by Marcus Antebi
Article at a Glance:
Candle Meditation by Marcus Antebi
No book on meditation would be complete if it didn’t help people (particularly those of a modern mindset) understand the point of meditation. In a nutshell, the point of meditation is to gain the ability to concentrate and focus your mind. Of course there’s a great deal more to it, as will be explained in the body of this book, but that in essence is the “mission statement.”
When we learn to focus our minds, we will be able to deal with all the thoughts that take control and overwhelm us. We will be able to scan the body for the variety of its feelings and sensations and react accordingly when necessary. When we concentrate and focus, we can engage our consciousness in the self-healing process. When we concentrate and focus, it also becomes easier to realize the deeper and deeper truths about the nature of this reality that we live in.
This isn’t superstition. This isn’t religious or spiritual. It is philosophical in nature, and it’s linked to physics in ways that are nearly impossible to explain. And you have nothing to lose by contemplating these concepts.
One might ask, “What is the point of being so deep and philosophical? Isn’t it better to just be here in the present and take action?” My answer to that is that taking action and sitting in stillness and contemplation have to be kept in balance. We don’t want to overthink, and we don’t want to act without thinking enough. It goes without saying that one of the blessings of being human is the ability to think deeply about things. The ability to contemplate is a beautiful thing.
One of the problems with our ability to contemplate, though, is that we can make up fantasies and subsequently believe them. We can believe in the fantasies so much that we can blind ourselves to ways of thinking that are beautiful and more empowering. One of the greatest ways to move out into the world and act is from a place of compassion. We hear this over and over again from all the great monks and sages.
It may sound a little cliché and perhaps hard to believe that we can actually be in a place of compassion. One of the reasons why we have a difficulty with this notion may be that we don’t really understand the definition of compassion. Compassion may seem like weakness to some.
Maybe experiencing and practicing love is painful. Maybe practicing compassion is akin to an exercise engaging a set of muscles that have grown weak and that need to be retrained. But you have nothing to lose by practicing compassion as much as you can throughout the day. You don’t have to practice compassion on any one particular object such as a human being. There are other actions you can take in the beginning.
For example, you can look in your environment for any particular thing that you consider to be imperfect. Then, just say to yourself, “I have compassion for the imperfection in that thing.” Really empathize with the object’s inability to be perfect in the moment that you perceive it.
I’d like to give a few examples of how I went about this. I found myself walking in the forest and I was looking at how mostly every single tree was crooked and growing sideways. Every tree had some type of imperfection, or what I would call a blemish. Then I noticed that there were trees that had fallen and were uprooted naturally. I thought to myself, “Why didn’t this species of trees learn how to ground itself better?”
At that point I realized that I was “picking on nature.” I was doing so the same way I pick on myself, the way someone must have really picked on me, or the way that members of society pick on each other. Maybe I was doing so because I couldn’t find my happiness and my center. At this stage of my life I have nobody but myself blame for my judgments, my choices of words, or my thoughts.
Then I said to myself, “Why don’t I just have compassion for everything on this planet that’s really trying to make it? What if I looked around me and I just said, ‘Things are born, they reach their moment of perfection, and then they begin to die?’ They can’t remain perfect forever.”
And all at once I became enlightened, but later on I got hungry and I went back to sleep.
Now I’ll describe a very simple concentration and focus exercise. Sit as comfortably as you can: Not so comfortably that you get lazy, slouch, and find yourself falling asleep, but not so uncomfortably that you’re distracted by pain. Get a nice decorative but not distracting candle with no scent. Light the candle and put it in front of you. Concentrate on the flame for two minutes.
In the first drill, just pay attention to where your mind drifts. Does your mind not drift at all? Or are you all over the place? Does this exercise seem ridiculous, or can you see a point to it? Surrender all thoughts now and just concentrate on the candle.
The second exercise with the candle is to bring it two feet closer to you. Now concentrate on the flame. Look at the candle once again, but then just stare at the flame and try to blot out the candle in the background. Don’t let your mind drift to the beauty of the flame or the heat of the fire. Don’t think about anything except the movement, the color, and the shape, and perhaps whether or not there is smoke coming off the flame.
In the third drill, bring the candle about one foot (or 18 inches maximum) away from your eyes. Make sure that your neck is straight and your body is still comfortable. Focus once again on the candle. Blur everything out except the candle. After you’re done with the third drill (not while you’re in the process of doing it), ask yourself where your mind drifted.
If you practice this for at least two or three months, you will really wake up your mind. You will really learn how to concentrate and focus. You will learn how to observe how random and ridiculous the thought process is at times, but you will learn how to overcome that undesirable situation.
The random thought process that we all struggle with is absurd. A thought arises from nowhere. And then another one arises, and another one arises after that. Some of them close each other out, in a sense competing with each other. Some are seemingly unlinked. And during the meditation exercise, the trick is to stop all of that distracting mental activity and concentrate on the candle.
I recommend that you keep a journal and write about the things that distract you. And also write about the things that open your mind. Practice this with the belief that there’s a point to it. At the very least, you’ll learn to concentrate and focus. And then, in other situations, you’ll be able to apply this concentration in ways that will be of great benefit to you. You’ll be able to concentrate and focus better when you’re taking an examination at school, when you’re doing surgery on your patient, when you’re washing the dishes, and when you’re doing almost anything. This will be the case if you have the mental strength to focus on the present moment; you’ll be much better at doing whatever it is that you do.
There may be a few exceptions regarding situations in which this will work well and people for whom the process will work as intended. Some people are quite nervous and anxious about things that they are doing. Their nervous tendency might make them so hyper-focused on something that they freeze or become inefficient or ineffective as they do it. In such cases, thinking about something other than the task at hand might relieve them of their nervousness and improve their situation in a given moment.
A classic example of that involves a man walking alone in the woods at night. He needs to get all the way to the end of a very long footpath. He’s so frightened by all the creatures and sounds that he’s almost frozen on the path. But then he says to himself, “If I just whistle, I’ll distract myself from my fear. I’ll be able to walk and move forward.” In this case the whistling becomes a meditation. The whistling is a distraction from the anxiety and the fear of the present moment.
If I ever experienced this, I’d realize that at some point I would have to be able to walk that path being relaxed and feeling safe and protected. But thank God that I had the ingenuity and the courage to walk alone anyway and use whistling to help me do it effectively.
Again, benefits come from the practices of concentration and focus: This is what the definition of meditation actually is. I don’t know why the western world put Halloween masks on the concept of meditation and made it into something really kooky or creepy.
The footpath analogy serves not only as a meditation practice example but also as a metaphor to illustrate something that I’ve observed over a long period of time. I think of people going through life as in the same situation of the nervous man treading the footpath. In the process of living, people concentrate too much on their whistling and not enough on their walking. Meditation for most people should be a means to an end rather than an end in itself.