Decades of scientific, medical and social research reveals that meditation has quantitative, qualitative benefits to anyone who takes up the practice – everything from lowering blood pressure, combating stress, overcoming insomnia, raising awareness, improving memory, cultivating happiness, reducing anxiety and increasing higher consciousness The message is consistently clear: if you want to feel great, then meditate. Here are seven ways to unleash your inner Zen and begin a meditation practice.
#1) Pick a place. Choose a conducive environment for meditation. That means a peaceful place where you won’t be easily disrupted by other people or loud, harsh sounds. Kathleen McDonald, author of How To Meditate, offers these additional insights: “Ideally, the place should be clean and quiet, where you won’t be disturbed. However, with discipline it is possible to meditate in a crowded, noisy environment; people in prison, for example, often cannot find a quiet place and still become successful meditators. Even if your surroundings are busy and noisy, make your meditation place as pleasing and comfortable as possible, so that you are happy to be there and can’t wait to return.”
#2) Select a time. Generally, establishing a successful meditation practice involves selecting a time and meditating at that same time frequently. Some people find that getting up a few minutes earlier to sit and meditate works well. Others like to meditate at the end of their day, shortly before going to bed. Still others find that a mid-day meditation break recharges them. Find a time that works best with your personality style. If you’re a night person, then likely an evening meditation time may be best for you versus trying to do it early in the morning. Or, if you’re a morning person, then meditate in the morning and avoid night meditation when you are tired and worn out. However, if your schedule is erratic, don’t let that stop you. Just commit to sit and then find times that work with your changing schedule.
#3) Prepare yourself. Meditation is greatly enhanced when two practical matters are dealt with. The first one is clothing. Wear clothes that are comfortable for sitting in meditation. Most find that exercise apparel is ideal. The second is how to sit during meditation. There are many options for sitting. You can sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor. You can sit cross legged on a bed, sofa or on a cushion on the floor. If your body is tight and you wish to sit on the floor, you may find it best to have your back leaning against a wall. However you sit, your back should be straight and erect but not rigid. The hands should rest comfortably on your legs or in your lap. At first a meditation posture may feel awkward but as you practice, the posture will begin to feel comfortable and familiar to your body.
#4) Start with a small amount of time. Be reasonable and realistic with yourself when establishing how long you will meditate. Don’t set yourself up for frustration and failure by deciding initially to meditate daily for a lengthy period of time. Remember that your goal is to establish a long lasting practice so it is better to begin slowly and progress gradually. Stephen Bodian, a meditation teacher and author, recommends five minutes as a good start point: “If you’re a beginner, a few minutes can seem like an eternity, so start off slowly and increase the length of your sittings as your interest and enjoyment dictate. You may find that by the time you settle your body and start to focus on your breath, your time is up. If the session seems too short, you can always sit a little longer the next time. As your practice develops, you’ll find that even five minutes can be immeasurably refreshing.”
#5) Choose a meditation practice. While there are an abundance of meditation techniques starting with a traditional Zen breath focus is ideal and simple because your breath is always with you. Gently close your eyes or if you want to leave them open, do so while slightly gazing down toward the floor. Avoid looking around. Take a few deep inhales and exhales to relax. Begin your meditation by counting your breaths. As you gently inhale and exhale say “one” to yourself. As you gently inhale and exhale again, say “two” to yourself. Do this five times and then begin again with the number one. Repeat this pattern again and again until the time you’ve set up for meditation is over. As you continue practicing, you can experiment with other techniques focusing upon those which resonate with you.
#6) Remain focused in spite of distractions. As you sit, a variety of distractions will present themselves. For example, a foot may fall asleep, an itch may call out to you for relief, or you will feel some modest physical discomfort. As much as possible avoid responding to those distractions by moving and fidgeting. Adopt a hospitable attitude toward these irritations. In fact, the ideal is to focus on those annoyances as part of your meditation. In his book Meditation For Beginners, Jack Kornfield tells of an occasion when he was enjoying a deep meditation outside. All of a sudden, a fly landed on his face. “My first impulse was to brush the fly away because it tickled and was unpleasant, but then I thought, ‘Hey, I teach people to observe sensations like this, so I’ll just stay with it.” He sat up a little straighter and just allowed himself to feel the sensations repeating this mantra meditation to himself – “itching, itching, itching.” Then the fly moved to the edge of his nose causing Kornield to become very concerned that he “might accidentally inhale the fly or it might climb up inside my nose and get caught there. I began to feel my belly quiver and I watched the fear rise with these tiny footsteps on the edge of my nostril,” he recalls. The fly continued to wander all over his face for at least ten minutes “and what was interesting to me was that during those ten minutes I was not planning, I was not doing my taxes, there was nothing creative going on, and I was not worrying about anything else. By the end of ten minutes, I was more present and centered and concentrated than if I had gone to a monastery for a month.”
#7) Don’t worry about thoughts. Some meditators erroneously believe that the goal of meditation is to have a blank mind. Actually, the objective of meditation is not to have a blank mind but to reduce mindless mental chatter and slow down the onslaught random thoughts which bring confusion, anxiety, stress and mental overload. Meditation is about a focused mind, not a blank mind. As thoughts appear during your meditation, apply this advice from Dr. Lorin Roche, author of Meditation Made Easy: “When thoughts come, they come. Take a welcoming attitude, as if birds have just landed on your lawn. Let them peck around. When you become aware that you are thinking, then you have a choice: you can finish the thought or you can return to the breath or whatever your focus is. . .do not feel you were wrong to be thinking.”
Finally, keep yourself motivated by working with the wisdom of an old Chinese Zen master who reminded his students: Sun faced Buddha, Moon faced Buddha! By those words he meant that meditation should be done when happy or sad, energetic or tired, healthy or ill. Just meditate however you happen to be on any given day.