A cornerstone of spiritual practice, meditation is the systematic method of bringing the mind to rest from its incessant activity. While there are many effective methods, a common problem for all meditators particularly when beginning the practice is the opposite effect of the mind that seems to come alive while trying to meditate. Even experienced meditators may run into this issue time and again. The reasons for this vary and depend to some extent upon the particular stage of the spiritual journey and mostly upon the make-up of the individual body-mind with respect to the combination of gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas). For instance, someone with a predominantly rajasic make-up has an overactive mind streaming with thoughts that run in multiple directions simultaneously while one with a tamasic mind may struggle with laziness during the practice. The good news is that continued meditation practice results in the gradual evolution of gunas to become progressively more sattvic. The sattvic mind is one that is calm and most conducive to deep meditation.
At various stages of the journey, the causes for the mind’s agitation may differ. In the beginning, the mental noise may relate to obsessing about the details of the technique, worrying about not doing it right or not being relaxed enough, or thoughts of daily life (the grocery list, the dinner plan, the lunch menu, the office to-do list..). At later stages, the noise of the surface mind has been quietened enough for the churning of the subconscious mind to become evident. Repressed emotions and trauma, memories of early childhood (or further, of past lives), suppressed anger, rage and anxieties that were deeply hidden from conscious awareness begin to surface. For some, the subconscious mind is active from the get-go, and the jumble of thoughts that come up relate to contents of both, the repressed and the surface mind.
Ultimately however, over-analyzing of gunas or the mind’s tricks are counter-productive and unnecessary. For our sitting practices to be effective, what we do outside of these practice times can be highly beneficial. The following are some tips to minimize the powerful pull of the mind that can keep us from advancing in meditative practices:
1. Develop one-pointedness. In a world that is driven by fast-paced multi-tasking, unlearning the habit of doing more than one thing at once is a challenge, but the rewards become amply evident during meditation. Give complete attention to one task at a time, moving to the next only after it is done to satisfaction. Apply one-pointedness to all areas – turn off the radio and drive in silence, cook in silence, put away the phone while working or talking with someone, eat in silence and solitude. Make one-pointedness the center of every waking moment; this results in increased efficiency, higher quality of work, greater mental calm and enhanced creativity.
2. Complete tasks. Annoyingly enough, it is especially during meditation that thoughts about that incomplete project or the unanswered email surface. Clean up your life’s flow by prioritizing and completing daily tasks. Respond to emails and phone calls as soon as possible. Flag or note communications that need to be followed up upon – this is where technology becomes an obedient servant. If it helps, write down follow-up items and timelines so these details do not clutter the mind. Make it a point to leave no loose ends.
3. Slow down. Hectic rushing from one task or appointment to another cannot be particularly conducive to meditation. Wake up earlier, organize the day with enough buffer time. At the end of each day, make time to read some inspirational material, even if only for 10-20 minutes.
4. Heal relationships. Thoughts about relationships (particularly when there is friction), along with associated emotions surface more frequently in meditation. While the inner silence cultivated in meditation heals such wounds, it is helpful to facilitate the healing consciously such that meditation is effective. Resolve conflicts if possible, or forgive, forget and move on.
5. Cultivate discipline. It is difficult to cultivate a habit for the disciplined practice of meditation if this does not extend to other areas of life. Cultivate punctuality, honesty, cleanliness of body and mind, regulated diet, sleep and exercise habits and freedom from addictions.. Make it a point to sit for meditation everyday or forgo a meal (or equivalent). Ultimately, we will have to find the balance between obsession and laxity for all activities, including the discipline and practice of meditation.
6. Cultivate moderation. Meditation is most conducive when we are neither too full nor famished, when we have had enough sleep (neither too much nor too little), when we are alert but not agitated. Eat at least 2-3 hours before sitting (which necessarily takes discipline and planning) and practice sleep hygiene.
While establishing the practice of meditation may seem like a challenge, its rewards far exceed any difficulty encountered along the way. Further along, the practices of karma yoga, bhakti yoga and jnana yoga complement and deepen the practice of meditation. At a certain point in one’s journey, all of life becomes one seamless yoga, with no differentiation between sitting practices and daily life.