What is meditation? There are lots of definitions. But if you were to define meditation after many years of practice, what would you come up with?
Here's how I see it: Have you ever felt a time when you are both relaxed and alert, where everything is fine just the way it is, you’re kind of just accepting the moment, not needing to change it? This is how I define meditation.
Some people experience that relaxed openness pretty regularly, others only occasionally, and for some it is a moment that stands out from their childhood in crystal clarity.
For an old friend, he remembers it happening as a child when he was sitting, watching his little sister play a game. A kind of fulfilling, perfectly silent background surfaced and became almost palpable.
Another friend told me he feels this sometimes when he is rowing alone on a river near him. He is both hyper-focused, but relaxed and open and feels no boundaries. He is “in the zone.”
In observing young children, I see that many are in a more or less deep version of that "zone", without even knowing it.
This relaxed, open ease is not unusual. And it is totally natural. Special circumstances are not needed. Health is not needed. Perfection is not needed. It just happens.
So this is how I define meditation: It is a state of pure being. It can happen when you are passive, sitting and doing nothing in particular, or when you are active, engaged in the richness of life.
The actual practice of meditation is finding your own way to enter into that spacious, open awareness and lingering there. As you stick around for a while, it tends to intensify and you discover a deep satisfaction that was hidden, waiting there the whole time.
If it's so satisfying, why doesn't everyone do it? Well, there's one little problem. You know that stuff you don't want to think about, feel or experience that you push away much of the day? The stuff you want to escape?
I'll give you a hint: Stress, anxiety, fear, sadness, frustration, anger, old painful memories, incessant thoughts, bodily tension and pain...should I go on? (No, please stop.)
Well, when you get relaxed and just enjoy the moment, that garbage tends to surface and say "Hello! Thanks so much for finally relaxing a bit and not pushing me away...here I am!"
So that is the challenge and of course the promise of meditation: if you can learn how to be with all the difficult physical sensations, negative emotions and constant thoughts, then it turns out that they don’t bother you as much — and you can actually let them go and relax.
And this is where techniques come into play. Techniques serve different purposes--they help calm you down, bring you joy, and help you appreciate your life. Meanwhile, they are training you not only to focus, but also not to be bothered so much by distracting stuff that comes up.
You can practice those techniques in a daily sitting practice and also throughout the day to make the day go smoother.
And although you may define meditation as the technique that you are practicing, it actually starts when you drop the technique.
This means that when you are ready, either in spontaneous moments here and there, or for longer periods, you let go of the technique and learn to recognize an inner, background kind of peacefulness that is always available.
Finally, you can learn to rest in that sense of ease to such a degree that it peaks and becomes your new baseline, your new constant inner experience, through thick and thin, in the middle of life--getting things done, being with people.
Call meditation whatever you will--it is a built in capacity of the human being to be able to naturally settle into alert, deeply satisfying relaxation in quiet times and in the middle of activity.
Happy New Year!