Monday, August 15, 2016

Thoughts on Meditation

Meditation is a practice that every ceremonial magician should know how to do. There are a number of misconceptions about meditation that I run into all the time, so I want to go over some of those and explain why they don't make sense. Then I want to share some insights from my own practice over the years.

It doesn't really matter that much what form of meditation you use. So if you've studied Zen or Vajrayana or some other system and those methods work for you, there's no reason to stop doing them because you're also doing ceremonial magick.

Studies have found that while meditation has many cognitive benefits, the differences between the various systems are negligible and probably have more to do with individual differences. The point is that you do the practice, and that you do it regularly.

For those who have never studied meditation, the method I recommend learning is modern mindfulness meditation, a simplified non-sectarian system that is based on techniques akin to those of Zazen or Shamatha.

Here's how you do it:
  1. Find a comfortable sitting position with your spine straight.
  2. Soften your gaze and look downward at about a 45-degree angle.
  3. Focus on your breathing, paying attention to how it feels as you inhale and exhale.
  4. When you catch your mind wandering, bring your attention back to the breath.
  5. Maintain this practice for about 20 minutes.
That's it. Simple, right?

But more people have trouble with it than you might think. Some of that is due to false expectations, and some of it is due to poor instruction. Here's some of what I've learned from my own practice.

1. A lot of teachers will recommend Lotus or half-Lotus here as a posture, which are great if you're sitting on a cushion. Many Westerners have trouble with full Lotus, since you usually need to practice it as a younger person for it to be comfortable. You can also do whatever you want with your hands - there's no prescribed position. They can just rest wherever is comfortable. And this is the key - comfort.

In my opinion, Aleister Crowley's teachings on yoga totally miss this. Crowley seemed to believe that the point of sitting was to overcome discomfort by force of will, or at least it reads that way. However, I haven't personally found that to be a very useful approach. You do want your spine to be straight so your body is upright and balanced, but other than that, the posture in which you meditate makes little difference. You can even sit up straight in a chair if works better for you than sitting on a cushion.

2. Buddhist teachers recommend the eyes-open approach, while Hindu teachers recommend eyes-closed. What researchers have found is that eyes-closed makes it easier to enter the meditative state, but eyes-open makes it easier to maintain meditative awareness in your daily life. I originally learned Shamatha from the Vajrayana tradition, which is eyes-open. And as I see it, the operant approach to magick is all about influencing the external world, so it seems more appropriate to focus on integration of meditative awareness into your daily life. There also is the practical point that meditators do sometimes fall asleep, and eyes-open makes that less likely.

3. The focus on the breath is key. You do not want to just sit and follow whatever thoughts arise when using this method. That would just be regular daydreaming. Try to let the sense of your breathing lightly and naturally fill your entire field of awareness. Don't worry if it feels like you're not "doing enough" or whatever, and don't force it. Just do your best, and trust that you'll get better. One of the biggest obstacles to successful meditation practice is expending a lot of effort worrying about whether or not you're doing it right. Focus on the breath. It means exactly that, and nothing else.

4. At the same time, your mind will wander during that practice. That's pretty much guaranteed. Do not, under any circumstances, view this as a failure. It's part of the method. This is the biggest roadblock I see with people trying to learn meditation - the idea that, somehow, the point of meditation is to "clear your mind," and if you can't do it you are failing. This is nonsense promulgated by popular culture and people who don't really understand the process.

I can't tell you how many times I've heard, "My mind wanders too much. I could never meditate." Actually, every time your mind wanders, you have an opportunity to bring it back to the breath. That's a better way of thinking about it. Your mind will become clearer if you do the practice, but it is not something that you can force. Think of time spent in meditation as acclimatizing yourself to the meditative state of mind. It has to be done regularly, and it just takes time.

5. In my experience, twenty minutes is about the ideal length for a meditation session. Obviously, if you're currently doing something else and it works for you, keep it up. But if you're just learning, try twenty minutes. The reason is that usually somewhere around 15 minutes, the state of your meditation will deepen. That's a good thing, and if you're only doing ten-minute sessions you will miss it. Our magical working group does use ten-minute eyes-closed sessions for astral work and pathworking, but those are not the same thing as sitting meditation. They serve two entirely different purposes.

A few more practical notes. You should get some sort of a timer so that you are not looking at the clock every couple of minutes. Especially when you're starting out, there's a strong temptation to do that, and it breaks your focus every time. That's one reason that people sometimes get better results if they meditate at a Zen center or some other establishment where they can do it as a group - because someone else is timing the session.

I generally don't recommend meditating much longer than twenty minutes. You should find a length of time that you are comfortable with, and you can go a little longer. Crowley recommends a full hour, and I find that to be excessive. Students who pride themselves on how long they can meditate are missing the point. They invariably burn out, and anyway this shouldn't be about "spiritual materialism" or feeling like you are better than "those losers" who only do twenty minutes.

Discipline is the real key to meditation, but not the discipline of pushing yourself harder from moment to moment. Rather, it is the discipline of maintaining your practice by meditating every day without fail. Twenty minutes a day for a year is far more effective than doing an hour a day for a month and then giving up. If you decide that you need to take a break from your practice, you can do that in a disciplined manner as well. Tell yourself that you will, say, take a break for seven days and then resume at that time. This is sometimes necessary, and you can still be disciplined about it by setting an intention and sticking with it.

This brings me to one of the most important reasons that you might want to take a break. You should not try to meditate your way out of depression or an episode of any similar mental illness. I'm convinced that most of the problems that have been reported with mindfulness meditation are because people try to do just that.

You shouldn't meditate when you're depressed, period. The reason is that the depressive state gets mixed up with the meditative state, and you wind up acclimatizing yourself to the wrong thing. That can make your depression worse, even after you stop practicing, so be warned. If you suffer from periodic depression you can still practice, but make sure you do it when you're in a normal rather than depressed state of mind.

Meditation does reduce stress, and stress is a common trigger for mental illness, so you should find that your depressive episodes become less frequent as long as you maintain your practice. But with anything long-term, you probably will need to get some sort of psychological help before meditation will be of much use. Talk all you want about the malleability of the mind, but most mental illnesses have a physiological component that meditation has a hard time affecting.

Also, don't allow the fact that meditation has made your mind more resilient to become an excuse for putting up with people who want to exploit you. This is ridiculously common in the corporate world. Companies will sponsor "meditation classes" for employees because they reduce stress and are cheaper than paying out decent raises or keeping working hours at reasonable levels. By all means take the classes, but keep pushing for better pay and working conditions regardless of what meditation helps you handle. Point out that as an accomplished meditator, you can do more in less time and therefore deserve more money.

Your meditation sessions should follow your regular ceremonial practices. The best times for this are either in the morning when you wake up, or at night before you go to sleep. I used to recommend keeping them separate, but I've found over the years that there really is no problem with combining them into a single session. The whole sequence should take about a half hour - I'm thinking something like LBRP/LIRH/Middle Pillar/Meditation (20 min)/Qabalistic Cross.

Meditation is the most basic mystical practice there is. The familiarity with the contents of your mind that meditation will help you develop is the foundation on which most of the more advanced Western mystical practices rest. You need to know your own thoughts in order to help distinguish them from the communications of spirits, up to and including the Holy Guardian Angel. You always start in the meditative state when assuming a godform. The meditative state is the the "rest position" for astral work. And so forth.

So if you are in a healthy frame of mind, are not currently meditating, and want to become a better magician, there's no time like the present to start. Just do it. It's simple, and I expect that it will start making a difference sooner than you think.

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Anonymous said...

Wonderful article! I've found that one could use the LBRP at the beginning of the session to deal with the stress and depression. It takes a few sessions in a row over the course of a few days, but it does reduce the stress level to a minimum, if not to 0. And in the case of depression, although it doesn't bring instant happiness, it does bring the mind in a more neutral state, which i find enough for the time of the practice. The depression and stress could return some time after the session, but not in the same intensity as before.

My method resembles the I.O.B. Ritual which I've found recently to some degree, but I've been doing this for many months. I just project my stress, anxiety, anger and/or depression through the pentagram and give it the Sign of Silence afterwards, watching it fade away.

Scott Stenwick said...

Using the ceremonial pieces like that does help. You just need to be careful that the meditation you are doing is not making things worse. If you feel better doing it, you probably are doing it right.

The big problem with depression and meditation is when people try to "power through" depressive episodes even when the meditation feels like it's making things worse. When that happens, the best thing to do is take a break.

Forcing meditation hardly ever works. Unfortunately, there are some folks out there who think that it should and practice accordingly.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more, especially since I have a background of being chronically depressed. I started working on that by in depth study of my birth chart, but that's another story. Yes, the LBRP helps me alot in dealing with these things, although I don't advise others to take it for granted.

I was wondering if meditation could work in dealing with depression, and I'm referring to active meditation. It doesn't need to be performed during magick practice. Just pick up from the "I have a depression" part and go further down to its core by asking simple questions and seeing/feeling what pops up. Then write down what was found and pick up from there the next time. It may take many sessions, but i think it could work. This came to me after observing the way psychologists deal with their patient's problems, and performed it on myself, but i found out that active meditation works better than logically trying to answer my own questions.

Anonymous said...

I'm still very positively shocked by your last article, that I can't find my words to write this post, so pls bare with me a little :)

You say that somewhere around 15m the trance deepens. From my experience this could lead to hearing voices, other than my own mind's. On two of those occasions it was mind blowing for me. Does this have something to do with the hyperoxigenation of the blood and the increased circulation in the brain?

From my experience, whenever I forced myself to not think at all, leaving my mind blank, my body reacted like it was running out of air. This was before starting to practice magick and meditation. I would then force myself to not think anything and started to inhale deeper in order to reduce the physical discomfort. This in turn lead to a state of high :)

I tried this technique after I bagan practicing magick and I went a step further by lying down on my front. Thus my chest was pressed against the bed and it increased the hyperoxigenation with every breath. This is how I came to hear the most awesome thing ever in the most awesome voice - I think it was Saturn because I meditated on him often.

Bishop said...

I m doing some Raya Yoga exercises specificly Asana.
So basicly meditation without moving a inch.I guess Meditation or Dharana or Asana meditation where you don t move somehow make you better to concentrate toughts to affect reality.

Scott Stenwick said...

Basically working on your concentration makes you better at concentration, just like any other form of exercise develops your ability to do whatever that form of exercise entails. And your faculty of concentration is one of the key factors in performing successful practical magick.