The first time I tried to meditate it didn’t exactly go as planned. I’m thinking about nothing, I’m thinking about nothing, I remember chanting to myself, fingers clenched in a pretentious approximation of shuni mudra, uncomfortably perched on my creaky dorm room bed, spine straight. Like my flirtations with wicca and the boys in my theatre class, meditation was just one more activity to cross off my list of absent-minded spiritual pursuits. My mind wasn’t exactly at ease, though. It took all of three minutes for me to deem the practice thoroughly impossible and return to my textbooks, which suddenly seemed much less of a chore.
The funny thing was that I couldn’t stop thinking about meditation, as strange as it might seem. I kept wondering what it was that made the practice so appealing, and why people who meditated seemed to live their lives with less stress and more joy. There must be something I’m missing, I thought. And there was.
Eckhart Tolle, who calls meditation a state of ‘thoughtless awareness,’ says that willpower in meditation is the famous lid on the boiling kettle. When you force yourself to be still, instead of surrendering into the present moment so that stillness arises naturally, it’s as if you’re pushing down on the kettle lid so that the steam pushes back. Essentially, for some of us, trying to meditate can make meditating more difficult.
So, how can we learn how to let go and quiet our thinking minds if we don’t know what the bliss of awareness should feel like?
I spoke to Jonni Pollard, the executive director and co-founder of 1GiantMind, an Australian non-profit organization dedicated to helping people learn how to meditate. Jonni explains that we can begin to transcend our constant thought patterns through repetition of specific meditation techniques he calls Being training. As Jonni says, “Trying to elicit the mind to do something is futile. Like dye to a cloth, our minds and personalities can become imbued with the natural qualities of Being through the experience of meditation. That’s why it’s important to experience the physical act of meditation first so that we can get back to our fundamental nature so that we can train the mind to let go.”
There’s a psychological reason why we must, in our modern and media-driven age, learn how to let go.
“Willpower is a relative newcomer in human evolution and leads to conscious repression, not stillness,” Dorion Dellabough, a psychotherapist with a private practice in Victoria, Canada, explained to me. “As we’ve evolved, we’ve placed greater importance on the ability to will things. In many ways this has served us well, but there are certain psychological conditions that not only resist our acts of will, but are actually impaired by them. Grieving, forgiveness, and presence are three examples of human experience which can only be realized and lived through by surrendering, not willing them to happen or to go away.”
Surrendering to the present moment is linked to how our perception of reality shapes our experience. “Of course you want everything to be quiet around you; you don’t want to be disturbed,” Eckhart explains. “But you need to incorporate whatever happens into your meditation and surrender to it. If there are children screaming outside, or drilling taking place on the street, you must reflect on why you are annoyed. Is it the noise or is it your reaction? It’s your reaction. If you let go of your reaction there’s just the noise, and your egoic self dissolves and the noise goes right through you. That’s called surrender.”
What does surrender feel like? “Surrender means letting go and allowing what is natural, instinctual, back into this moment, but with awareness,” as Dorion says. “If we’re able to do that without grasping at whatever is presented, then it will move on, and once the moving stops we will find stillness waiting patiently for us.” Jonni concurs. “In this state, reality is very dynamic and rich, and we can transcend the thinking mind to a place of awareness.”
How do we surrender so that we can find our instinctual selves?
It’s important to start with the body itself. Eckhart calls this inner body awareness, in which we can connect with our internal energy field. Conscious breathing is a good way to begin the process.
As Eckhart suggests, “Follow the breath with your attention as it moves in and out of your body. Breathe into the body, and feel your abdomen expanding and contracting slightly with each inhalation and exhalation. If you find it easy to visualize, close your eyes and see yourself surrounded by light or immersed in a luminous substance — a sea of consciousness. Then breathe in that light. Feel that luminous substance filling up your body and making it luminous also. Then gradually focus more on the feeling.”
When we learn how to meditate on a practical level, there are positive physical effects, as well as opportunities for spiritual and psychological development. Over time, “Specific regions of the brain are activated through meditation which change brain cell connections and body chemistry promoting lower blood pressure and heart rate, increased attention, faster recovery from injury, emotional stability and resilience,” Dorion says. “Our modern way of life is turning on (and leaving on) a tap of chemicals – an old survival system – that evolved to be used occasionally and for brief periods. Meditation is a way to turn that tap off and restore balance.” As Jonni explains, this process of achieving inner body awareness can help us to find a state of deep rest while remaining present and conscious when we’re meditating, and even when we’re not.
Despite my inauspicious start, meditation has been part of my daily routine for many years now. With a little help from my spiritual and practical life teachers, I can now fall into a state of deep inner body awareness without wrangling my thinking mind into submission. But what was it that I was missing when I began? What was the starting point for letting go?
What I came to learn is that meditation is a gift. It’s the time I give myself each day to listen and to be heard. I listen to my own heart beat and to my lungs draw air, to the birds singing outside my window and to the rain on my rooftop as well as the cars driving by. I listen to the rhythm of the world, and in doing so I become part of everything around me. In finding my inner energy attuned to my own nature and to the nature of what surrounds me, I know that I am part of the whole, and I become whole. In this space, surrender is not only possible, it’s inevitable. “Don’t look for peace,” Eckhart teaches. “Don’t look for any other state than the one you are in now; otherwise, you will set up inner conflict and unconscious resistance. Forgive yourself for not being at peace. The moment you completely accept your non- peace, your non-peace becomes transmuted into peace. Anything you accept fully will get you there, will take you into peace. This is the miracle of surrender.”
Lisa Aisling Montagu is a communications strategist, writer and editor, as well as an award-winning short fiction author. She has just completed her first novel. 1GiantMind is a registered health promotion charity dedicated to delivering Learn to Meditate programs and resources to combat the negative impact of stress, and improve health and wellbeing. Dorion Dellaboughis a psychotherapist with a private practice in Victoria, Canada where he works with individuals, couples and organizations.