Why meditate? On one level, meditation is a tool. It can help combat stress, fosters physical health, helps with chronic pain, can make you sleep better, feel happier, be more peaceful, as well as be present. But on a deeper level, meditation is a doorway into the unknown. It can help us get a sense of the mystery of who we are.
When you start meditating, you will notice how unruly the mind is. I remember being quite shocked by this! I noticed that my mind was all over the place. Profound thoughts about my past or future jostled with mundane thought clips about what groceries I needed to buy. Some time afterwards I would come too and notice that I had spend 15 minutes running a painful memory over and over. It was like sitting in a crazy cinema!
So, if you’re starting out with meditation, please don’t beat yourself up about your wild mind. It is a natural condition. In time you will learn to work kindly with the barrage of thoughts and you will some clarity and peacefulness.
Here are some simple tips on how to start meditating. Maybe those of you who already practise meditation could please add your comments of what has worked for you.
Whether you sit on a chair or cross-legged on the floor, make sure that your spine is upright with head up. If you are slumped your mind will drift. Mind and body are intertwined. If your body is well-balanced, your mind will also be in balance. To straighten up, imagine that your head is touching the sky.
Try and keep you eyes open. Open eyes allow you to be more present. Just lower your eyes and let your gaze be sort. If you close your eyes you will be more likely to drift away on thoughts and stories. However, it’s important to do what is comfortable for you. Some people find closing their eyes much more effective. It’s good to experiment and see what feels best for you.
In ordinary consciousness we are hardly ever present. For example, sometimes we drive the car on autopilot while being preoccupied with thoughts. Suddenly we arrive at our destination and don’t remember anything about the drive!
So, meditation is a wonderful way of waking up to our life. Otherwise we miss most of our experiences because we are somewhere else in our mind! Let’s take a look at what focus is. In ordinary life, we tend to equate focus with concentration. That’s like using the mind like a concentrated beam of light. But in meditation, that kind of mind isn’t helpful. It’s too sharp and edgy. To focus in meditation means to pay soft attention to whatever you place in the centre of awareness. I suggest using the breath as a focus. It’s like a natural door that connects ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. Zen Master Toni Packer says:
Attention comes from nowhere. It has no cause. It belongs to no one
Paying attention to the breath is a great way to anchor yourself in the present moment.
Notice your breath streaming in and out. There’s no need to regulate the breath – just let it be natural.
4. Counting you breath
If you are having difficulties settling, you can try counting the breath – which is an ancient meditation practice. On your outbreath, silently count “one”, then “two”, and up to “four”. Then return to “one”. Whenever you notice your thoughts have strayed far away or you find yourself counting “thirtythree”, simply return to “one”. In this way, “one” is like coming home to the present moment. It’s good to return without a backward glance.
When you notice thoughts, gently let them go by returning yous focus to the breath. Don’t try and stop thoughts; this will just make you feel agitated. Imagine that they are unwelcome visitors at your door: acknowledge their presence and politely ask them to leave. Then shine the soft light of your attention on your breath.
It’s difficult to settle into meditation if you are struggling with strong emotions. This is because some emotions tend to breed stories in the mind. Especially anger, shame and fear create stories that repeat over and over in the mind. Anger and shame make us keep looking at past events of the past. Fear looks at the future with stories that start with, “What if…”
The way to deal with strong emotions in meditation is to focus on the body feelings that accompany the emotion. For example, this could be the tight band of fear around the chest or the hot roiling of anger in the belly. Let go of the stories and refocus on your body. In this way you are honouring your emotions but not becoming entangled in stories.
Silence is healing. I know that there are is a lot of ‘meditation music’ around, but nothing beats simple silence. Otherwise the music or sounds on the tape just drown out the chatter in your mind. When we sit in silence we actually get to experience what our mind is doing. There is steadiness and calmness that comes from sitting in silence. In time outer and inner silence meet and you come to rest in the moment.
Start with 10 minutes and only sit longer if you feel that that is too short. Don’t force yourself to meditate longer if you are not ready to do that. In time you might like to extend your meditation to 25 minutes. That’s a length that allows you to settle your mind without causing too much stress on your body. Most importantly, shrug off any ‘shoulds’. Some people enjoy sitting for an hour at a time. Others find that they can’t sit longer than 10 minutes. Do what feels right for you!
It’s lovely to create a special place to sit. You can even make a shrine or an altar that you can face when you sit in meditation. You might like to place a candle on your altar and objects that have meaning to you. It’s lovely to find objects for your altar as you walk. Maybe you find stones, or seashells, or flowers that speak to you.
Most of all it’s important to enjoy meditation. You might like to try sitting with a hint of a smile. Be kind to yourself. Start sitting just a little each day. It’s helpful to establish a daily habit.