People have a lot of different views about what meditation is and isn't. I've changed my mind on this subject considerably.
For thirty-five years I viewed meditation as a way to access a supernatural realm of reality, have mystical experiences, and realize God. But that's a narrow perspective, something I realize now.
Currently I embrace a form of meditation that is vaguely Buddhist, even though I don't consider myself a devotee of Buddhism. I enjoy being as fully aware as possible of what is happening both inside and outside me, within my mind and without in the world.
Which, I suppose, could be called mindfulness.
This morning I started reading a book by Steve Hagen, "Meditation Now or Never." I thought I'd read all of Hagen's books, but somehow I'd missed this one until recently.
It's good. Short, simple, direct. In all of his writings Hagen takes religion out of Buddhism, which leaves the Buddha's original teachings, insofar as it is possible to discern what they were.
Below are excerpts from a right-on chapter, Things Mistaken for Meditation. It turns out that almost everything I thought was meditation for those thirty-five years actually isn't. At least, not from a Buddhist viewpoint.
Let's start, though, with what Hagen says meditation is.
Meditation is, finally, just to be here. Not over there, in some other place called peace or freedom or enlightenment. Not longing for something else. Not trying to be, or to acquire, something new or different. Not seeking benefit.
We need to understand that the wanting mind is the antithesis of the mind of meditation. The mind of meditation is a mind not driven by desires and fears and longings.
Indeed, a mind that seeks to rid itself of these painful mental qualities is already the dissatisfied and confused mind from which we seek to free ourselves.
When we desire the desirelessness, we remain trapped in desire. When we want the wantlessness, we bind ourselves with yet another chain.
And here's the excerpts regarding what Hagen says meditation isn't.
Relaxation. If your goal is to temporarily calm down, a simple relaxation technique is helpful. If, however, you want to experience a mind that is present and collected, this is the mind of meditation. Meditation, in other words, is not a quick fix. It's long-term -- that is, it's a lifelong approach to peace of mind, tranquility, and stability.
Visualization. With visualization, you actively conjure up images in your mind. In meditation, however, there's no deliberate effort to conjure up anything, or to create any mental phenomena. Plenty of them will bubble up anyway, and in meditation, we don't try to hold on to them or drive them out. Contrary to visualization, in meditation we allow our mental images to freely come and go.
Trance. In most trance meditations, you turn inward and tune out awareness of your surroundings, your body, and your mind. Your attention becomes filed down to a very narrow, still point, which can feel temporarily blissful. But every trance is itself temporary. When you come out of it, you're back to all of the problems and confusion that were there when you went into it. There's no transformation.
Supernatural powers. But meditation is not about acquiring anything. In fact, it's about getting rid of the clutter of our mental lives. It's an act of mental housecleaning... Meditation is not about acquiring supernatural powers. It's about being present and living life completely... If you think about what you're getting from this moment, you're not in this moment.
Going beyond. Another misunderstanding about meditation is that it's a bodily form of philosophical inquiry, a method for breaking through some cosmic mystery to a transcendent reality beyond our everyday world. Meditation is not about any "beyond." Truth and Reality are right here, in plain view. They are not vague or far away... In meditation, we see that there is no cosmic mystery to break through.
Enlightenment. You can't become enlightened. It's not possible. You can't become enlightened for the same reason that you can't come into contact with Truth: you're already here, immersed in it. It's like trying to become human, or searching high and low for air. When we search for enlightenment, we're like a fish searching for water or a bird seeking the sky.
Escaping from reality. Sometimes people get the idea that meditation is about escaping from our lives, or our painful feelings, or even Reality itself. In fact, meditation is just the opposite It's about settling down and facing Reality. In meditation we investigate our own mind openly and honestly, without denying anything. We see how we tell ourselves stories about ourselves, about others, and about the world.
Bliss. Many people come to meditation hoping to experience bliss, euphoria, ecstasy, or some superconscious state of mind. Many spiritual practices and exercises aim at inducing such states. But so can any number of things, both good and not so good -- a gorgeous sunrise, rapturous music, sex, street drugs, or even a double expresso. Meditation is not about creating any particular feeling. Meditation is about awareness, about waking up to Reality.
Spiritual thoughts. Occasionally, people use meditation to try to experience lofty or highly spiritual thoughts. These thoughts are just more distractions, more forms of delusion. In meditation, whether our thoughts are lofty or low, mundane or spiritual, we view them in the same way. We allow them, and whatever else comes up, to appear and to pass away.
Quick cure. Lastly, meditation is not a quick cure for anything. It won't magically heal your illness or fix your depression or get rid of your loneliness. It won't provide comfort or solace or nurturing, at least not the kind we typically look for to try to temporarily ease our pain. Instead, the practice of meditation involves transformation.
...Through our effort of coming back again and again to this moment, where all of us live, we learn how to live in this world with sanity, intelligence, and true compassion.