In my early years of meditation, I wasted countless hours wondering which technique to use. The teachers of my lineage offered several basic methods: repeating a mantra, focusing on the space between breaths, witnessing the thoughts. But an early mentor had told me to decide on one technique and stick with it, and I reasoned that if I had to choose one practice, it had better be the right one. So I worried. I worried about which mantra to use, about whether to meditate on the Witness—the observing awareness that remains ever-present through all the fluctuations of our moods and mental states—or follow my breath. I worried about when it was permissible to leave the technique behind and just relax. It wasn’t until I stopped making techniques into icons that I began to discover how liberating it can be to work with different practices at different times.
We use techniques in meditation for a very simple reason: Most of us, at least when we begin meditation, need support for the mind. A technique provides a place for the mind to rest while it settles back down into its essential nature. That’s all it is really, a kind of cushion. No technique is an end in itself, and no matter which one people use, it will eventually dissolve when their meditation deepens.
I like to think of meditation methods as portals, entry points into the spaciousness that underlies the mind. The inner spaciousness is always there, with its clarity, love, and innate goodness. It is like the sky that suddenly appears over our heads when we step out of the kitchen door after a harried morning and glance upward. The Self, like the sky, is ever present yet hidden by the ceiling and walls of our minds. In approaching the Self, it helps to have a doorway we can comfortably walk through, rather than having to break through the wall of thoughts separating us from our inner space.
Most of us already know which modes of meditation feel most natural. Some people naturally have a visual bent and respond well to practices that work with inner “sights.” Others are more kinesthetic, attuned to sensations of energy. There are auditory people, whose inner world opens in response to sound, and people whose practice is kindled by an insight or a feeling.
Once we become aware of how we respond to different perceptual modes, we can often adjust a practice so it works for us. Someone who has a hard time visualizing can work with an image by “feeling” it as energy or as an inner sensation, rather than trying to see it as an object. A highly visual person might get bored with mantra repetition when he focuses on sounding the syllables, but feel the mantra’s impact if he visualizes the letters on his inner screen. One person might experience great love when repeating a mantra with a devotional feeling, while a friend’s meditation only takes off once she lets go of all props and meditates on pure Awareness. Each person needs to find his or her own way.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about any practice is to keep looking for its subtle essence. Every technique has its own unique feeling, which creates an energy space inside. For example, when repeating a mantra with the breath, a person might feel a sensation of prana (vital force) moving between the throat and the heart, as well as a subtle feeling of expansion or pulsation in the heart space when the mantra syllables “strike” it. Focusing on the space between the breaths, one might begin to feel the breath moving in and out of the heart and notice a subtle expansion of the heart space. One might notice that certain parts of the inner body are activated by a particular practice; the space between the eyebrows, for example, might begin to pulsate when one imagines a flame there. Following the rhythm of the breath might make a person especially aware of the currents of energy flowing through the body.
That energy sensation, or feeling-sense, is the subtle effect of the method and its real essence. It is the feeling-sense a technique creates—rather than the technique itself—that opens the door into the Self. For this reason, one effective way of going deeper in meditation is to keep one’s awareness moving “into” the feeling-space created by the practice: into the sensation created by the mantra as its syllables drop into one’s consciousness, into the sensation of the breath as it pauses between the inhalation and the exhalation, or into the vividness of the object being visualized.
As we do this, we automatically release ourselves into a subtler level of our being. This release will happen more easily if we can allow ourselves to give up any feeling of separation from the technique. Nearly always, when people have difficulties going deeper into meditation, it is because they are keeping some sort of separation between themselves and their method and between themselves and the goal. The antidote for nearly every problem that arises in meditation is to remember that the meditator, the technique of meditation, and the goal of meditation are one: that within the inner field of Awareness, everything is simply Awareness itself.
Another reason to experiment with techniques is to keep from being stuck in a particular method. Some people can take a single technique and continue with it for a lifetime, going deeper and deeper. Others, however, find that the original practice they learned stops being effective after a time. Some people stick with a practice they learned years ago, even when it no longer helps them go deeper. After a while, when the practice doesn’t seem to work for them, they come to feel that they aren’t good meditators, or that meditation is just too hard or boring, or even that it comes so easily they miss a feeling of growth. Often their only problem is trying to enter meditation through the wrong doorway or a door that once opened easily but is now stiff on its hinges.
Ultimately no meditation practice is going to work unless you like doing it. This piece of wisdom comes from no less an authority than Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra, a text so fundamental that every yogic tradition in India makes it the basis for meditation practice. After listing a string of practices for focusing the mind, Patanjali ended his chapter on concentration by saying, “Concentrate wherever the mind finds satisfaction.” How do meditators know the mind is finding satisfaction in a technique? First, they should enjoy it and be able to relax within it. It should give them a feeling of peace. Once they’ve become familiar with it, the practice should feel natural. If they have to work too hard at it, that may be a sign it is the wrong practice.
Meditators who have received practices through a lineage of enlightened teachers usually find that these practices are especially empowered—infused with an energy that yields relatively quick results as they work with them. Those without a lineage teacher find that the sages of meditation have offered us countless techniques—such as mantras, visualizations, practices of awareness—that open up into the Self as one explores them.
I suggest spending some time experimenting with a particular practice; work with it long enough to get a sense of its subtleties and see how it affects meditation over time. When we clearly understand that a technique is not an end in itself but simply the doorway into the greater Awareness, we can begin to sense which doorway is going to open most easily at a particular moment. Some techniques energize while others kindle love or help quiet an agitated mind.
Of course, we don’t want to become technique junkies, flitting from one method to another and never going deeply into any single method. However, playing with different practices helps us get to know ourselves and discover what works best. Everyone’s road is unique, and ultimately no one else can tell a person what he or she needs. That’s why there aren’t any rules about the “best” way to meditate, except that a practice should soothe the restlessness of the mind and make it easier to enter the interior silence. This is discovered only through practice.