A couple of weeks ago, a small group of Yoginis were discussing meditation.
"I'm so bad at meditating."
"We all struggle with thoughts going through our heads."
"I try, but it just doesn't work."
"Can anyone really meditate?"
Interestingly, so many people seem to be under the impression that if you think, you're not meditating. This is not necessarily true.
There are various forms and definitions of meditation. On one extreme the mind is to be completely void of any and all thought--good luck with that! The other extreme is to daydream and "go to your happy place." This is not truly meditating, but some would disagree with me.
Visualizations and meditations are different. Yet, many of us, me included, frequently use the word meditation to describe what is technically visualization. In the end, the word is not as important as what benefits you find from the method you use.
Posture is another element up for debate. When working with a disciple of Swami Rama, she recommending sitting in full lotus (padmasana) on an animal skin and a prayer shawl wrapped around the meditator. The skin and shawl were intended to keep the energy (Prana) inside the body. On the other hand, Erich Schiffmann once suggested meditating in a hammock under the shade of a tree in the summer time. Thich Nhat Hahn talks about mindfulness throughout the day, which in my opinion is like bringing meditation to every day life.
So what does meditation "do"? What are its benefits?
On a physical level, the heart rate slows, the breath becomes deeper without effort, and the whole body copes with stress in a healthier manner.
Mentally, you develop the ability to focus. With that said, if your mind is scattered all over the place like a messy house, then meditation will not immediately bring complete calm. Just as when you clean your home, it's a process to create order and structure within the chaos and disarray. If you continue to pick up, over time the house will become a bit cleaner and eventually, with discipline, it will be a more serene environment. The mind is like this too. The more you practice focusing your thoughts; over time they will begin to work for you and not against you. You will begin to choose what thoughts you'd like to maintain and what thoughts do not serve you.
Like magic, many people take up meditation to ease pain, be it physical or emotional, yet the spiritual benefits sneak in. With proper guidance and growing awareness, you begin to know you are not your thoughts or emotions. As you gain the ability to separate from thoughts, you experience oneness with others and sense a connection with the universe.
What's cool about this is that you are no longer controlled by negative things your parents or past lovers might have said about you. You are no longer sucked into the false belief that you are not good enough. Calm in what appears to be craziness is easier--not always, but it's a practice. Be patient.
Finally, what is "proper" meditation? Whatever works for you. Does repeating a mantra just become a drone in the back of your head while your thoughts take over? Does looking at a candle flame strain your eyes to the point of strong discomfort? If so, these techniques might not be best for you. On the other hand, if lying in a hammock brings you into complete awareness of the stillness in the ground below you and the sky above. If you feel the breeze on your skin and the aroma in the air sooths your soul, then you just might have stumbled upon a wonderful technique.
A teacher can help you to find a method that works, or you might find it on your own. My suggestion: Be very leery of anyone that tells you they have all the answers for how you should meditate. Only you will know when it's right. And be flexible with yourself. For years, I benefited from a longer early morning seated meditation. Now two brief periods a day with various focus objects each time work best for me.
Enjoy the practice. Don't beat yourself up. There is no "wrong" way; just sitting in silence for even a few minutes while watching your breath can have a positive impact on your life.
Today is the first day of the rest of your life!