“Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.” — Pema Chödrön
Through training the mind in this way, we develop focus, clarity, and equanimity, and the ability to step out of habitual unconscious patterns that create suffering. So much of our ordinary mental activity involves grasping at false identities: stories of victimhood, of anger, of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ that are ultimately untrue. In working with ayahuasca, we can come to see these old patterns and release them, at least temporarily. Meditation practice supports us in staying out of them, thus truly integrating these insights into our being and our life.
Meditation practice breaks up the reactivity of habitual patterns, the trance of automatic functioning that marks so much of daily life. It gets us to a place where we can observe these old patterns arising, and choose to respond differently. The result—a flexible, strong attention capable of responding, rather than reacting —helps us create a freer and more fulfilling life.
Meditation as an Integrative Practice
Ayahuasca connects us to a sense of spirit that is bigger than our personal story. Meditation does the same, on a daily basis. You can practice anytime, anywhere – hopefully daily, in your own home. A regular meditation practice will keep you connected to what is most meaningful in your life, and clear out whatever blocks you from experiencing it. It’s the combination of plant medicine and spiritual practice that offers the greatest potential for healing, growth, and liberation/integration.
Meditation is a naturally integrative process. The very act of quietly sitting and opening up to our inner experience creates a space in which the old can settle down and the new can naturally emerge. This ability to maintain calm, clear, nonjudgmental awareness in the face of uncertainty is essential to working with the deeply transformative energies of ayahuasca, both in ceremony and in the months that follow. The ability to rest with ‘don’t-know’ mind is key to riding the transformational express train ayahuasca sometimes brings.
Meditation is the process of reconnecting with the essential state that lies beneath all confusion.
Most importantly, perhaps, meditation opens the door to a space and state bigger than egoic mind, bigger than who you think you are. The practice of tuning into your bigger Self—the spacious, clear awareness that underlies your conditioned identity —gives you a steady sense of who you really are, at root, beneath your surface personality.
Both Indian and Buddhist traditions teach that the deepest state of awareness within all beings is always present, always conscious, always joyful. This intrinsic essence is covered up by the confusion of everyday mind, discursive thought, and overpowering emotions. Meditation can be seen as the process of reconnecting with the essential state that lies beneath that confusion.
What Meditation Is—And Isn’t
Meditation can simply be seen as a set of practices for transforming the mind. When we sit, we free the mind from its normal job of conceptual thinking, giving it a different assignment. As we practice this assignment, the mind naturally transforms.
Meditation is direct experience: It involves applying active attention to our experience as it is in the present moment—something we do remarkably seldom in daily life. From this practice arises a clearer understanding of who we are and what our life is. We meditate to learn how to come into presence in our lives, so that we can be be fully present while we are living them. ‘Now’ is truly the only moment that exists, ever.
Meditation is a being, not a doing: Meditation is not a performance; it’s a state of awareness, a way of being. We call it practice, but rather than an exercise, it’s practice resting in a state of awareness. This is not an effortful production, but more a relaxing into the natural state that underlies our personality.
It’s a practice: Again, meditation is a process, not a goal to be achieved. Don’t expect perfection, in the beginning, or really, ever. Distractions, thoughts, disturbances arising in the mind—none of these are problems. They are just things to work with.
Meditation is not an exclusively mental practice. Meditation has the capacity to address body, heart and spirit, not just mental processing. To view it as a purely mental discipline squeezes practice, and self, down to a narrow bandwidth.
It’s not about eradicating thoughts. The mind’s nature is to produce thoughts, just like the sun’s nature is to shine. Meditation is not the practice of blocking our thoughts, perception or experience. Rather, it’s coming into a different kind of relationship with these. In meditation we don’t try to change our mind’s essential nature; we simply release our grasping at the thinking that covers this nature. Through this practice we begin to discover we are more than just our thoughts – we are the whole experience, and the space that experience arise within.
Meditation is not a ‘Should.’ While it’s common to get caught up in “Good if I do it/Bad if I don’t” self-judgment, this kind of dualistic mindset misses the point. In truth, guilt is simply just another bullet point on egoic mind’s to-do list. So when you catch yourself feeling bad about your lack of ‘progress’ or judging yourself—relax. Release this unhelpful thought before it snowballs into something bigger. Simply let go, into the spaciousness of the present moment, the present breath, feeling the beat of your heart in your chest right here, right now. There. You’re meditating.
“The point of meditation practice is actually to rediscover our hidden neurosis and our hidden sanity at the same time.” — Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
Types of Meditation
Meditation is an enormous subject with many overlapping practices, but it comes in roughly a handful of approaches:
Focused Attention applies awareness to an object or experience. The focal point is commonly the breath, but it can also be sensation in a particular area of the body; an inner or outer image; a thought, phrase or mantra. The recipe is simple: you focus your mind on the target. Inevitably your attention wanders off to a thought, feeling or sensation. Noticing this, you return your awareness back to the focal point. This practice develops concentration as well as depth and steadiness of awareness, and the ability of the mind to return again and again when distracted.
Examples: Shamatha, mantra, many guided meditations
Open Awareness: Here the attention is left open to whatever naturally arises within one’s experience, dispassionately noting without attachment or aversion. By mentally labeling what is happening—‘thinking, thinking’ or ‘sensation, sensation’—¬you cultivate your ability to notice without becoming identified with any particular thought, experience, or sensation. These type of practices develop focus, release judgment, and cultivate the mind as a flexible, clean lens of awareness able to see all phenomena as waves arising within experience. Examples: Vipassana (‘clear seeing,’ as in Goenka retreats or the Insight Meditation Society); mindfulness meditations (as in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction)
Contemplative practices cultivate inner states of mind through concentrating on a feeling (compassion, love, peace), an image that evokes the feeling (as in the deity practices of Hindu and Buddhist Tantra), or the simple practice of breathing in and out peace, love, wisdom, whatever the desired state may be.
Effortless Presence is not a technique so much as the state that naturally arises when the mind discovers its own nature. This is the state of awareness resting in itself, free, clear, and innately joyful. Pure presence is our basic nature, and it is what all meditative methods seek to uncover, although it can arise spontaneously at any point in one’s practice, and some approaches emphasize cultivating this from the very beginning.
Examples: Dzogchen, Advaita, non-dual practices, Adyashanti
There are dozens of schools, and thousands of techniques. It takes discernment and no small degree of self-understanding to develop your personal recipe. Your choice may be influenced by circumstance—a friend who practices a certain form, a nearby center or teacher, or a particular book that speaks to you. Some people start with a disciplined practice offering focused structure (shamatha, vipassana); others respond to the innate freedom and joy of relaxing into natural mind.
If you’re new to meditation, choose a simple basic practice and work with it until it becomes familiar. If, after a month you find you are not responding to a particular approach, try another. The field is vast, and you may benefit from a different method. Try a few, and in the process, learn what you need. The right meditation for you is the one you’ll practice, over and over again, but even experienced meditators evolve their practice over time.
Setting Up a Meditation Practice
Find a quiet, clean space that you can dedicate to meditation—maybe a corner of your bedroom or a cushion with a garden view. It doesn’t have to be big, but it helps if the seat can be devoted exclusively to practice. Virtually all meditative traditions emphasize the importance of erect posture, resting with a straight back in a relaxed, upright position. You can sit on a cushion, a meditation bench, a chair—whatever works for your body, as long as your spine is straight and chest open.
Schedule a regular time for daily practice. Early morning works best for many people. Even five minutes is better than nothing, but for effective practice, aim for 30 minutes – it can take more than half that just to get past the surface tension into what lies beneath. If you’re beginning, start with 10 minutes and add a minute each day. Using a timer or meditation app releases you from the compulsion to check the clock and can help you go deeper into your practice.
Creating an intention before every meditation session helps guide your practice and strengthen the effect. For instance, Today I will sit for 20 minutes with my attention on the breath moving my belly, and practice simply letting go of every thought that arises. Or, My intention is to breathe in and out from my heart, connecting with love to the space within.
It can be very helpful to practice with a group and/or teacher. Classes and retreats provide instruction, motivation and support. Books, videos, or mp3s of guided meditations can be helpful; some resources are listed below.
Be steady; be committed; be gentle with yourself, yet firm; disciplined, yet loving. It’s this kind of attitude that creates the matrix for deep integration work. In meditation you are cultivating a relationship with your deepest self, becoming intimate with every level of your being: body, mind, feelings, and the inner awareness that is the ground of your being.
Sally Kempton, Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience. A joyful approach to meditation as an exploration of your intrinsic being.
Pema Chödrön, How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends With Your Mind
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Daily Life. From the developer of MBSR, a purely secular approach to meditation, including breath awareness and body scan.
Ken McLeod, Wake Up to Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention. Detailed, clear handbook of many practices to develop attention for body and mind.
Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now. Practical, clear discussion in Q&A format on the practice of directing attention into the present moment.
A 10-step introduction to meditation with brief video clips of Tibetan teachers: http://whatmeditationreallyis.com/index.php/lang-en/dare-to-meditate.html
Dozens of video clips from non-dual teacher Adyashanti: https://adyashanti.org/index.php?file=watchvideo
Basic teachings: http://www.adyashanti.org/cafedharma/index.php?file=video
Guided Vipassana meditation with Tara Brach: