Mudita Journal

How to Meditate

May 7, 2003 · Filed under: Buddhism, Meditation, Mindfulness, Mudita Forum

In recent months, several people have asked me how to get started with meditation. Below is an essay I wrote on the subject for Mudita Forum.

If you would like to print out this essay, you’ll probably find the printable version of “How to Meditate” more suitable.

The purpose of meditation is to strengthen your mind. Most people think of consciousness as something we “just do,” but conscious awareness can be strengthened just as a muscle can be strengthened; and meditation provides a workout for your mind.

Through meditation, many people find they can make their attention more stable, strong, and wieldy. You do this by learning to isolate awareness from its alternatives—just as you would isolate one muscle from another—and then exercising it. The process requires discipline and effort, but the basic principles are simple. This essay describes those principles and provides guidance for building a rewarding meditation practice.

The core of the process lies in cultivating a state of consciousness that is alert and open, while less prone to becoming distracted or lost in thought. Different spiritual traditions use different names for this state—presence, mindfulness, pristine awareness, the silent watcher, etc.—but the underlying experience is the same, and meditation is the ideal practice for cultivating this state of consciousness.

Basic meditation consists of three interwoven practices: assuming an alert posture, cultivating present-moment awareness, and practicing complete acceptance of what is.

Alert Posture

Find a quiet place where you are unlikely to be disturbed, and sit in whatever position is most comfortable for you, either on the floor (with a bench or some solid cushioning under you) or on the edge of a chair. If you’re sitting in a chair, be sure you don’t use the chair-back; sit at the forward edge.

However you sit, make sure your posture is stable, upright, and dignified. You can imagine a string tied to the back of your head, pulling your spine upward toward the ceiling. Maintaining this posture throughout your sitting will help you build and maintain concentration, by facilitating better blood flow to be brain and preserving your sense of awakeness.

You can place your hands in whatever position feels comfortable and allows you to forget about them. The traditional pose is to place the upturned palm of your right hand inside your upturned palm of your left hand, with thumbs touching together lightly.

As you meditate, you’ll find that your body gradually settles; when you notice it, simply return to the upright posture that feels open and dignified. Some people find that breathing diaphragmatically (into the abdomen, rather than into the chest) makes it easier to maintain an upright posture during your meditation.

Present-moment Awareness

The easiest way to build present-moment awareness is to pick a sensation in your body, and focus deeply on that experience. Many people use the breath as their object of meditation, focusing either at the nose (where the breath enters the nostrils) or at the belly (where the diaphragm expands and contracts with each breath). Or you can use the warm energy inside your body as your object of awareness, or even just the sensations in your hands.

Whatever you choose, stay with that sensation. After a time, inevitably, you will find that you have become distracted and are lost in thought. Each time this happens, gently set aside whatever you were thinking about, and return to your object of awareness.

Through this practice, of drawing your attention back to the present moment and keeping it there, you isolate and strengthen the “muscle” for conscious awareness. You’ll also find yourself becoming increasingly relaxed and undistracted; it’s a very pleasant place to be in.

For the first few minutes of your sitting, you will undoubtedly find it challenging to keep your attention on your object of meditation. As you persevere, however, it will become easier. Typically, after twenty to thirty minutes your compulsion to think will have begun to relent, and you’ll find it easier to put your awareness on something and have it “stick.”

Acceptance of What Is

As you’re developing present-moment awareness, take care to be completely accepting of whatever is there. In this context, acceptance means “non-struggle”—you want to experience what is in the moment without any resistance or judgment or analysis.

If an emotion arises, simply hold the feeling in your awareness, without indulging in thought. Similarly, if you notice tension or numbness or unease, just allow yourself to feel that deeply. You want to allow whatever is there, to be there. This allowing has two components: awareness and non-interference. By staying aware of your experience, but not attempting to stop or change it, you strengthen your capacity for, and your experience of, conscious awareness itself.

You may feel some minor aches in your back and legs during the sitting, but these can often be minimized by returning to an alert posture. Avoid shifting your body position (unless you feel your body is being harmed) or scratching an itch, however; instead, allow feelings of discomfort to arise and recede, without interference. To ease any discomfort during your sittings, you might try adding some gentle stretching, or yoga, beforehand. This helps stimulate circulation, ease mental and physical tension, and relax the body—allowing you to meditate more easily and comfortably, for longer periods of time.

In the beginning, you may only be able to meditate comfortably for ten or twenty minutes. Extended sittings become easier with practice, however, and most people find that longer sittings (of 30 to 45 minutes) are the most rewarding. After thirty to forty minutes, your attention will usually become quite refined and clear.

It is usually good to use a timer to keep track of how long you’ve been meditating, so you don’t have to keep looking at a clock. Some people use a digital timer or an alarm clock. I have a small grandfather clock in my living room that chimes every fifteen minutes, and I use it to meditate for 30 or 45 minutes at a time, depending on my schedule.

Always decide in advance for how long you’re going to meditate. When you do it “for however long you feel,” you will often find that the mind starts playing tricks on you; rather than settling down into present-moment awareness, you may become distracted or bored or not-in-the-mood or something else that causes you to quit. This is all part of the resistance process—of how compulsive thinking keeps its grip on consciousness—which meditation helps to dissolve.

These practices will introduce you to a quality of calmness and equanimity that you may have never before experienced. Further, by achieving this state of mind voluntarily, you will have increased your intimacy with, and understanding of, your own conscious processes. You’ll feel more at home in your mind and body.

Lastly, it’s helpful to remember that, at its essence, meditation is not merely a practice or a technique, but a way of being. In particular, it involves being completely present with what you experience, whatever those experiences may be. To the extent that you are able to experience this state on a daily basis, your meditation practice has been quite successful, and you will feel the resultant benefits of greater clarity, equanimity, and insight.

Enjoy your practice, and feel free to contact me with any questions or feedback about your experience.

  • Gregg Eller

    Here is a link to another resource for meditation instruction. While written by a Buddhist teacher, the instruction addresses the universal experience of mind.

    regards, gregg

  • http://faustin.livejournal.com kirez

    Josh, I notice this comment is somewhat at odds with McLeod’s advice on breathing — and I found his advice rather helpful and a bit surprising, and have so far been using it in my attempts at meditation:

    “Some people find that breathing diaphragmatically (into the abdomen, rather than into the chest) makes it easier to maintain an upright posture during your meditation.”

    Your statement is certainly true — most of my early exposure to meditation techniques counseled diaphragm breathing. But McLeod explicity counsels ‘normal’ breathing — no special effort or technique. And I found that helpful: instead of thinking too much and putting too much effort and focus on diaphragmatic breathing, I was able to allocate more ‘holistic’ awareness to the full experience.

    Unless there’s something I’m missing or failing to understand, I think a simple qualifier or re-phrasing might strengthen this. I can see that it’s an objective, accurate statement. But somehow it seems to give me the impression that you’re advising people to use diaphragmatic breathing. Are you?

  • http://faustin.livejournal.com kirez

    I find your tactical introduction to be extremely clear and helpful — one of the best I’ve ever encountered.

    I especially appreciate these paragraphs:

    “Acceptance of What Is”

    “If an emotion arises, simply hold the feeling in your awareness, without indulging in thought. Similarly, if you notice tension or numbness or unease, just allow yourself to feel that deeply. You want to allow whatever is there, to be there. This allowing has two components: awareness and non-interference. By staying aware of your experience, but not attempting to stop or change it, you strengthen your capacity for, and your experience of, conscious awareness itself.

    “You may feel some minor aches in your back and legs during the sitting, but these can often be minimized by returning to an alert posture. Avoid shifting your body position (unless you feel your body is being harmed) or scratching an itch, however; instead, allow feelings of discomfort to arise and recede, without interference. To ease any discomfort during your sittings, you might try adding some gentle stretching, or yoga, beforehand. This helps stimulate circulation, ease mental and physical tension, and relax the body—allowing you to meditate more easily and comfortably, for longer periods of time.”

    …This section was especially helpful.

    Not to repeat myself, but… Excellent!!! Very well-written, appropriate content; best short introduction I’ve encountered yet!

  • Greg Feirman

    I found this to be an excellent and concise introduction to meditation.

    I’ve tried meditation many times in the past, in hopes of achieving greater calm and clarity, but have inevitably been discouraged by “compulsive thinking”. I decided to give it another go about a month ago, with a higher level of determination and commitment, and have experienced more sucess. I still find the practice very difficult but when sucessful the feeling of peace and calm is priceless! I always think, when I achieve it, “if only I could feel this way all the time, out in the world, in daily life”. I like your point that, “it’s helpful to remember that, at its essence, meditation is not merely a practice or a technique, but a way of being”. If only! What a worthy ideal.

    — Greg

  • Lily

    I’m just learning how to meditate and find that after about 5 or 6 minutes I feel a little dizzy, and sometimes start, as if I’m falling asleep. I’ve tried sitting on the front edge of a chair and on cushions on the floor.

    Thanks, Lily

  • http://uniforte.com.au Christina Dean

    Hi Joshua,

    Many thanks for this very simple and very helpful insight into a techique for finding inner peace. As long as I can remember, I’ve been looking for a simple way to achieve a state that is calm, clear, focussed and ok with the world as it is, and with me as I am – Many Thanks.

  • Pamela

    I will find a quiet rock:)

    Meditation always seemed too rigid for me, almost making it too hard for me to achieve any sort of effective result. These guidelines seem doable, like they may actually yield the solace I so need at the moment.

    I’ll give it a try.

    Pamela

  • k

    awsome technique and well written

  • david

    Is this the gist of what Adyashanti teaches about meditation as well; that is, what you have written. I am starting to read and listen to all things Adyashanti. Haven’t heard his meditation instruction yet, but noticed you posted something on his meditation CD.

  • http://www.zader.com Joshua Zader

    David,

    Good question. The answer is no. I wrote this essay many years before discovering Adyashanti’s “True Meditation.” Until I can write a new “how to meditate” essay with my updated thoughts, my top recommendation would be to buy his audio CDs of “True Meditation” and follow his instructions.

    Good luck!

    Joshua

  • http://nonserviam.com Svein Olav Nyberg

    Adyashanti’s “True Meditation” is simply the Sotozen technique of Shikantaza under another name. It is an object-less meditation where your goal is “just sitting”. It is easy-difficult, and I think it is a good idea to do breathing meditation for a while before embarking on shikantaza.

  • http://www.zader.com Joshua Zader

    Not sure that’s true, Svein, based on your description. “Just sitting” can be an ambiguous practice that gets far less results for many people than following Adyashanti’s instructions of letting go of control and allowing everything to be as it is. Perhaps it is a subtle difference of emphasis, but based on your description I’d be uncomfortable saying they’re merely the same thing under another name.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shikantaza Svein Olav Nyberg

    Shikantaza is not “just sitting” as in how we imagine we would sit if we sat our butts on a chair and let things flow, either. To make sure in my assessment, I lent the CDs to the local Zen priest to hear his opinion, and Adyashanti is indeed describing Soto Zen’s shikantaza technique (“but in sooo many words” according to the priest).

    But I think Adyashanti does a good job of making shikantaza accessible without the extra trappings; the technique is the same. It might very well be that other works describing shikantaza does a less good job of it. I have no trouble recommending Adyashanti’s instructions, in a any case.

    The same technique is described under yet another name in a very interesting book by a Tibetan lama, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche: “The Joy of Living” (highly recommended, btw, as it links meditation and neuroscience).

  • Breathe Meditation Studio

    Wonderful post!

    One important factor to consider when meditating daily is physical comfort. It is difficult to focus on breathing and equanimity when you have body aches due to bad posture! A good cushion can help you achieve the proper posture. These Organic Meditation Cushions can enhance daily meditation due to the physical support they provide.

    For those who are concerned with sustainability, the cushions are made with organically grown materials. The larger cushion is made of organic latex and coir (coconut shell fiber) and has two levels of firmness, one on either side. The coir is quite firm, while the latex has a softer feel. The smaller cushion is also made with organic latex and provides great support. Both are encased in organically grown cotton.

    Also, I just realized today that the Huffing Post has an entire page devoted to Meditation related news. How cool is that!