Friday, 23 June 2017


Sometimes when I am teaching, I tell people that I have never met someone who has meditated, even for a little while, who has said they can fully express their experience to someone who has never done it. (I started regularly teaching meditation in 2002, after having already practised it for twelve years). Since then I have probably taught over 1500 classes. And no one has ever contradicted me, saying they have been able to. But even if we can not fully express our experience of meditation, can we at least say something about it?

What is meditation?
Even this is a difficult question, since there is no one thing which we can call meditation. We only have a large number of meditation practices, coming from different religions, countries and cultures, that have been developed and practised over many centuries. Perhaps in Russia the best known of them involves meditating on the “Chakras” or energy centres. It comes from the Hindu tradition. Or at least that is what most people ask about when a conversation starts on meditation.

So what are the meditation practices I teach?
They are the “Mindfulness of Breathing” and the “Development of Loving Kindness”, and both are widespread in the teachings of Buddhism. However, they can both practised on their own, so you don't have to be a Buddhist to practice them and they are accessible to people from any religion.

The “Mindfulness of Breathing”.
In the “Mindfulness of Breathing”, while sitting upright and alert yet comfortable, and with our eyes closed, we simply pay attention to the breathing as it naturally enters and leaves our body. The practice has four stages, and with each new stage we are asked to be more alert and focussed with our awareness. With our eyes closed, we withdraw from our usual sensual experience so as to become more aware of the riches and complexities of our inner world, including that which psychologists would call the “unconscious”.

So what has been the effect of having regularly practiced this meditation for the last quarter century? Again, it is difficult to answer, partly because during that time I have done various meditation practices, and ethical observances, with each having their effect. However, certainly two qualities immediately come to mind.

Firstly is the ability to simply sit, to quietly and happily sit with a relaxed and aware state of mind, and to be interested in and very alive to what is going on around me and within me. When I do this in public, people often tell me, “don't be bored” не скучай. Maybe they only feel fully engaged and interested in fleeting moments of high pitch excitement? If only they knew the riot of feeling and impressions that I might be experiencing while quietly sitting there.

Secondly is the ability to think deeply. This might surprise some. After all don't many who come to meditation classes say they want to stop thinking, having heard that meditative states are states without thought. It is true, higher meditative states are states where the rational mind has ceased to function, but we can't simply force ourselves to stop thinking to get there. There are meditative states where thinking and reflection are present, and concentrating on our thoughts is one way by which we can attain them. What I sense most people really want to stop, when they talk about stopping thinking, is the underlying negative mental states that accompany their thoughts, like like restless and anxiety, and of which the thoughts are mere expressions.

The “Development of Loving Kindness”.
In the “Development of Loving Kindness”, we again sit upright and alert yet comfortable, with our eyes closed, but this time we turn our attention to other people, selectively turn out attention to them. Selectively here doesn't mean to select certain people at the expense of others, because in the last stage of the practice we develop loving kindness to all living beings without exception, rather selectively to certain aspects of our experience and focus on them. The practice is based on the principle that 'what we give our attention to grows', so we consciously decide to focus it on the positive aspects, for example, peoples positive qualities and our good memories of them, rather than the bad. This doesn't mean being naïve and simply ignoring the bad qualities, rather letting what is positive be more prominent and have a stronger effect on us, which in turns helps us feel happier and be more positive in our relations with others.

As well as being more aware of their positive qualities, I found the practice helped me simply become more aware of other people, in all their depth and complexity. In this regards there is something I have to admit ... All my life I have been rather convinced of my own specialness and uniqueness, even if others never saw it. What I learned through doing this meditation was that everyone else, yes everyone, deep down was the same. They all saw themselves as special and unique and were looking for others to recognise it in them, just like I was.

There are many other things this practice has taught me. One of them was to be interested in uninteresting people, and like unlikeable people. Another was that if I wanted to be able to be genuinely kind to other people, I had to learn also to be kind to myself. The meditation practice starts with the development of loving kindness to ourselves.
Out of the two meditation practices, the “Development of Loving Kindness” was the one I never wanted to do, so perhaps it is not surprising that persevering with it was more beneficial.

So after all these years, what advice would I give to those wanting to start meditating? Keeping going and don't be in a hurry to change practices.

Keep going!

Maybe you will have good meditations when you start, and maybe you won't. But what is certain is if you really try to meditate, you will have many days when it will be hard going, where you will feel nothing is happening, you have returned to square one, or got even worse than when you started. Don't be despair! That is part of the process, it happens to everyone. While doing the “Mindfulness of Breathing” maybe you begin to see just how distracted you really are, and while doing the “Development of Loving Kindness” maybe you see how much you are irritated, hate and avoid people. You never noticed it before because you were not aware enough to do so.

Don't be in a hurry to change practices!
Many who come to my classes learn the two meditations and then say, 'ok I got that, what's next?'. It is all too easy to go round collecting practises from different teachers. Soon you'll be able to impress all your friends by talking about all the interesting things you know … But if you want to find water underground, you will need dig a deep hole in one place, not a series of shallow holes in different places, and the same goes for finding the treasures which meditation can reveal, even if there is water in many, many places.

Happy digging!

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