The other day, as my plane taxied into the San Francisco airport terminal, the flight attendant reminded us to be careful opening the overhead bins "because the contents may have shifted during the flight." I had been meditating, and as I opened my eyes, I realized that my mind was like one of those overhead bins. Its contents had shifted. I had gone into meditation with a problem on my mind. I'd come out knowing what to do about it. More than that, I realized that what I had thought of as a problem wasn't really a problem at all. Just by turning my attention inward, letting the breath slow down, letting my mind drift toward a mantra, a subtle transformation had taken place. I was more centered, more awake, more present to myself. Meditation had shifted my state from problem consciousness to a recognition that no problem is irresolvable.
Why meditation works is something of a mystery. But it's no longer a secret that meditation is good for us. Neuroscience can now show us what happens in the brain when we meditate. (Among other things, brain areas associated with stress slow down, and parts of the brain associated with feelings like joy, peace, and compassion become active.) The evidence that meditation triggers positive changes is overwhelming. In addition, we are beginning to recognize that meditation is a natural state, a current of awareness that wants to open up to us if only we'll let it.
And yet, many meditators worry that they aren't doing it right. They wonder why they see lights in meditation, or why they don't. They worry if they feel sleepy during meditation, and they worry if they're too wide awake.
In this column, I'm going to answer some typical questions about meditation. The answers are based not only on my own experience but also on the collective wisdom I've received from some of the great meditating yogis, past and present. All of them are meant to encourage you to take heart, to relax, to have confidence that if you just sit regularly, if you just do it, meditation will unfold for you in profoundly life-enhancing ways.
Q: I've received so many different meditation instructions that I can't always decide what to focus on. Is it OK to use different techniques?
When you begin a meditation practice, it helps to establish a simple protocol that you can come back to again and again. It doesn't much matter what it is, although several classic meditation techniques are known to create a solid basis for practice. (Many of them involve the breath, a mantra, or some variation of mindfulness.) Starting every practice session with the same sequence helps train the mind so that it learns to turn inward naturally, triggered by the sequence you've established.
That said, no meditation practice is an end in itself. Any technique is like a portal, a doorway that the mind uses to enter the natural inner experience that is true meditation. Eventually, you will find that the technique "wants to" fall away, allowing the mind to catch the natural current of meditation on its own.
If you try to work with too many techniques during one meditation session, it tends to flip you into your mind. You'll often wind up spending your meditation time trying out one technique then another, and never letting yourself sink in.
However, once you've established a habit of meditating, it can be helpful to try different techniques periodically. Every meditation technique leads into the inner world, but each will affect your consciousness slightly differently. So do give yourself permission to experiment occasionally. Experimentation makes meditation more interesting and fun, especially if you have a tendency to fall into a routine.
When you decide to try a different practice, give it some time to take hold. But for deep practice, having an established protocol is indispensable.
Q: How important is it for the mind to get quiet when you meditate?
Believe it or not, meditation can go on even when the mind is chattering away. It is the nature of the mind to create thoughts and images. The energy that we call "mind" is dynamic. Like an ocean, it has an innate tendency to create surface waves. Yet when you sit regularly, you'll begin to become aware of a part of the mind that is untouched by thoughts. You might experience that deeper layer of consciousness as a pure sense of being or as a sense of being a witness. Sometimes it feels as if you have plunged into the deeper "water" of the mind, where it is calm—while all the time, the mental chatter continues. In other words, the mind can keep thinking, but "you" are not affected by those thoughts.
So let the thoughts be there, and see if you can become aware of the awareness—the sense of being present—that is behind the thoughts. Or simply let yourself keep coming back to the sensations of the breath in the body, or the felt sense of energy in the heart, or the vibratory quality of a mantra. In time, you'll notice that the thoughts drift more and more into the background while the underlying sense of being comes more into the foreground. That's meditation.
Q: A lot of emotions come up when I meditate, and they're not all pleasant. Is there something I can do?
When I first began meditating, I noticed a lot of irritation coming up. Once I told my meditation teacher, "Meditation seems to be making me irritated." He said, "It's not that meditation makes you irritated. You have a lot of irritation inside you, and meditation is bringing it out to be released."
Most of us hold buried emotions. We might not be aware of them, but they can affect our mood and our relationships without our even knowing it. When we meditate, those layers of emotions are brought up so they can be seen and let go of. So there will often be periods, especially in the early days of practice, when emotions keep bubbling up from inside. Just understand that this is part of the process and that it can ultimately be helpful to your emotional state.
One of the great practices for working with emotions is to embrace an emotion by making space for it. You begin by feeling the emotion, focusing especially on the energetic experience of it rather than on the "story" it is telling you. Try to find the energy of the emotion. Notice what part of your body it seems to affect the most. Focus your attention on the felt experience of the emotion in the body. Breathe into it. Now imagine that a space surrounds that part of your body, including the feeling of the emotion. Let the emotional energy and the space be present together. Without trying to make the emotion go away, notice how it will naturally evanesce into the surrounding spaciousness.
When you practice with emotions this way, over time you will be much less subject to emotional upheaval. Yet you'll also be able to feel your feelings without being scared of them.
Q: Why does my breath sometimes slow down or stop while I meditate?
This is a natural yogic process. The breath and the mind are deeply intertwined. As the mind stills, the breathing slows, and vice versa. When the breath slows or stops, it can be a precursor to samadhi (union)—which in classical yoga is often associated with a stilling of the prana (life force). In ordinary waking life, the breath flows along the two inner channels that correspond to the right and left nostrils. In meditation, the breath will stop flowing through these channels and will begin to flow through the central channel that runs along the spine.
When that happens, you are being breathed from within. This is a powerful inner state and a profoundly beneficial one. What often happens though is that we get scared when the breath slows. We fear that we won't get our breath back. But in fact, what is happening is that the life force is becoming drawn in and is operating without assistance from the lungs. Let it be, and know that when meditation is over, you'll be breathing normally again.
Q: When I meditate I see lights and sometimes visions of people. Are these meaningful?
It depends. Some of the images you see in meditation are simply downloads from the unconscious image bank, the visual version of thoughts. These you can simply notice and let go, as you would thoughts.
As you go deeper in meditation, however, you can see lights and forms that are part of the essential "geography" of the inner world, the subtle body. Many meditators see a golden light, or a pale blue dot, or a single eye. Others see geometric grids of light. Others will have a glimpse of a sagelike figure or a deity. Some may "hear" inner sounds or experience insights that come with a clarity that feels like truth. Still others will experience higher emotions like peace or bliss. When the vision you see is accompanied by a feeling of peace or bliss, you can assume that it is a "true" vision—that is, that you are seeing something that is a genuine presence in the collective field. These are gifts. Enjoy them; record them afterward. But try not to cling to them. Sometimes a vision or an insight received in meditation can have a powerful impact on you or give you guidance that can prove important. Often, such a "true" vision will have heightened colors or clarity. So honor these visions, but don't consider or make them the goal of meditation.
Extra: For more expert meditation instruction from Sally Kempton and information on basic techniques, click here.
Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy and the author of Meditation for the Love of It.