What do we really mean by meditation?
Meditation is a time to check-in, not check-out

Moments of Space Meditation Lead, Ella Sherr, discusses assumptions surrounding meditation, what it really means, and how we can make every moment a part of our practice.

What is meditation?

“For me, meditation used to be all about ‘checking out,’ but now it’s more about ‘checking in.”

Meditation is fast becoming more commonplace in the west, especially with the escalating popularity of mindfulness and yoga and the ever-growing availability of meditation material at our fingertips. But it’s important to understand the what and the why behind the practice so we can both respect the lineages from whom we borrow it and really reap its benefits.

When we think of meditation, we might conjure up an image of a monk in colourful robes or a modern, western yogi in yoga pants, sitting cross-legged in silence, perhaps chanting or holding their hands in a mudra. For many of us, gardening, walking, making art, or making music can all be forms of meditation, even writing a piece like this. For me, personally, when I first met meditation, it was all about ‘checking out’ or escaping. But now, I find it more to be about ‘checking in,’ or to put it another way, ‘zoning in’ on the present moment and my deeper consciousness, rather than ‘zoning out’ or finding an escape.

The truth is, all the above can be and indeed are types of meditation. But how can this state be found in both silence and in sounds, in stillness and in movement, in moments of activity or creativity? What really is meditation, and what’s the thread that ties these experiences together?

It’s all about awareness.

“It’s a presence beyond our thinking mind that knows we’re thinking.”

Meditation may seem like it’s about quieting the mind of thought or finding a feeling of bliss, but the real goal is to find awareness. More specifically, meditative awareness, as opposed to awareness of issues. Meditative awareness is the ever-present space of a deeper consciousness within us all. It’s a presence beyond our thinking mind that knows we’re thinking, knows we’re knowing, and can observe what we’re observing. This inner space has the qualities of openness, spaciousness, and stillness, so meditating with awareness teaches us that we all have unlimited access to an infinite presence of peace within.

Try it now. Simply breathe, and know you’re breathing. Then let go of that knowing and just be with the presence that knows.

Maybe you feel a sense of space expanding within your consciousness? This is your awareness, your ‘Deep I,’ as it’s sometimes known. Not the ‘I’ in the language of your thoughts, but the deeper consciousness that knows you’re thinking. This presence is always with you; you just need to recognise it to connect to its qualities. It’s your shortcut to peace, presence, and tranquillity.

And how does this help me in daily life?

“Awareness helps us remain in tune with our actions and reactions as they happen.”

The more you recognise this space, the more its qualities can infiltrate every area of your life. When you start to know the essence of your deepest nature, its qualities can shift how you show up in your life. When you find this space, you find its feelings; you become more able to show up in each moment with presence and a sense of ease. It will also develop your mental clarity, sense of physical grounding, and your emotional resilience and intelligence. The more I practise finding this space in the heat of some dramatic emotion or another, the more I become able to drive it instead of letting it drive me.

On this journey of life, so much is beyond our control, including, seemingly, the happiness we seek. But meditative awareness helps us gain control over what we can — namely, how we respond to the situations around us. Awareness helps us remain in tune with our actions and reactions as they happen.

The Deep I and your Inner Sky

“Even when clouds come, above them, there’s still that same sky.”

Awareness, as we’ve established, is ever-present, ever spacious, and forever unaffected by passing thoughts or moods. They come and go, but awareness stays the same, untarnished by their presence. You can think of it like the sky beyond cloud. Sky, too, is ever-present, open, clear, and still. Even when clouds come, above them, there’s still that same sky. Thoughts and feelings are like those clouds, sometimes pleasant, sometimes stormy, and always coming and going. But they only temporarily obscure the sky without ever changing its ultimate nature.

When we connect to this feeling of an inner sky, we disconnect from the clouds. So often, we identify with our thoughts and feelings, letting them entrap and pretty much control us. Connecting to the awareness that can observe thoughts and emotions shows us we’re not them but the presence that can watch them. This is a very freeing feeling, especially if you can often be prone to over-thinking and over-feeling like this humble author sometimes can. Awareness gives you a break from being those thoughts and feelings and brings you back to the sky.

How do we connect with awareness in meditation?

“Objectless meditation is being with the sky, not the clouds that obscure its presence.”

Within Tibetan Buddhism, the word for meditation, ‘Ghom’ or ‘Gom,’ literally means “to become familiar with.” It means becoming familiar with our own minds, our awareness, and the essence of our true nature. It’s the art of coming home to this space, and often, we do this by focusing our awareness on an object, like breath, sensation, or sound. So, when you’re guided in a body scan or listening to sounds in a gong bath, focusing on your breath or watching your thoughts, these are all just different objects acting as supports for your awareness. By focusing your mind on the object and practising bringing it back to that object when it inevitably wanders, your awareness gets a bit of a workout. It has to keep noticing the wandering as much as it notices the object.

But we can create an even deeper connection to awareness by letting go of those objects and being with awareness itself. This is known as objectless meditation; we drop the supports and simply rest with or in the space of our awareness, just as you did when you let go of watching your breath just now. This is open awareness, and it brings you home to its feeling of inner peace and stillness. So while it’s a common assumption that it’s the act of meditating that makes us feel peaceful (the act of ‘zoning out,’ let’s say), it’s actually the process of revealing the ever-present stillness within and zoning in on it that brings us the feeling of peace. Objectless meditation is being with the sky, not the clouds that obscure its presence.

On Awareness and Happiness

We all want to be happy, right? And to live our lives as free from suffering as we can? But the truth is, suffering is practically inevitable in life; it affects us all in different ways, depending on our circumstances. Things beyond our control keep happening and changing, and our sense of happiness fluctuates with those circumstances. The practice of meditation is all about finding a deeper and more lasting feeling of happiness by connecting us to that open, expansive space inside. It shows us how to seek happiness within instead of constantly striving to find happiness elsewhere. Meditation helps us know this and come home to it, and we can do it any time, any place, whether we’re meditating or not.

Any time, any place? Even doing the dishes?

Meditation can happen any time, any place; you don’t have to be cross-legged or chanting to do it. All you need to do is check in with your conscious awareness while we’re doing what we’re doing and know what you’re doing in the moment you’re doing it. So, literally anything can become meditation, even the most mundane experiences of our day-to-day — any sound, sensation, thought, or feeling can be used to support awareness. Sitting on the sofa, watching tv, or boiling the kettle. Walking the dog, talking to a partner, riding the tube, or even washing the pots and pans. Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, if we’re aware we’re doing it, if we consciously KNOW we’re doing it, we’re practising meditation. Hear the sounds of the kettle; know the sensations of your footsteps. The knowing is the meditation. It lets us be fully in the moment and reconnect to that abundant inner stillness within.

Does my mind have to be quiet?

No. It does not. Your mind can be as busy as it likes. Have you ever tried not to think about something? Or not to think at all? It’s a very unrealistic goal. The mind works in funny ways. Tell it to stop thinking about something, and it’ll probably ramp up those thoughts even more. Meditation doesn’t mean trying to quiet the mind of thought but letting it be as it is, not pushing against it. If it’s busy, let it be so. Fighting against it will only create friction and struggle. Let thoughts come and simply watch, knowing what you’re thinking as you’re thinking it, this creates awareness and a space around your thoughts. When we stop fighting thoughts and just watch them with awareness, we find space, and we find calm. But you don’t have to feel calm to do it! Your mind doesn’t have to be calm, your house doesn’t have to be calm or quiet, there can be noises and action around you or within you; it’s all ok. Whatever is, let it be. Let all clouds enter your sky, knowing they won’t change its essence when they’re gone.

In short, meditation will help you stop struggling for things to be other than how they are or looking outside to find happiness. It’ll help you look within, and if you observe yourself looking, you’re on your way.

I hope your meditation practice leads you back home to you. Wishing you the best on your journey.

Ella Sherr. Meditation Lead @ Moments of Space.