Have you ever asked yourself? What is Meditation? As a practitioner, I have been asked this question many times by persons interested in starting meditation. I like to bounce such a question back to the person asking. But what do you think meditation is? Usually, the following one of two replies is most likely. Either that meditation is engaging in deep thought. An understanding rooted in western philosophy probably emerging from Descartes. Or the opposite, that meditation is having no thoughts. Both of these are misconceptions. So, the question remains. What is meditation?
As a long time, practitioner, I periodically ask myself the same question. What is meditation? And what came to mind today on reflection after my daily practice was the “white polar bear experiment”. So, let’s do an exercise together.
First let’s sit down close your eyes and imagine a “white polar bear” for approximately the next two minutes. After that when ready for the next two minutes you can think about anything except a “white polar bear”. And the third exercise don’t think, especially about a “white polar bear”. Ready what happened?
Usually what happens is that in the second and third exercise the thought of the “white polar bear” keeps coming up. Unbecomingly it seems that the harder you try not to think about it. Frustratingly the stronger the thought of the “white polar bear” keeps coming up. This is how our minds work. And this example illustrates well what the practice of meditation is.
Because meditation as a contemplative practice is neither engaging in deep thought. Which just creates more thoughts. Likely creating a cascade of thoughts which could result in excessive worry and anxiety or general mental unrest. As we saw in the exercise of the “white polar bear”. Nor it is not thinking. As it seems that the harder, we try not to think about something the more it seems to come to mind.
Meditation is cultivating awareness, “mindfulness”.
So, let’s sit down and invite our friend the “white polar bear”. But this time when the thought of the white polar bear comes up, don’t block it either resist it, but let it come to awareness. Next, observe it for what it is. A thought of a “white polar bear”. Keep observing it holding it in awareness with a curious kind and gentle attitude.
You might start to notice that when you gently openly hold the thought without resisting it, it starts to get lighter. You might even notice a subtle sense of the thought dissolving. While at the same time as if there is a light string attached to it. Gently let go of the string and observe how it dissolves. Likewise, if the thought of the polar bear comes up again acknowledge it hold it in awareness. Observe it for what it is a thought and notice its nature. How our thoughts seem to arise and fall. Like the analogy used by Sogyal Rinpoche (2002) of the thoughts as being clouds gently passing through the sky (p. 49).
As Rinpoche and Swanson (2007) explain in their book that, “meditation is actually very simple exercise in resting in the natural state of your present mind, and allowing yourself to be simply and clearly present to whatever thoughts, sensations, or emotions occur” (p. 130). They continue, that meditation is not, not to think, as it’s the natural function of the mind to generate thoughts. “The real point of meditation is to rest in bare awareness whether anything occurs or not. Whatever comes up for you, just be open and present to it, and let it go. And if nothing occurs, or if thoughts and so on vanish before you can notice them, just rest in that natural clarity” (Rinpoche & Swanson, 2007, p. 131).
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Rinpoche, S. (2002). The Tibetan book of living and dying (Revised and updated ed.). (P. Gaffney, & A. Harvey, Eds.) New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
Rinpoche, Y. M., & Swanson, E. (2007). The joy of living: Unlocking the secret and science of happiness. New York, NY: Random House Inc.
Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(1), 5-13.