Head in the Clouds – Does meditation need to be this complicated?

I’ve had several people ask me recently various questions about meditation. The details differ but they can all be broadly summarized as does meditation really need to be this complicated?

It’s a common problem with many things these days: no longer are we starved of information, rather we are overloaded with it. Typing in Meditation to a search engine gives over 14 million results. Even Amazon has over 100 thousand hits in their Books section alone. How do you know which will allow you to reach your goal and which won’t? For every piece of sage advice telling you to do one thing, there’s sage advice from someone else telling you to do the opposite.

The advice I’m going to give here is not about a specific meditation, but rather to help you find the one that is right for you and see through some of the myths, and it is based on decades of personal experience of both doing and teaching in this field.

How do I know if the school/instructor/book I’m following is right for me?

The answer is one I give on many subjects: what feels right? Even if a meditation looks great on paper with the highest qualified instructor in the world, if it doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not for you. We all have this intuition and it will guide us well if we pay attention to it. This is important, because very often our rational mind might know what we want, but doesn’t know what we need. My only word of caution here is to watch for fear masquerading as intuition. We often latch onto our weaknesses and then become fearful when something threatens to heal us. An irony of healing is that we often derive comfort from our suffering. Test yourself, if something feels wrong, is there anger in there? If so that’s less likely to be intuition and more likely some buried issue you need to resolve trying to hide from a solution. Many people use meditation to heal issues, and that always means leaving a comfort zone behind – as you can imagine leaving a comfort zone is rarely comfortable.

Do I breathe through my nose or my mouth?

I’ve met many systems that are very specific about which you should do and just as many that say nothing about this at all. I’ve tried every combination and I can rarely tell any difference in clarity of mind nor Chi flow between the two, what I can say is that if you meditate for a long period of time with your mouth open you can dehydrate yourself which is not a good thing, indeed many Shaolin monks also follow this extremely practical principle and breathe through their noses. I said “rarely” in the previous sentence because some very specific Iron Palm moving meditations do require explosive breathing on occasion in which case the mouth should be open.

Should I always put my focus on my Dan Tien?

A very common suggestion is to focus on the area in the body just below and behind the tummy button, which is the traditional cup for collecting Chi called the Dan Tien. Generally, this is a good thing to do because as Chi is drawn to this area it slowly fills, then bubbles up into the rest of the body and this brings health benefits. However, if you’re meditating for the purpose of stilling your mind (such as with many Buddhist meditations, often falling under the modern title of Mindfulness) you can end up concentrating on and thinking about the Dan Tien which defeats the object of the “being awake” that the meditation is trying to achieve – whilst you’re thinking about your Dan Tien, you’re not “being awake”. If you’re doing your meditation specifically to train the mind, don’t worry about Chi, and don’t add on focusing on the Dan Tien (or anywhere else for that matter) unless the meditation you’re following specifically tells you to.

Should I put my tongue on the roof of my mouth?

Another common question. The purpose of this is to join the Du and Ren meridians which join in the mouth as part of the Small Circle (also sometimes called the Microcosmic Orbit), this makes it easier for Chi to flow around the body and reach the major organs. For any Chi development related meditation this is usually a good idea, and for any others it’s unlikely to detract from the success of the meditation unless your discipline specifically says don’t.

Should I meditate at the same time each day?

The point of meditating at the same time every day has two principle purposes. Firstly, it trains our mind and body to start expecting our training at that time of day so it is more likely to be receptive to it. The second reason is a bit more esoteric but just as important. When we do this work we are changing our energetic vibration on a level that expands outside just the here-and-now of our mundane physical existence. Each time we do this it is like pushing a swing in a playground. As the waves of change build up we achieve a resonance, and if we keep that resonant pattern pushing at regular intervals the overall effect (the height of the swing) increases and increases so pulling that new vibration into our existence, making it stronger and more defined. If you start pushing out of sequence you can disrupt the swing and even lessen the height rather than increase it.

Some of the very old meditations I have studied that must be done for years for one “cycle” of meditation are very strict about this because the changes you are enacting upon both the physical and non-physical body are profound. One question I have put to my teachers in my early days given my western upbringing is “how accurate do you have to be?” It’s a common question I receive. It’s all very easy to say “do it at the same time every day”, but anyone with even a basic grasp of science knows that there’s no such thing and in fact the question itself is meaningless without some arbitrary definitions accompanying it. And there’s always someone who quite sensibly asks “What about daylight saving?”

Calculation of time itself even with our best atomic clocks is still an approximation, and even if it weren’t it would be humanly impossible to start an activity at exactly the same time two days in a row. The reality I have found to be far more sensible. Think about the swing. If you push it slightly out of step as it is swinging, does the swing immediately stop? Or fly off? Or explode? No, of course not. If you push it slightly out of step you’ll still impart some momentum to it, just not quite as much as you would if were more in step with its swing. Even if you push it at completely the wrong end of its swing, it’s still unlikely to stop dead unless you are very strong. Most meditations will gain some benefit from being done as close to the same time every day as you can manage. Don’t worry about getting it right to the picosecond, that is something we can’t do and neither could the masters who came up with the meditations in the first place.