I’m always amazed that writers can drag out entire books on meditation. It isn’t rocket science. Contrary to the air of mystery which surrounds it, meditation is simple and straightforward but like any discipline it can take time and practice to become comfortable with it. After more than ten years of meditating and as a qualified meditation teacher, this is my guide in less than ten minutes.
I would not recommend my particular introduction to meditation. I visited a Buddhist monastery and sat in a dark room with a group of strangers, without instruction, in silence for an hour. It was uncomfortable, disheartening and the person next to me breathed loudly and farted. I’m glad though it didn’t put me off.
Simply put, meditation is focused attention on an object. That’s it.
Meditation is therefore a case of choosing which object to focus your attention on. Different objects bring different results.
The way Buddhist monks taught me was to sit either on the floor or on a straight-backed chair. It doesn’t matter which but the important point is to have a straight back. Slouching leads to dullness and makes falling asleep more likely. If it is comfortable, sitting on the floor is the ideal. This can be either cross legged or if you are more flexible than myself, in the full lotus position we have all seen in pictures. Use cushions, pillows or bolsters to tip your hips forward so that the sides of your knees rest comfortably on the floor. We are all different physically so you’ll have to experiment with a setup which works for you. I sit on a traditional round meditation cushion with a smaller rectangular one on top. I place these on a folded yoga mat for extra comfort. Your sitting posture should be one which helps encourage a sense of both relaxation and alertness. My teacher often recommends to imagine you are a mountain. Sit like Mount Everest. No wind of thought or storm of worry will move you. You can also imagine roots which go deep into the earth.
Sitting comfortably, place one hand on the other, palms facing up with each opposing thumb touching the other. Rest your hands in your lap. The reason for this is that we are electrical beings. When we meditate we draw in energy (prana/chi/kundalini/life force) into the lower regions of our body especially in the groin, stomach and base of spine. You want this energy to build and to move upwards (often referred to as kundalini awakening/rising). By placing our hands in this position, we allow that energy to develop and freely circulate around the ‘closed’ electrical system of our body. Ideally that energy will rise to your heart and to your head.
You can either close your eyes completely, half close them (focusing on the tip of your nose) or you can do as I do which is to keep your eyes completely open but resting your gaze on a fixed point a few feet in front of you. This is purely personal preference. There is no right or wrong way but I find that if I close my eyes I feel disorientated.
Rest the tip of your tongue behind your two front teeth. I’m not exactly sure why. It just helps.
Focus your attention in the area of your belly button. Lengthen your breath so that you are breathing into your abdomen and from there into the top of your chest. Follow your breath with relaxed attention, noticing the sensations as your rib-cage expands and contracts. As you breathe with awareness, the rhythm will naturally slow and lengthen. Each time your mind wonders bring your attention back to your breath. Don’t worry if you find yourself daydreaming. Just realise that you are and bring that attention back to your breath without judgement or worry. Keep focusing on your breath. Eventually the time between thoughts will lengthen. You may go thirty seconds without a thought and perhaps a few minutes. You can eventually let go of the breath as the focus of your attention as your awareness expands and incorporates the rest of your body and the environment around you. If you get to this state of relaxed focus, I recommend turning your attention to the area of your heart and breathing into that space.
I suggest trying to sit for five minutes at a time, twice daily initially. Increase that time as you become more comfortable. Aim for the goal of a twenty-minute meditation session and take it from there. (I don’t recommend the 6 hours a day ‘sesshins’ for several days straight I have endured).
It’s important to find the right time of day for you. We are all different in our preferences for when we feel at our best. Aim for a morning session before breakfast but give yourself enough time to fully wake up. I recommend drinking water and doing some stretches outside beforehand. Green tea is a great aid to meditation as the caffeine helps wake you up whilst the L-theanine aids relaxation. Meditating straight after eating food is difficult as it makes us feel sluggish and tired. Early in the morning is often best. There are fewer distractions and there is less likely to be anyone around. We also don’t have a day’s worth of stress and tiredness weighing us down. Other favourable times are around midday, the early evening around 6pm and before going to bed. In an ashram or monastery, the meditation schedule is typically 6am, 12pm, 6pm and 9pm. The time of day though doesn’t matter. The important part is just doing it.
What I have described so far is ‘Zazen’, the tried and tested, traditional, ancient method of meditation. It is a simple technique but it can be surprisingly difficult as we become lost in our thoughts, worries and bodily sensations. You may find yourself planning your breakfast or obsessing over something someone said to you. Suddenly you may experience strange pains you were not previously aware of. A fly may enter the room and the noise will be unbearable. You may suddenly remember a traumatic memory from your childhood. Our mind will play all kinds of tricks on us. Like a horse which cannot be tamed, it will run away and refuse to bend to your will. When this happens (which it will), don’t worry about it. This is perfectly normal. When it does, here are some other methods to help you and to experiment with.
In the Zen monastery we were taught to count our breaths. Count the inhalations and exhalations or just the in/out breaths separately. Try to get to ten. Every time you become aware your mind has wondered, losing your count, start again from one. When you get to ten, start back at one so that it does not become a competition of how many you can get to. Do this for a few rounds before turning your focus to your breath as the object of your attention.
Another simple method is to label the in and out breath. Label the inhalation “in” and the exhalation “out” in your mind. Pause between each breath and notice the sensation of your lungs as empty or full.
Mantra in Sanskrit translates as ‘mind vehicle’. This is a clue that sound can act as a way of transporting our mind to a different state. Just think of the mind-altering effect of music. Sound can act as an anchor and support for meditation. Many find it easier and more effective than focusing on the breath. A Buddhist monk taught me to say “let go” on the out breath in my mind. Repeat this enough and you will notice your body becoming more relaxed as it releases tensions stored deep within. Another effective mantra is the word calm.
If you want to go full woo-woo, the sky is your limit. You can experiment with Sanskrit mantras. Sanskrit (a fascinating subject) conveys meaning through the sound vibration itself. It is difficult for us to appreciate as our language represents an abstract pointer to an object or concept whereas in Sanskrit, the sound is the frequency of the thing itself. For example, take the mantra Shreem which is associated with the sound frequency of the energy of the moon. If it were to be translated, the letters Sha signifies the Goddess Lakshmi, Ra is symbolic of wealth, Ee represents contentment and satisfaction and Mmm is Brahman or the Absolute. The meaning though is not important. What matters is the calming effect it has on our minds and body. I suggest sitting quietly and breathing consciously. Without forcing it, repeat the mantra Shreem on the in or out breath, or both. Lengthen the sh, ee and mmm sounds. Allow the sound frequency to fill every aspect of your mind and body. Focus just on the sound vibration. You can repeat it internally but out loud is usually best. Shhhhhreeeeeemmmmm!
Other Sanskrit mantras to try are Aum pronounced Ommmmmmm. Strim pronounced streemmmm is the sound frequency of stability. Hrim is the sound frequency of the sun pronounced hreemmmm. The mantra “shivo hum” pronounced ‘she-vo hummm’ has an incredibly powerful, stabilising effect. It translates as ‘I am consciousness’. There are thousands of Sanskrit mantras you can try. Sanskrit sound vibration has the added benefit of toning our vagus nerve which calms our central nervous system.
Meditation does not even need to be done sitting down. In the Zen monastery between meditation sessions we would walk in silence (kinhin). The idea was to focus your attention on your body and the movement of walking; mind and body as one, ideally experiencing what is often described as a flow state which is being fully immersed in the feeling of energised focus. Any physical action can be turned into a meditation from washing up to gardening. Simply focus your attention on what you are doing instead of your thoughts. This is what is often called mindfulness and it is an incredibly beneficial discipline.
Since I have described how to meditate and some different techniques, I hope I can help to encourage you further by describing what you might expect to experience as benefits. It is best not to have unrealistic goals but at the very least you should become more aware of your body and how you have racing thoughts and worries. As you begin to notice the nature of your mind which is to over think, those thoughts and worries will likely become less solid. You may start to appreciate that they often have no actual basis in reality. They come and they go of their own accord. You don’t have to follow them, act on them or worry about them anymore. Through a regular meditation practice, you will likely start to feel calmer, more stable, with increased energy and vitality which will carry over into the rest of your life. You may if you are lucky experience sensations of universal love and bliss as you peel through the layers of your psyche to access this aspect of reality which is otherwise hidden behind a veil of our day-to-day, reductive thinking mind. Meditation is associated with enlightenment because a universal experience is to feel a dissolution of your thinking mind, personality and ego which is often considered the ultimate culmination of all knowledge and wisdom. You may come to realise that you are not your thoughts, your personality or even your brain. Is your brain really the source of your consciousness as we are led to believe? Or is everything consciousness which acts upon our central nervous systems to give the impression of a solid world of things and objects? You may get to experience the sensation of merging with the totality of consciousness itself (Nirvana as the Buddhists describe it or Moksha in Hinduism) but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The day to day benefits of meditation are real and easily accessible. It can lead to a greater sense of contentment and make you more resilient to stress. It helps to ease anxiety and depression and has been shown to reduce blood pressure. Regular meditators show increased activity in areas of the brain associated with memory, self-awareness, empathy and emotional regulation. Brain scans show two months of meditation can increase grey matter density in the hippocampus. Meditation offers something for everyone whether your goal is increased well-being, self realisation or perhaps something even higher.
I hope you have found this an insightful guide to meditation. It is an incredibly useful tool to have in our health and wellness toolboxes particularly during this time of unique uncertainty. Now is the time to start your meditation journey so you can experience the benefits for yourself. Good luck.