2015 was a packed year for me. I worked hard at my day job as the CMO of one of New York’s fastest growing start-ups, Kerry and I got pregnant again even as Leela became a walking, talking hurricane, I launched The Seeker as a bestseller in India while editing The Yoga of Max’s Discontent, my first international novel to be published by Random House in 2016. All good stuff but a lot of it at once. Through all of this, 30 minutes of meditation in the morning and evening helped me keep my sanity. Really. Without meditation, I’d probably be a nervous mess but for the most part, I felt reasonably calm and unhurried through the year. That’s why I’ve developed some strong views on meditation and its benefits and often take offense (a gentle Buddhist offense!) to some of its popular avatars. Why, for instance, are most meditation teachers slender, dreadlocked hippies with loose, flowing clothes who talk about “feeling your vibrations”, “finding your energy fields” and “letting go” rather than serious seekers who’ve burnt in the fire of asking “Who am I?”, “Why was the world created?”, “What lies behind the predictable cycle of birth and death?”, and other such questions again and again to the silent, uncaring universe, eventually finding their only answer in meditation? One new age guru offers a meditation-of-the-month if I sign up for her program kind of like an ice-cream of the month club, another sells a $299 Bluetooth enabled meditation headband to connect me with my “head chakra”, and so on. I’m sure there’s a kernel of truth in all this hyperbole but my experience with meditation has been far simpler so I wanted to share it with people who’re first entering the bewildering mindfulness marketplace:
First off, here are my experiences with meditation.
Call it past lives (which I believe in due to very scientific reasons—a subject for another post) or just innate inclination; I’ve been pulled to Eastern mysticism since my engineering college days. The pull intensified during B-School and I did my first Vipassana meditation course then. But I’ve truly learnt meditation in the last five years, much of it during Kerry and my year off where we did multiple Vipassana courses in Italy and India, a month long Hatha Yoga Teacher’s training in Madurai, and lived in a village high in the Himalayas for a few months pretty much in silence. What prompted the deep dive? Honestly, I was just sick of how superficial my life was. I’d go to office and try to muster up enthusiasm to gain a couple of market share points for the brands I led as a Director for a consumer products company. The stuff that occupied friends and family—houses, restaurants, kids schools etc.—felt completely insignificant to me. More importantly, I was deeply frustrated by how inconsistent I was, one moment I was reading the Upanishads and the Bhagwad Gita, the next moment I was worried about being promoted from Director to Senior Director at work or mulling over someone who hadn’t shown me full respect at a dinner and other BS like that. Seeing my mother die from cancer and having a very visceral understanding of how short and futile life was had something to do with it or perhaps it was just living in New York. I don’t fully understand. All I know was I wanted to truly silence my chaotic mind and that’s what we set out to do in our sabbatical in 2012. Since then, I’ve meditated every day, sometimes for 30 minutes, sometime for much longer, and have had enough discernible changes in my life that I know meditation works.
Now, let’s define meditation.
Again, this is something clouded in a lot of hyperbole but if you read The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or The Dhammapada or any other ancient Buddhist or Yogic text, a very clear definition emerges. Meditation is the complete dissolution of your sense of self. In true meditation, your intellect, your ego, your chattering mind, your whole concept of “I am” is extinguished completely. What’s left is Brahman, the universal consciousness, according to yoga-vedanta, shunyata or nothingness, according to Buddhism, Tao, according to Taoism, and a million other concepts, all pointing to the same indefinable, absolute reality (vs. our limited conditioned experience). Call it what you will, I’m with the Buddha when he asks us to first reach that point of complete dissolution, the liberation from the prison of our hapless thoughts, before worrying about what happens after.
How do you reconcile meditation with ambition?
If dissolving the self is the goal, then isn’t it counter to one’s ambition to grow through working, living etc.? Will I lose my edge? Actually, no. Meditation isn’t teaching you not to work. Rather you’re learning to become just a medium for your work to express itself. With your mind no longer possessed by a thousand petty thoughts about yourself, what you like, what you dislike etc., your work happens through you not because of you. Or in the words of the oft-quoted Bhagavad Gita imperative, you work full-heartedly without personal attachment to the results of the work.
Does meditation truly work?
Barely for the 1st six months. Then, you start noticing small changes and in about three years, you’ll be a completely different person. Here are some tangible things that’ve changed for me:
- Sleep: Pre meditation, I was an anxious sleeper who’d lose sleep in stressful times. Literally. I couldn’t sleep for days after going through the break-up of a six year old relationship. I’d toss and turn all night before important presentations at work. You could find me jogging often at midnight. Now, I sleep a deep, dreamless sleep for seven hours straight the moment I finish meditating for thirty minutes at night. I could lose all my money (or worse lose all my writing since I’m terrible at backing up regularly) and I wouldn’t lose a second of sleep.
- Honesty: This one is a hard one to explain. I’ve never been dishonest per-se but I was used to cutting corners, mostly in petty, laughable ways. For instance, I’d stand in the Business Class line in an airport if the Economy Class line was too crowded and say “I’m a platinum member of Star Alliance” or something like that. Less than saving time, it was about the thrill of beating the system, a phenomenon I’ve seen with many of us who grew up in the developing world. Now, I can’t anymore. Everything that doesn’t seem radically honest feels wrong. Not by any deliberate intention, it’s just a spontaneous choice from within.
- Patience: By far, the biggest one. If I don’t meditate for even a day, I can see an immediate difference in how my thoughts start rushing. As a result, I interrupt people, finish their sentences, judge them as slow and incompetent, and in general, am all round insufferable. I don’t turn into an angel with meditation but I’m better. Just a little. And it’s not just emotional patience, it pervades every aspect of life. Earlier, for instance, any kind of noise would bother me. I’d be impatient with people snoring in a hostel dorm room or the noise of trucks or trams outside my window while traveling (shameful for a committed budget traveler like me). Now, my mind just notes, “a loud sound”. And I turn around and go back to sleep.
- Diet/Weight/Energy: Within a year of starting meditation, I quit alcohol and caffeine and became a vegetarian. As a result, I’ve lost twenty pounds and doubled my energy. I’m not saying this is the “right” thing to do. If a Paleo diet or two glasses of wine a day works for you, that’s great. All these diet changes happened spontaneously without any active attempt on my side. These choices came from within me because they felt right for my body and my mind; the habits quit me rather than me quitting them, as it were.
I’m sold. How do I meditate?
I have very strong views on how to mediate mainly because almost all the advice I read on the Internet when I was first trying to learn meditation was wrong. Or rather incomplete. I’m a rational soul. I don’t want to be told to repeat So Hum when I breathe or mutter some “secret personal mantra” which means nothing to me. Nor do I fully comprehend wishy-washy instructions like “just be present and let go”. The ashrams in India weren’t more helpful because they all had special instructions taught by their patron Gurus, most of whom in all honesty didn’t strike me as particularly enlightened. Or maybe I just wasn’t ready as a student for the right teacher to arrive. So eventually I learned by reading everything from the yoga sutras to Vedanta to Zen Buddhism and vipassana text and meditating for hours on my own. Slowly, it began to work. The concepts became clearer and my life began to change. We each have to go through our own experimentation but if you want to save months of spinning in circles, this is a summary of what I’ve learnt.
First off, there are only two broad meditation approaches:
- Concentration-based meditation.
- Awareness-based meditation, popularly called mindfulness.
And in 99% of cases, I strongly recommend starting with a concentration-based approach and slowly it will evolve by itself to an awareness-based approach. First, you dissolve your sense of self by concentration on an external object. As you gain mastery in this approach, your mind will become more and more one-pointed and as a result you’ll become increasingly aware when the familiar scattering of thoughts start to occur. To have this awareness at every moment of the day, to be able to distinguish between the subject (you) and the object (the constant flux of thoughts) spontaneously rather than getting sucked into the maze of your thoughts, is the goal of awareness based meditation—and of life itself.
How to begin your concentration-based meditation today.
Step 1: Select your object of concentration.
Step 2: Select your point of concentration.
Step 3: Start meditating.
How to choose your object of concentration.
The three most common objects are:
- Your breath.
- An image: Anything you feel some affinity for. For instance, I’m a big fan of the Buddha so concentrating on his image worked for me in the beginning. My friend is a musician who concentrates on his guitar.
- A mantra: You don’t need a Guru to give you a magic collection of words. Mentally repeating any word or set of words that make sense for you—Om, Buddha, Amen—will do the trick.
- There are a variety of other objects—chakras, deities, vision boards, fabric patterns etc. Just understand the basic construct: you are using an object as an aid to shift focus away from yourself and your thoughts. The nature of the object is immaterial; anything that can hold your attention for some length of time works.
How to choose your point of concentration.
A point of concentration will help improve your focus by zoning it into a smaller area. Some recommendations depending on your object of concentration:
- If you choose your breath: The area between your upper lips and the tip of your nostrils. Or the contraction and extension of your chest during inhalation and exhalation.
- If you choose an image: Visualize the image in the third eye (your forehead between the two eyes) or in your heart. The former works better if you’re more intellectual/analytical, the latter if you consider yourself more emotional.
- If you choose a mantra: If you’re saying it aloud, focus on your lips. If you’re repeating it mentally, again focus on either your heart or the space between your eyes.
- Posture: The only two characteristics of a good meditation pose are sthira (a pose of attention) and sukha (a pose of comfort). If you’re sitting cross-legged on the floor and your mind is screaming in agony, then it’s not a good pose for you because it’s not sukha. On the other hand, if you’re lying on the bed attempting to meditate, that’ll likely not work as well since it’s not sthira. So choose anything, sitting on a chair, sitting on the bed with your legs stretched, or sitting on a cushion on the floor, anything that allows you to be both comfortable and attentive. I’d just recommend keeping your spine erect for attentiveness and your hips at an elevation to your knees for comfort.
- Meditate: Close your eyes to avoid all distractions, straighten your spine, and concentrate on your chosen object at the point of concentration. You’re meditating.
- Time: 30 mins/morning, 30 minutes/night. Everyday. In six months, you’ll see noticeable changes on all the dimensions I mentioned above. Any lesser and you’ll be attempting to get into a state of meditation vs. meditating.
- Obstacles: Too many to list. There’ll be some external ones—your kids waking up early, a late night at work—but mostly your mind plays havoc. He said that, she failed me, they don’t understand me, I hate him, she loves me, many branched and endless are the thoughts of the unsteady mind. Don’t give up. It’s going to get better soon.
This is what will happen next
Your meditation will evolve by itself. In about six months or a year, my mind went from concentrating on the Buddha’s image to his qualities of determination and compassion by itself as my thoughts became subtler. Soon enough, the image dissolved completely and I started to drift into a more awareness-based meditation. Now I don’t meditate as much as just sit without a timer, without any alarm, just devoid of thought, and I automatically know when thirty minutes are up and it’s time to get up.
What is awareness-based meditation (also called mindfulness)?
In awareness-based meditation, you don’t force your mind to concentrate on any external object. You just observe reality as is. A thought emerges. You note it arise, then you note it pass away. Soon, you become more and more aware of this constant arising and passing of thoughts and a realization dawns deep within you that the whole interplay of thoughts, ideas, “I am this”, “I am that”, is insubstantial, constantly in flux. As a result, you give less and less importance to it and don’t grasp onto every thought, every desire that arises in the mind. This is true meditation because you’re slowly dissolving all concepts of yourself, which is the ultimate goal of meditation.
I don’t recommend awareness-based meditation if you’re just starting out. The mind has to be trained to go from scattered to one-pointed before you teach it how to become completely devoid of thought. But if you’re in a hurry to start, here are the steps to begin:
- Sit still, focusing very lightly on your breath, emptying your mind of thoughts.
- The moment you get distracted and random thoughts start to emerge, just note them. “Now I’m angry because I’m remembering what Mary said at lunch.” “Now I’m worried Michael just doesn’t get the basics of that project.” In your act of noting, they’ll start to disappear. New thoughts will arise. Keep noting them and they’ll pass away too.
- If the mind is exceptionally chaotic, just bring your attention back to the breath lightly and repeat Step 2 above.
That’s it. The effects of awareness-based meditation last well beyond the thirty minutes of meditation because you’re training your mind to stay unaffected by the millions of thoughts and distractions that assail you every minute of the day.
Running is not meditation…
…unless you’re zoned into concentrating on just one object, be it your right foot pounding the pavement, or your breath going in and out of your nose, to the exclusion of everything else. If you’re just thoughtless because all your psychic energy is going into the act of running, that’s great but it’s not meditation because you’re not willfully training your mind to become one-pointed or aware. That’s why the effect won’t last beyond the time you run. The same holds true for swimming, dancing, reading, writing or any other activity where you lose yourself for a period of time. Unless you’re consciously training your mind to focus on a singular microscopic activity (concentration based meditation) or to not react to the flurry of thoughts coming and going (awareness based meditation), you aren’t meditating.
Lastly, what’s the point of all this? I’m happy, productive, peaceful, why do I need to meditate?
Have you ever felt a strange emptiness, as if something indefinable was missing from your grasp even in moments of great achievement?
If yes, meditation is right for you. I won’t delve into mysticism in this post (let’s meet for a cup of tea in New York for that) but meditation originated because early pioneers of the spirit realized that man’s soul cries for the infinite in a finite world, that’s why nothing in the world of people and objects ever truly satisfies us. We all live two lives. The happy, smiling pictures with “I feel blessed” messages we post on Facebook and our own private mental torture chambers. Recognize your reality for what it is and maybe, meditation can bring your two lives closer in 2016. And I’ll be genuinely happy if this guide can be of some use in that quest. Good luck and don’t forget to drop a note in the comments below to let me know if this was helpful or if any part needs more clarification–I’d love to hear from you.
PS: 2016 looks to be another packed year for me with a new book, a new baby, a new business, and maybe a move to a new country. I’ll continue to meditate to keep things simple. Sign up here so we can keep each other honest!
Karan Bajaj is a bestselling novelist and striving yogi. Born and raised in India, he has trained as a Hatha Yoga teacher in a South Indian ashram and learnt meditation in the Himalayas. He is the author of the novels Johnny Gone Down and Keep off the Grass, both of which were #1 bestsellers in India. He lives in New York City.