Meditation is mind training. Just as physical exercise is used to train the body – Meditation is used to train the mind.
Why do we Need to Train the Mind?
Our sense organs – ears, eyes, nose, mouth and skin enable us to take in environmental signals. Basically these organs take in everything that is happening around us. Their main purpose is to enable survival – that is – if we see something that looks like a snake, or sniff a hint of a toxic substance – we are able to almost automatically remove ourselves from danger. This happens because that information taken in by our sense organs very quickly passes to spinal cord – resulting in reflex actions – or the higher centres in the brain – resulting in unconscious memory formation or conscious thought. However in our current modern environments we are bombarded with so much sensory information – that still causes reflex actions, unconscious memory formation or conscious thoughts – but not all this stimuli is relevant. And our bodies waste a lot of valuable bio-energy processing and responding to irrelevant stimuli. Hence we have to train our minds to discern what’s relevant and what’s not.
What is a Discerning Mind?
A discerning mind is able to choose what to focus on. It is able to decide which is the most relevant information to act on. And as a mind becomes more discerning – one is able to act with intention and purpose. Hence goals are easier to achieve because the distracting background noise can be shut off. And that’s the heart of meditation – the ability to shut off the distractions.
How the Mind Works?
To enable survival, all the incoming information from the sense organs are reviewed by the mind to enable response – we call this vigilance. You may think of it as environmental scanning for threatening signals. And when a potential threat is found – it initiates one of two responses – flight or fight. Do we run away and save ourselves from the danger or do we stay and defend our territory? From a physiological point of view – the body readies itself to enable either process. Heart rate goes up, respiratory rate goes up – both to ensure the supply of oxygenated blood to enable skeletal muscles to respond. Also, blood is diverted from internal organs to the extremities – muscles of legs, arms or face – this makes thinking difficult. Now – this was a very useful biological function in the Sahara or if you need to escape a few thugs – however in the modern world our bodies respond to unvalidated triggers in a similar manner. We can feel threatened when we see friends pictures on social media – “they are having fun without us”, “they are having more fun than us”, “they are getting ahead in life and I am not”. These are the thoughts that arise when we feel the symptoms of threat – increased heart rate, rapid breath and inability to think clearly. Now if we could stop ourselves before over-reacting to the above situation – we can free up a lot of emotion and mental space to do the things we want. And this is where mind training or meditation helps.
How Meditation Works?
To understand how meditation works we need to understand the concept of attention. Attention means to attend to or become aware of something. Attention may be divided into two aspects – expanded or focused. Expanded attention is similar to vigilance described above – the only difference is that with expanded attention one is never overwhelmed by the information coming in – but able to use it to stimulate creativity. Many scientists use this technique to gather information that is yet unknown. Focused attention is the ability to focus the mind on a single object. The ability to do this enables you to steady your flow of thoughts. This ability can break a repetitive and destructive thought patterns.
As you develop your ability to focus on an object for longer periods of time – you improve your ability to concentrate. And improved concentration enables you to really understand the world around you and improve decision making processes that leads to more successful, intentional or purposeful actions.
Meditation helps train the mind to become aware, to focus or expand attention at will and to concentrate on an object or thought until it enlightens you. Enlightenment here means complete understanding.
Meditation and Yoga
There are 8 Limbs or steps to Yoga according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s – a classical text on Yoga. The first 4 steps pertain to social and physical training while the second 4 focus on inner or mind training.
- Limb 1 & 2- Yama and Niyama are about maintaining social structures conducive to human development.
- Limb 3 , Asana turns to the individual – namely improving physically body, so he may maintain good health.
- Limb 4, Pranayama develops on Asana and teaches the individual how to use his body, which is a bio-chemical energy system, to achieve optimal performance. Use prana correctly one is able to maintain and sustain their physical and mental output. From the fifth limb onwards – Yoga is about Meditation or Mind training.
- Limb 5 – Pratyahara teaches you how to direct your attention from outside to within. The ability to pay attention to your inner body state is called interoception. While Yoga uses movement and breath to enable you to unconsciously improve interoceptive ability, Mindfulness Mediation uses instructions to direct awareness to body parts.
- Limb 6 – Dharana teaches you how to focus your mind on a single object – be it breath, a flame or an object of interest. Once you can focus your mind, you are able to shut off distractions.
- Limb 7 – Dhyana is concentration. Once you are able to focus for longer periods of time, you develop concentration. With the ability to concentrate – you are able to engage fully in any task with greater accuracy.
- Limb 8 – Samadhi – is seen as the gift of Yoga practice. For once you are able to fully concentrate, you are able to experience the full joy of every moment. You gain the ability to make every moment blissful, to overcome pain and to act appropriately in all circumstances.
Types of Meditation
Vigyan Bhairava Tantra a chapter from an ancient Indian text describes 112 different methods of meditation. These methods include breath awareness, body awareness, mindful awareness, non-dual awareness, mantra chanting, concentration on body parts, visualisation and contemplation. Many different meditation techniques have existed for millennia.
Which is the Best Meditation Technique?
The Vigyan Bhairava Tantra states – no technique is necessarily better than the other. Successfully practicing any one of the 112 techniques will train the mind. However the prerequisite to success is a clear understanding of which method is most suitable to each practitioner.
How do I find a Meditation Technique that Works for Me?
Try a meditation or yoga class – if it does not feel right, try something else. When you find the correct meditation technique – you will know. It just feels right. Traditional Meditation Teachers are trained to assess students personality types to determine the technique most suitable to them. Ensure that your teacher is appropriately trained. Meditation works deep and has to ability to heal – that may mean releasing painful emotions physically and mentally – Ensure that your teacher has the experience and training to assist you through the various stages of mediation.
I-Yoga and I-MediTate classes introduce you to a variety of different meditation techniques so you may discover the one that works best for you.
Dr Nitasha Buldeo is an Integrated Medical Practitioner, Research Scientist and Yogi. She founded I-Yoga & Organic Apoteke and is Director of the Centre for Exceptional Human Performance. She researches human potential and delivers programs that encourage you to live exceptionally. Nitasha believes that every one of us is striving to do the best we can. Her passion is creating educational and experiential programs. Her intention is to enable you to unlock your personal genius.