The practice of meditation
Michael A. West
Blessed (or cursed) with self-awareness and consciousness, humans are faced with the simple, stunning reality of our existence: With a planet teeming with life in a universe vaster than our imaginations can encompass. And we are faced with the miracle of our individual births and the ever-present inevitability of our deaths. We can contemplate the history of our species, responsible for the destruction of most large mammalian species and countless others besides, and now threatening the viability of the ecosystem that sustains us. And we busy ourselves, in the context of all this, with politics, economics, social media, soap operas, and newspapers; with our neighbors’ transgressions and our plans for TV viewing; with football teams and holiday destinations; with fashion choices and religious wars. Busy humans, exercising huge influence on this planet, and busily preoccupied with our busy stuff—with our desire to increase our pleasure and reduce our pain and vaguely aware that we are not quite getting it right, either individually or collectively. And working hard to avoid confronting the fact that we may be getting it very wrong indeed.
All of this experience is mediated through our minds—actually through our bodies and minds as a single system—but how we understand, cope with, make sense of, come to terms or fail to come to terms with our existence and experiences is through the functioning of our minds. To truly appreciate our situation, our predicaments, our paths forward, to more directly engage with experience and existence, therefore, we also need to understand and perhaps better nurture the functioning of our minds.
The practice of meditation is a way of coming to experience more fully our moment-by-moment existence by encountering the mind directly. Meditation involves increasing awareness of the body (sensations), emotions, thoughts, the mind, and mental qualities (e.g., turgid, clear, focused). Through practice, the aim is for this awareness to be increasingly non-reactive though more acute to events and experiences—the sound of a bird, a shout in the distance, a sensation of minor physical discomfort, an angry thought, a worry about an unfinished task, a desire, a fundamental fear. It offers a means of opening to or connecting with all experience, whether positive, negative, or neutral, in a (relatively) unfiltered, unprocessed way. It offers the ability, with practice, to enable the development of awareness of awareness itself. The aim is also to reduce suffering as a consequence of this greater openness, through reduced reactivity to experience and increasing well-being (Germer et al. 2005; Hogan 2014; Woodruff et al. 2014). There is a wealth of experience and knowledge of meditation that stretches back thousands of years.
In this chapter, we will consider the practice of meditation in different religious contexts, in human history, across cultures, and in literature. The chapter describes the growth of research in psychology into meditation and charts the huge rise in interest in “mindfulness” over the last 15 to 20 years. And the chapter will offer a way of understanding meditation and mindfulness as overlapping and distinct approaches, before concluding with a brief description of the subsequent contents of the book.
Meditation may be defined as an exercise in which the individual turns attention or awareness to dwell upon a single object, concept, sound, image, or experience, with the intention of gaining greater spiritual or experiential and existential insight, or of achieving improved psychological well-being (West 1987). And to move from definitional concept to experience, the reader may try the simple breathing meditation, described in Box 1.1.
Box 1.1 Openness and contentment in meditation
Sit quietly in an upright position in a place where you are unlikely to be disturbed.
Close your eyes and then become aware of the sensation of your whole body, letting go of any obvious tightness or tension.
Enjoy the sensation of your body being still and sit quietly like this for about half a minute.
Now let your attention go to your breathing—perhaps where your stomach moves with your breath, or where your chest rises and falls with each breath, or in the windpipe, or in your nostrils, or at the point where the breath enters and leaves the nostrils. It doesn’t matter where.
And then each time you breathe out, say the word “one” silently to yourself.
You don’t have to concentrate hard on the breath or repeating the word “one.” You don’t have to try to think the word clearly at all times to the exclusion of everything else.
Box 1.1 Openness and contentment in meditation (continued)
Continue the meditation in this way for a quarter of an hour, remembering that you don’t have to achieve some deep level of meditation or relaxation.
The key is to have an attitude of openness and contentment with the practice.
From time to time there will be thoughts that distract you from the sensation of your breathing and repeating the word “one” on the out-breath. Thoughts are a key part of the practice rather than mistakes or something to be strenuously resisted.
Treat thoughts (or noises) as you would treat clouds drifting across the blue sky. You don’t hold on to them and you don’t push them away either. You just watch them come and go and, when you become aware that you have drifted away from dwelling on the sensation of breathing, very gently and easily return your attention to the breathing.
Not with some sharp self-remonstration but in a gentle, open, contented way, accepting the fact that you had drifted away on a succession of thoughts and then comfortably moving very smoothly back to watching your breathing.
Remember to take it easily, quietly, and simply. And with an attitude of openness and contentment.