated repose. And attempting to meditate as an activity, rather than understanding it to be the natural result of mindful practice, imposes a sense of lacking when there is none.
Meditation is a description of what happens as a consequence of healthy choices, not a prescription for bringing them about. When we have an intimate relationship with our actual lives, it simply occurs. Stop meditating. Learn to take pleasure in a regular practice that soothes the system and the rest is coming.
J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy in Practice, Yoga Therapy Today and the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. Visit his website at yogijbrown.com