Introduction: How to Meditate
The intention of this Instructable is to give an introduction to meditation practice. According to the Wikipedia article on meditation there are hundreds of different types of meditation, I will only be discussing those that I have practiced myself. While my experience comes from Buddhist meditation, specifically Vipassana or Insight meditation, the meditation practice I am describing can be done by anyone without interfering with an existing belief system. Meditation can promote well-being and has health benefits such as helping you relax, reduce stress and deal with chronic pain.
Step 1: Getting Started
Find a quiet place where you won't be distracted by people, cell phones,computers, TV's etc. To start you may want to try this for about 10 minutes then extend the time as you feel more comfortable.
There is no need to sit in the lotus or half lotus position, you can sit cross legged or on a chair. If you have difficulty sitting due to illness or injury you can lie down. Make sure you are stable and comfortable, you don't want to be moving around too much. Sit with your back straight, your hands on your lap and your eyes closed. You can use pillow(s) to sit on to make yourself more comfortable, zafus and zabutons are great for this. If you have trouble with your knees or hips try a mediation bench (see image below) . Have blankets or shawls on hand in case you get cold since you will be sitting still. Keep some water to drink nearby as well.
You can find meditation pillows and benches at specialty stores or online, though they can be expensive. Meditation benches can cost around $70-80 whereas I made my own for about $10 worth of material and an hours work (you can find instructions here).
Step 2: Concentration
In concentration meditation you focus your mind on an object with the exclusion of everything else. The object can be your breath, a flame, a colour, word or image, though it is easier to begin with something physical like your breath or a flame, the breath is ideal since it is always with you.
To start, breathe, you should already be doing this. Now bring your attention to your breath. Don't try to change your breathing pattern. You can focus on the movement of air into and out of your nose or the rise and fall of your chest. Just be aware of your breathing. Aim your attention solely on the breath, sinking in to it and ignoring every thing else. If a thought or sound, or other sensation distracts you gently bring your attention back to your breath. As you do this practice your mind becomes still and calm, as you deepen your concentration tranquility and joy can arise. With a great deal of practice this meditation can lead to altered states of consciousness referred to as Jhanas. If you are interested in Jhanas, Leigh Brasington has two really good talks about it over at Dharma Seed.
This state of concentration is not limited to the meditation pillow. You may be able to experience this deep concentration while performing an activity like a hobby or art, it is like feeling a oneness with what you doing. Much the same way with a Zen Garden, if you focus your attention closely as you place the rocks or rake the sand you can attain a calm and still mind.
Step 3: Compassion
"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. "Dalai Lama
This is a Tibetan Buddhism practice that helps cultivate compassion. It can also help you deal with the suffering of others which is beyond your ability to change.
To do this practice bring to mind someone that is suffering, it could be someone who is sick, has a chronic illness, suffering from emotional distress, or is dealing with a loss, etc. It can be someone close to you, an acquaintance or someone you saw on the news. Now imagine their suffering as black smoke. As you breath in, draw in this black smoke of suffering. When you breath out, breath out a white light of healing and compassion. Breath in suffering, breath out compassion. Imagine the black smoke of suffering being transformed to compassion inside you, bathing the person in a white light of compassion.
Step 4: Loving Kindness
This is another meditation practice centred in the heart. Loving kindness or metta meditation is a meditation done to cultivate loving kindness in ourselves and in our relationships. If you are wondering what loving kindness is, it is unconditional love and compassion. This meditation is done by repeating a set of phrases to yourself (not out loud). These phrases are directed at yourself and other individuals. Hold the thought or image of the person in your mind (or heart) and repeat the phrases below. We begin with ourselves. When the feeling of loving kindness becomes strong we can move on to a loved one (a family member, dear friend, pet). From there we can move on to a neutral person, which is someone you don't know, for example the person who was sitting beside you on the bus or the cashier at the grocery store (this helps overcome apathy and indifference). Then we direct the loving kindness phrases to a difficult person, someone who we don't like or has hurt us (this removes barriers from our heart and allows us to see their goodness.) From there we can extend it to all beings.
The traditional phrases are as follow. You don't have to use these exact phrases just use what resonates with you.
May I/you be safe and protected from inner and outer harm and danger
May I/you be happy and peaceful of heart
May I/you be strong and healthy of body
May I/you live in this world with joy and ease and gratitude.
It is important that you are not just mindlessly reciting these phrases, rather you are feeling them from your heart. If we find that it is difficult to maintain these feelings of loving kindness go back to someone who is easy such as a loved one. Working with a difficult person can be challenging so you might want to start with someone that is just mildly difficult or annoying.
You are not limited to only doing this practice on the meditation pillow this can be helpful to you throughout your daily life, if you are feeling upset, anxious, impatient or if you are in a difficult situation just try repeating the phrases. I've done this while waiting in an slow moving checkout line or while waiting for a bus that was late in the pouring rain. It allows you to break free from thoughts of annoyance or frustration (or other negative thought patterns) that would only make the situation worse.
Step 5: Mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation encourages our minds to stay in contact with what is happening in the present moment rather than worrying about the future or having regrets or remembering things from the past. It allows our mind to become calm and still. When we bring mindfulness into our daily lives it can reduce reactivity and discursive thinking
Bring your attention to your breath as you did in the concentration practice, notice the inhalation and exhalation. Be with the movement of air as you breath in and out. You can note quietly to yourself "breathing in, breathing out." Your breath is an anchor, if your mind begins to wander remember to return to the breath.
If sounds or sensations arise, acknowledge them or note them in your mind then return to your anchor, the breath. For example if you hear a bird chirping gently say to yourself "bird" then return your attention to the breath, if your cat knocks over your plant to get your attention say gently to yourself "cat" then return to your breath. Don't judge what is happening, just be aware.
If thoughts arise note that there are thoughts and let them pass and return to your breath, try not to get caught up in them or allow them to carry you away. Imagine your thoughts as leaves floating by in a stream. When you are starting out (or even if your are an experienced meditator) you may find yourself distracted and easily carried away in thought; once you become aware that you are doing this always remember to return to the breath. With practice this will become easier, don't be hard on yourself.
Body awareness or groundedness is feeling your body from the inside or being fully in the body. This can be done in a sitting mediation by bringing your awareness to the top of your head and move down to your toes paying attention to each part of your body in an open and mindful way. Notice sensations of pressure (your bum resting on the pillow), temperature, warmth or coolness, stiffness or relaxation, soreness, or pain etc. If you hit upon a place where there is pain, or an itch or a pleasant sensation you can linger longer experiencing the sensation fully.
Body awareness can be difficult for some people as we often live in our heads or somewhere more abstract, so we may feel a disconnect with out bodies, it's okay just work with your breath instead. I personally have trouble doing body awareness meditation, I would find myself paying attention to my hands, for example and then they would begin to feel disembodied (which could be a bit disconcerting), so I tend to focus on the breath instead.
Step 6: Walking Meditation
Walking meditation is awareness in motion. It can give you a break from sitting meditation and it is also an important mindfulness practice as it is a way of cultivating durable concentration. Walking meditation is like the body awareness exercise mentioned in Step 5, it involves paying attention to the movement of our body as we walks. The shifting of our weight, lifting a foot, moving it through the air, placing it on the ground, shifting your weight and lifting the other foot; this is done slowly with awareness of the subtleties of movement. It is best done at home pacing back and forth down a long hallway. You may find it helpful if you count your steps or note to yourself "lifting, moving, placing".
Walking meditation outside in nature.
This is a more practical exercise. It can be done when you are going out for a stroll or just walking to the store. For this type of walking meditation we walk with an open expansive awareness greeting our sensory perceptions with openness and a non-judging or clinging mind. We still focus on our movements and breath but also greeting other sensations such as sounds, smells, the feel of a breeze, the warmth or coldness of the air, raindrops, etc, as they enter our field of awareness.
Step 7: Visualization and a Few Other Things
This not really a meditation practice but I'll mention it because it can be a helpful relaxation exercise. This type of visualization involves imagining that your are somewhere else, some fantasy place, or a place you may fondly remember from your past that is peaceful and calming. Guided audio tapes are helpful for this but you can also do this on your own.
To begin this is usually done lying down or lying back in a chair with your eyes closed. Imagine yourself in a safe peaceful place, it can be on a secluded beach, in the forest, wherever you prefer. Breathe in the fresh air, notice the smells of the sea or the trees nearby. Listen to the sounds; whether it is the waves, the gentle trickle of a stream, or birds singing nearby. Feel the warm sun on your skin. The texture and feel of the sand or earth beneath you. Rest in this place feeling relaxed and calm however long you want.
This is neither a meditation or visualization exercise but it is something that can lift your mood and make you feel better about yourself. You can do this first thing in the morning or before you go to bed. It is really quite simple just name five things that you are grateful for. Don't just list them off like your reading a grocery list but really feel the gratitude in your heart. Try it and I'm sure it will make you feel better.
Forgiveness can bring about healing and peace. I have been to several meditation retreats and at the end we always say this forgiveness prayer. I have seen other versions of this online but this is the one I am familiar with:
"If I have harmed anyone in any way either knowingly
or unknowingly through my own confusions
I ask their forgiveness.
If anyone has harmed me in any way either knowingly
or unknowingly through their own confusions
I forgive them.*
If I have harmed myself in any way either knowingly
or unknowingly through my own confusions
I forgive myself."
*There may be some things you may not be ready to forgive yet, it's okay.
Step 8: Sitting Groups, Retreats and Monasteries
Meditation is generally considered to be a solitary practice, but a lot can be gained by meditating in a group setting such as with sitting groups and on retreats. Other people can provide support and encouragement as well as inspire us to practice.
I am fortunate to live in an area with a meditation society that runs residential and non-residential retreats as well a having sitting groups nearby. The benefit of going to retreats is that you have access to teachers to answer questions and give further guidance. You can check at your local community centre, look for posting at new-age or spiritual bookstores, or on the internet for information on meditation in your area.
Ashrams and monasteries also open their doors to laypeople though you may need to make arrangements ahead of time.