“Meditation, otherwise known as sitting still and thinking about nothing, is one of those things that can be just as stupidly simple as it is surprisingly hard.” - Jen Sincero
The seventh limb of the 8-Limbed Yogic Path is Dhyana / Meditation. The science-based benefits of meditation are well known-- reduces stress, controls anxiety, reduces age-related memory loss, improves sleep, helps fight addiction, decreases blood pressure, helps control pain and generates happiness and kindness. Given all these benefits, why do so many of us find it difficult to establish a regular meditation practice? Perhaps part of it is mistaken, unrealistic expectations about the experience of meditation.
My favorite book on Meditation is “How to Meditate” by Pema Chodron. She points out that we do not meditate in order to be comfortable… in order to feel good all the time. Rather, meditation is about being with all kinds of experiences--- first on our mat, and then in our life. If meditation was just about feeling good, we would often feel like we are doing it wrong, because at times, meditation can be such a difficult experience. We may experience boredom, restlessness, or physical discomfort--just like life! Meditation teaches us how to be completely present with what is, and in doing so allows us to go beyond our thoughts and projections and experience the true nature of the self-- our connection with the Divine.
When we studied the sixth limb, Dharana, we learned how to concentrate on a fixed object, consciously bringing our attention back to it again and again. Meditation takes us beyond concentration and to stillness. We are aware of the object of our meditation, but not focused on the act of meditating itself. This takes time and practice! We are used to instant gratification, but the benefits of meditation practice don’t magically manifest after sitting 15 minutes/day. Usually when we start meditating or praying, we may experience what Archbishop Tutu calls “spiritual sweets,” the high from beginning to pay attention to our inner life. But the real benefits happen over time as we release our identification with our body and mind and find our true self--our self that is connected to all that is.
Pema Chodron lists 5 qualities that we develop through meditation (How to Meditate):
Steadfastness - You allow yourself to experience whatever is happening in that moment. It could be your mind going a hundred miles an hour, your body aching, your head pounding, your heart full of fear-- whatever comes up, you stay with the experience.
Clear-Seeing - By being steadfast, and staying with your experiences, you begin to develop a non-judgemental, unbiased clarity of just seeing. You begin to recognize your habits and get to know yourself better. You’ll notice how and when you are getting “hooked.”
Courage - By sitting with the experiences on your mat, you’ll develop the courage to experience your emotional discomfort and the trials and tribulations of life. When you feel triggered or you encounter conflict, you will find yourself able to stay in that experience, without creating a story around it. This makes room for your own innate wisdom to manifest. The reward for your courage will be moments of insight. In some ways we prefer living in our delusions and the stories that justify how we feel, and that’s why this practice is so difficult to do, and requires courage.
Presence - We become awake to our lives, to each and every moment, just as it is. As we relax into the moment, we learn how to relax into the unknown. Meeting the unknown of the moment, allows you to live your life and to enter your relationships and commitments ever more fully. This is living wholeheartedly.
“No Big Deal” - When something good or bad happens, it is important to seek equanimity. With meditation you may experience profound transformation or epiphanies! Even so, try not to make too big of a big deal of these experiences because that leads to arrogance or a sense of “specialness.” On the other hand, making a big deal about your difficulties can take you in the other direction-- to low self-esteem and scarcity. By making “no big deal” out of everything, you can see it all, and love it all.
As you prepare for meditation practice, or any habit you would like to adopt, it is helpful to establish a regular routine. Pick a place to meditate that is uncluttered and free from distractions, with fresh air and that doesn’t require a lot of set-up. Perhaps you would enjoy setting up a little meditation shrine with candles, flowers, inspiring images or incense. The essential oils that are good for mediation are: sandalwood, frankincense, rose, rosewood, benzoin, cedarwood, myrrh and juniper. It is helpful to face north or east because the polarity of the magnetic fields of the earth influence us, and those directions will have a positive effect on the mind. Establish a regular fixed time to meditate. Some enjoy starting their day with meditation to put themselves in the right mindset. Other’s enjoy meditation in the afternoon, when it serves as a reset button and changes the course of the rest of the day. Others prefer to meditate at the end of the day to calm themselves before sleep. Over time you will notice what helps and what hinders your meditation experience. Perhaps you will want to avoid heavy meals and electronics right before you meditate. Perhaps you like a shower to wake you up or some yoga and stretching before you take your seat. Make it an exploration into what works best for you!
This is also true of your meditation position. Every body is different. Perhaps you are most comfortable sitting in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Perhaps you will take an easy seat on the floor, or even lie down. There are many positions commonly used in meditation-- Easy Seat, Half and Full Lotus, Auspicious Pose, Accomplished Pose, and Thunderbolt Pose. Whatever position you assume, make sure the spine, neck and head remain straight. Sit on cushions or blankets to ease tension in the low back. You may wish to practice with your eyes open or closed. In Tibetan Buddhism, they suggest keeping your eyes softly open to find stillness in the midst of distractions. In the southern tradition of Buddhism, Thervadan tradition and Hindu traditions, you are encouraged to keep your eyes closed, to turn inward and rise-above. Try both and find what works for you. Start off with a short manageable length of time--5 or 10 minutes. This will help you not to feel overwhelmed or get restless, and it will be easier to develop a consistent practice. Then you can gradually increase the length of your practice as you feel ready. The more you meditate, the more you will want to meditate!
The steps of meditation are simple and can be done anywhere. Perhaps you enjoy a guided meditation, in which someone leads you through the steps and visualizations. If so, check out “The Hive” on my website, which is a great way to start your meditation practice! Otherwise, just settle into your comfortable position and check in with yourself. How is your body feeling? Do a body scan and consciously release tension you are holding. What has been on your mind? What emotions are you carrying? Then draw your attention to your breath. Breath is used as an object of meditation because it is impermanent. It is always changing, it’s always flowing. Therefore, you are feeling something rather than concentrating on something. When your mind starts to wander, and it will, just keep coming back. Gently and kindly call yourself back to your breath. Trungpa Rinpoche uses the example of trying to feed a distracted baby. You have to be sweetly repetitive, reminding the baby to eat. Mingyur Rinpoche points out that when you get swept away by your thoughts, you often have this little “oops” moment when you call yourself back. This is actually a moment of pure meditation, when you are totally centered in the present moment.
Once we start meditating on our mat, we might find that we are moved to take these same practices off our mat and into our daily lives! We can start approaching all our daily tasks with an attitude of mindfulness. Doing the dishes can be meditative if all our attention is on the act of washing the dishes-- so can making a cup of tea, folding the laundry or taking a walk! A Vipassana meditation teacher named Gregory Kramer explains that we can meditate even while we are engaged in conversation. Instead of immediately responding when someone speaks, we pause for a moment, relax our body and mind, and notice what we are experiencing. If we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings, we can mindfully choose our reactions and words. Our options expand! Instead of judging, interpreting, or commenting on what the other person is saying, perhaps we just listen more deeply to another person’s words and experience. When we do speak, rather than trying to assert our “rightness” or protect our fragile egos, our words will be helpful and true.
The single most important instruction when learning how to meditate is to approach meditation with gentleness. Your mind will wander. That is what minds do. When thoughts arise, don’t embrace them and follow them, but also don’t resist them and push them away. Just notice them without judgment, and allow them to float away. Pema Chodron points out that before you started meditating and trying to develop a mindfulness practice, you weren’t aware of how many thoughts you had. Once you start meditating and noticing your thoughts, it will appear that there are more of them! Theravada meditation master Henepola Gunaratana humorously explains:
“Somewhere in this process you will come face to face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way and you never noticed.”
Now that you have a good overview of meditation, how to do it and what to expect-- don’t overthink it. Try not to make it into a big daunting task that never gets done. Just sit still when you see an opportunity and take it from there. Then, over time, just as you have learned to accept all the things that arise during meditation, you will make peace with all the things that arise in your life-- because everything is an opportunity to practice!
* (For further reading, check out “How to Meditate” and “Start Where you Are” by Pema Chodron, “You are a Badass” by Jen Sincero, “The Yoga Book: A Practical Guide of Self-Realization” by Stephen Sturgess and “The Yoga Mind” by Rina Jakubowicz. Article on “The 12 Science-Based Benefits of Meditation” on Healthline by Matthew Thorpe, Phd. Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works.)