In this article, we explore the hows, whys, and wheres of meditation practice.
One of the core principles of meditation is the practice of detachment. Most importantly, we may seek detachment from thoughts, emotions, expectations, and ego.
We seek detachment such that we may stop identifying with these limited aspects of ourselves. In disidentifying, we come to stop acting and believing as if we were these things and only these things.
We step out, we take a good look in front of us and come to have a more complete view of the picture of life as a whole. This is the picture of who I am, beyond the limited perception offered through simple thoughts, emotions, expectations, or ego.
A River of Emotions
Emotions are a reality of life. They come and go, and we can’t always make sense of them. Sometimes, however, they stick around. We become stuck in the emotions and the patterns they create. This is what it means to be attached.
The flow of emotions is not a conscious process. There are myriads of things that may trigger, affect, or direct it. Other people, life circumstances, and biology are all hugely influential on emotions and are largely out of our control.
Emotions are as a river, and if we stumble and fall in the river then we get taken for a ride. The more attached and identified we come to the emotions, the more likely we are to drown in them. Should we try to resist or swim against the torrents, then we only tire ourselves faster and to no avail.
The first step in approaching mediation is that of recognizing where we are: that we have been taken by the currents of emotions and are at risk of drowning in them. There is no simple formula for this, and in the beginning it may be of great help to rely on support — someone on the shore who lovingly but forcibly shouts out: you’re drowning! you’re drowning! wake up! come out!
Following this awakening, the next step is that of offering a lifeboat to our distressed selves. In climbing aboard, we step out of the river, and in doing so detach from the flow of emotions. We are no longer one with the emotions — we are detached. We now float above the waves, we can watch and witness and recover our strengths. The danger is close but no longer imminent.
We are now in the state of meditation — detached, disidentified, and witnessing. Floating above experience.
The same idea applies to the flow of thoughts, to expectations, and to ego — all things which are inherently related and interdependent, and which we may at one time or another find ourselves drowning in.
A Stream of Thoughts
There’s a common belief that meditation means stopping the flow of thoughts — that meditation is successful only once we become empty of thoughts. While a mind empty of thoughts is certainly a beautiful experience, it is by no means to be held as the definition of meditation, nor as its ultimate achievement.
Thoughts, just like emotions, are a mostly unconscious and therefore uncontrollable process. Thoughts happen. They just happen.
This becomes evident once we come to watch the flow of thoughts from the shores of the river — once we are fully detached. From this vantage point, we come to witness a river which takes its source over the horizon, a land we cannot see — as if the thoughts materialized of their own.
In psychological terms, the horizon marks the boundaries of the subconscious mind.
This is not to say that we have no sway over our thoughts. We certainly have a level of influence over them, just as with our emotions — but it’s not actually possible to simply decide, right there and then, that thoughts should stop coming.
We can’t will ourselves into stopping our thoughts. We can’t think ourselves into not thinking.
Thoughts are a side-effect of myriads of things happening in our lives. My subconscious mind might send me a thought about food when it detects my body is in need of nourishment. There are simply too many things happening in my body for my conscious mind to be able to grasp it all, and so thoughts come as a signal for anything that may require my attention in the here and now.
At this point, if I am attached to my thoughts, then I will become attached to the results of these thoughts — in this case, hunger. I will experience the pain of a stomach whining for food, and may obsess over that pain, greatly amplifying its experience by clinging to the thought, turning it round and round inside my head, obsessing over it.
When pain comes enthralled in obsession, it gets amplified and quickly turns into suffering — suffering being the term I use for a pain amplified, twisted, and corrupted by the mind’s unceasing obsession with it.
Meditation isn’t about stopping the flow of thoughts, but it is about stepping out of the obsession we have with them — including the obsession meditators often have with stopping their thoughts, which is itself another form of attachment.
We may not be in control of how thoughts get created, but we do mostly control the obsessions that keep them alive and turn them into nightmares of anxiety. It is as choosing to swim against the currents, in hopes of reaching the river’s source, growing ever frustrated at our inability to progress at all.
The Rapids of Pain
Pain, whether physical or emotional, is a reality of life — but pain doesn’t have to mean suffering.
Pain turns to suffering whence we identify with it, whence we drown in it, whence it becomes all that we can see — submerged, lost.
Obsession turns pain into suffering.
If we are lost in the river of thoughts and emotions, then when those thoughts and emotions turn into pain we will inevitably come lost in a river pain.
Imagine logs and branches floating in the river, and as the swimmer you come powerless as they hit you and force you underwater. If you manage to drag yourself onto a lifeboat, then the branches lose their effect on you — however the bigger logs may still damage your boat and throw you back in the water. If you can make it to the shore, however, then safety will be yours.
Pain, in itself, is simply an experience — but when we cling to that pain, we amplify it and turn it into suffering. We turn annoying branches into logs, and logs into trees. We become the architects of our own struggles and eventual drowning.
We may, however, detach from the experience of pain through meditation. We may stop and exercise a moment of mindfulness, in doing so taking a step into the lifeboat. If that is not enough, if the torrents are so strong as to threaten the safety and integrity of the boat, then we may row up to the shore. We may go into a quiet space, play some gentle music, sit quietly and watch from afar as the storm subsides.
The river is the experience of life — sometimes calm, sometimes broken by rapids. At times, it is pleasant to bathe within it. In other moments, it is safer to be floating over it or to retreat to the safety of the shore.
A Rise in Consciousness
In stepping out of the river, whether boarding a lifeboat or retreating to shore, the goal is, ultimately, to rise in consciousness.
It is impossible to be fully aware of the river and its flows if we find ourselves within the river. The river is, quite simply, infinitely stronger than we are. It will take us where it will, it will show us what it wants, and we will experience life as a simple victim of circumstances — powerless.
When we step out of the river, however, then we can watch calmly and gain a greater understanding of all that is happening — from safety. We see where the water comes from, where it is going, and what it contains. The higher the vantage point, the more awareness is gained: from river, to lifeboat, to shore, to mountain, to space — there is simply no limit.
The higher we climb in meditation, the more understanding we gain into the hows, the whys, and the wheres of our present experience. The more everything makes sense. The more life makes sense.
Equipped with this increased awareness and understanding, we are then free to choose if and when we would jump in the river of experience. With practice, we also come to be more skilled at preempting the river’s torrents and stepping out before things get too serious.
Gaining perspective brings increased freedom in how we choose to experience life. This, ultimately, is the goal of meditation. Freedom.
Meditation is not about control. It is not about stopping or diverting the river. It is rather about taking the path of least effort: that of stepping out of ourselves, of our thoughts, and our emotions, and watching by until the storm subsides.
Thus can we enjoy the best life has to offer, while simply letting flow those parts that may prove more challenging.