Some weeks ago on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR, I heard a famous Buddhist monk talking about the benefits of meditation. I was all ears, naturally. A caller to the show who found meditating difficult asked the monk for advice about how to achieve a better meditation. To my surprise and disappointment the monk simply told the man to keep practicing without inquiring about the details of his difficulty. Neither did the monk offer any technical advice that might have helped the student.
Meditation can be difficult at any time, especially in the beginning. The mind is a wild place full of distractions to keep us from achieving our natural state of bliss. With a little practice and perseverance ANYONE can develop a life-changing meditation practice.
First, regardless of your religious tradition or lack of one, you can meditate. Meditation is found in all traditions. Atheists and agnostics can also meditate. Meditation is not about belief; it is simply about cultivating the mind. If you have a spiritual tradition, it will enhance your personal practice.
If you have a yoga asana (posture) practice, this will make meditation easier. The purpose of the physical culture of yoga asana is to strengthen the body to sit comfortably so that we can explore infinity without the distractions of a cranky joint or spine. Before you begin do a few yoga postures with deep breathing and attention on the breath and body. Developing a simple, regular asana practice will make meditation easier.
Now, find a quiet place. Sit in any comfortable way you like. Keep your back straight by grounding into the sitting bones of the pelvis. Be erect, but relaxed. A long, straight, spine and erect posture enable energy to travel efficiently through the body. Notice how you feel; listen to your body. If you need a pillow or other prop to help you feel comfortable, by all means use it. The word asana in yoga can be interpreted as “comfortable seat.”
Close your eyes if you feel safe to do so. If not, fix your gaze on a stationary object. A spot on the floor or wall will suffice. A yantra, or artistic yogic design is even better. Let your eyes be soft and out of focus.
Allow your breath to open up into your abdomen by using the diaphragm, the lateral sheet of muscle that separates the chest from the abdominal cavity. The belly should swell with each inhalation. If your belly retracts or sucks in during an inhalation, you are reverse breathing. This will build stress and prevents you from entering meditation. If you reverse breathe, spend a few minutes with your hands on your belly and practice abdominal/diaphragmatic breathing until it feels natural and easy.
(Note: In our culture we are encouraged to look fit and attractive by sucking in our bellies, throwing out our chests and pulling our shoulders back. This has led to an epidemic of reverse breathing which builds stress. Stress is a precursor and catalyst for disease.)
Begin to follow your breath with your attention. Watch as each cubic centimeter of breath enters and leaves your body. Concentrating on your breath with this kind of detail will help keep you focused. Slow your breath down gradually.
See if you can count ten breaths without losing count. If you can, begin again. Practice this for several rounds until it becomes easy. If you lose count, simply begin at one and try again. Please be kind to yourself without allowing your inner critic to judge you if you don’t succeed right away.
You may want to continue with this simple counting technique for awhile, which is just fine. You are developing the art of dharana, or concentration, one of the eight primary aspects of yoga. Dhr, the root of dharana, means to hold. So, we are learning to hold or focus our attention on a single object like the breath to the exclusion of all other objects. You are developing one pointed focus with dharana.
You may also consider using the following techniques to help you develop concentration. Mantra japa is a method of mentally repeating a brief combination of syllables, a mantra, to entrain the mind for meditation. The simple two syllable mantra of So Ham (pronounced Hum) is a Sanskrit term that means I Am or I Am That. It is a way for us to identity with the great All That Is or God or Universal Energy, what ever your conception of universal creative energy is. You could just as well use Blue Sky, White Clouds if thinking about divine energy disturbs you in any way. You can also use any word that has personal significance or sacred nature to you.
Another simple but effective tool for building concentration is a mala, or a string of beads similar to a rosary. The use of stringed beads for developing concentration is an ancient shamanic method that goes back to ancient times. Hold the beads in either hand and simply move one bead per breath as another way to reinforce your concentration.
This trio of devices, the breath, mantra and mala will help you build powerful concentration as you begin your meditation practice.
So, when does dharana or concentration become meditation or dhyana? This is a hard question to answer. When we have banished the fluctuations of the mind as Patanjali states in the Yoga Sutras, we have achieved meditation. Do not dwell on the distinction between these two aspects of yoga. Concentration naturally leads to meditation just as naturally as a river flows to the sea. The more we practice the easier it becomes.
So, there we have a basic lesson in meditation. Simple, right? Simple doesn’t always mean easy. As I said earlier, the mind is a wild place. I’ve heard the expression: The mind is like a monkey stung by a scorpion. It can careen in countless directions like a pinball machine. Practice this method regularly and you will begin to get results. You will be able to achieve a strong, peaceful disposition that is resilient to the storms of life. A mind trained in meditation is a mind that can help you achieve your loftiest goals as you sail smoothly above depression. Meditation will help you accept life on its own terms as you navigate with purpose to reach a stronger state of being.
Begin with 5 minutes or so and then work your way up to whatever delivers good results. Many recommend 20 minutes twice a day. From my experience, the longer the meditation the deeper you go.
As you practice you will originate techniques that are unique to your style of meditation. The method I’ve taught here is one of many. This one works for me. Explore and see what you come up with. Infinity awaits. Sixteenth Century Christian Philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” The questions we pose in meditation will always be answered with wisdom.
Please also refer to my posts about how meditation can change the physical state of your brain. The work of Harvard neurologist, Sara Lazar, shows the wonderful ways your brain changes with regular meditation.
Cultivating your mind through meditation is the beginning of realizing your full potential as a human being. You are as unlimited and boundless as the universe itself. You’re made from the same stuff as the stars. We are miniature replications of the universe. Meditation helps us remember our connection to infinity and helps us align ourselves with its unstinting energy.
As always, I would love to hear from you. Connecting with you inspires me as I hope it does you, too. Please, leave a comment. If there is some aspect of yoga you’d like me write about, please let me know. We are all on the same path. I would love to hear about your experiences, too. I am merely a student. If you have something to impart to me, please, I’d love to hear it. As we grow together in yoga, the world gets better for all of us.