Why meditate? On one level, meditation is a tool. It can help combat stress, fosters physical health, helps with chronic pain, can make you sleep better, feel happier, be more peaceful, as well as be ‘present’. But on a deeper level, meditation is a doorway into the unknown. It can help us get a sense of who we are.
When you start meditating, you will notice that your mind wanders a lot. This is perfectly natural. Try to be gentle with yourself. In time you will learn to manage the barrage of thoughts and you will develop clarity and peacefulness.
Here are some simple tips on how to start meditating.
1. Place - It’s lovely to create a special place dedicated to meditation. You can even place a candle or other objects such as stones, seashells, or flowers that appeal to you.
2. Length - Start with 1 to 2 minutes and only sit longer if you feel that is too short. Don’t force yourself to meditate longer if you are not ready to do that. In time you might like to extend your meditation to 5, 10, 20 and eventually 30 minutes. Most importantly, shrug off any ‘shoulds’. Some people enjoy sitting for an hour at a time. Others find that they can’t sit longer than 10 minutes. Do what feels right for you!
3. Posture - Whether you sit on a chair or cross-legged on the floor, make sure that your spine is straight. If you are slumped your mind will drift. Mind and body are intertwined. If your body is well-balanced, your mind will also be in balance. To straighten up, imagine that your head is touching the sky.
4. Eyes - Try and keep your eyes open. Open eyes allow you to be more ‘present’. Just lower your eyes and soften your focus. If you close your eyes you will be more likely to drift away on thoughts and possibly fall asleep. However, it’s important to do what is comfortable for you. Some people find closing their eyes much more effective. It’s good to experiment and see what feels best for you.
5. Focus - In ordinary consciousness we are hardly ever ‘present’. For example, sometimes we drive a car on autopilot while being preoccupied with thoughts. Suddenly we arrive at our destination and don’t remember anything about the drive!
Meditation is a wonderful way of waking up to our life. Otherwise we miss most of our experiences because we are somewhere else in our mind! Let’s take a look at what focus is. In ordinary life, we tend to equate focus with concentration. It is like using the mind like a concentrated beam of light. But in meditation, that kind of mind isn’t helpful. It’s too sharp and edgy. To focus in meditation means to pay soft attention to whatever you place in your awareness. I suggest using the breath as a focus. It’s like a natural door that connects ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. Zen Master Toni Packer says, “Attention comes from nowhere. It has no cause. It belongs to no one.”
6. The breath - Paying attention to the breath is a great way to anchor yourself in the present moment. Notice your breath streaming in and out. There’s no need to regulate the breath - just let it be natural. If you are having difficulties calming down, you can try counting the breath - which is an ancient meditation practice. When you exhale, silently count “one”, then “two”, and up to “ten”. Then return to “one”. Whenever you notice your thoughts have strayed simply return to “one”. In this way, “one” is like coming home to the present moment.
7. Thoughts - When you notice thoughts, gently let them go by returning your focus on the breath. Don’t try and stop thoughts; this will just make you feel agitated. Acknowledge their presence and politely ask them to leave.
8. Emotions - It’s difficult to settle into meditation if you are struggling with strong emotions. The way to deal with strong emotions in meditation is to focus on feelings that accompany the emotion. For example, this could be the tight band of fear around the chest or the hot roiling of anger in the belly. Try to let go of the emotion and the feeling and refocus on your body.
9. Silence - Silence is healing. I know that there is a lot of ‘meditation music’ around, but nothing beats simple silence. Otherwise music or sound drowns out the chatter in your mind. When we sit in silence, we actually get to experience what our mind is doing. There is steadiness and calmness that comes from sitting in silence.
10. Enjoyment - Most of all it’s important to enjoy meditation. You might like to try sitting with a hint of a smile. Be kind to yourself. Start sitting just a little each day. It’s helpful to establish a daily habit.