I am quite often asked about my meditation practice. I tell myself it’s because I talk about it a lot (and Share stuff about meditation quite frequently), but it might also be because all the people who knew me Before Meditation wonder what happened to the high-strung, neurotic, moody, bag of stress that used to be me.
I’m not super proud when I look back on the way I used to be and the way I used to handle things. The combination of Type-A personality and mild Bi-Polar Disorder certainly didn’t do me any favors, but neither did I have any real coping mechanism for dealing with runaway feelings, stress, anxiety, or anything other than the smooth sailing that is only about 1% of real life. Anything out of the norm hit me like a wave, either in a set that seemed never-ending, or one at a time, out of the blue, a giant wall of rogue emotion. I was knocked down, “spin-cycled”, as we used to say in Southern California where I grew up. It could take me days, weeks, months, to touch solid ground again, and I’d be left flailing in the water, panicking and gasping for breath, expecting to drown at any minute.
I can’t even remember how I became interested in meditation. It might have been through a friend (a practicing Buddhist) who had a lovely, calm demeanor and a meditation corner in her home, but the turning point, the point at which it became more than just an abstract idea, was the summer I decided to take advantage of the free “Open Sit” at a local Buddhist center on Thursday nights. Every Thursday at 7pm I’d take the kids to the center where we would sit for a half an hour (they gave us a brief introduction to meditation, sitting postures, etc. prior to our first time), do calming exercises similar to Tai Chi (or take a silent walk through the grounds), and then listen to a “Dharma Talk”, a half hour presentation on some tenet of Buddhism. At the end, we’d sit for another ten minutes. I left feeling refreshed, calm, cleansed.
At first, I wanted to climb out of my own skin. I didn’t LIKE sitting alone with myself. It was scary and dark, and sometimes I’d even feel the clutch of panic. But little by little, I began to relish those silent moments with myself. Sometimes, I would even end my session feeling like it wasn’t enough, like I needed more time. At one of our earliest sessions, one of the other participants, a mother from New Jersey who drove up every Thursday for the Open Sit, said to me, “It’s wonderful that you’re here. You’ll be surprised how much will change in your family because of this one thing you are doing.” She was so, so right. By the end of the summer, I was hooked, and even my kids seemed to mellow.
I can’t really explain why meditation makes such a difference. One metaphor I like is that water must be still to have clarity. Throw in a rock, and all you see are ripples. Let it settle, and you can finally see what’s really there. With the mind, we can’t really think clearly or see things as they are when life conspires to make ripples 24/7. Meditation is a way to calm the waters so we can see and think clearly. The really amazing thing is how this sense of calm seeped into my life even when I wasn’t meditating. Now I understand that we all have this reservoir inside us that we draw upon in times of stress or worry or fear or hurt. When the reservoir is dry, we’re just clawing at the dirt, looking for something that isn’t there to get us through. Meditation fills the reservoir, so that even when I’m not meditating, my reactions to everything are calmer. I’m drawing from the reservoir of stillness that builds up through meditating, and it makes all the difference.
Since I get so many emails asking how to meditate, I wanted to share some basic guidelines for those of you who are curious, because meditation is sometimes seen as a mystery, and often those who are curious are embarrassed to ask what seems like a very basic question; how do I DO it? The truth is, the mechanics are easy! It’s something anyone can do anywhere. It requires no special equipment (although a good cushion is helpful), is completely free of charge, and requires no special knowledge (though you may find yourself seeking out knowledge as meditation becomes a bigger part of your life).
The first thing you need is a place to sit. Any quiet place will do, although it is helpful to have a wall to face, especially in the beginning. It may feel strange at first to face a wall, but it begins to feel a bit symbolic, a way to turn your back on worldly cares while you allow yourself some silent space in your own mind. You’ll get used to it! And you can can always make exceptions to sit outside, in a group of people, etc. It doesn’t have to be fancy. This is where I sit;
I use the towel under one of my knees for comfort, but some forms of meditation recommend draping it over one’s lap. This is nice to do in the winter if it’s chilly (optimal temperature for meditating is 60-62 degrees, so some meditation centers keep their rooms cool — you can bring a shall or blanket if you like!).
Next, you need something to sit on. I use a zafu, which is a standard meditation cushion and platform combo that looks like this;
Basically, you sit on the round part and fold your legs, resting your knees on the platform like so;
Alternatively, some people find this position more comfortable;
It doesn’t really matter. You can sit any way that you feel comfortable, as long as your spine is straight (critical to good breathing). If you have bad knees or a bad back, you can even sit upright in a chair. Whatever works! If you find that you aren’t comfortable, FIND ANOTHER CUSHION OR ANOTHER PLACE TO SIT. Nothing will make you avoid meditation like being physically uncomfortable. I love my zafu because the round cushion is filled with buckwheat that can be altered (by removing some of it) according to preference. I like mine very full. I have bad knees, and the firm zafu helps keep me up off the platform high enough that my knees don’t bother me. You can also stack more than one cushion if that’s what you need to sit comfortably.
Once you’re sitting, you can place your hands in any number of positions. A common hand position is with the backs of the hand resting on the knees, palms turned upright, thumb and index finger touching, like this;
Chan meditation advocates this hand position;
You can also simply rest your palms facedown, so they are kind of “cupping” your knees. Again, what matters is that you are comfortable.
Once you are seated comfortably, you want to set some kind of timer. Anything will do, but I use an app called Insight Timer on my phone. It allows me to customize the settings, and even allows me to split up my sit into sections (in case you want to take a break partway through or change your meditation from, say, a mindfulness meditation to a compassion meditation). I have mine set to ring three gentle bells at the beginning of my sit and three gentle bells at the end.
I started with five minutes, expanded to eight, then ten, then fifteen, etc. Five minutes isn’t long, but even that much was a challenge in the beginning. We’re not accustomed to silence, and we’re REALLY not accustomed to being alone in our own minds. Your mind may rebel. Beginning slowly will allow you to build up to more time. You can sit once a day or three times a day. It’s totally up to you, but I found attaching my meditation time to a daily event helped me make it a habit, so I meditate every morning before I shower, and I build that time into my “getting ready time”. Sometimes I add a session or two during the day or before bed if I feel that I need or want it. Leaving my cushion out and ready at all times makes it easy to sit spontaneously.
A few basic tips; 1) breathe in and out only through your nose, and 2) don’t worry about “emptying” your mind. This last one is virtually impossible, and it will only frustrate you if you try. I’m going to give you a couple backs techniques to get started.
The most common meditation technique, and the cornerstone to any meditation practice (and to LIFE), is MINDFULNESS MEDITATION. Mindfulness refers to being completely present in the current moment, and this is often achieved in meditation by focusing on one’s breath. A good way to begin is to be conscious of the feel of your breath entering and leaving your nose, the cool air under your nostrils when you inhale, the warm air when you exhale. Eventually you may be able to enter a state of mindfulness, of being full present in your physical body, without focusing on breath, but that’s a good place to start. Your mind will probably wander. That’s okay. Acknowledge your thoughts and let them go. This is sometimes facilitated by a conscious “letting go thought” such as, “I am thinking about work. I am letting go.” I use the very simple, gentle phrase, “Bring it back” when my mind wanders. It’s a cue to myself to bring my attention back to my breath (or my compassion meditation or whatever else I’m doing that day). Whatever happens, don’t punish yourself or force anything. Just sit, gently bringing your focus back to your breathing when it wanders (it will).
One thing I’ve used in MINDFULNESS MEDITATION is to imagine I’m a tree on the bank of a large river. I can feel the wind in my branches and see things drifting by in the water (sometimes these things take on the form of my troubles), but I am calm and unmoving as they pass me by. Another technique is to imagine your chest as a hollow stalk of bamboo. When you breathe, the air moves unencumbered from your nose to your stomach and back out again. In, out. Choose a technique that works for you and feel free to mix it up. It might take a little trial and error to find the things you like best, and that’s okay.
GUIDED MEDITATION is a good way to get started if you aren’t comfortable sitting in absolute silence. In GUIDED MEDITATION, you listen as someone guides you through healing or positive or reflective thoughts, often by using nature scenes as a visual. You can find GUIDED MEDITATIONS for everything (healing, calm, creativity, etc.) on iTunes and pretty much everywhere else. I think guided meditations are a good place to begin meditating, but I encourage you not to rely on them too long. Mindfulness is the goal.
FOCUSED MEDITATION refers to an infinite number of methods which focus your attention on a certain thing. COMPASSION MEDITATION is a form of meditation in which you breathe in through the nose (some practitioners actually tell you to visualize breathing with your heart when doing COMPASSION MEDITATION), and exhale compassionate thoughts. Your compassion might be directed at an individual or individuals, or it might be directed toward animals or the world at large. Studies have proven that there are tangible health benefits for people who practice COMPASSION MEDITATION for fifteen minutes a day. I think it’s lovely that sending good thoughts out into the universe can actually make YOU healthier, don’t you?
FOCUSED MEDITATION can take on almost any form. Sometimes if I’m feeling blocked creatively, I’ll inhale all the creative, positive energy of the universe and imagine exhaling all the doubt and fear that make writing hard. If I’m worried about something like money or my kids, I’ll inhale peace and calm and exhale my worry. If I’m feeling ill, I’ll inhale health and healing and exhale whatever is making me sick. Sometimes visualizing helps, and I’ll imagine all the good things as a gold light and all the things I’m trying to get rid of as icky gray smoke. If you’re not in the mood to do MINDFULNESS MEDITATION (or if your mind is particularly jumpy due to a specific problem), just inhale what you need (the Universe has it in abundance) and exhale what is harming you or holding you back.
When your time is up, take a few minutes to breathe and bring yourself back to the real world. At our meditation center they say, “First move mind, then move body.” You can rub you neck or rotate your body to loosen up before finishing if you want. Then bring your hands together like you’re praying and give a little bow. This is a kind of “thank you” or “Namaste” to the Universe.
That’s really all there is to it. I wish I’d found it sooner. I think back to all the hours of my life I spent worried or stressed or anxious and all the times I reacted in a negative or defensive way to someone, and I wish I could have a Do Over. But regret is a wasted emotion, so I focus instead on being grateful that I found it when I did, and that I’ve been able to introduce my kids (and others) to it in a way that may save them some suffering. Now when a waves comes along, threatening to bowl me over, I know the secret to getting through it is as simple as letting go and floating on the surface. It may carry me a few feet left or right, but when it passes, I’m still there. And the shore is always in site.