A Gradual Awakening - a personal experience of meditation

A Gradual Awakening - a personal experience of meditation

Posted by Johnny Fincham

Meditation is probably more necessary in the modern world, with all it’s pressures and distractions, than ever before in human history. We’re all in such desperate haste, seeking distractions to bury ourselves in, always in a hurry to ‘take it easy’; yet never really learning what this means. It’s reckoned that the average person’s concentration span has declined by half, in the last forty years.

Even the highbrow newspapers now tend to put bullet points into long text blocks, as people tend to have less time to read properly. Perhaps the waterproof CD/radio, for listening to in the shower, best epitomizes the modern world’s obsessive need to do two things at once. We try to fill every spare moment with noise and diversion, seeking pleasure in escaping from ourselves.

Like so many aspects of life which are our birthright, however, the practice of meditation (which is a purely natural activity), has become, something specialized and mysterious; the preserve of the initiate and the monastery.

You don’t need to join anything to benefit from meditation, the spirit, like a flower is waiting to blossom, under the ‘soil’ of mundane mental ‘noise’ in everyone.

Meditative Lifestyle

The medieval woman, spinning for hours in a quiet corner of a room, would allow her mind to soften and lose focus, as she carefully drew out the course thread. The pre - industrial farmer would keep a quiet mind, as he slogged away at his toil for hours on end, accompanied by nothing but the cawing of crows. Simple lifestyles and more naturalistic cultures tend to propagate a natural meditative state. There were fewer distractions in other ages, we were hence more able to mentally ‘let go’.

Meditation is a simple process: that of allowing the mind to hold it’s focus softly onto a sound, or object, or task, and to keep it there, gently ignoring the thoughts that arise and the distractions that are always present. You could practice mindful walking, breathing, chanting, or mindful washing up!

I started meditating around twenty years ago, in an attempt to cure my dyslexia, and to calm down. I attended a ten-day, intensive Vipassana course in Herefordshire. The course was called ‘a gradual awakening’ – however I found it a very rude awakening indeed!

The building itself was an old school, very spartan inside, with shockingly tasteless orange curtains. It struck me at the time, that no one could become enlightened in a place with such cheap curtains!

The grueling regimen, beginning at 6am. and meditating on and off until 9 pm, was like the seventh hell realm as far as I was concerned!

Here is an excerpt from my second day’s meditation diary, where we had to record our experiences – ‘Knees hurt, neck hurts, back got a knife in it, aches like buggery, Ow, ow. Don’t think! Count the breath – two, three, four - I shouldn't be thinking at all. Jeez, I'm hungry! Starving. Chips! I could eat chips - like the brown new potato chips they used to serve in Langley's. Liked the girl in there, she had greasy hair and long neck like a streetlamp, used to smile at me and the newspapers were always, 'The Mirror'. I never look in the mirror – what if I did and my face had changed? I’m so lonely so …… Where’s the breath? Yes, the breath there in…………out ………….I can hear my heart beating. God, it's loud. They’re all gone in the counting. All the others. Open my eyes, should I sneak a look at the clock? No. Whatever happened to that watch I had, with the chrome strap? Only about five minutes in - oh God! No! Watch the breath……’

And so it went, in endless rage. My mad thoughts shouted for attention.

Things very gradually improved, however. At the end of my stay, my express train brain had slowed down a little, so that I actually escaped its fury for whole seconds at a time. My bloodshot eyes became milky white and clear. My rigid body started to yield and stretch out. I got used to silence, even to prefer it. I began to get the delirious 'long head' as I called it, emerging from meditation with the sense of a long, giraffe neck. All sensation and sound would pass through me, without stopping, unprocessed, not grabbed and made sense of. ‘This is what true freedom is’, I thought, ‘its having the choice of being caught up in every thought, every sensation’.

I continued practicing meditation on my own for some five years or so, and was feeling pretty confident of guru status, when I approached my next retreat, with a Buddhist group in Norfolk.

The head monk however, was forever picking on me. I was accustomed to just ‘drifting off’, into a nice, inner space and just letting go. This I was taught, however, is not meditating at all, but simply daydreaming.

‘The mind should not be disengaged but honed, sharpened, in focused engagement,’ said the head teacher ‘if you float away or daydream, pleasant though this experience is, your not doing the work of meditation. You’ve probably been floating in this half - state for years – try a more active meditation, like chanting, to keep on course.

If you drift off, it’s like getting the train to paradise and then getting off at the first stop!’

A vast sign over the meditation hall read: 'Sit like a mountain, be steadfast, be majestic, at ease in awareness. No matter how many winds are blowing, how many clouds are swirling, how many lions are prowling, be intimate with everything and sit like a mountain'

For me, this was the true beginning of meditation.

Now, I certainly wouldn’t recommend a long retreat, as an introduction to the practice. Much better to submerge yourself in the practice more gently, though I would adhere to the old adage that ‘the more difficult you find meditation to be – the more you need to do it’.

One should find a form of focusing that suits best and stick with it, one could focus on one’s breath, an object, a sensation, a mantra, a piece of music – whatever you find absorbs you the best.

When you meditate regularly, you start to confront the nagging mind, which drags you constantly out of focus. You start to see how your perceptions are shaped by your own concerns, fears and hopes, which shut us off inside, we become lost in the constant barrage of thoughts that arise within the vortex of our minds.

It’s vitally important to understand that meditation is active work, the work of constantly keeping the mind ‘soft’ and bringing it back to the object of attention. It’s not about being lost in distraction, nor daydreaming, nor getting into a ‘nice inner space’, however enjoyable. Its to reach out mentally and hold your attention still – it’s as simple and as difficult as that.

One of the greatest drawbacks in meditation, is the ambition to becoming enlightened, or to open up the kundalini, or to talk to your guide, or attain your ‘higher self’. These desires are actually destructive - the very act of trying to attain anything is a part of the distraction.

You may well experience your ‘higher self’ – you might sense chakras opening and all sorts of subtle changes may take place within the physical and etheric bodies. However, don’t yearn for, nor chase these experiences, or feel disappointed if you don’t have them. These are staging posts along the long path of practice, and it’s important not to get stuck on any one of them.

Remember that meditation is not the property of any particular religious group, you don’t have to be a Buddhist, nor a spiritualist, nor a mystic, it’s a simple and natural function of the mind that anyone possesses, and can easily practice.

Getting Started

The first thing you need to do is establish a regular time for your practice. Then find a place, preferably the same place. Don’t worry about statues and shrines, joss sticks and candles, these are props can be helpful, but are not essential. Don’t worry if you can’t get complete peace and quiet either, learn to focus in distracting circumstances.

Try to get comfortable, without necessarily being in a perfect yoga posture. If you don’t go to sleep, it’s fine to be lying down, but this can encourage drowsiness and mental drift, therefore a position on a stool, or on a pile of cushions, or in a chair with the back straight, is best.

Liken the mind to looking at a pool that is always agitated, with waves running over its surface, then as it becomes calm, insight begins. As the water clears you start to see and understand what was there all the time.

A good, basic practice, is to count the breath, but by all means try chanting, or contemplating an object. A woman I know watches the movement of tropical fish in a tank in her hallway. You could try focusing on a flower, or a crystal, or any other natural object.

Whatever the object of your attention, reach out and mentally ‘grasp’ the object and hold the focus there. No matter how many times you get lost, keep coming back to the focus object. Every time you do so, you become stronger.

Keep the mind ‘soft’ and relaxed, reach out very gently with the gentlest, lightest touch. Don’t get annoyed with yourself if you find you’ve been thinking about Adrianna’s new hairstyle for the last ten minutes. Gently come back to focus, gently stay on course, this is the beginning of a journey that never ends.

Try to have a sense of being all in this moment, completely involved in this experience, the greatest treasure is here and now, not in the yearning for any other experience than the one you are presently having.

After you have been practicing a while, you will find that concentration, intuition and inspiration improve, you feel more relaxed, and you sleep better.

It’s a myth, by the way, that you must avoid sex and sensual experiences in order to deepen you meditation practice. But it’s fair to say that meditation does teach one to maintain a certain distance from experience. This means it’s easier to not get addicted to sensual things and one can take a more moral and healthy view of one’s own behavior. A healthier sense of judgement and a more holistic view of life arises as one cuts the tether to the ‘mad, restless, ego I’. Things seem to take on a sense of proportion, and universality.

We all experience meditation differently, and we all flower spiritually in different ways. You will, if you maintain your practice, eventually need a teacher or a guide to help you go further. This stage will not be reached for some considerable time and after long experience has been accrued, so don’t let this stop you beginning on your own.

You need have nothing to fear, everything to gain. The best time to start is right now.

© holisticshop 2002-2003. All rights reserved