Beauty / Wellbeing

The still point of the turning world: a sceptic’s guide to meditation

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called ‘life’.

If you’re ever kneeling in front of an altar, incense burning, the items you were told to bring laid out in front of you – three sweet fruits (plums and bananas, yes, lemons, no), five flowers and the single white handkerchief you searched Kmart high and low for – and find yourself suddenly unable to supress a laugh, well ... same. The absurdity of life knows no bounds. The ceremony that commences a Vedic meditation course can be confronting for the uninitiated. 

Maybe there was a driving factor that pushed you here. Maybe it was simply an overwhelming feeling that this can’t be it, this can’t be my normal. Maybe it was witnessing someone operate with a high-speed ease and you wanted just a taste. 

The world is spinning, moving and changing, sometimes it feels like right from under your feet, but the further you go on the more you realise there is only one factor you have control over: the self. The mass of tense muscles, a thousand-thoughts-per-minute brain and all the muddled emotions, thoughts and feelings that come with it. It’s easy to find the excuses elsewhere, the problem in someone else. Much harder to look inside and face what’s there. 

Life, it happens to all of us. We all get our turn. The thing you thought you were above, the place you never thought you’d find yourself or the circumstance that would never happen to you slips its way into your day-to-day and you’re left to face the sweet sting of reality. All you can hope for when you find yourself there – because you will – is that you’ll know yourself well enough and be equipped with the necessary tools.

"It’s easy to dismiss meditation as an eyeroll-worthy trend driven by our Instagram-age fascination with ‘wellness’."

For the cynics among us, there is nothing more off-putting than a curated Instagram account touting the singular magic of the thing that will change your life. Wellness has become a competition, an achievement. Sitting neatly alongside your dietary requirements and how well-dressed your children are.

Such associations might be enough to render the would-be meditator self-conscious and those who do reluctant to share their experience. But meditation teacher and founder of the Bondi Meditation Centre Matt Ringrose offers simple advice.

“Just be it,” he says. “The big problem in spiritual communities is that there’s lots of talking about the experience rather than just embodying it. Talking about it is ploying, people don’t really like that. But ‘being’ it is beautiful to be around if it’s really authentic.

“The ego’s the thing that doesn’t want you to grow, doesn’t want you to progress,” he tells. “It wants you to stay in [an uncomfortable] little safe place doing the same thing over and over again. And it can maybe get away with that if it wasn’t so unbearable,” he expands.

Ringrose’s own journey to meditation began 11 years ago now, with “a kind of boredom, a void,” he explains. “I came across it in a book, Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch ... He’s talking about his creative process but he keeps mentioning this technique and I was like ‘wow, that’s what I want’. I was immediately attracted to it.”

Perhaps we lost sight of a lot of life’s wisdom when it became slogans plastered on canvases, hung on lounge room walls; Live in the moment! Seize the day! But to explain in it the most uncomplicated and profound of ways: philosopher Alan Watts describes meditation as “the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment”.

The Vedic mediation practice, in particular, seems straightforward enough. Find somewhere quiet, sit down, repeat your mantra. But as we become increasingly task-orientated, goal-driven and run our lives from a variety of lists, calendars and schedules, these unadorned concepts can be the hardest to grasp.

Sitting with yourself – no distractions, just sitting – it’s hardly a familiar feeling. We so rarely have reason to be still or quiet or bored. In a world where constant distractions are at our very fingertips, there is a continual feed, the latest podcast and next episode to help with that. And yet, these things don’t satisfy in the ways that we need.

For these reasons a teacher is essential to the learning process – and more importantly, a guide to the things we must unlearn.

It is a technique that is deceptively simple. Sitting, surrendering and repeating your mantra often sounds more like thinking about work, coming back to your mantra, the thing you said two drinks in to the girl you knew but couldn’t quite place, back to your mantra, your family drama, repeat mantra, what you’ll eat for dinner, mantra, your relationship problems, mantra – again.

But as Ringrose repeats, over and again for the benefit of those of us who have trouble accepting it: this is meditation. “As soon as you’ve sat down with the intention to meditate you’ve won. It’s going to work. So, just let it go. You’ve just got to remember that your intellect, which is trying to find an issue with what you’re doing, is just wrong. What you’re surrendering and handing over to is nature’s creative intelligence, which does everything for everything around us, including the fact that we’re alive. You’re handing over to that to take care of the details. And so, whether we feel like it is right is irrelevant.”

But how can doing so little be achieving so much? It’s not uncommon for people to dismiss the benefits of meditation as the same as those that can be achieved with a run, a healthy diet or a good chat. But while these certainly are good, it’s rare that one thing holds the key to all our troubles. According to Ringrose, the benefits of meditating are accessed on a level of consciousness not reached in our usual 24-hour cycle. As he puts it, “the world lives on three states: waking state, sleeping state and dreaming state.” But it is the fourth state; known as turiya – a Sanskrit word translating to ‘pure consciousness’ – that allows us to release stress on a level not otherwise achievable. 

It’s no secret that we can hold anger in our jaw, trauma in our guts and sadness in our backs. And among meditation’s first functions is its capacity to release the tension in our bodies. To scrub the deep layers of stress we didn’t even know were there, sitting in our muscles and trapped in our organs. 

“The body [goes] into a very deep state of rest, and that state of rest is twice as deep as the deepest part of any sleep you’ve ever had,” explains Ringrose. “What happens is the body calms down, the brain starts to calm down and goes into a coherent, restful state. The mind is experiencing a settling and you can have experiences of great cognition, clarity, new ideas or connections between previous, existing ideas. 

“In that deep state of rest what happens is, the immune system kicks in and it looks around and thinks, ‘what’s all this crap?’ – referring to the stress – and like with anything that’s not helping matters your immune system starts to release it as energy,” tells Ringrose. 

The single greatest benefit to meditating is that it is so very practical. Whether you manage money or style clothes, sell cars or raise children – it’s the universality of the benefits that make it so attractive. “When something happens, you stop making it wrong. Rather, it just happens,” says Ringrose. “It makes sense if you look at the bigger picture so you stop resisting things and when you stop resisting things you stop suffering. Also, you stop trying to control everything, which is exhausting and doesn’t work.”

Thoughts can throw you and feelings can be deceptive. But if we are not our thoughts and we are not our feelings what else is there? “When you meditate, incrementally, you start to realise those things are part of the set-up, sure, but they’re not the truest, deepest sense. Those are things that come and go.

“This starts to be more the centre of your identity rather than the thoughts that previously defined you,” says Ringrose. “It’s an uncoupling. And so those things come and they go but you’re not so overwhelmed by them and you’re not so bound into speed or action by them.”

According to Ringrose, one’s experience of this sense of peace will be determined by the extent to which they can unclog what he calls the ‘stress filter’ through regular practice.

“It’s like anything – it’s just an idea or concept until you experience it. And when you’re experiencing it regularly, it starts to infuse you and you’re like, I am that. You get a sense of knowingness that the quiet, still thing is you.”

"You can’t escape yourself. Cynicism is easy, but living with your stress and anxiety is not."

Self-awareness will save us but realisation is only the first step. Sooner or later you will have to find a practical way to deal with the thing. Whatever that thing looks like for you. Your past, your future, your traumas and your fears. You may as well start now. There is no one more interesting to get to know than yourself.

At first you may not experience a fundamental change in self – it’s common to get frustrated at the trivial things and swept up in emotions from time to time. Although things will shift in ways you didn’t expect. It’s the cumulative total of dedication and practise that result in one beginning to operate from a centre of stillness, separated from ego and emotions.

Ultimately, we all find a way forward that fits our personality, suits our circumstance and sits comfortably with the way in which we view the world. You have to meet people on their individual level of awareness. As Ringrose knowingly explains, “meditation is individual, it’s personal.” However, he has one guarantee for the curious, no matter where they’re starting from: “that you’re going to evolve more quickly. What that involves for you could be anything.”