This article was originally published on January 23, 2014 on NBHAP and now – almost eight years later and with the support of Will Samson himself – updated as we felt the need to share it with you once again.
I’ll be honest: writing the following article has taken me a lot longer than I had anticipated. The more I began to write, the deeper I wanted to explore the powerful benefits of meditation, taking me further away from completion – and at the same time became increasingly aware of deterring potential readers by offloading an Everest sized mountain of words onto their screen.
I have now condensed this text as much as I can, whilst hopefully retaining enough of its substance. However, since the concept & practise of meditation is something that can be studied and delved into for a lifetime, I hope that the following will simply give you a brief introduction, whilst exciting enough interest in you to explore it more on your own.
Let me also be very clear: I am no meditation expert & in no way delude myself with grandiose notions of being some enlightened Himalayan Guru. Although meditation is something that I have practised for a few years now, I’m still a novice – but have felt increasingly passionate about doing my teeny tiny bit in raising some awareness of its profound benefits…even if it means just boring the ears off my friends.
The word ‘meditation’ tends to conjure up a wide variety of preconceptions & sometimes even negative connotations for many people. This seems to play a vital role in keeping the practise at a distance from the general population, even though the beneficial & transformative effects have been spoken of for literally thousands of years. Many of these benefits have been proven & reiterated by neurologists & psychologists during recent decades.
Whilst some may believe that, like enlightenment, it is something reserved for monks & simply not accessible to a fast-paced, modern & urban society – others may view it as boring and a waste of time. Since the latter was something more akin to my initial view point, allow me to briefly explain how that changed:
The first encounter came in Nepal back in 2008 during a week long introductory course to Tibetan Buddhism and meditation. It was an enjoyable few days, but I found the practice of meditating to be frustrating and tedious. I would sit peacefully and follow the instructions of the llama (an ex-psychiatrist from the USA) but would still find myself (my-self) to be incapable of quietening the relentless and compulsive thinking in my head. This guy was questioning almost everything that I had rooted my sense of self in and there was a huge amount of resistance to it. But, as the late great Alan Watts said “the most valuable insights come through questioning the most obvious forms of common sense”.
(Looking back on it now, I would liken my level of attention to that of a fly buzzing around a room. A restless mind that would ceaselessly & erratically wander, with no idea as to where it’s going. It was exhausting.
Does that sound in any way familiar? Have you noticed the incessant stream of thought that arises in the mind? More importantly, are you able to stop or quieten it when you choose to?).
As the years went by I kept up a fairly inconsistent and half-hearted routine of ‘meditation’, but was still struggling to understand what all the fuss was about. Why would anyone dedicate so much time to this?
Fast forward to January 2013 and I found myself back in that part of the world – however, this time in the Northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. One evening, as I was beginning to drift off to sleep, I suddenly started to feel dizzy. Slowly at first, but then plunged into a rapidly spinning vortex – it was terrifying. The walls of the room began to close in, my mind began to race at a thousand miles per hour and I was having trouble breathing. The classic signs of a panic attack all thanks to a recent bereavement. This was made rather more surreal, since I was traveling alone and the only person staying the hotel. Deterred and slightly shaken, I left my hotel at sunrise and headed to the nearest telephone to contact Air India and get on a flight back home asap.
However, things have a funny way of operated and it was simply not possible for another couple of weeks. As I wandered around Rishikesh, it was impossible not to notice the countless leaflets for meditation classes – even through my bleary, early morning eyesight. I soon remembered recently hearing that meditation was proven to be an extremely effective method of combating anxiety and panic attacks, so made a pledge to attend one of the classes later that day.
Sitting in a cold, dimly lit room alongside ten or so other travelers that evening, my skepticism was not entirely quelled when the teacher walked in. He was a short, plump, middle-aged Indian man wearing a slightly disheveled brown robe and a very cool orange wool hat. He spoke with a thick Hindi accent and a very gentle, genuine smile. A little neurotic voice in my head wondered whether I had stumbled across some kind of cult – but I stayed.
Without wasting much time, the session began. I honestly cannot remember what this little Indian guru said (which wasn’t actually much at all), but after 10 – 15 minutes of deep breathing, something happened. I seemed to fall into an incredible silence, which was both exhilarating and extremely peaceful at the same time. Thought subsided and was replaced by an intense awareness of my body, breath and surroundings, bringing with it one of the most profound senses of joy and connectivity that I’ve ever felt. This experience continued, growing ever stronger, for the next 15 minutes or so – until a bell was rung to signal the end of the session. I walked along the Ganges, back to the hotel, with a big smile and feeling utterly replenished. I felt as light as a helium balloon.
I really hope that does not sound inflated or even pretentious – but I cannot fathom a more accurate way of describing that sensation. However, considering that our physical bodies are over 95% empty space and the atoms that compile them were once formed in the contents of collapsing high mass stars … perhaps it isn’t such an untrappable idea to fathom.
Ever since then I have found the practice considerably easier and almost effortless at times.
Now, before explaining the basic outlines of meditation practise, there is an essential point that I need to mention: the present moment – the only thing there ever is.
You will only ever experience the past as a memory & you will only experience the ‘future’ in the present moment. That is simply fact. However most of us live as if it were more important than this… what madness! How can you ever be truly and deeply content & happy, when your whole being is occupied in a reality that only exists as an intangible form of thought in your head?
For all of its genuine benefits (and there are many), social media is a key perpetrator in seducing us away from presence. They over-stimulate our already ceaseless stream of thinking with more photos, links & information (much of which is frivolous) than we could ever possibly digest.
Notice how this restlessness can make the mind feel so fragile too. One aspect of it will continually compare its sense of self to others with mental commentary such as “They have that. I also want it. That will then fulfil me” – creating the illusion that some ‘future’ event will bring us internal contentment with an external situation or attainment. Unless firmly rooted in the present moment, the fragility of this ‘sense of self’ can easily be exacerbated on something like Instagram.
Furthermore, the widespread use of smart phones seems to be creating an entire generation of us who are always subliminally waiting for that next notification to come through, causing this ever-present underlying feeling of tension.
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Contrarily, I believe that this is a big reason why music is so dear to us – because it has the ability to force us into absolute presence & temporarily quieten minds that have become so relentless. This is especially true if you are performing or creating it. That same transcendental experience I had in India can be found within connecting with a piece of music that deeply resonates with us.
Creativity flowers & blooms when thought is rested, appearing through a higher level of consciousness. Such is the beauty, wonder and mystery of art – in fact ‘consciousness’ itself remains one of the greatest mysteries of modern science.
So, in it’s most basic sense, to meditate is simply to fully align yourself with the present moment. You don’t have to travel all the way India for that.
How to start?
There are entire books written about meditation techniques, so to condense it into a small paragraph is a rather difficult feat. However, luckily for both of us, the technique that I was taught happens to extremely simple. It is often referred to as “watching the breath” – an ancient form of meditation that dates back as far as the practice itself.
- Find a quiet space where you will not be disturbed or distracted for at least 25 minutes (quality is more important than quantity, but I think that 25 minutes is generally a good amount of time to aim for).
- With your eyes gently closed, begin to focus your attention on the flow of your breath. Let the breath out all the way (but never forcefully) and then allow it to come back in on its own. On the in-breath, follow the same principle, but allow the air to gracefully and naturally fall into your lungs.
- Keep this going until you are comfortable and totally at ease with letting this cycle go its own way. As you step back, you will notice that the rhythm simultaneously slows down and grows a little stronger.
- The same process can be applied to thought.
It is possible to observe the movements of your mind, without being sucked into their gravitational pull & letting yourself become them. When a thought arises, simply watch it (as you did with the breath) but be aware not to feed it with your attention. Simply observe without mental commentary & the thoughts will eventually dissolve. As you do this, you may notice the separation between that stream of thought & you as the observer / consciousness.
Once you allow yourself to rest in this watchful state, you might be surprised to see just how repetitive and negative your thought processes can be. But as soon as that light of awareness is shone, they can begin to dissipate.
If you feel as though you cannot stop this movement of thought, just revert your attention back to the breath.
- Listen to the surrounding silence, notice your heart beating & the flow of energy that resonates through your entire body. Connect with the present moment as deeply and intimately as possible – but as soon as you feel yourself trying, you’ve missed it. Simply drop the weight and baggage of that desire to arrive at a peaceful state, and once again, focus attention back to the breath.
And so, I will leave you with that.
With continued and steady practice (whilst some may feel immediate ‘results’, others may need to take their time) the feeling of ease, peace & gentle joy experienced in meditation will seep into your normal everyday state of consciousness (benefiting those around you too) – as long as your attention remains within the present moment. That is not to say that you cannot plan the future or reminisce about the past – the difference is that you can do all of that, without being consumed by it.
Try it out and see for yourself.
Will Samson continues to release haunting music on a regular basis – he just released a new album with Message To Bears called Flow State Mosaic which is a fitting musical soundtrack for your next meditation session. Make sure to check it out right here.