S.P. Austen (1960- 2020) was an independent author writing on a diversity of subjects and genres. He passed away on June 30, 2020
I began meditating when I was 16 years old; that's 41 years ago at the time of writing (February 2018) and I began spontaneously, without any instruction.
I have been a regular meditator ever since that time, and have written a print-version book on the subject entitled Meditation for Everyday Living and an e-book entitled Meditation: Key to the Soul. You may find both of these books by going to the website link on my Profile page.
After three years of meditating alone and unaided, I joined a meditation group and gradually explored various methods of meditation techniques. Over the years, I gained many meditation 'tools' to add to my repertoire and build upon my skills in this subject. I even developed some practices of my own. And believe me, meditation is as much a skill as any other technique in any other discipline that you may engage in.
The number one prerequisite to beginning practice in meditation is to decide in your mind to make a firm commitment to doing it. This is a necessary step as it will instil the needed discipline to see yourself through it.
I suggest that you make a definite commitment to a certain time of the day that will work for you and to stick with that as much as possible. Without this essential approach, you are unlikely to make much progress in your efforts to learn how to meditate and therefore gain the ultimate from it.
A volume could be written by itself concerning discipline alone; but this article is about something else, being the next and perhaps equally important step in the process of meditation. That step is keeping the body still.
Still Body, Still Mind
I have taught many classes in meditation over the years, and have observed my students (sometimes heard them) fidgeting, rustling things, scratching, coughing, sighing, wriggling and ruffling in a myriad of ways.
Now, this may happen to you in the early stages, and it's really quite normal ~ at first ~ as it doesn't feel natural to the physical body to just sit still and not move. But the trouble with that, is that the physical body is a very somatic instrument, in that it always wants to feel things around it, and respond to those things. Monks meditating in Asia have been observed meditating with flies crawling all over their faces and yet not even brush a hand to swat them away or to scratch. That's the kind of absolute stillness that we're talking about here. Do not move a muscle!
Remember that the physical body is absolutely wired for nervous sensation, all over the entire surface of the skin and in the deeper layers of your muscles and internal organs. All of this nervous 'wiring' is rigged directly into the brain, after often long and convoluted routes via the spinal cord, but one way or another those tiny little nerve end synapses just under the surface of your skin are responding all the time to the environment around you.
We want and need to shut those nerves off for a while, otherwise meditation is impossible to achieve. (Don't worry, your body will automatically respond if sudden disaster should strike you and need you to respond to it by flicking open your eyes and jumping out of your calm state.) But for the purposes of true meditation, we really do need to be able to flick an 'off' switch for the 30 minutes or so that we have scheduled for our time in meditation.
If you body is agitated in any way, with jerks and twitches, your mind will respond likewise; it will be impossible to reach the state of 'no thought' that is so vital to the deeper aspects of true meditation. The somatic nerve impulses from the periphery of your twitchy, restless physical form will always keep you from true and deep meditation.
If, during meditation, you need to cough, then do so and get it over with; or scratch, but do it quickly and have done with it. But if you are constantly shifting your buttocks around to get a comfortable spot, or moving your hands about or your feet, then these movements, (if not merely initial ones in order to centre yourself) will become obstacles to the practice of meditation. You will never be able to get beyond a merely relaxing state, and even then, your mind will still be restless.
You see, whenever we move a limb, such as in a scratch or a twitch, your muscle movements will produce signals in your brain which will be constantly alerted to the somatic responses of the physical body. It will be impossible to attain any kind of deeper state with such distractions.
We need to become so still, as still as a statue, that even the breathing will ultimately become subdued. In meditation practice, I call this effect 'still breathing' and this happens naturally when all the usual somatic responses of the body have been completely becalmed. You cannot force it.
When the body is very, very still and quiet, the usual signals from your nervous system become less dominant. If you sit down on a chair or on the floor, at first, you will be very aware of the shape of the chair or the feeling of the floor beneath your backside, either hard or soft or warm or cold for example. You will also be fully aware, at the nervous system level, of how the hands are placed perhaps, in your lap, or feel the backs of the hands resting in meditation posture upon your knees.
This is perfectly natural, as there is a continuous nervous conduction of impulses from the peripheral nerves in the skin on any part of the body, feeding information back into your brain. This sense is called proprioception. Without this sense, we would soon become quickly disorientated in the space around us, and would most likely lose our balance and fall over. Neither would we be able to recognise, through our fingertips or any other part of our body, what we were coming into contact with.
When we keep the body ultra still, to the point where we do not move anything, the special sense of proprioception switches off after a while. The nerves start to cease sending quite so many signals, as the brain 'gets it' knowing where the body rests. Eventually, the peripheral nervous system becomes quite numb to the external environment. This is one reason why yogis can sit outside meditating in the extreme cold of the Himalayas and remain unmoved and not shivering. There are also other, deeper reasons, due to certain yogic training, but essentially, if the body does not move, the nervous system will eventually stop responding to external stimuli.
Freedom of the Mind
What then, does such bodily stillness give to the meditator? It will free the mind to focus on the introspection that is essential for true meditation to take place. Without this vitally important stillness no real meditation can take place. In effect, for the 20 or 30 minutes or longer, that you spend in meditation, you have become 'disembodied' for that time-space, being no longer conscious of the body, thus freeing the mind from distractions of a somatic nature.
Recall for a moment, how difficult it is to fall asleep if you are physically uncomfortable, or if the body is being jolted on a train for example. You will constantly be shifting around, trying to get into a position where you do not move so that sleep can supervene. Otherwise, sleep is impossible.
The principle is the same with keeping the body still in meditation. Except that, of course, we should be ideally seated and keeping our mental attention on the object of meditation, whatever it may be that you are currently using, such as a mantra or a mental concept of visualisation. In meditation, we do not want to fall asleep. Once the seated position is comfortable enough (either in an upright chair or for more advanced students, in the Half-Lotus or Full Lotus postures) we can then relax enough to completely forget about the body. At least for the duration of the time allotted to meditation.
Stillness is Timelessness
As in sleep, when the body completely relaxes, and you disappear from the physical world and enter the realm of dreams or not, as the case may be, all sense of Time disappears. It is the same in meditation, especially when the physical body is totally subdued and kept in one position, statue-still.
I cannot count the number of times that my meditation students have been surprised that they were sitting in meditation for 30 minutes or more. The remark that they thought only ten minutes or less had passed is very common.
This stillness of the physical body is essential because it allows the mind to come into its own, without interruptions from the somatic responses of the body. The mind can now expand and in that expansion of consciousness, you go beyond the limitations of both Time and Space.
The body becomes so still that you lose awareness of the space where you sit, and often the space where you are meditating; the room disappears altogether. The physical body is of course limited to Time; it has its own 'body clock' at work, its own cycles and biorhythms. Once you bring the body to that magical point of absolute stillness, then you actually step outside of bodily consciousness. Time has no meaning in this state, hence the experience of my students concerning the illusion of Time itself.
It is very common, after say, thirty minutes of meditation, to feel the need to flex your fingers and wriggle your toes, just to get a sense of being 'back in the body' as it were. I always encourage meditation students to do this when coming out of their meditation. When you open your eyes, you may be surprised to see that the room is of a different dimensional size to what it felt like whilst, eyes closed and breathing stilled, your body was completely unmoving save for a small and imperceptible breathing rhythm. (I will talk about breathing techniques in a later article on the subject of meditation.)
Expansion of Consciousness
So, what has happened, in the practice of keeping the physical body very still? You have been able, by achieving this stillness, to allow the mind to come into its own power, to focus the mind like a lens which is unclouded by the many interruptions of the body which blur that lens and throw it out of focus.
Keeping the body still, you are actually creating the very substance which meditation is made of; you are allowing the physical, Earthly distractions and needs to become subdued and becalmed like a raging ocean that becomes the calmest of seas. The body becomes so still, that it might be likened to a still lake, glassy smooth and unruffled, reflecting all its surroundings. The bright light of the glorious sun is only seen on a smooth surface, not a disturbed and agitated one. That sun is the 'inner sun,' the mind itself.
There is no more turbulence, the mind is free to be itself, unfettered by the limitations of the bodily form. You come to realise, over time, that in fact, you are not this body, this conglomerate of bone, flesh and skin, not even the nerve currents passing through the spinal canal and into the brain. You are none of these things. You only use this body as a vehicle of expression whilst in the Earthly world.
In meditation you are aiming to achieve an expansion of consciousness. The actual goal of meditation is, ultimately, Self-Realisation. This is the realisation of what you actually are, essentially, the living, vibrant, eternal spirit enclosed in the body of flesh. Keeping the physical body still in meditation, is the first step to achieve this realisation.