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.
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.
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.
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.