When we think about meditation we tend to have certain ideas about it: it is mostly spiritual and new age types who meditate; it is done seated in a nearly impossible posture that resembles a knot; and that it can involve somewhat abstract concepts behind it, among others…
But in reality it can be shown that meditation, even at its deepest, can be seen as deep relaxation, albeit conscious relaxation.
But this will need explaining, given meditation can allow someone to transcend the phenomenal reality itself into the experience of Absolute in some of its historical contexts within various spiritual and enlightenment traditions. So let us see why deep relaxation can be seen as meditation, and vice versa.
But before we go into that let us set the intention right: what this article attempts to show is not that meditation has to be rebranded as relaxation; but that meditation and deep relaxation have commonalities to such an extent that one can pass off as the other; and that in most contexts, viewing and approaching meditation as relaxation might be more beneficial to the outcome.
There are many types and methods of meditation such as Vipassana, mindfulness meditation, any many types of yogic and other systems of meditation practices. Here we shall consider those types of meditation that are generally found within enlightenment traditions and their contemporary derivatives such as mindfulness meditation that would require a development of access level concentration before deepening into higher states. In this context, let us see what happens when we do meditation.
When we start out a guided meditation course as beginners, we generally struggle to get a grip on it, having too many distracting thoughts, and the discomfort of sitting in place for anything longer than ten minutes without fidgeting, gets to us and we find it hard. Virtually anyone who has ever tried meditation knows this feeling at the beginning.
But slowly, if you keep at it, the mind begins to settle, the body gets more and more used to being seated that way, and little bits of what looks like inner silence begins to dawn…before it is again lost due to incoming thoughts, and pain in the back or the joints. But let’s say you keep at it over a period of time, you are going to get more and more comfortable meditating and it becomes something of a habit for you. And your life is now getting transformed from within and you can feel it.
You feel more and more peace of mind, you have fewer number of thoughts buzzing around, you tend to ‘see’ your thoughts and emotions which then gives you a great relief and a type of space begins to dawn within your mind so that it actually begins to feel spacious inside…and your body that gave you so much trouble in the beginning, is now more and more supple, may be even buoyant at times.
And along the way you will have experiences, some of which are quite profound. You may be aware of the ‘light’ within; you might become aware of the inner sound-the ‘sound of silence’, and you will begin to connect with your intuitive sense more and more.
You might even experience suddenly letting go of everything-even though this will happen by itself-when that happens, you would know the meaning of true happiness and bliss….
And these experiences come about now not only in the meditation sittings, but also when you are out and about and going about your normal life. In other words, meditation is slowly changing the roles: rather than meditation being part of your life as was the case before, your life tends to become part of meditation- in that the body and thoughts and other mind stuff happening in a large awareness that you have become! And by this stage your body would have long let go of the tense and rigid feeling, and you as a person would look relaxed, and feel more and more relaxed, and at the same time, naturally and relaxedly aware of whatever is going in your life.
This is how a guided meditation course can transform your life if you keep at it, and allow it to grow on you.
What Happens When Meditation Deepened
When we start our meditative journey, we are trying to not get distracted and maintain a sufficient level of awareness on the object of meditation, whether it is the breath, a mantra, or any other. Whenever the mind would stray, we would try to get it back on track. In the beginning this would be the only task we would be preoccupied by during meditation; and this takes a considerable amount of our time and effort.
In other words, there is a great deal of effort involved just to be able to pay attention to the meditation object, though this mercifully gets better the more practice we have in meditation.
And there is seemingly a paradox here. As long as this ‘effort’ is there…the meditation would not attain to greater degrees of depth. The reason? The mind is restless with all that work to bring the mind in line with the meditation object. The mind is using too much energy on itself, and this creates a restlessness on top of the restlessness that was there before started on the meditative path-though the latter disturbance is now on the wane due to the meditation, but the restlessness about the meditation itself has to some extent added to it, making the cumulative gain in peace of mind, less than what it could be.
And the apparent solution is that in order for the meditation to develop, this restless brought on by the effort for meditation must go: and this means that the effort, the mental effort…must go! But how can the effort be let go of and then develop meditation? This seems a paradox.
The Effortless State
However, the situation isn’t lost. This is because, as you keep at it-ever bringing the mind back to meditation object when it strays-there would be incremental deepening of awareness until there is a breakthrough: suddenly you would find yourself not needing any effort to be on the meditation object! You simply would be aware of the meditation object, without any conscious effort involved on your part…. In this state you can be said to come to a second wind, or a ‘flow state’ in your meditation.
And later on, even the meditation object would disappear, with only the effortless awareness remaining, which witnesses whatever objects that arise-body sensations, thoughts, etc. without clinging onto them.
This is when deep meditation starts. Your meditation has attained to the ‘effortless’ state. Your mind would gain to a clarity that was not there before, and meditation would actually end up becoming a something you will enjoy. And importantly, you would be relaxed both in mind, and body as a result, and you would be in a natural state of awareness. And this state of effortless awareness will gradually be part of your normal day to day life over time.
But this isn’t the end. But a start of a new way of relating to your meditation practice, though an enjoyable one. You still have to meditate, may be even more than before, but within, it feels effortless.
However, this is only true at certain level; but deeper down, things are far from effortless. This is because, once you have transcended the gross volitional part of the mind and made it seemingly effortless, you will now have to deal with subtler, and what can be called the deeper aspects of your psyche. And the effortlessness awareness has to now penetrate these deeper layers and make them effortless as well….
So how do you advance from this point onwards? Since apparently you have reached the effortless state, as far as the volitional aspect goes, you cannot ‘do’ meditation now-as that would bring in the volitional aspect to it.
But that is where a highly important aspect of meditation will come into play. It is the ‘relaxing’, or as some lineages like to call it, ‘surrendering’, ‘doing nothing’, …comes in. This ‘doing nothing’ is a profound-and very importantly, a dynamic-form of relaxing in to the effortless awareness, that allows the subtler aspects of grasping that had been hidden in the mind to surface into conscious awareness to be then let go of. This would then yet deepen the level of awareness. And it would relax both the body and the mind in turn.
So here, the key is relaxation in to the effortless awareness more and more (you can alternate the relaxation with attempts at deep concentration through a meditation object even at this stage-however, once you emerge from such bouts of concentration, what forms the very foundation of the practice will be the aspect of relaxation, or surrendering to the effortless state. Without this type of relaxed non-doing, one would be held back from further evolution in the meditation practice).
Meditation as Relaxation from the Very Beginning.
But a question can be raised here: it is very well that relaxation forms the basis of deep meditation; but can relaxation be practiced from the very outset, when one begins the meditative journey?
The answer to this seems to be that there are contexts where, seeing meditation as a process of relaxing, rather than a process of willful concentration, can be beneficial to the outcome, even from the very outset.
Let us take an example. Let’s say someone has never meditated, but is about to start their journey within by concentrating on the breath. The practice would now be to keep the attention on the breath as far as one can and bring it back on to the breath whenever it strays. So whenever the meditator has a thought or rumination over something, it could be for a few seconds, or a several minutes, they will bring it back to the breath and keep observing the breath. This is a valid approach, and this is how people usually do it. So the mindset that is conveyed is one of ‘doing’, and ‘work’. Pay repeated attention to the breath (volitional doing), and keep at it for longer periods (volitional work). And as many would experience in this type of introduction to meditation-it can get tiring after some time, and rather than arriving at a more pliable level of concentration, what one arrives seems to be ‘tense’ type of fragile concentration for the most part.
However, let us take a different type of introduction to the breath meditation. Let’s say the aspirant was asked to merely establish a ‘sense of presence’ either in the nasal area or the belly, whichever is more comfortable, without concentrating on the breath directly, and requires only a minimal amount of effort In fact, let the aspirant to be instructed to not concentrate at all, but only establish the relevant sense of presence repeatedly whenever it breaks. Then, what would happen is that there is no intention to observe the breath, but only to maintain a sense of presence in the appropriate area of the body, which is easier to do. The awareness of the breath happens only as a side effect. And as a result, there is no great compulsion to see more of the breath, which will put the competitive mindset at ease. But by maintaining a sense of presence rather than concentrating, this will actually allow the person to established a natural mindfulness of the breathing process, and take in the less pronounced nuances more easily and effortlessly. Many meditators who previously not highly successful in the concentration/’doing’ aspect of meditation, report greater degree of improvement of awareness and mindfulness through this latter approach.
This is just one example how the mindset of non-doing and relaxation, can work from the very outset. But whenever the overall outlook is that of relaxation within the meditative path, rather than concentration, it can work at all levels to deepen in to substantive levels of attainments in a relatively short periods of time. This is so much so that there are many instances of sayings by sages of the past, and in contemporary society, where when it comes to the personal practices of these adepts, all what they claim to do is relax. And that, all the way to the state of enlightenment itself!
However, at a more preparatory level, since most people are not naturally inclined or able to deeply concentrate from the very get to for prolonged periods, the path of relaxation can be a game changer for many. Guided meditation courses and webinars conducted by Acharin the teacher of Nisala meditation center will guide you to experience these profound stages of meditation.