The prospect of learning how to meditate probably has a lot of you shaking in your Nikes. Assuming you wear Nikes. I know there’s a stigma there. Sweatshops and all. Let me start again…
…learning how to meditate probably has a lot of you shaking in your Toms. BOOM! See that? For those of you who aren’t in the know, Tom is some Hippie that gives a free pair of kicks to a child in need every time you shoe-up. He’s a good chap. It’s a good cause. Check the site out when you have a sec.
Back to learning how to meditate. I understand, the idea of being alone with ourselves for any period of time can be terrifying. But that’s only because we don’t truly know ourselves. At first, learning how to meditate will be like walking around in a strange house. It’s the middle of the night. The lights are off. The wind is blowing something fierce and shit is creaking up a storm. But as always, if you spend a few days in that house, learn where all the furniture is set, get used to said creaking… Well, then it just ain’t so scary anymore.
Generally, our minds are like snow globes that some petulant little brat has shaken senseless. Thoughts whizzing around like those tiny white plastic flakes. Gotta go here. Gotta go there. Gotta do this. Gotta do that. When we sit down to meditate we are essentially setting that snow globe down on a nice level table. As we move deeper and deeper into the process of meditation, those white plastic flakes slowly but surely settle to the bottom and we are ultimately left with a calm, clear mind.
It’s astounding what will leap out at you when your mind is emptied of all that detritus. Deep insight. A solution to a problem. Things you’ve been avoiding for ages. One time, no lie, I suddenly remembered where I had misplaced my keys.
Though it can and does happen, meditation isn’t all earth shattering epiphany though, folks. That sort of deep insight takes hard work and time. Be careful with your expectations here. The world will not move in the blink of an eye. Think of learning how to meditate in terms of any other meaningful lifestyle change. Take dieting & exercise for example. You don’t get skinny overnight. But if you consistently work out and eat right, you see a difference after a week, a BIG difference after a month, and a TREMENDOUS difference after a year.
If you want to be more calm, less reactive, content with the way things are, learning how to meditate is the way, people. I’ll talk about the ins and outs of meditation, the whys, whens and wheres at length on this site, but this article will get you started. A note though. Even after reading this, you may not want to dive into the deep end of heavy practice. Be sure to check out my article on building up your meditation tolerance first.
HOW TO MEDITATE
1. Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit.
Now, I happen to like some hurdles when I’m meditating. There’s value in facing difficulty in any endeavor, it’s the only way you get stronger. But when you’re learning how to meditate, while you’re still getting the basics down, it’s best to minimize potential distractions. Go some place where you won’t be disturbed. I like to warn my wife that I’m going to be meditating for X amount of time (she has a tendency to barge in otherwise) and then I lock myself in the the back bedroom. If my wife is out and about, I put a sign on the door, in case she comes home amid my sit. Put the dog away. Turn the phone off. And so on and so on. Create an environment where you can succeed. Oh, make sure you’re going to be alright temperature-wise too. I too often forget my sweatshirt. There are hurdles and then there is shivering, you know…
2. Get into that Meditative state of mind
If we just dive right into meditation without properly preparing ourselves, it can get dicey. Imagine jumping in the shower without taking your clothes off first. If we hit the cushion without the proper mindset, our meditation may not be as fruitful. Generally, when I don’t adequately prepare myself, my mind just drifts and races. It can be quite enjoyable just to let the mind daydream and wander for a half hour. It’s fun, but it’s not meditation. Remind yourself that you are sitting down to work. You are sitting down to train your mind. This will be very helpful.
It also doesn’t hurt to do some basic movement exercises before meditating. For those of you who tend to get sleepy while sitting, it can really energize your practice. I like to do a few minutes of basic Yoga and really get the blood flowing.
3. Sit in a way/find a posture you can sustain for 30 minutes…
…or however long you intend to sit. Depending on where you’re meditating (A temple? A zendo? At home?), folks can be really particular about this. But the truth is, chair, cushion, bench, whatever… You’re still sitting. Patricularly when you’re just learning how to meditate. The traditional pose is the full lotus. You’re sitting cross legged with each foot on top of the opposite thigh (right). But this can be very difficult for many of us inflexible-types to squeeze into.
For those of us who aren’t Gumby, there’s the half-lotus. A simplified version of the monster on the right, where basically you’re putting one foot on top of the opposite thigh and the other goes under the opposite thigh.
If this still ain’t your bag, any cross-legged position will do. Try “Indian-style.” It’ll remind you of kindergarden. Cookies and kool aid and all that.
Ideally, though you’d like to get those knees down on the ground and form a nice stable tripod, butt and knees on the floor. Using a cushion (zafu/zabuton) can help. It’ll elevate that tookus and make it easier to get those knees down. If you don’t have a proper cushion, any pillow will do. When I’m away from home, I tend to take a bed pillow and fold it in half.
Meditating in chair is fine too. Though some purists will turn their nose up at you (tell them to eat a bag of something awful). Keep your feet flat and firmly on the floor. While I wouldn’t kick you out of bed for doing it, I try not to use the chair back. Maintaining that upright posture on your own is important. But if you find yourself in agony, go ahead and use the chair back.
Tuck in your lower back, sit up tall and proud. Make sure your spine is upright, without being stiff. Remember, you want your body to be nice and relaxed for the most part. It always helps me to picture a string attached to my spine, gently pulling it straight up.
Rest your hands in your lap or on your legs and prepare to dance.
4. Your peepers: To close or not to close
It’s your choice. While sitting with my Theravadan brothers and sisters, we face our teacher with our eyes closed. However, in Soto Zen, we leave our eyes open and stare at the wall (trippy, I know). Either works. Experiment while learning how to meditate and see what’s best for you. One note though, if you do tend to get drowsy during meditation, sitting with your eyes open may help alleviate that.
5. Easing in
Bring your full attention to the physical sensations of sitting still. Release any tension in the body, slowly but surely, from your new knocker down to your little piggies. Allow the breath to flow naturally, don’t force it, don’t try to control it. I find it’s best to declare an intention right here and now. “I am going to be fully present for the next X minutes.” Settle firmly into the present moment. Right here. Right now.
6. Follow the breath
In the beginning, your breath will be your anchor to the present moment. In. Out. In. Out. It’s life happening. Concentrate on the breath fully. As you are breathing in, know that you are breathing in. As you are breathing out, know that you are breathing out. Be the breath. It can help to label these as they come. As you breath in, simply think: “In.” As you breath out, simply think: “Out.”
Focus in on a specific point where the sensation of breathing is prominent. The rising and falling of the abdomen works well. I personally, am a nose man. As you breath in and out mindfully you’ll notice a pleasant, cool sensation near the tip of your nose or on that tiny soft patch of skin between your nose and upper lip.
Counting the breath is another way to keep you engaged. When first starting out, count each inhalation or exhalation. In is 1. Out is 2. In is 3. Out is 4. And so on. Count all the way up to ten. When you reach 10, start over again. If your mind wanders (and it will), if you get caught up in a story in your head, don’t fret. Just gently return your attention to the breath and start over again back at 1.
It’s easy to beat yourself up about losing focus, but don’t. Remember we are training our minds here. If you could effortlessly stay focused, you wouldn’t need to meditate. The whole purpose of this exercise is to train the mind to catch itself and return to the present moment. This is the heart of meditation, the whole reason you’re sitting there staring at that wall. When you do something enough on the cushion, it becomes a habit in life.
As the days go by and your concentration improves, start counting each FULL breath. In/out is 1. In/out is 2. Etc. Once you find yourself frequently getting all the way to 10 without much trouble, you are ready to move on.
I say “move on” because the exercise outlined above, counting the breath, is technically not Mindfulness mediation. Really what you are doing here is cultivating concentration. Luckily for you, concentration is the foundation of mindfulness.
7. Move fully into the body
Once the foundation of present time awareness established, carefully begin to open your mind to the whole shebang. Start with your body. Scan yourself from head to toe, slowly but surely. Investigate it entirely. Spend time with your feet, your ankles, your calves and so on. Where is your attention pulled? What hurts? Investigate that pain. Do you find that it moves or fades away once you focus on it?
Fight the urge to scratch that itch, or shift when there’s a pain in your leg. Just try and sit with it, experience it, be okay with it. No, I’m not a sadist. We’re trying to develop some equanimity here, trying to be okay with what arises, be it pleasant, or unpleasant. Look, there is pain in life. You can’t and won’t change that. You can, however, change your relationship to that pain. Whether it causes you emotional or psychological suffering. And it all starts here.
8. Open up the sense doors
Sight. Sound. Taste. Smell. Touch. Open them up one by one. In each case, try your damnedest just to focus on the bare direct experience, the raw data. The mind will continuously try to classify these experiences. That sound is a car passing by. That smell is my dog doing something ungodly. Try your best not to get caught up in that. Notice how the mind has this constant need to name, classify and rank things. Because of this, in our daily lives, we’re rarely experiencing things as they are. Instead we’re always seeing some skewed bastardization of reality the mind has cooked up. You see we all have this faulty operating system installed in our heads, through meditation, over time, we can reprogram ourselves.
If you find yourself wrestling with the mind’s labels, it can help to give the experiences labels of your own. When that car drives by outside your window, instead of letting the mind run wild (“Sounds like that old Vette Stu just bought. Nice car. I’d like to get a–”), simply label the phenomena “hearing” and move on.
As always, if you find your mind wandering, if you’re caught up in a story, gently bring your attention back to your breath and then resettle into the full experience of the present moment.
This little bit from a teacher has always helped me understand this stage of meditation:
Imagine you’re sitting in a room. There’s a comfortable lazy boy recliner in the center and it’s your job is to sit in it. The room has five windows, one for each sense. Now, some pretty interesting things will be dancing outside those windows, but don’t walk over to them, don’t climb out them. Just take a look from your chair and say “hearing” or “tasting” or whatever.
If you find yourself drawn to a window, staring out, caught up in what going on next door, don’t beat yourself up. Just walk back to the lazy boy and sit down.
9. Opening up to thought
Now, that room also has a door. And on the other side of that door is a river called thought. It’s very easy to get drawn outside and swept down that river. Sometimes, it’s worse. The booze cruise boat is passing by and your dumb ass buys a ticket. Ten, fifteen minutes passes by. You’re knocking them back, having the time of your life and then it sets in… I’m on the booze cruise again. Your job, as always is to get off that boat and back in that recliner.
You’re not going to put a stop to thought. Surrender to that right now. After years and years of practice it will still come. There will be longer periods of intense focus, but it will still come. With time, you can learn to watch your thoughts from a distance. Thought simply becomes a sixth sense door. We spend a lot of time beating ourselves up about what runs through our heads, but the fact is we have no control over it. Our mind has a mind of it’s own. Meditation will teach you that. Deep in meditation, we can dissect thought see how and why it comes together. But this is an advanced practice. A topic for another time. For now, when you’re still learning how to meditate, when thought sets in, break out your label gun… Say to yourself “thinking” and get the hell back in your chair.
I’ll delve further into this stuff in future posts. I’ll go deep, probably dig my way to China in the process. But this is a good solid overview. Deep enough to bury a body in. Let me know if you have questions or concerns.
JUST A NOTE: If you’re looking for a good, highly customizable way to time your meditation sessions, I highly recommend the Insight Meditation Timer App at the iTunes store. I use it every day and it’s wonderful.
And if you like that, spotlight six also produced a Mindfulness Bell App that is also outstanding.
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