What Meditation Isn’t

by Lola Rephann

Meditation is a word that has been often mis-used in our modern Western society. It’s sometimes used to mean daydreaming, thinking intently about something, or contemplation, but meditation actually is none of these things.

Meditation is a specific technique for resting the mind.

Even “rest” in our society is often misconstrued. We think “rest” is sitting in front of the TV and watching a violent movie, binging on politics shows, or going shopping on the weekend in a crowded mall, sitting in traffic, and then possibly stressing when you see the credit card bill later. In all of these activities, neither the body nor the mind is at rest.

If you feel worn down, stressed, and like you’re running on empty most of the time, meditation can help! But you may feel confused or unsure about where to start because meditation is something vegan saints who can sit in lotus position for hours do, right?

So let’s clear up that misconception right away. Meditation isn’t something for the enlightened and flexible. You don’t get asked to join the Meditation Club because you’re so zen or loose-limbed. You earn your seat in the Meditation Club, and it starts simply by…starting.

Meditation is a process of becoming aware. In the 8 Limbs of Yoga model, concentration, or dharana, comes before meditation, or dhyana. It is a priori. Before there is meditation, concentration must be present. Without concentration, meditation doesn’t happen. So one thing meditation is not is “stopping your thoughts.” This would be impossible, anyway. This is what human mind does: thinks. Through meditation, we find there is another layer of our being, beneath the ever-active mind.

So meditation is first concentration. Concentration on an anchor, or a place to rest your attention. It could be your breath, counting the inhale/exhale or feeling the inhale/exhale. It could be on a sound, like the syllable Om. It could be on an image. But we’re getting away from the topic now. Let’s return. Meditation is first concentration.

See what I did there? “Let’s return.” It’s a phrase you’ll encounter time and again in the practice of meditation. You notice your concentration has been broken? Let’s return. You notice you’ve gone off on a daydream? Let’s return. You feel yourself drifting away from the anchor? You simply return, to whatever it was anchoring you there. You may do this a thousand times in the course of one session. This is the practice.

As you do this, you will see the contents of your mind. It is full of thoughts. Desire, lassitude, envy, boredom, anger. Don’t be alarmed at this. It may be the first time you become truly and fully aware just what is going on up there. The aim of meditation is not having a mind free and clear of any activity, as if you pressed “pause” and the soundtrack of your mind just stopped. Meditation is not sanitizing or censoring your thoughts so the only ones that appear are pure and good and somehow pass the test of the types of thoughts people who meditate ought to be having. There are no shoulds or oughts in meditation.

Meditation is becoming aware of your thoughts, your sense perceptions, and the effect thoughts and sense perceptions have on your mind and emotions. Meditation is a process of becoming more compassionate with yourself, because you see that the very nature of human mind is unruly, all over the place, without structure or order and very prone to distraction. Meditation is a process of becoming more acquainted with your true self, the essential self that is peaceful, still, content, joyous and always there. Beneath the churning river of thoughts at the surface is a still, peaceful clear layer of mind.

Some people might call this essential self “spirit.” In yoga, it’s sometimes referred to as the “atman.” We all have this, but for many of us the experience of this complete, settled, and wholly intelligent presence is something we only rarely, if ever experience, and often the experience of it is spontaneous, not something we experience regularly. Meditation is the technique for repeatedly visiting your true self. It is purposeful, intentional, and it works.

The more we practice meditation, the more we become familiar with this aspect of ourselves. This is not a cerebral or analytical or book learning way of coming to know ourselves. It is not done through talking or moving. It is done by being quiet and still. Only through experience can we taste and know our essential self, the part of us that is always clear, always present, always there.

When we first start meditating, we are practicing concentration. It takes a lot of concentration to just focus on inhaling and exhaling and noticing when we become distracted. For many of us, as soon as we close our eyes we get distracted. Immediately! It is humbling to see how easily and quickly our thoughts start swirling around. It’s as if a hundred monkeys were in a room and as soon as you turned your back, the monkeys started going absolutely bezerk! But with practice, the monkeys start to behave. They become quieter. It’s a nickname many meditation teachers use for undisciplined or unskilled mind: monkey mind. It’s because the mind is mischievous and hyper-active, like a naughty monkey.

So first we just concentrate. We just sit and notice our breath for as long as we can, using a simple anchor like noting “inhale” and “exhale” or maybe counting the breath. We practice noticing when we become distracted by thoughts and then we label that too: “thinking.” Thinking is just a thing that happens. We’re human. We shouldn’t expect to be able to concentrate on anything until we develop the skill. So we note “thinking” because it’s as banal and commonplace as saying “gezundheit” when someone sneezes. Big deal. You note it and move on. Each time you notice you’re thinking, you go back to your anchor. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Thinking, thinking, thinking. Inhale, exhale.

In time, the space between thoughts grows longer and longer. The mind gets quieter. You find yourself getting distracted less. When this condition has become firmly established, then you could say you are entering a state of meditation.

Lola Rephann has been practicing yoga for over 15 years. Her teaching is informed by mindfulness, the felt sense, and the breath. Lola studies Forrest Yoga, Yin Yoga, hatha/vinyasa yoga, thai yoga massage, and reiki. She seeks to bring each practitioner to a place of stillness and awareness, where healing happens naturally. Lola teaches Hot Slow Flow on Wednesday & Friday at 6:45pm and Saturday 9:15am, Open Meditation on Wednesday and Friday at 8:10pm and Yin Yoga and Meditation on Sunday at 10:30am. Register for one of Lola’s classes here.