Establishing a Basic Meditation Practice
Meditation sessions for a beginner should last from 10-20 minutes. Twice a day is a good start, perhaps once in the morning and once in the evening. Though some advanced practitioners can sit in meditation for hours, I recommend that you gradually build up to longer meditation periods. There are physical and spiritual reasons for this recommendation that will become evident with practice. For both beginning and advanced practice, physical preparation is important. Wear comfortable clothing that does not restrict your circulation or breathing. Create a routine that prepares you to be attentive and alert. Developing your own routine is helpful, and sometimes it enhances your ability to go into a deeper state of meditation earlier in a meditation session. If you follow the same two or three steps of physical preparation prior to meditation, the body will begin to obey your intention and settle down immediately at the beginning of your meditation session.
A regular meditation practice is more effective than a practice without commitment. If you are working on your own, try to be honest about what is working and your level of commitment. An experienced guide can help you develop an effective practice.
You might try longer periods of meditation after you have established a routine, especially if you are feeling stuck or are seeking a breakthrough in your practice. More frequent meditation sessions of 20- 30 minutes several times a day can be more effective than long meditation periods lasting one or more hours. As you gain more experience in your practice, and as you become comfortable with your intention and purpose, you will understand what is helpful and meaningful for you. Remember to take care of yourself physically as well as spiritually. Look for balance that nourishes you.
Preparation for the Practice
Meditation is enhanced by the flow of oxygen into the body and the brain because oxygen helps us become alert. Start with the following process to enhance the effectiveness of your breathing during meditation.
Sit comfortably and notice your breathing. Are you breathing through your mouth or through your nose? Both? Breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth? Are your air passages (nostrils, sinuses, throat, lungs) clear or congested? Are you breathing at a consistent, natural rate, or do you feel your breathing is a little fast? By answering these questions you increase awareness of your breath.
Use the index finger of your right hand to close your right nostril, then close your mouth. Breathe in steadily and deeply through your left nostril, then remove your finger and use the index finger of your left hand to close your left nostril, allowing you to exhale through the right nostril. Repeat this three times. Use the index finger of your left hand to close your left nostril and also close your mouth. Breathe in steadily and deeply through your right nostril, then remove your finger and use the index finger of your right hand to close your right nostril, allowing you to exhale through your left nostril. Repeat this three times. Then, breathe in through both nostrils steadily and deeply and exhale through your mouth. Repeat this three times.
Greater awareness of how you are breathing and the rate of your breathing will help you become more aware of your state of being. Restricted air passages might indicate you have a mild cold or virus and that your body needs attention. If you are drowsy during the day, you might find you need to get outside for fresh air because your body and mind are not feeling re-energized by your breathing. This awareness of your breath will likely lead to changes in your eating habits and other lifestyle choices. But for now, this awareness of breath is a prerequisite for the rest of your physical preparation.
The purpose of all physical preparation (including the breath) is to enhance your ability to sit comfortably and to remove any bodily distractions during meditation. Try the following stretching exercises to bring a sense of calm to your body. Keep your breath steady and deep throughout the exercises.
Stand in an erect but relaxed pose with your feet shoulder width apart. Slowly bend forward at the waist and let your body’s weight pull your upper body down. Don’t force any movement, just go as far as your body will let you go. Relax your arms and let them dangle. Hold this position for four to five seconds. Remember to keep breathing steadily and as deeply as is comfortable. Draw yourself back up into a standing posture. Repeat the process one more time. The intention of this exercise is to relax your back and upper body and to create a gentle stretch in your legs.
In the standing position, raise your left arm and reach for the sky, then relax, but still holding your arm up. Reach again and relax, repeating this a total of three times. Let your left arm return to your side and repeat the same process with your right arm.
In the same standing posture, move each of your feet to a position slightly outside the width of your shoulders. Place your hands on your hips. Bend at the waist to the left, gently, to stretch your right side. Repeat the process to the right to create the same gentle stretch on your left side. Repeat the process. Throughout these body movements, notice your breathing and try to keep the breath steady and deep.
While standing or sitting in an upright position, let your head fall forward as far as it will go, and then, in this extended position let the head roll to the right, back, and left, until completing a circle, all the time extending in such a way as to stretch the neck muscles. Don’t force the head in any direction; let it move slowly and gently. Do this three times in the direction to the right and three times to the left. Just as with the body stretches, make sure that you keep breathing deeply and steadily.
The breathing and stretching are helpful any time you feel physically restricted or unsettled prior to meditation. The goal of both the breathing and stretching is to calm your physical body and at the same time increase your mental alertness. You can substitute other exercises for what is described here. The point is to develop a physical routine that helps your meditation experience.
Posture During Meditation
The ideal meditation posture should allow you to meditate with minimal physical effort. Good posture helps us to avoid muscle tension, stiffness, soreness, poor circulation, and cramping. It is perfectly all right to sit in a chair, lie flat on the floor or in a bed, or sit on a cushion. Do what feels comfortable and what is not physically distracting. Some people fall asleep when lying flat, so I don’t recommend starting with this kind of posture. During meditation you should be mentally alert. If you are drowsy from lack of sleep or physical fatigue, it might be best to put off meditating until you feel rested. The goal of meditation is not to shut down the body in the ways that we do to achieve rest, though the practice of meditation over time is likely to improve your ability to rest.
Physical distractions during meditation should be dealt with promptly. Your meditation will become difficult if you are trying to fight through an uncomfortable sitting position or refusing to scratch an itch. Change or respond as necessary, but return promptly to your prayer, mantra, or whatever point of focus you have chosen to help re-establish your meditation process. Any physical distractions you experience will diminish over time.
Find a place, or create a space to meditate where you are not likely to be disturbed. It does not have to be perfectly quiet, but a space that is quiet is helpful.
For those beginning a meditation practice for the first time, I recommend the breath as the first point of focus until you have a sense of all the physical elements of a meditation practice. Once you are past this stage, you will gradually experience changes in consciousness.
Breathe normally and gently focus your attention on your breath. You will notice a rhythm to your breathing and you will notice when the rhythm is interrupted. There might be times when you feel the need for a deep breath, or there are times when your breathing will feel shallow. For the first few moments just try to remain aware of your breathing. Once your breathing stabilizes, observe how your mind is functioning. Note how thoughts spontaneously arise. Notice the things that attract your attention. Take an inventory of your body sensations: any tightness, soreness, or tension. Notice your posture. Are you able to maintain a posture that won’t cause you to get stiff or make you uncomfortable in a way that is distracting? This process I just described should not take more than a few minutes. Now you are ready to begin.
From this comfortable position, with stable breathing (breathing evenly, without feeling the need for deep breaths), and with your eyes closed, pay attention to your breath. If your mind interrupts your focus with a series of thoughts, note the interruption, or thought, and return your focus to your breath. Experience your breathing process fully; let it function without effort. This is something you do most of the day without effort. Let it continue.
At first you may feel like there is a lot of activity: focus on breath, thoughts, distractions, back to focusing on the breath. This is normal. Gradually your focus on your breath will require less effort, and between the breath and the first thought or distraction you may experience small gaps where there is an opening of pure attention. If you try to grasp this or hold it, it will probably slip away. If it lingers, surrender to it. If it leaves, return to the focus on your breath. This is your meditation process.
Continue the process throughout the 10 to 20 minute period. You may experience moments of purity and euphoria, or perhaps moments of anger or fear. Treat these the same as your thoughts. Once you notice them, return to the breath. Progress may seem slow or non- existent. Remember to be consistent with your effort and regular in your practice. Discipline is a crucial part of your meditation practice. To end your session, give thanks, gradually open your eyes, and sit quietly for another minute or two to reconnect with your body before resuming other activities.
Several things happen to our consciousness during meditation. Our attention is withdrawn from the outside world and gently focused on our inner state of being. We focus on a single word, a chant, a song, a prayer, or—as in the above example—our breathing, as a means of stabilizing our awareness. Meditation has been described as a form of concentration, but I prefer not to use that word because its use tends to instill mental intensity in the person meditating. Meditation in its best form is actually a gentle, natural process. There is also an emptying of the mind that takes place. This does not mean emptying in the sense of creating a vacuum; rather it means letting go of thoughts and mental activity so that our awareness increases and our sensitivity increases to the stage where our experience of being in all areas—physical, intellectual, and emotional—is pure. By pure I mean without evaluation, analysis, or judgment. You become one with your experience.
At the beginning of a meditation practice there might be the tendency to categorize your session as “good” or “bad,” depending on the number of times you return to the point of focus, or based on the number of physical interruptions. Let go of this tendency to evaluate and let go of judgmental analysis. All meditation sessions are beneficial to your growth in awareness and consciousness. Though it may be hard to always identify the results, over time you will begin to appreciate what is happening. Many people limit their practice to this basic type of meditation and enjoy the benefits that come with it. The purpose of this book goes beyond this kind of practice to a deeper process that results in greater spiritual knowledge and understanding.