There can be something intimidating about meditation that stops many of us before we even start.
Meditation was always one of those things that I felt I should be doing, I knew it was good for me, but beyond that I had not interest in it. While living in Japan, I was invited to meditate at a few Buddhist temples in Kyoto as part of my studies. Though many would jump at the chance, I was dreading it. The idea of sitting and doing nothing seemed like a waste of time. Was I really expected to sit there and focus on "nothing"?
The scenery was ancient and beautiful; however, because of the position we were sitting in my legs and back hurt. One time the pins and needles in my feet were so painful that I stood up to end the torture and fell flat on my face so loudly the monks shushed me.
It took another 6 years before I discovered that something had gotten lost in translation. I realized that I didn't actually know what meditation was beyond just sitting in one spot fighting physical pain. Once it was defined for me, I reversed the decision I had made to give up on it while in mid-air before my face hit the floor in Kyoto.
Meditation is the mindful pursuit of focusing on a single thing where you find yourself so deep in "the zone" that thought ceases to exist. When "mindless tasks" (e.g. washing the dishes, painting a wall, vacuuming, running, breathing, walking, gardening, sewing) are done with focus and care, they become an active meditation. You become so focused on the activity at hand that everything else disappears. Images may pop into your head that are not consciously created - they just appear because you've created a void where the ego and the mind are no longer in charge. You create a space to come in contact with your true self - where creativity, beauty, and truth reside. Watching television doesn't qualify because we're passively engaged in being mindless; the story fills the void rather than actively allowing your true self to percolate up.
My mother was constantly reminding me as a child to "be mindful of your surroundings" - an exercise that's a natural gateway to deeper meditation (though I think she was trying to train me not to get mugged). Mindfulness is the art of staying in the present moment and focused on the task at hand. It means single-tasking rather than multi-tasking; residing in the "now" rather than daydreaming about the future or remembering the past; it's about engaging your senses in your surrounding environment rather than focusing on the iPod, iPad, iMac, iPhone, iWhatever. It's about active engagement in the "here" and "now" in such a way that the mind becomes disciplined to focus.
Because meditation is married to Chinese Medicine and health, I've been privileged to study its' different forms. In my studies, I realized I had actually been meditating since I was a child. That the zone I have always gone into where I'm so concentrated on drawing or painting that I lose all sense of time while focused on nothing else was a form of meditation; it had just never been given that label. That my passion for skiing was, in part, fueled by the state it brought me to on the slopes where all thought ceased to exist. That my weekend Aikido classes where we repeated form so many times that it became muscle memory was an active form of mediation.
Sitting mediation is only one form of the practice. There are so many ways to get you into "the zone" that it can be difficult to choose just one. These days, prior to each clinic day before I meet with patients I practice sitting meditation to keep me centered and ready for whatever walks in the door. Below are some hints that I've found extremely helpful to help get you started.
Getting Started with Sitting Meditation
1. Start well rested and uncaffeinated
If you're exhausted when you start, your body may take the opportunity to use this quiet time to conk out. Instead of quieting the mind, you're fighting to say awake. In order to fight exhaustion we often feed our bodies coffee or other stimulants which increase the heart rate and light up the nervous system. Green tea is married to Zen Buddhism because it's gentle enough to help one stay alert without having to fight the lightening in a bottle effect other substances have. We're each wired a bit differently, so choose a time of day that works for not only your schedule, but your body. If you generally rise fresh for the day and don't have an urge to crawl back into bed, the morning may be best for you. If you need coffee just to pry your eyelids open, you may want to wait until a little later in the morning / early afternoon once you've had a chance to really wake up.
2. Use a Chair
It's called "practice" not "perfect"; so you're given full permission to cheat.
The crossed legged position (a.k.a. Lotus) that has come to us from the east is based on cultures that traditionally did not use chairs and sat on the floor. The lotus position is balanced and stable; it allows the body to remain upright, uses the legs to stabilize the spine, facilitates the opening of the hips which roots the pelvis to the ground, and is extremely comfortable if that's what one is used to.
For those of us who grew up using western style chairs and now sit that way for 6 or more hours a day, our bodies are not conditioned to sitting cross legged on the floor. Our muscles, ligaments, and tendons are comparatively shortened and tight, so when we try sitting in the lotus position, our feet fall asleep and we start fighting the pain rather than quieting the mind. Until you're flexible and conditioned through yoga or other practices to sit for 45 minutes in that position comfortably, use a chair.
3. Find a Quiet Space
Quiet doesn't necessarily only mean noise silence, but the space should have quiet lighting, be free from clutter, and free from visual noise as well. The fewer distractions the better. Don't limit yourself to the indoors; the beach, the woods, or other natural environments are excellent places to start.
5. Time Yourself
Unless you're doing guided meditation (see #8), start small - 10 minutes. Max. When we start something new, we often get overly ambitious because we're excited and bite off more than we can chew. We start with the best of intentions and when we fall short we feel we failed. This is not a "pass" or "fail" test. This is not a test.
When we feel like we're good at something, we want to keep doing it. So set yourself up for success by starting small. Set an intention of 10 minutes a day for 7 days - and stick to it. When we our achieve goals, we wire our brain for success.
6. Tune In with an Intention
You need to prep your body to help quite the mind. You also need to decide what you're going to concentrate on to get you into "the zone". Zen monks are often given a Koan, or a riddle, by their teacher and come back when they have an answer after meditating on it - i.e. "what's the sound of one hand clapping". The answer is - "it doesn't matter". The Koan is something for the monk to singularly focus on for long enough that everything else falls away and they wind up in that meditation mind space.
Give yourself something to focus on; counting your breath. The word "Om". The word "abundance". The word "love". The word "gratitude". A picture of a kitten - start with something that makes you feel happy and tell yourself you're going to focus on that one thing for the next 10 minutes.
Sit down, make yourself comfortable, double check there are no distractions (did you turn your cell phone off?), and take a few deep breaths. Begin by slowly breathing in to the count of 7 and out to the count of 8 - do this several times. If you've decided to focus on your breath - stick with this basic count for the next 10 minutes. If you've decided to focus on something else, shift your attention to that.
It's all right if your mind wanders; bring it back to your focal point. If you lose count; no problem - just start over. Thoughts may float in that seem important; however, imagine taking that thought, putting it an envelope and placing it near you to be addressed later.
If you can stay focused on your chosen focal point for 10 seconds without thinking of anything else - high five yourself afterwards (put that thought in the envelope). However, bring yourself back and try to focus for 11 seconds.
8. Guided Meditation
For beginners, I'm a HUGE fan of guided meditation. It helps train the brain to focus on one thing, it sets a pace for you, it has a definitive start, and definitive end. It uses the imagination to control the mind and can be easier that fighting through trying to focus on your own. I was lucky enough to be led through guided meditation before and after Aikido practice; I found it set the stage for when I was ready to go solo.
Deepak Chopra has been doing a free 21 Day Meditation Challenge for a few years now; you receive a link to new meditation via email each day where he leads you through visualizations with a different focus each day. Mirabai Devi is based out of Hawaii and teaches Kundalini based spiritually; she provides low cost guided mediations that can be downloaded through iTunes.
If non-denominational is more your speed, I encourage you to browse around the iTunes store since there are thousands of meditations available for download.
Do you have suggestions on how to meditate? What works for you? Are there any guided meditations that you especially like? Please feel free to leave your comments in the box below - would love to know your thoughts!