Meditation is an almost infinitely complex practice but the basics are quite simple and benefits come quickly. Below are instructions to help you understand why it is important and how to start.
Why Meditation? Meditation is essentially the practice of gaining control over the mind. Given that stress is, at its core, a reaction by the mind to the events of everyday life, this control is an effective, proven way to reduce the impact of stress in your life. Especially to the extent that stressful reactions are due to the mind “running away” with worries that may or may not be realistic, learning to quiet the mind is so important that we include it as one of our core challenges in the Motivation Alliance.
What is Meditation? Meditation is not resting or simply relaxing. It is an active but calm state of clear focus. People have used meditation for thousands of years not only for spiritual purposes but for simply promoting a clearer, calmer and less stressful existence.
You can practice with either a sitting meditation or a walking meditation.
Sitting Meditation. In a sitting meditation, find a spot where you can remain undisturbed for at least 5 to 10 minutes. You should be alone and have no electronics or other distractions at hand. Typically, you will be seated on a firm pad on the floor. Because it is important that your spine remain straight (but not tense), a cushion or pillow that is thicker at the rear and thinner toward the front is ideal. If sitting on the floor is not appropriate, find a chair that encourages an upright posture.
- If on the floor, cross your legs so that the bottom of the right foot just touches the bottom of the left thigh. The left foot is then brought in against the right thigh.
- If you are able, place the left foot on top of the right calf. This will pitch you slightly forward and make the rest of the lower body position easier to achieve.
- On the floor or in a chair: place your hands in your lap, just below your navel with the left hand resting gently in the right. The thumbs are allowed to naturally rise above the palms and the elbows should be loose and open.
- Alternatively, you may try keeping the arms loosely at the sides with the hands resting on the thighs, palms up, with the thumb and index finger lightly touching.
- The spine is kept straight and, ideally, slightly forward (again, a pad can help).
- Do not tense the back but find the place where the vertebra naturally “stack” to keep you erect.
- The head is tilted slightly forward and the neck is tucked in and back. You will know you have the right angle when the tongue naturally contacts the back of the top teeth without effort.
- The eyes are cast down and slightly forward. They should be partially, not completely, closed and focus should be allowed to go soft.
- Be aware of tension in the shoulders; release it as you start and find the place where the shoulders naturally “hang” but the head is naturally raised (like someone is pulling very gently on a string at the very crown of the skull).
With just a bit of practice, you will go from needing instructions to finding this to be a natural, comfortable and familiar position. If your practice lasts longer than 5 or 10 minutes, you may find that the legs begin tingling, go to sleep or otherwise become uncomfortable. Do not let this bother you: you haven’t “failed” at meditation if you cannot hold this position! Just let the legs find a more comfortable spot and continue. However, always begin your meditation in the recommended position and, over time, you will be able to hold it for longer and longer periods of time.
Walking Meditation In a walking meditation, you can go almost anywhere that is relatively calm. Trails in nature are best but any path that does not have insistant distractions (e.g. many people, loud or garish marketing messages) will do. As with seated meditation, electronic distractions should be eliminated. Walking is ideal for “mindfulness” meditation where we deepen our awareness of our body, its motion in space, and our place in the world as well as the object of our meditation (e.g. breathing).
Focus and the Object of Meditation Meditation has two phases: a calming of the mind to prepare for deeper reflection and the reflection itself. For our purposes, you are successful if you finish at least five minutes of the calming of the mind. We encourage you to learn a style or technique for reflective meditation but will not cover it here.
The first thing to realize is that calming the mind is not easy. Do not judge success by whether you have achieved a complete cessation of thought and purity of focus: you are likely to fail often, especially when starting meditation practice. Just as you wouldn’t expect to ski or ride a bike the first time you tried, you will not gain and maintain quietude of the mind when first starting meditation. That is perfectly okay since most of the benefits of meditation come simply from the basic practice of sitting or walking quietly and attempting to focus on your breath.
Watching the Breath to Calm the Mind Meditation is not a matter of “clearing” the mind by force of will. Attempting to make it so will simply draw focus away from the meditation and on to your “success.” Instead, take a brief moment to experience your thoughts and then turn your attention to your breathing. Watch the inhalation and let it deepen, naturally. Watch the exhalation and sense how it releases your body. Do not force deeper inhalation but permit it to occur. When you are stressed, your breath grows
shallower and more rapid. In releasing just normal, everyday stress, your breath will naturally deepen
If it helps, visualize the inhalation phase as gathering a peaceful white light, a universal energy or the wisdom of the ages. Visualize the exhalation as releasing tension or clearing negative thoughts or feelings – much as smoke from a candle disappears into thin air. These visualizations should remain extremely simple and uncluttered: you should not try to “see” or “feel” them in any detail or you risk spiraling into thoughts about the imagery or even self-doubt about whether you are visualizing “correctly.” Just gather breath in and release it out.
The power of breathing meditation is that, by remaining focused on the simple inspiration/expiration cycle, other thoughts are left no room. They will, of course, intrude and distract but, when they do, you have a simple tool to take control again: simply return to consciously following your breath. Soon, they lose the power to control and your body is released from the cycle whereby the mind piles thought onto thought in a spiral of anxiety.
Falling Asleep As noted above, meditation is an active but calm state of clear focus. Because of the release inherent in meditation, however, you may well grow sleepy – especially if you are in a high state of stress to begin with or if you are meditating right before bed-time. If you would like your meditation to last longer or are looking to push your practice deeper, you should consider moving your practice to a time of day where you have more energy. If you simply wish to unwind and relax, however, you might find that this is acceptable. In this case, do not attempt to meditate past the point where fatigue takes over as this will interfere with your future practice! Instead, end your meditation and move on to the rest of your day or up to bed.
Learning More There are vast resources available for anyone that wants to learn more about meditation. The American Meditation Institute offers a comprehensive resource with plentiful links and an area for health professionals. How-to-Meditate.org offers many practical instructions in a more traditionally Buddhist framework. The web site of the World Community for Christian Meditation offers instruction and links within a Christian framework. Meditation in the Jewish tradition is covered at the web site of the Awakened Heart Project for Contemplative Judaism. Meditation in the Islamic Tradition is discussed at the IslamicSunrays.com web site.