Wonder how to meditate?
Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Second best – find a normal place but where you won’t have to talk to anyone or hold a conversation, and put up with the noise.
Set some sort of timer. Something with a quiet beep that won’t have you jumping out of your skin when it goes off. Set it to go off in ten minutes.
Sit down. (I said this would be basic!)
How to sit for meditation
If you’re feeling adventurous you can adopt a half-lotus or other cross-legged posture on cushions on the floor, but for now we’ll assume you prefer to sit on a chair. Use a firm chair – a dining room or kitchen chair rather than your favourite armchair. Plant both feet firmly on the ground and sit towards the front of the chair, letting your spine straighten and rise up. Imagine a string extending from the top of your skull, the other end held by a benevolent angel in a white nightie gently pulling up. Feel the rest of your body and bones hanging off that string. Particularly, let your shoulders hang soft and loose.
Place your hands either palm down above your knees or on a cushion on your lap. The thing is to find the balance between being relaxed and maintaining a position with intention. So you don’t want to loll with your hands in your pockets, nor do you want to have any tension in your hands or arms.
Close your mouth and let your tongue rest against the back of your teeth.
Either close your eyes, or let them rest on a spot on the floor about 4 feet away. You should be able to let them slip out of focus without being distracted by focusing or unfocusing. It’s easier if the carpet is plain – harder with a patterned rug! If you’re going to be bothered by crumbs on the carpet and go around mentally picking them up, best to close your eyes!
Now take a few deep breaths in and, as you breathe out, imagine you’re breathing away any tensions in your body. Look for tension in your forehead, eyes, jaw, shoulder and hands. You may find it’s not that easy to relax the muscles and let go of the tension just like that – don’t worry about it. Just noticing that you have tension is often enough to stop it interfering with your meditation.
Okay, you’ve taken a few deep breaths. Now let your breathing return to normal. Just watch it and don’t interfere. One thing your body knows how to do is breathe. It’s been doing it for years. Just let it get on with it. Observe. Just sit there for a minute, while it’s still new and strange, just watching your breath come and go.
Where are you?
Where are ‘you’ in your body? We tend to think of ourselves as being in our head – like a little driver looking out through the eyes and steering the body through life like one of these giant Japanese robots on children’s TV. Meditation seems to work better when you sink your consciousness down into the body. Try ‘placing’ your mind in your lower stomach – below the navel. Focus your attention there, without forcing any changes to your breathing. One suggestion, which you may find too funny to try, is to imagine you have a nose in your tummy, through which you can breathe! If you can visualise this without worrying about the size of handkerchief you’d need to blow it, try it.
‘But I keep thinking!’
You may get to the tenth breath, you may get beyond. But if you’re anything like me, you won’t get to the third breath without some thoughts – some running commentary on what you’re doing, perhaps; some witty remark you hope you’ll remember to make when you finish; some idea of what you’re going to do afterwards; an internal critic who tells you you’re not doing it right – you’re counting on the in-breath! It could be anything and – the big secret – it doesn’t matter!
You can’t tell yourself to stop thinking any more than you can tell a glass of lemonade to stop bubbling. It’s what your brain does for a living, and who are you to tell it otherwise? What you will be able to do, gradually, as your practice develops, is to identify less with the thoughts, and more with the background – the peaceful rhythm of your breath, the stable and relaxed body. An analogy familiar to readers of meditation literature is that of clouds crossing the blue sky. You can be the blue sky, and watch the clouds – thoughts – come and go without getting carried away with one or another.
The way to do this is not to think you’re failing to meditate when you realise you’ve forgotten about your breathing and are remembering that you must pop into Boots on the way home to pick up that face crean, and don’t we need some shampoo, oh and of course there’s …. That’s not a failure, that’s success! Just for a moment, you’ve woken up! As one teacher put it to me – the minute you realise you’re over there, you’re here again!
As soon as it happens, just gently come back to your counting. Don’t beat yourself up for getting carried away, but don’t go over it again (“Here I am. I was thinking about going to Boots and …”). Just come back to breathing. This is here. This is now.
You’ll find yourself doing this a lot. In fact this is meditation: coming back. People think of meditation as something to do with the mind – controlling your mind – but it isn’t at all. It’s physical. It’s coming away from thinking into the simplicity of the body – of sitting, of breathing.
This coming back is one of the biggest benefits of meditation you discover when you’re not meditating. Once you’ve established the practice in your sitting meditation, you’ll find yourself ‘coming back’ out of your thoughts at odd times – sitting in the bus or car, walking along the street, relaxing to go to sleep – I call this ‘escape into reality’ and it can be a most refreshing and pleasing little experience.
The most important thing is to commit yourself to regular practice. With regular practice you’re retraining your body and mind, and changing the neural pathways in the brain. Without it, you’ve had an interesting experience, that’s all. It won’t help you much tomorrow.
You may find it easier to do it early in the morning before people are up and about to distract you, or later on at night, but not if you’ve had any alcohol or anything else that might make you either sleepy or overstimulated. Tea and coffee are generally OK before a meditation session, however.
Now – do it!