A common misconception is that meditation means clearing your mind of all thoughts. There are many techniques, often involving an object of focus to which you direct your attention.
During your meditation, thoughts will inevitably distract you from the object of focus. This is not a failure, in fact it is a small ‘win’ every time you notice that your attention has wandered. The correct reaction is to observe the thought and then let it go. A helpful analogy is your mind being the sky and your thoughts being clouds. You can see them but allow them to drift on by.
With consistent practice, you may start to notice a pattern that your thoughts follow. You realise that it is just the nature of the mind to repeatedly generate thoughts, that they are impermanent and will always be coming and going like tides. The more this is understood, the easier it is to not engage in or attach to the thoughts.
You can bring your attention to the object of focus by yourself, or use guided meditation soundtrack to help you. The object of focus tends to fall under one of the following categories…
Observing your natural pattern of breathing, without judgement. Our breath is the main bridge we have between the body and mind, and it is always with us for as long as we are alive. Therefore it makes an excellent and reliable object of focus for meditation.
This involves using your senses to focus on something external. Examples include candle gazing (trāṭaka), listening to sounds (gongs, nature, etc.) or songs.
This means focusing your attention on a concept, usually something desirable. For example, by focusing on the concept of metta (loving-kindess) we can cultivate the quality in ourselves. Other concepts include peace, forgiveness, God and non-attachment.
Mindfully carry out some body movement such as tai chi or walking, with complete awareness and absorption.
Silently or aloud, you repeat a word, phrase or prayer over and over again. The most simple example is to chant ‘Om’, but any mantra can be used. Mantras are incredibly helpful for quieting the mind reducing stress.
You can also use beads to help you to count- Mala beads are used in Hinduism and Rosary beads in Christianity.
Focusing on something you feel. A body scan is an example of this; starting from the toes, bring your awareness to the sensations of different body parts, slowly working your way up to the head.
Many believe that we can manifest success in life by visualising whatever it is we want to achieve. A sportsperson may practice visualisation meditation the night before a competition where they visualise themselves winning. Another example is imagery therapy: this attempts to train the subconscious mind to encourage the body to heal some mental or physical injury.
Another notable type of meditation is Vipassana, which means “to observe reality as it is”. This technique is less about training the brain to concentrate on one object, but instead observes everything happening internally and externally without judgement. The full benefits of Vipassana can be reaped by practicing it during a silent ten-day course.
How does this relate to yoga?
Dharana (concentration) and Dhyana (meditation) are the 6th and 7th limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga. When we make a proper effort to concentrate on an object (Dharana), we gradually become “absorbed” in it, leading us nicely into Dhyana where we achieve oneness between the self and the object of focus.
Asana and Pranayama (the 3rd and 4th limbs) were created as methods to prepare the body and mind for meditation. Asana these days is associated with the hundreds of elaborate Yoga poses, but originally it only referred to a couple of seated postures- Asasna actually translates to “seat”!
There is no optimal method for everyone- we are all different and need to try different techniques to find the best one for each one of us. Remember that the key is to have consistency (little and often is more effective than occasional long practices), and to have patience with yourself.