What is Meditation?

meditation technique

zen meditation

There’s an old story about a monk in a monastery who asks his guru:

‘Master, what is meditation?’

The guru keeps silent, however, and the monk gets back to his duties working the garden and continues to rise each morning to meditate before dawn though he hasn’t received an answer. The next year he asks again:

‘Master, what is meditation?’

But again the teacher declines to tell him and this continues for many years until the guru decides that his student is ready for the truth. When he asks again what is the essence of meditation, the guru replies:

‘Have you noticed that between the departure of one thought and the arrival of the next there is a space, a brief interval? Expand that space – that is meditation.’

Pick a Meditation, Any Meditation

Meditation is these days as common a word as guru, karma or nirvana – all exotic Eastern concepts that are now part of any savvy marketer’s keywords to sell junk that we don’t need.  Your local yoga center, the Hari Krishna devotees in the street, the self-help section of the bookshop – maybe even your doctor prescribe meditation as the cure for our existential angst. There are walking meditations, breathing meditations, chanting meditations – you’re invited to recite ancient mantras, visualise sacred symbols, count your breath, feel your aura or just be extra mindful when you’re eating chocolate.

But all these techniques would seem to have rather different goals. Some help you develop more presence in your body, some open up your compassion, some change your state of consciousness, others just leave you feeling rather bored. One point of view is that what people might normally call meditation (chanting, watching the breath, staring at a candle flame) is actually an act of concentration that lulls the conscious mind to sleep, allowing your greater unconscious mind to take the reins. The old Indian metaphor is of the horses and coach – the horses (the rational mind) are necessary to pull the coach (the soul) along but they shouldn’t be allowed to choose the direction!

The Meditation Retreat in Morocco

meditation techniques

That’s us meditating on a dune down there. Photo from Craig Burrows

People often ask us what kind of meditation we do on the Sahara retreat and it often feels like they want to hear what have virtually become brand names – Vipassana, Transcendental Meditation, pranayama etc Our retreat isn’t exactly a meditation boot camp where we make everyone sit in silence for hours each day – we’re more into opening a space for the mind to calm down and to increase a mindfulness that enriches every moment of the day.

Soygal Rinpoche in his work The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying gives a nice piece of advice when he suggests that you should rest during your meditation and meditate during your rests. We work on stillness in the morning meditation before breakfast, then take that mindfulness into movement in the afternoons with the dance and aikido, and we climb the high dune at sunset in a silent meditation where the techniques from the morning can be put to use.

But if we had to sum up the essence of the meditation and yoga retreats, it’s all about opening up the heart. And that happens around the breakfast table as much as on the high dunes.