Calmness, attention, awareness, and clarity are states of mind crafted through the art of meditation. This guide to meditation draws from the teachings of Culadasa and his book, The Mind Illuminated (TMI). Learn how the simple cultivation of attention leads to calmness, that awareness to clarity, and how this can benefit you every day.
A Practical Definition and Guide to Meditation
Meditation is derived from the Latin meditationem and meditari meaning to think over, reflect, and consider with connotations to plan, devise, and practice. From the 14th century, it denoted ‘continuous calm thought upon some object’. This bringing of attention to any object for any duration of time necessitates a simultaneous and vivid awareness of what is happening, while it is happening, no matter what it is.
Noticing what is happening now
Being aware of what is happening, while it is happening, no matter what it is, necessitates engaging the mind in meditative focus on, and only in, the present moment. What you did in the past, be it years, hours, minutes, or even seconds ago, is not relevant.
Similarly, what you plan to do in the future is irrelevant in such mindfulness meditation practice. As such, one of the first things you want to learn in meditation is to notice when your thoughts start drifting to either the past or the future.
Thinking and planning are normal activities of the mind. When you become hyper-aware of how and what you are thinking and planning, you start to engage in the process of what can be called mindfulness meditation. This is what it means to train the mind in awareness of what is happening, while it is happening, no matter what it is.
Bringing purpose to your meditation
The purpose of learning meditation, and this succinct guide, is to free your mind of habitual tendencies and unconscious actions that are either unproductive or destructive.
Unconsciousness habits, processes, or automated functions, are the basis of any functional system or organism. Making a cup of tea hardly requires minute attention and consideration for each step in the process.
It would be impractical and dysfunctional to consciously remember where the kitchen is, the muscle movement needed to get there, the furniture to avoid, how to fill the kettle, press the switch, and organize the cups. As laborious as it seems, one would die of thirst along the way.
While many unconscious habits play an important role in our day-to-day functioning, they are not always beneficial. Placing high expectations on yourself may improve your productivity, but unchecked, this can lead to stress and anxiety.
Part of learning to meditate means noticing which habitual tendencies are not benefiting us or others. In doing so, we free and unburden the mind in such a way that we can act and respond more appropriately and functionally.
The actual key benefit of meditation
Meditation leads to much more than separating the beneficial from the detrimental. As you hone and develop this skill, you will also start to notice how your mind operates! You are no longer constantly consumed by the contents of your thoughts. Instead, you become more interested in the processes of your mind. In a sense, it’s a kind of back engineering.
When this happens, you may start to realise that premises and assumptions of how things work may not necessarily hold true. In this way, you start to shift your worldview. This happens because this meta-awareness starts to question the reality of how you imagine things to be.
This training or shift of awareness, otherwise known as mindfulness, is essential to meditation. Concurrently, in meditation, you can guide your mind to attend to any chosen object or task for a duration of your choosing. This alone is extremely functional and productive in any area of professional work or daily routine. This simultaneous training of attention and greater meta-awareness is essential in the process of meditation.
The value of attention versus awareness
The difference between attention and awareness is clarity itself. Right now, your attention is on reading this guide to meditation. You are directing your attention to this particular point on this page. Simultaneously, though, you may also be aware of your posture as in sitting or standing, whether it is light or dark outside, or if you are feeling relaxed or tense.
You can be vaguely aware of these peripherals or even vividly aware. Meditation, therefore, not only brings greater awareness to what is happening in the moment, but it empowers you to keep your attention where it needs to be. Meditation is, in many ways, the art of being in perfect flow.
The conundrum of the object of attention
Meditation necessitates an object or task for its practice whether you are sitting still or busying yourselves with something at work. The most practical and immediate object of meditation is your own breath. Without breath, you cannot exist as you are, so this makes your breathing a most useful and poignant object of meditation.
Now, assuming you have chosen your breath as your object of meditation, how do you recognise the distinction between attention and awareness? For attention to your breath to have any meaningful purpose, you need to keep it there for a reasonable length of time. However, as anyone who has tried to meditate has undoubtedly discovered, attention often moves from where you initially chose to focus it.
Noticing a shift in attention
How do you know attention has shifted? Initially, you may only notice after some time that your attention is no longer on your breath. However, often out of the blue, you suddenly realise your thoughts are elsewhere or focused on noise in your environment. You realise this due to your natural faculty of memory and awareness.
This is a crucial point. Since you are simultaneously training your awareness and attention, if your attention falters but your awareness picks up on this, you can then bolster and refocus your attention.
The best way to do this is to create a positive feedback loop to your brain. But, how do you do this? You simply need to appreciate that in noticing the distraction, you are simultaneously doing exactly what you were meant to be doing in the first place. You are, through expanded awareness, achieving success by keeping on track as you would on a project at work.
Showing appreciation for awareness
The natural inclination for most people when their attention falters is to get frustrated or annoyed. However, a more useful and positive response is to be happy and appreciative that your dutiful awareness has picked up the slack.
When awareness does its job, you need to reinforce it in such a way that it continues into the future. Only after appreciating your success in awareness should you let go of the thought or distraction. Then, gently bring your attention back to the object of focus, which is the bodily sensation of your breathing, and continue to rest your attention here.
The positive feedback loop
Positive feedback is the best way your ‘Pavlovian brain’ learns a new task. A puppy has no comprehension as such of the English word ‘sit’. If, however, you reward the puppy each time it actually manages to sit, you are accomplishing the goal. In due course of time, the obedient puppy will happily cue into the dozens of stimuli and focus on the one that gets it the reward.
You need to train your attention in a similar manner. If you negate yourself for not sustaining your attention, you are missing an opportunity to reprogram your mind by rewarding the awareness aspect of this training.
If you don’t do this, you forgo the most optimal way of learning; that is, through positive reinforcement. So, every time you notice your attention has drifted, be happy and grateful that you have noticed. We call this spontaneous introspective awareness, and this ‘aha!’ moment is a key aspect of mental and meditative training.
This dynamic is also what allows for new discoveries and realisations to surface. So, rejoice in these moments of awareness at every opportunity. This is the best way to holistically train your mind.
Freeing yourself of judgement
One thing this guide hasn’t highlighted thus far is the correct mental attitude during meditation. A meditative mind needs to come from a space of openness, curiosity, acceptance, and clarity. From this scientifically minded vantage, anything you notice in reality is allowed.
Sometimes, you will also experience frustration in your practice. It is important to notice, to allow, and to accept these emotions. Paradoxically, not being frustrated by your frustration is key to diminishing it. This is the first step, and additionally, training in awareness. The next step is to learn to let go.
Letting go and allowing the process
Letting go is an essential part of any meditation training and this can be difficult to do. In the beginning stages of meditation, many distractions will arise. Not only that, they will appear quite enticing. Even with awareness of these distractions, your attention will continue to be seduced to seemingly more interesting objects than your breath. This is a normal part of the process.
Simply understanding ‘letting go’ as consciously shifting your attention from one object to another provides a practical way to initiate this process of development. All you need to do is to consciously move your attention back to its object of meditation after each relapse of drifting away.
If you have to do this a dozen, or even a hundred times, each is a valued opportunity to train your mind in awareness and in letting go. This simple mindful attitude will allow you to naturally and happily train your mind in a more attentive focus.
Attaining the goal of meditation training
True meditation is when you achieve the optimal balance between attention and awareness. Until that time, these foundational practices are an essential guide to meditation. Once you develop your prowess in attention and awareness, everything else falls into place.
To learn more and to take advantage of these essential life skills, join me on a journey of bringing meditation into every moment of your life.