Contrary to popular belief, meditation isn’t just about sitting crossed-legged, placing our hands on our knees with finger and thumb touching, and chanting “Om” repeatedly. It can be in a yoga class, but this isn’t a yoga class. In Buddhism, meditation is many things: contemplation, awareness, insight, and finding inner peace and happiness.
Many resources, those new to meditation, and even the instructor in our yoga class, will tell us to sit down, relax, and clear our mind. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Clearing our mind is the end result, which may be many, many years down the road. If we ever even get there. Right now, meditation is about making friends with our mind. Meditation is about being mindful and aware of our mind and body, of its feelings, thoughts, and sensations in the present moment. It’s about knowing how the mind works in order to “override” it so we can handle whatever it throws at us.
Meditation is not passive; it’s active. We don’t just sit there, relax, and “clear our mind.” What’s the point in that? Meditation is about actively working on the mind, focusing it, eliminating distracting thoughts, and contemplating. The objective of meditation is to train the mind. By observing our mind, we can learn how it works, how thoughts and feelings arise, and how we acknowledge and handle them. For beginners of meditation, not being sucked into our thoughts is nearly impossible, but with practice and dedication, we can learn to be aware that we’re being sucked in and slowly pull ourselves out.
Those new to meditation often try to find something through the experience, thinking that an “Aha!” moment will suddenly happen or that there’s some finish line they need to cross. Meditation isn’t a race, it isn’t a destination, there’s no expectations or finish lines. It’s a never-ending practice. Meditation is simply being in the present moment and being aware of it. In the West, people want specific directions and techniques of meditation that will take them to this magical realm of peace and quiet. These techniques and magical places aren’t important. What is important is the way of being present, mindful and aware of our body and mind right here and now.
In Buddhism, many books and teachers will say, “Take what I have just said and meditate on it.” What exactly does that mean? In Zen, the Zen master gives a koan to his students, something as random as “What is a seashell that is neither a sea nor a shell?” The student then meditates and contemplates on this koan for as long as several years until he arrives at an answer that the Zen master accepts. When we contemplate in meditation, we take something apart, digest it, and analyze it until we see and understand every aspect of it. The first Truth in the Four Noble Truths, for example, is “Life is Suffering.” What does this mean to us? What is life? Our life? People’s lives? What is suffering and what constitutes as suffering? Suffering is translated from the Sanskrit word Dukkha, and it can sometimes come off as a very harsh or dramatic meaning. But what suffering really means is dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction with life and all the good and bad things that come with it.
So when we contemplate on Life is Suffering, what we’re really trying to do is realize that life is dissatisfying, that it is impermanent. Even the wealthiest of people are dissatisfied with their lives, whether it’s because they want more money, or because all the money they have causes them stress and is too much responsibility. They become overwhelmed and depressed. Even for ordinary people, life is stressful, overwhelming, and depressing. We suffer because of our ignorance, greed, desire, and anger. So the point of meditating on suffering is realizing that we are ignorant because we don’t know the Truth. We are greedy because we always want things for ourselves. We desire things we don’t and can’t have. And we become angry because of our ignorance, greed, and desire. When we contemplate these things, when we realize this is happening to us and then dig deeper into why we have ignorance, greed, desire, and anger, we learn the truth about ourselves. We come to a realization that, “Ah, maybe I’m always angry at my younger sister because I’m jealous of her success.” These are the kinds of realizations we want to come to, because the more we know our minds and what causes us dissatisfaction, the better we can deal with them and avoid that kind of suffering in the future. When our mind is peaceful and free from worries, anxieties, and anger, we can experience true happiness. If we train our mind to become peaceful, we will be happy even during hectic and harsh conditions and circumstances.