Subscribe to goop
A weekly publication curated by Gwyneth Paltrow.
My New Year’s resolution is to learn how to meditate. It’s always sounded like something I should do, but I don’t know how to. My friends who do it say it’s really freakin’ brilliant. They say you can’t know the peace/awareness/contentment until you do it. My brain drives me mental. I am going to start. Tomorrow. I asked three amazing people to share how they achieve this bliss. Their approaches are different but I think they are pretty much landing in the same spot.
I think I get it.
From Mark Epstein, MD
“We are what we think, having become what we thought,” begins the collection of verse entitled the Dhammapada, the most accessible of ancient Buddhist texts. This emphasis on the state of our minds is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Buddhist approach. Mind is both the problem and the solution. It is not fixed but flexible. It can be changed. But much of the time we are not even aware of what we are thinking and we are certainly not in control of it. The everyday mind runs on by itself and more often than not we are at the mercy of our immediate reactions. If someone cuts us off in traffic or looks at us in a nasty way, we get angry. If we have a drink, we want another one. If we taste something sweet, we want more even if we are full. If someone offends us, we repeat it over and over to ourselves, rubbing in the hurt. The Dhammapada delights in describing how out of control our minds can be and how much better it feels to do something about it. “Like an archer and arrow, the wise man steadies his trembling mind, a fickle and restless weapon. Flapping like a fish thrown on dry ground, it trembles all day,” it comments. The Buddha was more like a therapist than the founder of a religion. He saw, from his own experience, that self-awareness makes self-control possible. If we want to change what we become, the Buddha taught, we have to change the way we think. “A disciplined mind is the road to Nirvana,” is the Dhammapada’s insistent refrain.
There is no single word for meditation in the original language of Buddhism. The closest is one that translates as ‘mental development.’ Meditation, as taught by the Buddha, was a means of taming the mind by bringing the entire range of thoughts, feelings and physical sensations into awareness, making the unconscious conscious. There were already various forms of meditation widely practiced in the Buddha’s day but they were all techniques of concentration. Buddha mastered each of them but still felt uneasy. It was fine to rest the mind on a single object: a sound (or mantra), a sensation (the breath), an image (a candle flame), a feeling (love or compassion), or an idea. This gave strength to the mind, a feeling of stability, of peace and tranquility, a sense of what Freud came to call the ‘oceanic feeling’. While this could be relaxing, it did not do enough to change the mind’s complexion. Buddha was after something more.
The meditation that the Buddha found most helpful was moment-to-moment awareness of what is actually happening to us and in us at successive moments of perception. This did not mean resting the mind on a single object, as he had been taught, but meant observing the mind in action. Human beings have the peculiar ability to be self-reflective, to observe themselves even as they are in process. The Buddha’s method harnesses this ability and develops it. Tibetan Buddhists describe this kind of meditation as like setting up a spy-consciousness in the corner of the mind, eavesdropping on whatever is going on. Freud described something similar when he instructed psychoanalysts to ‘suspend judgment and give impartial attention to everything there is to observe.’ The Buddha found that the mind, when subjected to this kind of self-awareness, settles down and begins to shine.
To experience a taste of this luminosity, try sitting quietly in an upright posture. It could be in a chair or on the sofa or cross-legged on the floor. Keep your back straight. Or lie down if you would rather. Let your eyes gently close. And just listen. Listen to the sounds and the silence that surround you. Let the sounds come and go as they wish without choosing one over another. Try to listen to the entire sound, noticing when your mind identifies it as whatever it is: a car horn, the refrigerator, the heat coming on, children’s voices, the dog, or nothing. Don’t let your identification of the sound stop you from listening. Simply note the thought and return to the bare sounds, to the act of listening. If your mind wanders, as it will, bring your attention back to the sounds. It might be after a moment or two, or it might be after a whole cascade of thoughts, it doesn’t matter. At some point you will realize, “Oh, I’m not listening, I’m thinking,” and at that point you can return attention to the sounds. Treat your mind the way you would a young child who doesn’t know any better. Be gentle but firm. Meditation means bringing your mind back when you notice it has wandered, it’s not about keeping your mind from wandering in the first place. You will notice that you instinctively prefer some sounds over others - don’t let this influence your listening. Just observe the liking or the not liking but don’t let it control you. Listen to everything, the way you would listen to music.
After five minutes, or ten, or fifteen - it doesn’t matter - open your eyes and resume your day. Like a fish returned to water, you may notice that things flow more easily.
– Mark Epstein
Mark Epstein is the author of a number of books about the interface of Buddhism and psychotherapy including Thoughts without a Thinker, Going to Pieces without Falling Apart and Psychotherapy without the Self.
From Eddie Stern
Just as the desert sand burns in the heat of the hot afternoon sun and is cold to the touch during a crisp evening, our minds reflect the influences in our life. The thinking in which we engage, the nature of people with whom we spend time, and the type of media we absorb all contribute to the quality of our minds. The purpose of meditation is to focus the mind as well as identify the things that make it unstable. Quite often mental wavering is due to our habits, for the mind thrives and is structured by habit. To begin a meditation practice is to add a habit to our lives whose substance is clarity, insight, kindness and non-judgment.
The yogis of India have taught that meditation brings brightness and clarity to the mind. Without it, the mind remains cloudy with mental fluctuations, which color the way we perceive the world. These mental fluctuations are generally of six types, according to the yogis, depicted as the six poisons: desire, anger, greed, delusion, pride, and envy. We possess them all to some degree, but usually only one or two are apparent obstacles, and act as our default reaction to troublesome situations. With meditation, our poisons begin to melt as we meet them not with force, but with kindness, gentleness and love. When we do this, their hold on us will loosen.
What are some of the ways that the six poisons manifest in our behavior? Often we feel envious of the happiness and gains of others, or take a cruel delight in the suffering of those we perceive to be our enemies. Virtuous people can make us jealous, and those behaving without virtue or morality – or even with a morality different than ours - cause feelings of anger and indignation. Such thinking prevents the mind from attaining concentration and tranquility. We remain judgmental, and our feelings of superiority keep us separate from the reality that we are all beings with faults.
These thought patterns can be reversed, however, when we direct genuine feelings of friendliness towards those who are happy, and compassion towards those who are in distress. To those whom we perceive as acting virtuously, we can direct feelings of goodwill and sympathetic joy. Towards those whom we perceive as behaving poorly or without proper morality, we can cultivate a benevolent indifference by overlooking their faults. This will help in attaining a tranquil, serene state of mind. It is not simply positive thinking, but a restraining of the mind from dwelling on the perceived achievements or weaknesses of others; it is a beginning step in not judging ourselves and our fellow beings, in creating kindness.
The method is simple: sit down in a quiet, comfortable spot, either on the floor or in a chair. Take a few slow breaths, inhaling and exhaling calmly and smoothly. Then, begin repeating the following formula to yourself:
- May I be happy.
- May I be free from fear.
- May I be free from sorrow.
- May I be free from suffering.
Repeat this three times. Then, repeat the same, replacing the ‘I’ with the name of someone you love or who is dear to you. Next, use the name of someone you feel is an enemy, or someone you are having difficulty with, then someone who has the same feelings of enmity towards you. Lastly, extend the meditation towards all beings, and the whole world.
The words should be repeated with gentle concentration and genuine feeling; we should feel that the person we are meditating on is there with us. This will contribute to our transformation. We are not repeating empty phrases, but stating a heartfelt prayer, and forming an intention.
When we wish for someone else’s happiness, for them to be free from fear and sorrow, the way we relate with them is altered. Suddenly, they are no longer in opposition to us, but a fellow human being beset by the difficulties of life. This practice is the seed of learning to be non-judgmental. The state of non-judgment is a neutral point, it is a fulcrum whereby the poisons quiet, and qualities like compassion and understanding can begin.
Try this meditation for a few minutes sitting down, once or twice a day; try it when you are with a person who makes you angry, jealous or fearful; try it when you are with someone you love; try it on the subway. You may find that it shifts the feelings you have towards the people upon whom you meditate, and your ability to relate to them. From that comes a sense of being, steady in oneself, of being peaceful and calm.
When, through our life and circumstances, we come to see that it is not possible for us to change the world, we learn that somehow we must change ourselves. Amazingly, when we change our internal perception, somehow the world changes with us.
It is important to seek out an experienced meditation teacher for guidance when wishing to pursue deeper levels of practice.
– Eddie Stern
Eddie Stern is the founder and director of Ashtanga Yoga New York in Manhattan.
From David Lynch
Why I Meditate
When I first heard about meditation, I had zero interest in it. I wasn’t even curious. It sounded like a waste of time.
What got me interested, though, was the phrase “true happiness lies within.” At first, I thought it sounded kind of mean because it doesn’t tell you where the “within” is, or how to get there. But, still, it had a ring of truth. And I began to think that maybe meditation was a way to go within.
I looked into meditation, asked some questions, and started contemplating different forms. At that moment, my sister called and said she had been doing Transcendental Meditation for six months. There was something in her voice. A change. A quality of happiness. And I thought, “That’s what I want.”
So, in July 1973 I went to the TM center in Los Angeles and met an instructor, and I liked her. She looked like Doris Day. And she taught me this technique. She gave me a mantra, which is a sound-vibration-thought. You don’t meditate on the meaning of it, but it’s a very specific sound-vibration-thought.
She took me into a little room to have my first meditation. I sat down, closed my eyes, started this mantra — which is a specific sound-vibration-thought — and it was like I was in an elevator and they cut the cable. Boom! I fell into bliss – pure bliss. And I was just in there. Then the teacher said, “It’s time to come out; it’s been twenty minutes.” And I said, “IT’S ALREADY BEEN TWENTY MINUTES?!” And she said “Shhhh!,” because other people were meditating. It seemed so familiar, but also so new and powerful. After that, I said the word “unique” should be reserved for this experience.
It takes you to an ocean of pure consciousness, pure knowingness. But it’s familiar; it’s you. And, right away, a sense of happiness emerges – not a goofball happiness, but a thick beauty.
I have never missed a meditation in 36 years. I meditate once in the morning and again in the afternoon, for about 20 minutes each time. Then I go about the business of my day. And I find that the joy of doing increases. Intuition increases. The pleasure of life grows. And negativity recedes.
You can meditate anywhere. You can meditate in an airport, at work, anywhere you happen to be.
Once you add this and have a routine, it fits in very naturally.
I want to emphasize that meditation is not a selfish thing. Even though you’re diving in and experiencing the Self, you’re not closing yourself off from the world. You’re strengthening yourself so you can be more effective when you go back out into the world.
So compassion, appreciation for others, and the capacity to help others are enhanced when you meditate. You start diving down and experiencing this ocean of pure love, pure peace — you could say pure compassion. You experience that, and know it by being it. Then you go out into the world, and you can really do something for people.
Four years ago, we started the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace out of compassion. Our goal was to ensure that any child anywhere in the world who wanted to learn to meditate could do so. Since then, we have offered “Quiet Time” meditation programs to at-risk students in hundreds of schools in 30 countries, but also to at-risk adults in homeless shelters, prisons, and hospitals — to soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder and to American Indians living on reservations who suffer from diabetes and heart disease.
The ability to transcend — to dive within and experience an ocean of energy, intelligence and happiness—is the birthright of every human being. If you want to master anything truly worthwhile in life, you want a qualified teacher. That is the same way with mastering meditation. And that is why Transcendental Meditation is taught one-to-one by a trained teacher—it is not taught through a book or a tape. My feeling is, if you are going to take 20 minutes out of your busy schedule to meditate, you might as well be sure that you are doing it right.
I invite you to write me with any questions you might have about meditation at info@DavidLynchFoundation.org. I will answer your questions personally. (You can also visit
www.DavidLynchFoundation.org or www.TM.org.)
– David Lynch
David Lynch, 64, is a filmmaker, painter, photographer, sculptor, musician, woodworker, and founder and chairman of the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. He is notable for the TV series, Twin Peaks and for many films including Wild at Heart and Mulholland Drive.