It was day two of the yoga retreat. We’d just sat for our second evening meditation, in the profound silence of a candlelit limestone cave, and we were sharing some thoughts about our experiences. Suddenly one of my fellow students, in some distress, burst out, “It’s no use! I’m trying and trying and I can’t do it. I just can’t empty my mind!”
Of all the misconceptions about meditation, this is one of the most common – and probably the most unhelpful. Of course the poor woman couldn’t empty her mind – it’s a contradiction in terms. ‘Mind’ is the word we use for something that by its nature is teeming with activity, constantly constructing and reconstructing our lived reality. Meditation – in all its many forms – aims at transcending or transforming that mental activity, rather than removing it altogether.
For thousands of years, yoga was practised as a form of meditation. Physical postures, breathing and concentration exercises prepared the body and the mind to sit still for long periods. In the Yoga Sutras, one of the key scriptures of yoga, the sage Patanjali writes, “Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.” Stillness is a very different state from emptiness, and one that the human mind is just about capable of. The task of calming the waves on the ocean is a slightly easier one than draining it dry.
But for most of us, stillness is hard to come by. We can’t sit for any length of time without moving. We’re addicted to distraction; the mind, left unsupervised, gets up to all sorts of mischief. The Buddhists call it ‘monkey mind’, and it requires careful training. A good first step is to give the monkey something to play with: an object of concentration. Depending on your approach, it could be a flickering candle flame; a string of rosary or mala beads; a mantra, prayer or other sacred sound; or the sensations of the body and breath.
Repetition is key. It soothes the mind-monkey, makes it feel secure. But mindless, habitual repetition is not useful; what we’re after is a delicate resettling of the attention on the present moment with each breath, each flicker, or each bead. With each repetition, the mind grows calmer. Eventually, you can take the object away and just sit with the stillness – the gaps between thoughts, the spaces between breaths. It’s tempting to think of that kind of objectless meditation as ‘the real thing’ – oh, how the monkey loves to label everything – and any other effort as somehow falling short. But that’s not helpful. All of us have to start our quest for stillness from where we are, right now, complete with distractions, fidgets and busy minds. We just have to make the decision to start. I think meditation is as much about intention as it is about technique or results – maybe more. With the right mindset, even folding the laundry could induce a meditative state.
Once you begin to treat yoga as a form of meditation, you start to see how brilliantly useful it is for the naturally restless. Physical tics and fidgets are channelled into purposeful gestures. With the mind completely engaged in the task of moving the body and the breath in special patterns, there’s no energy left for monkeying around. From a physiological point of view, slow, rhythmic breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system – switches us from ‘fight or flight’ to ‘rest and digest’ mode. Gradually, the need for distraction melts away and we find ourselves sitting, without effort, with what feels like a very quiet mind. Yoga offers the possibility of moving gently into stillness, monkey mind and all.
“Yoga for Busy Minds” – a yoga and meditation workshop with Lucy Greeves – takes place this Saturday, March 1st, 3-5.30pm, at Yoga Body Centre in Clapton, E5. More information/book here.
(A version of this article appeared on welldoing.org)