The Vedic pitfall

Although my first efforts at actual meditation came in the context of yoga, I found that yoga – as much as it helped me – was not my path.

There’s not a lot of talk about meditation in popular yoga today, but there is some, and it sounds quite nice and very appealing. But there are problems there, and you might like to look into it a little deeper before jumping in. To get into a yoga meditation practice and then discover what it’s all based on could be an unhappy experience.

Hope I didn’t sound too critical of yoga in those last few posts… I really love yoga, and I do think it’s a very helpful thing to do. Good for your health, – mental and physical –  and good for your meditation practice. In fact there are people teaching yoga specifically to go along with other forms of meditation practice now. Which is interesting, as that was how it originated – we’ve come full circle.

I do feel that much of what is being done in yoga studios these days is pretty silly stuff. Find a good basic hatha yoga class and it will support your meditation practice. But beware.

One of my stated purposes for this blog is to help people avoid the pitfalls that might sabotage efforts at developing a good solid meditation practice. There are many, and once you fall into one, it can be difficult to get out. Hence the term ‘pitfall.’

I have some differences with Vedic philosophy, which is what yoga came from (mostly), so a meditation practiced based on yoga is not for me. Perhaps it is okay for you, but you should know what the philosophical implications of a yoga-based meditation practice are before falling into its pit.

Maybe you’re wondering why we need to discuss philosophy at all.

Many people don’t think philosophy is important or worth the effort – the “who needs it?” attitude. However, everyone actually has a philosophy. The assumptions that all of your decisions and actions are based on is in fact your philosophy of life. It’s just a matter of whether that philosophy is examined, understood, consistent, and rational – or just a hodge-podge of the various ideas you’ve been exposed to through your life, with the various inconsistencies all nicely compartmentalized.

As Socrates or some wise-guy said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Mostly because if your actions are based on inconsistent assumptions from one day to the next, you will live in a zig-zag line that makes finding happiness difficult.

In the same way, if the underlying philosophical assumptions your meditation practice is based on are not in synch with your own basic beliefs and assumptions, it won’t really work for you. So it’s important to know what Vedic (or Vedanta) philosophy says, at least in brief, before following it as a meditative practice.

Simply stated, (perhaps oversimplified, but I’m trying not to get myself in too deep here!) Vedic philosophy is based on the assumptions of atman and Brahman – the self and the overself. It presupposes that the self, or the individual soul, is a permanent entity that moves from existence to existence on various levels through the course of many many lifetimes. This is the samsaric round. The purpose of meditation, in this system, is to break out of this cycle and merge with Brahman, or God, oceanic existence. Obviously there’s a lot more to it than this, as it’s an extremely complex, ancient system of intertwined beliefs and practices.

The simple version is, yogic philosophy sees meditation as a way to end one’s karmic accumulation so that on dying one is not reincarnated into another life, but enters the state of nirvana, merging with the all-encompassing Brahman. Which means you need to believe in, first of all the permanent soul and the existence of an absolutist version of the karmic round, and some kind of deity.

Personally, I have great problems with most of these underlying assumptions. It’s another version of the theistic approach that I left behind long ago. As I said earlier, it’s not necessary to believe any of this in order to have a profound meditation practice. On of the reasons I embraced the Buddha’s teachings is that they don’t ask you to accept anything on faith – except maybe that this practice is worth investigating and finding out for yourself whether it works or not.

Buddha came from the Hindu world, and his teachings were in the context of this Vedantic philosophy. His major contribution, which came from his own meditation experience, was anyatta, or no-self, which explicitly says the self is simply a put-together thing, not some permanent entity. His enlightenment was realizing, by direct experience, that this impermanence is the nature of all reality, and that seeing it brings a great freedom and release from the burdens and boundaries of life.

If you find that Hindu philosophy is appealing to you, investigate it more deeply and find out if it works for you, if you can accept its beliefs and ideas. Then it may be that yoga meditation is your path.

Just breathe!

The call to meditation can be thought of as: “Let’s sit and breathe!”

At least that’s a very good place to begin. But the breathing practices in a yoga class are not what I mean by breathe. Much simpler.

Just breathe.

Don’t think about it, don’t work at it, don’t conceptualize it. Just breathe. It’s the most natural thing we do. The most important thing we do. The one thing we must do to make it through the next few minutes alive.

But sometimes, breathing is very hard. That’s how yoga can help. Again, you don’t really need it, but it may be helpful if you have some of the modern problems with natural breathing.

We civilized, over-wrought, over-thought, under-worked modern humans have often got ourselves into such a state that we have forgotten how to breathe naturally. We have learned some bad habits, or our tensions have created some problematic patterns in us that make us breathe in unnatural ways.

When you meditate, you want to breathe in a completely unforced, relaxed and natural way without trying to control the breath at all. If you have a lot of tensions and anxieties, you may be in the habit of shallow, high breathing that almost seems natural to you, so to overcome that bad habit you may need to work with your breath some before you even try to meditate.

That’s how a yoga class could help. Not the fancy, controlled pranayama exercises, or any of that. Just the relaxing part. The part at the end of class when you lie flat of your back and relax everything for ten minutes.

Corpse pose, they call it.

That’s the kind of breathing you want to be able to do in meditation. Not too tough… so simple a dead man could do it. Well, maybe not, but….

The great thing is, you can do that at home. You don’t need a mat, you don’t need a bolster, you don’t need incense, you don’t need weird music, you don’t need an expensive yoga teacher. You just need to lie down flat of your back and relax everything. Preferably on the floor or some relatively firm surface, not the bed or the couch. Those tend to put us into sleep mode, and sleep is not meditation.

But, for a very good example of natural breathing, just watch a sleeping baby. What moves? The child’s belly. And how does it move? When the child breathes in, her belly rises slightly; as she breathes out, the belly collapses. Notice the shoulders, the chest. They don’t move. Perhaps every now and then, a little shudder and a big breath and the chest lifts a bit on the inhale. Then it’s back to the belly breathing.

That’s how you want to be breathing as you lie on your back relaxing. But don’t force it, just watch it. If you persist, if you stay relaxed and just watch – it helps to lightly place your hand on your belly so you can feel it – your breathing will return to this relaxed natural state. At various times during the day, try to notice what’s happening with your breathing. Again, don’t try to change it or control it, just notice it. Watch it and as you watch it, it will begin to fall into this pattern of its own accord.

After enough attention in this way, your breathing will begin to just stay in this natural mode most of the time. You’ll also begin to notice that one of the first indicators of stress of any kind is that the breathing changes. A single thought can change your breathing. That change can alert you to the power of the thought, and noticing it can defuse that power.

This is one of the ways meditation can help you. When you meditate, it’s very easy to notice your breathing. Noticing it during meditation helps you to notice it in the rest of your daily activities.

Paying attention to the breath is one of the best, simplest, and most practiced ways to begin to meditate. One great thing about observing the breath is that you always have it with you! So you can meditate anywhere, anytime. No special equipment required… no candles, CDs, incense, temples… you get the idea!

Once you’ve gotten comfortable with sitting upright and found your natural, unforced breath, you are ready to begin meditation.

All that is required is to put the two together: sit and breathe!

(Well, technically, sit upright and observe your breath breathing.)

Sit up straight

Yoga is a pretty good place to start learning meditation, actually.

Real yoga, I mean. Not the pretty models in expensive tights (or not) in ad-filled magazines that are the image of modern yoga. Not the uber-gymnastic physicality that goes along with that. Not even the ‘let’s all get healthy and feel better’ kind of yoga that permeates all the yoga classes I’ve seen. Real yoga is very different, and is all about meditation, spiritual attainment, enlightenment.

The original forms of yoga are pretty much lost, (there’s even one school of thought that attributes modern yoga postures to some Swedish exercise system) but it’s clear that whatever postures and exercises those ancient Indians were doing, the purpose was to strengthen the body externally and internally so that one could pursue a rigorous meditation practice. Even Wikipedia, our authority of last resort here on the Internet, says this: The goal of yoga, or of the person practicing yoga, is the attainment of a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquility while meditating on the Hindu concept of divinity or Brahman. The word is associated with meditative practices in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.

But don’t go running down to your local yoga studio looking for someone to teach you how to find the state of perfect spiritual insight. They’ll just roll their eyes and smile, and usher you into the shop to pick out just the perfect outfit, mat and accoutrement. Funny to me how marketers have even figured out ways to sell us things to do yoga. All you really need is little clear space and a blanket, maybe a cushion…

(To be fair, I think there are some people who still teach real yoga in the US. They just aren’t all that high profile and might prove to be very hard to find.)

But that’s a bit off the subject. If you are in reasonably good health, reasonably flexible and strong, you have all the physicality you need to learn to meditate anyway. Yoga’s primary contribution to my meditation practice is that it re-taught me how to sit cross-legged on the floor in good posture. Which is nice to be able to do, but not essential. You can meditate sitting in a chair, or even on a couch or bed or other furniture.

The critical element of posture in meditation is really your back.

It doesn’t really matter what position your legs are in, but it does matter how your back is aligned. To meditate effectively, even for a few minutes, your back should be as straight and as perpendicular as you can get it. This seems to facilitate the energy flow in the body as well as make it possible to sit in relative comfort for longer periods of time without moving.

One way to think of this is to imagine that you are lifting everything upward, reaching for the ceiling with the top of your head. A little gentle rocking side to side and front to back will help your body find the vertical – and come back to vertical when you drift off during the process of meditation.

So the first step in the process is simply to find a good, fairly firm seat. Then sit with straight back, your neck and head straight above the shoulders, head reaching upward. The preferred way is on the floor, on a mat, with a cushion under your butt and your knees on the mat, or on some other firm supportive surface. Or prop up your knees with small pillows, blankets or whatever it takes to get yourself into a solid seated position. If this doesn’t work for you, sit on the front half of a chair with feet flat on the floor, keeping your back straight, not leaning back on the chair.

Then, just relax.

Yes, that may seem impossible, but with practice the body learns to do this. Reductionists would say, what I really mean is, relax all the muscles that are not essential to maintaining this position. Yes. But let’s not get technical. It’s simple. Just sit up straight but don’t tense up.

It’s a process. The wonderful thing – one of the many wonderful things, I should say – about meditation is that meditating teaches you how to meditate. That’s why Zen teachers always say, “YOU are the teacher!” And, too, that’s just how Zen teachers like to talk. More of that later.

For now. let’s just say, if you want to take a yoga class, great. It will help. It won’t likely teach you much about meditation, but it may help you learn to sit up straight and relax.

And, it will teach you how to breathe. Just don’t take all that yoga breathing too seriously. It can mess you up.