People have been meditating for thousands of years: it is a universal spiritual practice, found in all cultures and traditions. And it is used in pursuit of a wide range of different goals, from the relief of stress and anxiety to the attainment of enlightenment. Today, there are probably more people practising meditation than at any time in human history. But what is meditation, how do you do it, and why does it matter anyway?
In this article I want to tell you about the Just Meditation book, which I wrote because although meditation is actually very simple, people always seem to want to go and complicate it by dressing it up in a lot of jargon, or by making you buy into some belief system or other. I called it Just Meditation because my goal is to make the learning and practice of meditation simple, accessible and inclusive. Just Mediation is ‘everyday meditation for everyone’. There’s no need to buy into any beliefs or theories. There’s just the practice. And that practice is very simple, so simple in fact that it can be taught in a few minutes. You can get someone meditating in no time at all: there’s no need to complicate things.
The beauty of this approach, I think, is that anyone can benefit from the practice. Absolutely anyone. You don’t have to sign up to any kind of belief system, whether religious or secular. It’s just meditation.
But then I found myself facing a bit of a challenge. If it’s so simple, if it only takes a few minutes to teach someone how to meditate, how then was I going to write a whole book about it? The answer is, you go deeper. The practice is simple, and in fact the practice is the same after twenty years as it is on day one. There are no higher levels or advanced teachings in this approach. Instead, what I hope I’ve managed to do in the book is to unpack the detail a bit. Not the detail about complicated ideas or theories or teachings, but the detail of what’s involved when you go deeper into the experience of meditation.
So, the book is divided into three sections. What is meditation, how to meditate and why meditate.
The word meditation gets used to describe all sorts of different things, so the first section starts with a quick survey of the various ways in which the word can be used, before settling on a definition of meditation as being something to do with regulating the attention in some way or other, in order to allow our awareness to simply be aware of being aware, if you see what I mean. Also, in this section, there are a couple of chapters in which I discuss mindfulness. Is it the same, is it different, how and in what way? And, finally, I give an account of what is unique about the Just Meditation approach, which neither promotes nor rejects any particular tradition or worldview, but simply enables the practice of meditation in a way that is simple, accessible and inclusive. Hence the label ‘Just Meditation’.
The second section then goes into the question of how to meditate. And again, it’s very simple. You just close your eyes and watch your breathing and away you go. But we can go into that in a lot more depth, thinking about the posture, thinking about the breath, thinking about thoughts and distractions. But what I don’t do is go into a lot of discussion about all sorts of different techniques and practices. The whole point about the Just Meditation approach is keeping it simple. Basically it’s about focussing the attention on one thing, such as the breath or a mantra, and trying not to get caught up in our thoughts. That’s it. The practice itself is very straightforward. And the great thing about it is that pretty much anyone can do it, and will very likely get some benefit from it too. But although the practice is simple, it’s also complete as it is. There are no upgrades. The practice doesn’t change. We do. By going deeper.
Finally, the third section looks at the question of why we meditate. And that to me is the most important question of all. Why do we do it? Why does it matter? What’s our motivation? What is the problem or issue to which we think meditation might be the solution? And the point here is that there are no right or wrong answers – the reasons we have for wanting to meditate will be unique to each of us – the point is being aware of our motivations, understanding why we do what we do. Meditation is the cultivation of awareness, so being aware of why we want to meditate in the first place seems like a good place to start. Why do it, what’s the point of it, what does it do to us. Not what does it do for us, but what does it do to us? How might meditation change us? How and in what way might we grow and develop as a result of the practice of meditation? Because if it doesn’t change us in some way – hopefully a positive way – then what’s the point of doing it?
Another way to explore this question is to think about the benefits of meditation, and as always, I like to keep it simple. Meditation is about taking our attention away from our thoughts, not least because sometimes our thoughts can be really unhelpful. So, when we do this, when we practice taking our attention away from our thoughts, one of the first things we are likely to notice is that we experience some degree of calmness – simply as a result of taking a break from our own thoughts. And as a result of that, we are likely to experience a greater sense of clarity, we will gain a bit of perspective, we will be able to see things more clearly. And as a result of that, we may also find that as we start to see things more clearly, our innate capacity for compassion grows as well. So, to put it in a nutshell – and there’s obviously a whole lot more to say when you go into it – but basically, calmness, clarity and compassion are three of the principal benefits of meditation, and therefore three good reasons why we might think it is an important thing to do.