Meditation Every Day? We Thought Not!
An Expert Offers a Brush-Up on Meditation Basics
by Dianus Blackcat
Meditation is the foundation of pagan spiritual practice, and a basic method to improve our mental and physical state in today’s often stressful and chaotic world. For most pagans, the art of meditation is one of the first skills learned in spiritual practice. Yet for many, the value found in daily meditation exercises is sometimes left by the wayside during the course of our busy lives.
Why meditate every day? Because from pressure to complete tasks at work or school, to world politics, we are bombarded with stressful stimuli every day. That stress can negatively affect both our mental and physical health. Simple meditation exercises, practiced routinely, can counter the negative impact of overstimulation on our minds and bodies.
Mental and physical stresses are experienced together, joined like two sides of the same coin. For example, think of something pleasant, such as a loved one or a sunny afternoon. Immediately we experience the pleasant feelings associated with these images. After thinking of something good, we feel good. If we think of something unpleasant, we conversely experience a negative sensation. We grimace at the news. Pressures on the job give us tension headaches. We use this same mind-body connection in ritual when we take an action in the physical plane to activate the astral. By this principle, meditation can be approached as ritual and magick.
Meditation techniques vary from person to person. Often meditation is put into a religious context. It is not necessary to do so to achieve the benefits of reduced stress, but as pagans, we find that a spiritual dimension to life leads to increased happiness and health. Some practitioners burn incense and play New Age music. Others might sit in various yoga positions and fast or otherwise modify their diet as part of their meditation routine. Despite the variations, virtually all meditation practices do have some attributes in common: a state of deep relaxation, a quieting of mental chatter and a keen awareness of either our internal state or external surroundings.
Many people find it challenging to experience all three of these common attributes at the same time. They may try to silence mental chatter with a forceful effort, only to end up negating their attempt to remain relaxed. They may become so relaxed as to fall asleep, countering their attempt to remain aware. Meditation is not always easy, but the methods are quite straightforward and simple. Even if we have mastered the techniques, like any skill, meditation becomes easier and more rewarding with practice.
Stress is experienced in the body as tension. The origin of that tension can be a mental source, such as the memory of an argument, or a physical source, such as bad weather. What many people forget is that the mental-physical link works both directions. That is, just as our body responds to thoughts, our thoughts will respond to our body. Many people become grouchy when hungry or depressed when overtired. When we reduce the physical tension, we experience a relief of mental tension. Knowing this gives us our first step in successful meditation: deep relaxation.
Step 1: Deep Relaxation
Find a quiet place were you can comfortably sit upright and not be disturbed. It is helpful to have a small kitchen timer or other alarm to keep track of the time for you, so that you are not preoccupied with how long you have been meditating. Take a moment to tense up and then release each muscle group in your body, beginning with your feet, then legs, then gradually moving upward. Twist your torso, then lift and stretch your arms. Finish by moving the muscles in your face to make exaggerated facial expressions. Wrinkle your nose; stretch your mouth. Really let go, but do not strain yourself. Remember to continue breathing deeply. When you draw in a breath, push out from your belly to expand your lungs. Doing so will increase the amount of available oxygen in your lungs, aiding your relaxation. Be sure to exhale fully to prevent dizziness.
After you stretch out and relax, you are usually aware of internal thoughts and feelings more than anything else. We might hear a little voice inside our heads or have a constant internal dialogue going on. We rehash old discussions, worry about unpaid bills and criticize our hair or clothes. This is the mental chatter that we need to quiet from time to time, for it is often the most insidious cause of stress in our lives.
We cannot always control the external events that have an impact on us, but we can do something about our reaction to those events. Silencing the mental chatter can give us just the break we need to help us to view external events more objectively. I believe that an underlying motivation for overstimulation in today’s society is the desire to escape relentless self-dialogue. When we process input, we are distracted away from our egos.
Our egos tend to consume a lot of our energy by worrying about superficial, cultural matters. By adjusting our focus away from them, it helps us to connect to that divine part of ourselves that is a great source of spiritual connection and inspiration. Remembering this gives us our second step in successful meditation: silencing the mental chatter.
Step 2: Silencing Mental Chatter
After having stretched, still breathing deeply in a relaxed way, allow your gaze to fall upon some pleasant, yet emotionally neutral, focal point. I recommend you light a candle ahead of time that you can focus on, but anything pleasing to you is fine. It can be a religious object, a flower or some scenic view. Just look at the object. Do not think about it; just watch it. A candle is useful because it will flicker and change, making it easier to observe without boredom because it changes unexpectedly. Do not make mental notes or judgments. As thoughts come into your mind, simply allow them to pass. Do not attempt to force the thoughts out of your head. You are awake and alive, and thoughts will come to you. Rather, continue to pay attention to your focal object. Watch it as if it is about to jump out at you and you don’t want to miss a thing. By focusing your attention on this single object, time will pass and you will realize that the mental chatter has stopped.
When we calm down the voice of our ego by focusing our attention, we suddenly become aware of a great deal of information that we were missing due to our focus on internal dialogue. For many, that internal dialogue is of a criticizing nature. With that internal critic out of the way, it becomes much easier to face the challenges we may have been suppressing. Facing any hidden or suppressed emotions is the best way to release them from our lives and improve our mental and physical health. Knowing this gives us our third step in successful meditation: keen awareness of either our internal state or external surroundings.
Step 3: Keen Awareness
When observing the focal object of your meditation, allow yourself to also notice your surroundings. Notice the temperature of the air around you. If you are outside, is it calm or windy? Is it hot or cold? Listen for any sounds. Is there traffic on the road outside? Is there a bird singing somewhere? Do you hear some people having a conversation somewhere else in the house? Allow yourself to simply be the observer. You may begin to feel a deep connection with the world around you. You may also have sudden flashes of images from previous or current challenges in your life. Allow yourself to view any memories as if you were watching the events of a fictional character in a movie. Simply observe. The detachment from these images may be difficult at first, but concentrate on remaining relaxed and remembering to breathe deeply.
Meditation is a skill that improves with practice. Regular meditation practice will reduce stress and lead to a happier and healthier outlook on life. For positive results, meditation should be performed every day for at least 15 minutes. Each of us can afford to take 15 minutes out of our day to do something good for ourselves. After a while, you may find that troubles in the news and in life, although still troubling, can be dealt with. When we are relaxed and energized through these exercises, we are more able to face challenges. There may be times when we are particularly upset and might feel that we cannot meditate during a crisis. When we are most upset is precisely the time when we need meditation the most. It will help.
Meditation helps us to understand ourselves because it requires us to carefully pay attention to our inner thoughts as well as the world around us. When we pay attention to the world, we can more fully interact with it. When we can interact with the world, we can change the world and cease to be helpless and fearful. Often we approach the world by talking out our opinions and thoughts, projecting sometimes false ideas on others. Meditation is a way to stop the talking. Simple meditation exercises, when practiced routinely, can counter the negative impact of daily stress on our minds and bodies. When I stopped talking, I listened. When I listened, I heard. Listen, and you will hear a world within and around you, inviting you and loving you, divinely connected.