If you think meditation is just for religious people or crazy-eyed sadhus in loincloths, you could be missing out on one of the most powerful practices available to humanity. Meditation reduces stress and aids healing, clears and focuses the mind, and makes you happy.
You don’t have to be spiritual or religious to meditate, but if you are, there are meditative or contemplative practices in all religions. There are no special requirements, you don’t have to tie your limbs into esoteric knots or chant incomprehensible mantras – unless you want to!
In some ways, meditation is the easiest thing to do. It just involves focusing your mind on one thing at a time. You fall into a meditative state quite naturally when you are concentrating on something important that requires your full attention, like reading a challenging book or listening to a friend share a difficult emotional experience. Another kind of meditation happens when you get into the ‘zone’ or a flow state: listening to music, doing creative work, dancing, having sex, running, or gardening, for example.
Meditation is less easy when your mind is full of thoughts and worries you’d rather not have, and this is where the actual practise of mediation can help. By adopting a regular, daily practice you can hone your technique and develop your ‘mind muscles’. Then when life throws something difficult your way, coping will become second nature. You may even find you begin to thrive on challenge, actively seeking out the next adventure.
Through meditation you can make friends with your own mind and develop a deeper understanding of yourself. This leads to greater acceptance, not just of yourself, but of everyone and everything else.
Meditation isn’t about stopping all thoughts or becoming supernaturally calm, although there may be times when those things happen. Meditation is about paying attention and being present in the moment, no matter what is happening. It’s about developing the ability to stay centred and fully inhabit your own body and mind, even if an apocalypse is erupting around you.
Meditation is about being Awake
There are many different types of meditation, but they can be broken down into four basic categories:
- Focusing on an object, such as a candle flame or your breathing
- Contemplating a particular word or subject, such as love, or emptiness
- Repeating a mantra, such as Om
- Guided meditation or visualisation
How to Meditate
The classic meditation posture is sitting cross-legged on the floor or a cushion, with a straight back. For some of us this can be hard to maintain. If your knees aren’t up to it, you can meditate sitting on a hard-backed chair. The important thing to remember is that your back must be straight – no slouching or slumping! If you slump forward while meditating you’ll get backache or neck ache and may doze off.
Classic Meditation Posture:
- Sit on a cushion and cross your legs, keeping your spine as straight as you can. Sitting forward on the cushion slightly will force your knees down and helps to maintain the posture without wobbling.
- If you can, cross your legs so the backs of your feet lie on your thighs, with the right leg above the left. If that makes you scream in agony, experiment with higher cushions so you can lower your knees closer to the floor while keeping your ankles crossed in front of you in the normal way (this is how I do it, when my knees will let me!).
- Make sure your shoulders are relaxed and balanced, not one higher than the other or rising up to your ears.
- Tuck your chin in slightly so it’s parallel to the floor. This keeps your head straight and balanced perfectly at the top of your spine, as if you’re suspended from a cord in the ceiling.
- Keep your eyes open and slightly lowered. Your gaze can fall about three feet in front of you, but keep it soft – no staring. Don’t close your eyes as this will encourage your mind to wander off into daydreams, thinking or even sleep.
- Keep your jaw relaxed with your tongue against your palate, and breathe through your nose. If you have a cold and are too bunged up, you can breathe through your mouth, but try to clear your passages with a good eucalyptus inhaler first.
- Place your hands one on top of the other and palms up, just below your navel, if you like. Or just rest your hands on your knees. Whatever feels comfortable.
The two important things to remember here are to keep the back straight and to relax. Allow your breath to come naturally. There’s no need to force yourself to breath more slowly than you normally do, or more deeply. Simply allow the breath to be there. As you relax into the practice, your breath will change naturally so there’s no need to force it.
If sitting cross-legged on a cushion is too painful or impossible, you can adopt a similar posture sitting in a hard-backed chair (i.e. not the couch). Place your feet flat on the floor and keep your back straight as before. As I’ve got older, I’ve found I need to sit in a chair to meditate more often, especially if I’m going to be there a while!
You can also meditate lying down, although I wouldn’t recommend doing that if you’re tired – you know what would happen 😉
When and How Long?
Squeezing meditation into your busy schedule can be a challenge in itself, but it really is worth the effort. The best time to meditate is when you know you won’t be interrupted. It can be an excellent way to start or end the day, and there’s no reason why you couldn’t do both. You could even set aside ten minutes at lunchtime and meditate at your desk – it certainly beats checking your emails for the umpteenth time.
If you’re worried about dozing off, running late or missing something important, you can set an alarm or timer for the duration of your session. But don’t be surprised when the time seems to pass much slower than you expect. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been convinced I’ve done fifteen minutes and then been horrified to discover it’s only been five.
Fifteen or twenty minutes meditation twice a day, morning and evening, can be a good place to start. If that’s a struggle, aim for five minutes and gradually increase the time. Eventually you’ll notice you want to meditate for longer and sitting for an hour will seem the most natural thing in the world.
It’s a good idea to set an intention at the start of your meditation practice, not just in general but every time you sit. Reminding yourself why you are practising can help to focus your mind and keep the fidgets at bay. As your practice progresses you may find pockets of resistance bubbling up from the unconscious in the form of difficult emotions. Having a strong intention to be present and awake, to build inner resilience and self-acceptance, will help you to work with whatever comes up.
Difficult emotions, like anger, fear or grief, can be overwhelming. It may be tempting to use these emotional outbursts as an excuse to stop practising and go and do something else. But this is exactly why you need to meditate. Feelings of anger or fear are not a sign you are doing something wrong. Quite the opposite. It means you are ready to look at whatever has resurfaced and integrate it back into yourself. It means you’re growing, and that means you’re alive.
Some people like to dedicate their meditation practice to others using a simple prayer at the end of the session. This can help to remind you that the purpose of meditation isn’t really about you and your ego. It’s not a competition and you don’t need to prove anything by sitting for longer or being calmer or more together than other people.
Meditating and disciplining the mind is an act of service. By taking responsibility for your mind and emotions you are making life a little easier for everyone, not just yourself. Since everything is interconnected and we all depend upon each other, anything you do to make yourself happier or more content will have a direct effect on everything else. Dedicating your meditation practice is an acknowledgement of this interdependence.
You can express this dedication in any way that makes sense to you. It can be spoken out loud, or in thought if you prefer. Some base their dedication on the Four Immeasurables or you could try something a little shorter:
“I dedicate the merit from this meditation to all sentient beings.”
“May all beings benefit.”
I’ll leave the last word to Gampopa:
Don’t invite the future
Don’t pursue the past
Let go of the present
Relax, right now.
Over the coming weeks I’ll be exploring specific meditation practises that you may want to try out. Some I’m familiar with from my own practice, others I’ll be discovering as we go. I would love to hear your experiences of meditation. Do you have a favourite practice? Share in the comments below…