A stressful world

In recent years, developments in science, technology and industry have accelerated. So have trends, and every season we are under pressure to dress in the latest style, to change our hairstyles, our eating habits, even where we put the fur niture. Thousands of new book titles appear every year, chal lenging us to be well read and up to date, while dozens of TV channels and radio stations vie for your attention and sub scription. Coupled with this is the fact that few of us have only a job to worry about, or children, or the household, or our health. Most of us are juggling several of these at one time, as well as trying to keep up with all the changes around us. Further, almost all of us struggle to be everything to all people: caring parent, fun-loving but sympathetic friend, dutiful child, and efficient employee.

While our minds reel with all these demands, our bodies develop tension headaches and muscular pains. We can’t get to sleep at night, we drink and smoke too much, our relation ships falter, our self-esteem plummets and our health suffers. Our world is undoubtedly a very stressful place, but learning to cope with stress is not the impossible task it may at first seem. What we have to learn is that our usual reactions to stress, such as drinking more heavily or pushing ourselves harder at work, are only making it worse, Physical exercise and relaxation go some way to redressing the balance, but our minds also require attention. After all, relaxed and happy peo ple are healthier than stressed and miserable ones. We have to learn how to take a step back, clear our heads

take a deep breath, and just be. If, for just a few minutes every day, everyone in the world did that, there would be considerably less heartache and strife.

Towards contentment:

In the words of the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, The world of those who are happy is different from the world of those who are not.’ Meditation is the art of transcending our everyday thought processes and world view, if only for a very short period of time every other day. Our minds briefly escape the tyranny of worry and self-image, and we begin to get a sense of who we truly are and what we truly feel. If practised regularly, meditation will enhance our feelings of self-worth, and inevitably this will be reflected in the way we see the world. In short, by learning to like ourselves, we will also learn to like the world.

Meditation has physical benefits too. By enabling us to access inner calm, it helps us to alleviate stress, which is being linked to more and more physical ailments, from mi graine to high blood pressure to heart and lung conditions. Meditation has also shown itself to be effective in the battle against addiction to alcohol and cigarettes.

Buddhism holds meditation at the heart of its practice, as do the other great oriental religions, such as Hinduism, whose most influential book, Bhagavad Gita, devotes an entire section to the practice of meditation and Sufism. In religious meditation, the sense of self-worth is linked to a feeling of being closer to God. Meditation also has its place in West em religions, such as Christianity and Judaism, but it does not require adherence to a particular faith to be successful. Many people view meditation as peaceful but ineffectual self-centredness – in the words of one cynic. ‘a form of self indulgent, passive introversion. They are wrong – the ben efits to be gained from meditation in any of its various forms are many. Those who meditate regularly believe that it leads to a significant lowering of tension and negative emotions, while at the same time increasing efficiency at work and

deepening the sense of inner calm. This feeling of wellbeing brings physical benefits, for regu lar meditation eliminates or reduces stress, and who in the helter-skelter days of the beginning of the twenty-first cen tury does not experience stress at some time or other? In reducing stress, meditation can ease migraine and tension headaches, reduce blood pressure, benefit the heart and re duce the discomfort of menstrual cramps.

What is meditation?

In its simplest form, meditation is nothing more than allow ing the mind to be lulled by a simple repetitive sensation – waves lapping on the beach, the tinkling of water from a fountain, repeating a word or sound over and over again, even something as mundane as the sound of machinery. Any of these, and countless others, can be used as something on which the mind focuses itself completely, thus putting worry and anxiety on the back-burner for a while. We have all done this naturally at some time or another: you may have gazed

into a beautiful sunset and become absorbed in the flames of colour, or been seduced by the lapping of waves on the sea. shore and the heat from the sun, or even simply closed your eyes and savoured the taste of a delicious meal. Children are much better at this than adults. Think of a child, bent over half-finished painting, and think of the number of times be or she has to be called before they hear you telling them that their lunch is ready? The child is not ignoring you, he or she is simply too wrapped up in what they are doing to be dis tracted by anyone or anything.

Put simply, meditation is me-time in its purest form: it is just being and letting the world around you just be as well. Used in a religious context, meditation is a means of com muning directly with God, of focusing completely on him. and of seeing the world without the blinkers of selfish, worldly thought.

Meditation need not be a time-consuming process (twenty minutes a day are all that is needed). Practised properly, it is a voyage during which preconceived notions and ideas fade, the senses and the intellect are refined, and the ability to concentrate is increased,

Its benefits quickly become apparent, and those who prac tise it often say that the day they first took to meditation on a regular basis was a watershed in their lives.

What meditation is not: Self-hypnosis

Which requires the participant to reach a state of semicon scious trance. Meditation is very much about the ‘here and now and its aim is to enable the meditator to live in the moment.

 Relaxation

Which is essentially passive, whereas meditation is an an tive focusing of the mind. While meditation attempts to tran scend the normal thought processes. relaxation will often engage those very patterns of thought. However, meditation can be a great aid to relaxation, and relaxation a great aid to meditation

Necessarily tied to a religion

Although meditation is used in all world religions, it does not specifically belong to any one nor is there any need for it to be tied to religion at all. Meditation can prove just as posi tive and spiritual an experience for an atheist as for a Bud dhist.

Concentration

Which can be a means of achieving transcendence, but is not the object of the exercise. Concentrating on one thing is only a means to clearing the mind of all other thoughts. The object of your concentration is not important in itself, and. in fact, many meditators choose deliberately meaningless words or objects on which to concentrate for this very rea son

Stilling the mind

All day, every day, our minds are whirling to the tune of their own internal drama’. Not only are we subject to con stant sensory input, from the rumble of traffic to that of our stomachs, but our reaction to every single incident, every crap of memory, every concern about the future, be it to morrow, next week. or after we die, are all tumbling through our minds like a noisy machine-load of multicoloured wash ing Often, after a hectic day at work, or a row with a partner or friend, it is very difficult to switch off.

Who hasn’t, at one time or another, wasted an entire evening ranting about someone at work who has annoyed them? And who has never been told, when extremely upset or angry. that we aren’t ourselves”? Because, when this internal shout ing match is never still, we are never at peace, and who we really are is completely overwhelmed by our emotions. We become the sum total of our thoughts, rather than the insti gator and controller of them.To stop this, the mind must be stilled, all thoughts put onhold.

To rediscover that our thoughts are under our control is incredibly liberating and empowering. We must realise that we do not have to fail at giving up smoking just because we have all the previous times and a little voice is telling us that we are weak-willed and won’t be able to cope: You do not have to avoid doing certain things just because your mind runs through its catalogue of fears every time you try to break the cycle Taking control enables you to see things as they really are. without being hindered by associative thoughts. Taking con trol allows us to respond more appropriately, because our re sponse is direct, based on the here and now. Regular meditation helps you to live in the here and now, and to see yourself as the controller of your own mind and thoughts. In so doing,it also helps you to truly experience what happens to you

Meditation and contemplation

Confusion sometimes arises when the words ‘meditation and contemplation’ are used interchangeably. A working distinction between the two is that meditation can be con sidered a preparatory step and contributory to the achieve ment of contemplation.

Meditation involves concentration narrowing the focus of attention to a single theme, catechism or doctrine while re- maintaining cognitive and intellectual. Contemplation is a di rect intuitive seeing, using spiritual facilities that are beyond discursive thought. In the words of Richard of Saint-Victor. a twelfth-century theologian, “Meditation investigates, con templation wonders.

Yoga and meditation

What is yoga?

Stop what you are doing. Stand up, take a deep breath and have a really good stretch. Standing on tiptoes, make your self as tall as possible with your hands reaching up to the sky and your fingers splayed. Breathe out slowly, and slowly resume your normal standing posture Now doesn’t that feel good? Can you feel the blood tingling in your hands and feet? Do the muscles in your arms and legs feel relaxed and yet energised? Does your mind, be it only for a fleeting moment, seem to have taken a breather from its daily round of thoughts and worries? If your answer is yes, then you are feeling the benefits of yoga already.

Yoga is a system of physical and mental exercises designed to instil a sense of tranquillity and wellbeing in the practi tioner. Its origins are lost in the mists of time, though esti mates suggest that it has been practised in India for over five thousand years, and is believed to have been inspired by the contemplation of animals, particularly cats, as they stretched. Observers noted that, after a good stretch and arch, the animal’s energy and alertness was increased, and so they sought to utilise this knowledge for human benefit. To this day, many yoga positions are named after the creatures they were adapted from the tortoise, the cobra, the butterfly Yoga is a technique of self-awareness that integrates the

mind and the body. By uniting the iwo, yoga helps to control negative and destructive thought patterns and assist the mind to work with, rather than against, the body. Hatha yoga teaches techniques of physical control of the body through postures known as asanas and breathing techniques called pranayama. The asanas make the body supple and benefit the neuromuscular system, each posture combining mental acuity with breathing techniques and a specific body movement. Pranayama builds up the body’s

energy. Regular practice of the asanas and breathing exercises will induce a more positive frame of mind, not just during the exercises but throughout daily life. You will find that you are less prone to mood swings, and that you feel less at the mercy of external forces as you have developed an increased degree of inner strength.

Knowing yourself the yoga way is quite a different thing from knowing your habits, likes and dislikes. In fact, having fixed ideas about yourself can often obscure your true nature as you shut yourself off from experiences, or tell yourself, in advance, how you are going to react. For instance, if you be lieve that you are an impatient person who needs fast results, then you will become frustrated by the slow results of yoga. and perhaps give up without giving yourself a chance. If, in stead, you try turning this assumption about yourself on its head, and tell yourself that actually you have infinite reserves of patience, you will surprise yourself by having just such reserves. Bear this in mind when you practise your asanas too.

If you believe that you are stiff and unsupple, the exer cises will be tough. If, instead, you convince yourself that there is a super-supple person inside you just itching to get out, you will begin to feel a real difference. It is important to approach yoga with an open mind, and to shed feelings of pride and desire. This is called transcending the ego Far from being the self-abnegation that it sounds, transcending your ego is actually extremely liberating

If you are still resistant to the idea of finding your true self. perhaps because you feel that you are already very well acquainted, thank you very much, then consider how many times in your life you have felt that you are acting out of character. An occasion perhaps when you drank more alcohol hol than usual, said things you didn’t mean, or had unac countable mood swings. We do this when we are unhappy and out of touch with ourselves, usually due to stress and being constantly bombarded by external pressures that give us no time or freedom to look into ourselves.

Certainly there are few people who can claim that they never behave differ ently with different people and in different environments. sometimes endorsing opinions that they do not believe in. and acting against their instincts. Occasions like this often leave us feeling unworthy, and lacking in integrity. The im pulse to behave this way generally arises from a lack of self

confidence and a lack of a sense of our own selves. Now consider how it feels to be happily in love. This is ot to be confused with the intense infatuation characterised by highs and lows, but the later, more relaxed stage. When n love, we feel as if we have found our destiny and that

everything in the world is in its right place. We feel slightly

removed from ordinary life, and less thrown by external events. We feel that we can cope with everything, from big red electricity bills to three weeks of flu. In fact, being in love makes us more immune to disease, and makes our skin clearer and our eyes sparkling. Yet, for all that we are re moved, we feel as if our senses have been fine tuned, mak ing us alert to sounds and colours, so that we feel we are really seeing the world around us. We feel alive and at the centre of our being. Discovering your true self produces simi lar feelings of awareness and oneness.

Some people feel afraid of uncovering their true selves, regarding it as a sort of frightening therapy process wherein they will be forced to confront aspects of their nature with which they are uncomfortable. This is not so. Raja yoga, which focuses on the mental aspects, is not a form of therapy in the psychoanalytic sense. Rather it is tapping into the es sense of your being the spirit from which you sprang. In deed, this realisation of the inner self can provide enormous support when dealing with difficult personal problems, and a way of giving yourself temporary release from them.

Even if we are free of deep troubles and have sufficient confidence to be ourselves, we all live in a very manic, busy world, which bombards us with multifarious messages about how we should live and what we should think. Women es pecially tend to feel that they are pulled this way and that by contradictory demands, to be feminine but independent, good mothers but also good workers, and so on. Sometimes we need a touchstone, a talisman for instance, a place, or even a person, towards which we can reach when we feel the need to touch base’ and work things out. In ancient communities there would be wise woman or man who could counsel those who felt out of sorts and confused. Our equivalent today, perhaps is the agony aunt! When we achieve self-knowl edge we become our own touchstone, the person we can rely

on. Yoga is a means of seeing things as they really are rather than as they seem. In yoga, all body and mental tensions have to cease if this end is to be achieved. Accordingly, one of the basic yoga techniques is meditation, which turns our consciousness towards the inner calm helping us to achieve samadhi, or pure consciousness,

The first text

The first written yoga system is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, dating from around 200 to 400 BC. Written in the ancient language of Sanskrit. Pantajali’s text is the earliest collation and systematisation of an ancient knowledge that was previ ously handed down in the oral tradition. The Yoga Sutras are not advised as a teach-yourself companion, as they ure extremely complex, but rather as a guide for teachers to adapt. According to Patanjali, yoga brings about the suspension of the mind’s waves (vrittis), resulting in mindfulness, which

means the ability to pay attention to your life. To put it in modern terminology, to “wake up and smell the coffee’ or get real’, This means experiencing what is happening around and within you, rather than being consumed by internal men tal convolutions while life passes you by -thus avoiding the situation as described by W. H. Auden: ‘In headaches and in worry/Vaguely life leaks away!

achieve these, Patanjali advocates practice (abhyasa) and non-attachment (vairagya). The latter does not necessitate the abandonment of all worldly goods, but a relinquish ment of assumptions about yourself and the world. Consider how many times you duck opportunities because you are not right for it’, either because you feel you are not capable of it, or because it is not suited to you. Many modern psy chologists would tell us, in no uncertain terms, that we are wrong in these self-judgements, and that in fact we do not really know ourselves at all.

Our beliefs are often based upon a hotchpotch of experience (often misleading), upon other people’s opinions, and our fears and prejudices. If this seems absurd, consider the reaction of children to new experiences: curious, eager and positive, they embrace the unknown, un hindered by accumulated memories and assumptions. Ex experience in a sense, actually blinkers us to the world, and hobbles our development.

The need for a teacher

No one in their right mind would sit down at a piano and expect to play a Chopin nocturne if they had never played before. So why should someone who is about to meditate for the first time sit down and expect to lose themselves in meditation right away? Like all things worth doing, the best way to learn meditation and yoga is to study with someone who has already mastered it. If we are to compare the mind with a piano, in order to create beautiful music, we need to study with an expert who is familiar with the instrument and who can assist us to gain mastery over it. A good teacher must be qualified, compassionate, expert

patient, sincere and sympathetic, and someone in whom the pupil has complete confidence. But where do you find such a paragon? Whether you are religious or not, a good person to guide you in the ways of meditation is an established religion gious teacher, such as a rabbi or a priest. It is highly unlikely that he or she would discourage a nonbeliever’s quest for inner peace, and religious groups are rarely averse to the idea of nonbelievers sitting in with them during silent war ship. Further, there are a great number of religious books, from all faiths, that teach the art of meditation. Apart from religious teachers, there are qualified thera

priests who, if they cannot teach you themselves, could cer tainly point you in the direction of someone who could. Some novices are lucky and find the right “guru’ straight away. Others may take months, even years before they meet the one who is right for them. Those who fall into the latter category should not be disheartened. They should carry on practising basic meditation techniques. trying different teachers and following their own judgement until, eventu ally, they find someone who can help them to get the most out of meditation

Like a therapist or a doctor, your teacher should be some one you feel you can trust. Many people also find it impor tant that their teacher is a good role model. After all, who will feel confident learning techniques to enhance inner calm from a person who is visibly stressed, abuses drugs and al cohol, drives like a maniac, or has affairs with his or her students’?

Do not be persuaded to part with large sums of cash by promises of masterly teaching. No one can predict exactly what technique will suit you, and no method is superior to another. The ideal teacher for you, just like the ideal tech nique, will only be found by a process of patient trial and error. Bear in mind, however, that even the greatest teacher can do nothing for you unless, like a pianist, you are willing to put in the practice.

Some people will prefer not to have a teacher at all, or be unable to find someone suitable. Instead they might take their instruction from books, lectures, courses and retreats. There are also many audio and visual tapes on the market, aimed at the increasing numbers of people who are turning to medi tation either for health or spiritual reasons. Before commit ting yourself to the expense of buying one, inquire at your local library to find out if it has an audio section. If there is such a tape on its shelves, borrow it for a few days to find out if it helps you.

Keeping a level head

Where you meditate and when you meditate is up to you. but a word of advice – don’t be tempted to adopt a holier than-thou attitude among friends and colleagues. You must remember that one of the most important lessons in medita- tion is that the subjugation of the ego is necessary if you are to transcend your normal state of mind. Rivalry with other meditators is also counterproductive. And what could be more ridiculous than two people arguing about who is the most af peace?

Friends may, after some weeks or months, realise that you appear to be calmer and more relaxed and that you have changed subtly in some way that they cannot put their finger on. They may ask you what has brought about the change Then by all means tell them that you have taken up meditation ing but broadcasting your experiences can defeat the object of the exercise!

 Caveat!

When you begin practising meditation you may experience a ‘honeymoon’ period, when you feel much more positive and relaxed. However, this may not last. Meditation is about being your real self and therefore, aspects of yourself which you may not like will eventually bubble to the surface, pro- viding a less than blissful focus for your thoughts. At this point, many drift away from meditation, feeling discouraged by this pain barrier’. However, if you persevere, that initial bliss will return.

A word of warning though. Most people can cope with the bad things in themselves, but some people cannot. An ob obsessive personality may find themselves locked into focus ing on a part of themselves they cannot cope with, and this could be extremely dangerous.

Anyone who is suffering from clinical depression or any mild form of mental illness should first consult his or her doctor.

Meditation should never be used as a substitute for medi cal treatment, and anyone on any form of medication should likewise consult his or her doctor. Meditation creates an altered state of consciousness, New

comers have no way of knowing how they will respond to it, so it is best to limit the first few sessions to ten minutes at most. Finally, meditation should not be seen as a panacea. It should be seen as a means to an end, not as the end in itself.