A poetic guide to meditation
By Imani Thompson / 5 June 2020
‘Let silence be the art
you practice’ – Rumi
There is this tale. I only heard it in passing on the radio, and haven’t found it since, so we shall have to just go with it.
The tale goes that there was once a girl who could call whales to her. She could stand on the shore and ask that a whale come visit. On one occasion she accidentally beached one. Rumour has it she achieved this phenomenon by going into the place where we all speak the same language.
Hearing the silence.
While this may or may not be true, I can’t let go of the wonder of the image. A year into exploring meditation there have been moments which have felt as surreal and as magical as my standing on a beach, calling a beast of the deep blue to my toes. This is a post about meditation and silence, which in the same breath makes this a post about the uncanny and beguiling. You will have to bear with me.
Meditation first popped its head into my life with my mum telling me I ought to try mindfulness during exam periods. In a caffeinised state, throwing textbooks at the wall, I told it to piss off. It tried again at the end of yoga classes - the fifteen minutes of shavasana - but I tended to just fall asleep. Then it got me to watch a Ted Talk where a lovely girl explains why she meditates for an hour a day. My only response being, who has an hour to spare sitting still and doing nothing? No, meditation was not going to be for me. Ten months later I write this having just come from the beach where the act of stillness: watching my breath and quieting my mind, had me reach a state which I can only describe as… if you were to distil an orgasm in clear water and then float in it.
Safe to say I’ve changed my tune on the matter, and it is now a secret (not so secret) mission of mine to get everyone I know, bums down, legs crossed, meditating. You are my next victim. Congratulations and welcome. And before you run off, let’s just clear up any misunderstandings we may be having. Firstly, meditation is far from a waste of time as it is certainly not sitting still doing nothing. Yes, it is the poster image of monks and yogis, but to be a meditator you do not have to shave your head, wear orange and never have sex again. Megan Markell meditates, so you’re good.
What meditation is…
In its practical sense it involves sitting/lying, closing your eyes, and for an extended period of time choosing to focus only on your breath / a single object / a mantra, in order to detach from your thoughts and quieten your mind. To bring complete awareness to your being, and through this to enter seemingly altered states of consciousness. This is a powerful act of introspection. The art of seeking silence can profoundly shift the way you see yourself and the world. It has become my greatest act of discovery.
There are a variety of techniques within the tradition. Some use a different point of focus, some try to achieve different states, from relaxation to questioning the universe to eternal bliss. Transcendental meditation is popular today (Megan’s preferred choice) and involves two sittings, one in the morning and one in the afternoon for twenty minutes each time. Many forms of meditation emphasise Samatha which translates as ‘concentration’ or ‘tranquility’, or you could try your hand at Vipassana: ‘insight.’ There is also Zen, Kundalini and mindfulness. There is a rich source of guided meditations online, alongside apps - but more on resources later.
For now, I ask you to do some thinking about thinking…
There is this voice in our heads. You know the one, right now it’s reading this: your own voice. But who’s talking to who? Is it just the voice talking to itself? But now you are aware of the voice. So are you the voice or the awareness of the voice? Well, ask the voice to be quiet. Ask it to not say a single thing to you for two minutes. Oh, it’s still talking? Come to think of it it talks a lot, nattering on about things you don’t even ask it to talk about, like how you’re a terrible person for eating the whole tub of ice-cream, Jenny’s dreadful haircut or if the moon landing really was a conspiracy. How many things did it say to you today that you can’t even account for? Where is this voice coming from?
The first task in mediation is to get to grips with who you are in relation to your thoughts and your emotions. And, spoiler, you are not your thoughts and emotions, they are not integral to you in your truest sense of being.
Here’s a visual aid. You are sitting in a boat out on a lake. The you in the boat we will describe as your constant self: steady, calm and peaceful, unaffected by the world and her events. Today you are feeling great, Trump’s being indicted, it’s a good day, so the weather on the lake is sunny and the water is warm. You jump in, you swim. It’s a great day, why wouldn’t you throw yourself to your emotions? However, a storm is blowing in - your girlfriend’s cheated on you - and you’re still in the water. And if your whole concept of self is tied to your emotional situations and thoughts relating to it, it’s going to take a lot to keep you from sinking.
Alternatively, you can stay in the boat, and let the events of the world, emotions and thoughts, pass by you as weather passes. Of course you will still feel the effects of things, you will have to adjust your sails, but you are not identifying with your circumstances. You know that in the boat you can reside in a peaceful joy. Meditation is about learning to get back in the boat.
Meditation has become the cornerstone of my mental well-being. I realised that for years I had been having unhelpful and self-deprecating thoughts whilst barely being conscious of them. When I started to close my eyes and watch how my mind was working I saw clearly the immense power of the mind, and how I desperately needed to take back control. I had a ‘monkey-mind’, throwing out all sorts of rotten bananas which my sense of self was feeding off.
Not forgetting that all this incessant noise was a massive waste of energy. When your mind is busy talking at you all day about nonsense, it doesn’t have as much space to think about useful things - like how to make gluten free bread which actually tastes nice, or fixing the global economy. In 2012 Sara Lazar used fMRI to show that ‘the brains of subjects thickened after eight weeks of meditation’. The meaning of which we shall leave to the scientists, but don’t you want a thicker brain?
Studies also show drastic improvements to people’s physical health. The first few months of meditation were about spring cleaning my mind. Through closing my eyes each day and training myself into silence I am now able to spot a rotten thought and throw it out before it starts to smell. Of course I am still prone to going off on one, but I can bring awareness to everything I am thinking and feeling. I can chose what to identify with, what is helpful and what is not.
Okay, so meditation is essential for improving cognition and well-being. But that’s far from the end of things.
There is a reason it’s been practiced all these years by the spiritually inclined and, in many ways, it’s because it brings us to directly having to face that question of self: when I close my eyes and reach a state of awareness that is detached from my thoughts, my emotions or my cultural circumstances, then who am I?
Now I’m aware that chitter chatter about God and some ‘universe’ and what-not isn’t for everyone, but hear me out. The feelings that have arisen in deep meditation have been so… bewildering, so beautiful… that I have found only more ‘spiritual’ literature has shed light on the experiences. (A disclaimer: I don’t follow a religion, I’ve never joined a cult and I do think America landed on the moon. However, what I believe in is the astounding power of unconditional love.)
My friend and I are sitting by the Ganges in Haridwar. Leaving her to fend off people trying to accost us with paint, I go into meditation. Suddenly everything about me becomes transparent, my body turns weightless and I am utterly detached from it. I see this ‘energy’ of dark pinks and purples which has this feeling so distinct, like the singular scent and colour of a flower. It is me like I have never known myself to be, but has the familiarity of home. The sense of an ancient earth. And then I feel reforming around this ‘energy’, the matter of body, in soft layers of a human being. Have I experienced my soul? Is there an essence to me which is eternal? Did someone slip shrooms into my curry?
I am sitting on a bed in Montego Bay and in silence I become overwhelmed by love. It is as though love is falling into my lap, that the gentleness of the world is falling about me like rain. I am receiving gift upon gift upon gift. The giver asks nothing in return, it is humbling, it is unconditional love. I sit by the ocean. Pounding silence. When I open my eyes the world hums clarity. It is not just water rolling towards me, but myself. I see myself everywhere. In each person on the beach. The moon doesn’t speak with the ocean, but both are intimately aware of each other. Have I slipped into the space where all is connected? Can I physically feel the rush of atoms washing through everything?
I am coming to see that our silence holds many secrets. There are spaces it will take you to in which infinity seems walkable and bliss is all you breathe. Meditation has brought the uncanny to my finger tips, and can at times make this reality of trains and taxes and passports seem a bizarre illusion. Journeying within oneself is no easy task, mainly because our inner landscape is so hard to grasp and describe. However, just as we study quantum physics, literature and geography, we can use silence to ask questions of ourselves. The responses are often startling. There are some common threads within spiritual literature: there is a higher consciousness of unconditional love; we are all one; I am that I am; we are spiritual beings having a human experience; you are a soul; only love is real and all is a choice between love and fear; your reality is your own manifestation; there are no idle thoughts; you are guided, be still and know that you are god; you are love.
Such ideas will, and should, continue to be debated with all resources available to thought. All I can say is that through many hours of meditation I have physically experienced much of the above. I have been with a ‘presence of divinity’ (for want of better words). Witnessed a goodness and perfection in all. I am not the same girl I was before I started meditating, because how I experience myself and the world has changed so profoundly - my goodness for the better! What does it all mean? Come back to me in a lifetime, or three.
For now, a new beauty has blown in. And whilst I am not yet on speaking terms with whales, the earth’s mystery is so vast that, just perhaps, I can believe the tale to be true.
Further reading and resources:
One thing I haven’t mentioned is just how hard meditating is. It is essential that you don’t judge yourself, you are patient, and stick with it. It has taken me around eight months to reach the point where I can maintain silence, and I’ve gone through weeks where I meditate for an hour a day - I jumped into the deep end. However, each meditation has opened up something new in me. It is a gorgeous journey, and so so worth it! I cannot express how worth it. There are a couple of great interviews about mediation on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Conversations podcast:
Llewellyn Vaughen-Lee, a Sufi mystic, discussing mediation is a little more out there, but is the best description I've found for the spaces you can encounter.
For books I recommend ‘Mindfulness in Plain English’ by Gunaratana, and Eckart Tolle’s ‘The Power of Now.’
If closing your eyes and hoping for the best scares you, fear not. Calm is an app which lays out a meditation schedule for you, taking you through step by step. Headspace is another.
There are also a ton of free guided meditations online - youtube in particular. Or you could try the Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey 21 days of meditation/
If you are interested in the role the mind plays in shaping our reality, this essay: , from page 11.
The fact about ‘brain thickening’ is from this Harvard Gazette article.
‘We dance round in a ring and suppose.
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows’ - Frost
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