Altered states of consciousness have been an intense, driving interest of mine for over a decade. The number of states of being I have traversed (as well as the effects practices have themselves) has gradually created a top-down perspective of the phenomenon. Gratefully, I can come back to this for impartiality, an added variable to cross-reference things against to avoid drawing conclusions, and as a barometer for future explorations.
Meditation is a very simple, practical discipline that can create beneficial change. The change it can render is more a question of the quality of a person’s experience, as opposed to specific niche changes (which are there, and which will be discussed). It can also become a potent spiritual practice for some (For a large number of people, it already is), and the benefits are magnified. The experience of meditation becomes the epithet for a culture built around it as a central art. As I previously stated, I will stick to the practical.
The first thing that most people think of with reference to meditation is the sound of chanting monks in a secluded temple, and the first thing people tell themselves is, “I couldn’t possibly clear my mind”. Another misconception: Sitting cross-legged for an hour a day perfectly still, feeling at one with everything. These are unfortunate misrepresentations of meditation in its many forms and how their lives are actually impacted positively by it.
A state of confusion, ambiguity, and mystery can be easy to perpetuate when talking about meditation, and so disenfranchises people from attempting anything resembling it. I could very poetically talk about it in a way that moved me, that put me into that quality of mind, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that my words will have the same stirring quality for you. A working definition is in the description I will now provide. The reason is two-fold: To avoid an overly rigid conceptualization of it for those who are unfamiliar with it or any like-components (body awarness, breath work, martial arts), and to allow a basic practice to lay the foundation of what meditation is on an individual, experiential basis.
Continue sitting where you are, but straighten your back. Set a timer on your phone for 5 minutes with chimes or bells to alert you.
When your back is straight, you’ll automatically notice the impulse to pull your chest up; this establishes a new center of gravity.
With your back straight, begin paying attention to all of your bodily sensations. The sensation of fabric, cold or heat on the skin, muscle tension, the rise and fall of your breath. You can play around with shuttling your attention to different sensations around your body as well. Pick breathing for the moment. Take one breath and focus on the sensation and experience of breathing in. And again with the exhale, slow and rhythmic. As you do this, become aware of muscle tension in your face, eyes, scalp, chin, neck, hands, legs, feet, ect, and release it with each long, slow exhale.
Chances are, a though, or many, arose and pulled your awareness away from your focus on the breath. This is to be expected. We have minds, therefore they can become distracted. Now that you have tried the small exercise above, we can derive probably the most basic definition of meditation that can be applied to a near-limitless range of actions.
To quote Dr. Andrew Hill, “Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment, in a specific way, on purpose”, referring to Mindfulness Meditation.
The thought of training one’s attention or focus seems to be foreign to most people. For most of our lives, we are told to ‘pay attention’, are told what we should pay our attention to, with no emphasis or focus on the concept of attention itself as a quality of conscious experience.
First of all, why the breath? Why an anchor of focus at all? Simple. When you focus your attention on the breath, other thoughts will arise that pull your focus away. Gently guiding your awareness back to that anchor is the practice of meditation.
When you consider the quality of thoughts that hold your attention throughout the day, and how thinking a specific thing affects your perception of reality, your physiological and emotional states, it begins to take on some profound implications. I’m sure you’ve all had the experience of waking up late and being late to an interview or work, and your every thought between the moment the panicked realization hits you to when you walk through the door, is a darkly humorous, hysterical narrative of the systematic annihilation of your livelihood as it ripples out from the moment the alarm didn’t ring. Then, there’s that quiet moment when you walk in, still frenzied, and everything around you is calm, noone is upset with you and life goes on.
Meditation fine-tunes the intimate relationship between your thoughts, physiological stress response, and thus, your emotional state. Nervous, anxious thoughts create a stress response by increasing heart rate and releasing the stress hormone, cortisol. In other words, your nervous system and body are responding as if it were in immediate danger, even though it is only your thinking that frames it in such a way. Of course, distraction from your anchor of focus, whatever it may be, doesn’t have to be something overtly negative. It could be a wish, fantasy, ruminations of the past, planning or contemplating the future. To be at the whim of whatever thought that comes into your mind, no matter how intimately associate with it or what aspects of your personal identity you derive from it, is decidedly impractical and disadvantageous.