Meditation, despite having originated in Eastern cultures thousands of years ago, has become a common enough phenomenon regardless of where you are in the world. The various practices of meditation – various styles, and techniques – have morphed throughout the years as well, with some individuals and groups adhering to stricter historical definitions and practices.
For others, meditation can be a loose term for any relaxing, inward reflection. I’ll sometimes use the term meditative practice, since it encompasses the various styles and techniques a person might like to adopt – without the implication of a more strict sense of the word. As well, so many people might feel that meditation just isn’t for them, or that they wouldn’t know where to begin. I feel a lot of this is down to it being viewed – in certain circles – as a sort of prestigious and rigorous act, which someone might make a fool of themselves in attempting. People often still have the notion that it is some esoteric, or airy-fairy affair, of no use in today’s world; but meditation can be truly powerful and transformative, and practiced by anybody regardless of culture or experience.
When people do get in to some sort of meditative practice, they often find what works for them – perhaps through trying out various learned techniques, or experimenting intuitively to find their own zone. Over the years I’ve found various approaches work for me, depending on how I feel, the atmosphere, setting, and what I am setting out to ‘achieve’ through meditating.
This article will focus on some of the techniques and tools I’ve found which make meditation more enjoyable for me and bring about the greatest result. It’s worth mentioning now that while I might refer to achieving something through meditation or doing it for some reason and getting results, when you break it down, meditation is the point of meditation. Nothing is really achieved, in the same way that after dancing a dance, nothing is objectively achieved so to speak. There is an afterwards – which might be qualitatively different from before the meditation – but there’s no goal to hit, no take-away. You meditate, at the end of the day, to meditate.
Despite this, there are some useful ways that meditative practice can be applied to your life – including visualisation, drumming, inner contemplation, and so on – to improve your focus, reflection, and personal growth. The three tools I’m going to focus on for the rest of the article are drumming, singing bowls, and mala (or prayer) beads.
I started using drums as an aide to my meditative practice within the last year or so. It began quite accidentally, after I decided to try busking with a djembe (instead of a guitar, like I otherwise would) and I soon found the experience to be quite powerful. There was something about the way that the movement would become so much a part of the moment and even elaborate drumming patterns would become automatic quickly, giving a real sense of being outside yourself watching – or feeling – this going on.
The beat also provided a nice steady rhythm to breathe along to. Drums have been used for thousands of years in rituals and to induce trance states, so while it isn’t meditation per se, it fits the bill to a degree and I include it under my meditative practice umbrella. Djembes aren’t traditionally used as far as I know for meditation, but any type of drum could be effective. Choose what resonates with you, if you go down this route – quite literally, in a sense, since the actual sound of the drum might change your experience.
A djembe provides a range of tones, and has a deep bass which is perfect for slow, simple rhythms. The range of low and high tones also provides the possibility of more ecstatic and complicated beats, which depending on the mood can be very useful in getting in to your zone, or experimenting with holotropic breathwork. Using a drum is particularly handy if you find yourself getting restless or twitchy while trying to meditate, as it provides you with a range of haptic stimulation – holding the drum and striking it – as well as the auditory feedback. Drumming adds a very grounding, earth-force to your meditation and can help keep you in the zone and your senses engaged.
It was after I started experimenting with the djembe that I looked in to other ways to incorporate sound in to my meditative practice. It was in a shop in Glasgow (where I would go busking) that I first saw a singing bowl, and after trying it out I could immediately feel the effect of it.
There’s a knack to getting the bowl to sound, but once you have the mechanics down it only takes a little practice to begin using the bowl as part of your meditation. Just like with the drum, the singing bowl provides more food for your senses and is great if you usually find yourself drifting off or getting agitated trying to meditate. The sound and feeling of the vibration is an experience in itself, and allows you to become completely absorbed in it.
The tone is produced from the bowl by circling the outer perimeter with a wooden mallet, causing the metal to vibrate, which our ears funnel towards our brain, converting it in to this pure awareness of sound. There are plenty online resources for learning how exactly to use the bowl, and you can read in to the various proclaimed health benefits of using them, as well as their history and origins. I feel a higher resonance with the bowl than the drum, in a literal sense (the pitch is higher) but as well in a bodily sense – I feel the sound more in my head than with the drum, which feels as if it resonates lower in the body.
The final tool I use to help keep me focused while meditating are mala (or prayer) beads. These consist of a string of beads – generally 108 beads and a guru bead – which are counted while you meditate. As you run the beads one at a time through your hand you can recite your mantra, or use each bead to count a breath. I find this is useful to keep your thoughts slow and intentional, not that they are so much thoughts as they are just doing.
It is easy for your thoughts to distract you during meditation, and something like this can help keep you on track and prevent you ‘following the scent’ of the thought (as Eckhart Tolle puts it in his discussion of thinking addiction). The mala beads are handy as well in that they can be worn, and so taken with you wherever you are. I often use them on the bus, or passively while sitting doing other things. Even if I’m not actively meditating, I find just having one hand casually holding them as they hang round my neck, and focusing for a few moments on my breath, can be very grounding and re-establish my focus on what I’m supposed to be doing.
The way you breathe, and the awareness of your breath, during meditation is quite vital. Initially what I find works best is to get to grips with simply witnessing your breath: don’t try to force or control it (although this takes some adjusting to, since as soon as you’re aware of it that feeling of control just sort of kicks in – in fact you’re probably quite conscious of your breathing just with me talking about it).
Alan Watts makes some interesting observations on our perceptions of our breathing, and other bodily functions, in his talk ‘Do You Do It, Or Does It Do You‘. When we aren’t aware of our breathing, when it is being controlled by the unconscious, we see it as simply happening to us, yet when we become conscious it is something we do. It’s a funny distinction, when you take the time to think about it.
A useful breathing pattern I came across years back, in a book by the Barefoot Doctor, is the Taoist 4-stage ‘flying on land’ technique which he describes in this article. I practice this technique throughout the day, whatever I’m doing, whenever I happen to become conscious of my breath. It helps as well to use your diaphragm while you breathe: allowing your bellow to come out, and your diaphragm to lower, as you breathe in (allowing maximum expansion), and reversing it as you breathe out. This engages your whole body and allows for maximum air flow, and keeps your posture good too.
These 3 tools, and tips on breath-work, will hopefully allow those of you who find it difficult to focus while meditating to gain some more grounding and get more out of your practice. Even if you already get by fine without them, you may gain some other advantages by incorporating these techniques – so it might still be worth experimenting!
I’d highly recommend trying some of these out, but if you don’t want to spend money on a drum or singing bowl, you can improvise and have a go at making your own. Youtube is full of great tutorials, and you can use simple objects like water bottles and pans for makeshift drums. Be creative, and see what you can find that creates a sound which resonates with you. Any sort of beads or counter can be used in place of mala beads, or even using some simple object like a poker chip or pebble which you turn over in your hand for each count might do the job.
A simple substitute for a singing bowl might even be to fill a brandy glass with a little water and run a wet finger round the edge to make it ‘sing’ – it will at least give you the impression of what it’s like to meditate with sound, and you might later want to go get your own drum or bowl. There are also all sorts of audio tracks you can meditate along to, however with these you lose the tactile sense of interacting with the drum or bowl, which for me is a big part of it – and I feel there’s something different about digital sound compared to those coming directly from an object.
Most of all, have fun with your meditative practice, and don’t worry about taking it all to seriously – it isn’t a lifestyle. Remember, meditation is like a raft you use to cross a river: you don’t carry it with you on the other side. These tools may bring you closer to being able to meditate without them; or you may choose to keep up the drumming, there’s no right or wrong way to go. Both can be just as effective in reaching an altered state of consciousness.
I hope this will be of use to you if you’re like me and find plain old meditation a little dull or difficult sometimes, and that you might go try out some of the tips I’ve shared. I’d love to hear your own stories too – you can share your thoughts in the comments below, or join the tribe and strike up a conversation in the Facebook group!