Meditation:Ok, so you don't have a neighborhood guru. You don't belong to any mystic organization that has ready made mantras. The closest thing to a monastery in your city is the big Catholic church downtown. But still, there's all this talk of how meditation is good for the soul. So, what's folks from Little Town USA supposed to do?
Well I'm here to tell you that anyone can learn to meditate, "in the privacy of your own home" ... as they say in the ads. Really it's not that big of a deal. But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we get started with the nuts and bolts of how to meditate, let's talk for a minute on what meditation is and why it's beneficial.
Meditation, at its bedrock level, is simply a quieting of the mind. It's like a mini- vacation for the conscious mind or ego if you prefer. I'm talking about that stream of constant chatter that goes on in your head all through your day-to-day living. Did I remember to turn off the coffee pot? I can't forget to stop by the cleaners this afternoon. You know ... those constant mental notes and questions that go on all the time.
Now, while this stream of thought has its place, it sometimes gets out of hand. Our bodies start reacting to the imaginary threats or situations. Instead of reacting to the here and now, we're getting hyped up over something that hasn't happened yet, it may never happen. It's just one of the things that might happen.
If you think just a little I'm sure you can recall at least one occasion where a thought crossed your mind of an event that had unpleasant consequences. Think back how you churned that situation over and over in your head, stress building all the time. Now recall how relieved you were when the event never happened after all. While you were relieved, you still had a lousy day. Your body reacted to the situation as if it were happening. I'll leave it to the doctors to explain all the physical changes that took place in your body, you know, blood pressure, adrenaline, little things like that. So what we're looking for in meditation is a sense of who we are (and it's not that little voice) inside.
By getting a sense of who we are we can better separate real stressful situations from those that may or may not materialize. It gives us a few moments to regain our balance. The great thing you'll notice about that is how it carries over into day-to-day life. As you become aware of your inner self in meditation you'll find that even in the middle of a stressful day you can mentally take a step back and get a fresh look at the situation. Things around us seem in a better perspective. Many feel that way after visiting the ocean, mountains, or some other large natural panorama. That's no coincidence, by watching nature they've forgotten about themselves for the moment. You guessed it ... that's meditation!
While what follows is a more formal method of meditation, I encourage you to take every opportunity to immerse yourself in your surroundings as a simple form of daily meditation. Watch a squirrel, visit the ocean, look at the stars. The idea here is not to think about these things, just let yourself be a passive observer.
The only formal meditation method I'll offer here is borrowed from Zen but you don't have to be Buddhist for it to work. I'm not concerned here with anything to do with any religion, faith, or belief. I'm just borrowing a simple technique for the same reason I sometimes cook with a Wok even if I'm not cooking Oriental food ... because it works. So lay your preconceived notions aside for a moment and follow along. I promise not to go mystic on you.
Now get out your notebook while I offer the nuts and bolts of meditation. Are you ready? Ok, here goes ...
Sit quietly ... doing nothing.
There you have it, all the instructions you really need. Ok ... ok, you expected a little more, so I'll give you the long version. But all you really need is what I just told you. Let's break it down into parts.
Sit:You can sit on the floor, in a chair, on the ground, anywhere you want. What you're looking for is someplace quiet and comfortable. I highly recommend sitting rather than laying as most people tend to fall asleep if they try meditating laying down. A blanket or thick rug with a pillow just under the buttocks works well. You want to keep your spine straight but not rigid. It allows you to breath easier. Your shoulders should be allowed to fall slightly down naturally. Not hunched forward and not drawn back like a soldier at attention. Just let them relax. If you imagine someone standing just behind you lifting gently on your jaw bone you'll get the basic posture for your spine and shoulders. When you first sit down you might try moving your upper body in smaller circles. As the circles get smaller your body will find its best center of balance. Your eyes can be opened or closed or in-between, whatever you feel the most comfortable with. If you keep them open you'll want to make sure your surroundings aren't too distracting.
As for your hands, lay them in your lap or on your thighs. You can cup one in the other. Some find that by letting their forefingers and thumbs just barely touch (as if holding a piece of paper between them) it helps keep them from drifting off to sleep. I suggest you not interlock your fingers as bone against bone might cause some soreness. The main thing is to be comfortable, but not too comfortable.
Quietly:Here's where it starts getting a little trickier. When you first start out you'll find that the instant you try to sit quietly your body turns saboteur. You'll be surprised at just how distracted you can get. Something will surely itch. Your hair will tickle your ears. An eyelash will feel out of place. It may seem that you suddenly can't keep still. Unfortunately, all I can offer is that this stage will pass. You might allow yourself a minute or two when you first sit down to get everything in place. After that you'll acknowledge the sensation but not act on it. Sort of like, yes, my chin itches but I'll let it pass.
The next culprit will likely be your breathing. Strange how fifteen minutes before you sat down you were getting along fine without a thought of how you breath. Now it seems to be a major project. So if you ask me how you're suppose to breath, I'll answer, the same way you did before you sat down ... naturally. Now different schools of meditation teach different breathing techniques. Whole chapters have been written on the proper way to breath. I'll tell you here and now, while meditating, the less you interfere with this most natural of functions the better. You can take months if you want, perfecting some special way of breathing while meditating. But I suggest that if you have to do anything ... just watch. By that I mean you can be aware of your breathing process but don't give in to trying to control it. Just watch ... each breath will follow the other just as surely as each wave in the ocean is replaced by the next. Let them come as they will, you're not concerned with how they come.
Doing nothing:Now, here's the hard part. You remember that little voice we spoke of earlier? Well you sit down with the idea of doing nothing and it goes amuck. A thousand and seventeen stray thoughts will race into your head the minute you sit down. Did I this and did I that? The car, the job, the pets, and the kids, with everything else to boot. I like to think of it as the ego trying to guess what it is we want to think about. It's unaccustomed to this idleness when you're awake, so it offers a myriad of topics for you to pick from. Pick none! Instead, allow the thoughts to fall away as quickly and as naturally as they arose.
Don't fall into the trap of trying to stop or subdue your thoughts. You'll just get caught up in thinking about not thinking. Here's a little trick to help gently calm that voice, give it a job. Assign it the task of counting your breaths. But give it strict rules. First it is not to interfere, its job is just to count. Next, it is to count the breaths from one to ten and then start back at one. However, if it interferes with the count by slipping in stray thoughts it has to start back at one. Trust me, you'll be surprised at how long it is before you reach ten. Persist and you will reach it on a regular basis. Each time you sit to meditate you'll get better and better at quieting your mind. Somewhere along the way you may notice that you ego quit counting and just joined in your quietness. Congratulations ... you're there.
There is an old analogy that compares the mind clouded with thoughts to muddy water. Stirring it up will only keep it cloudy. The only way for the water to clear it to wait. Left alone, it will clear on its own and so will your mind.
When you first start, sit only for short periods. Forcing yourself to sit for prolonged periods when nothing is going right will only make you think you can't succeed. Nothing is further from the truth. You'll get better with practice, I promise. With time and practice, you'll find you can swiftly slip into this relaxed state, even in a crowded airport.
So you're meditating, now what. Now nothing. There isn't some magical payoff once you meditate successfully. It's the process that's important. Just let your mind be calm for this short while. Get to know your feelings, not your thoughts about your feelings, but the feelings themselves. But don't forget that your feelings are just feelings and your thoughts are just thoughts. You have both but are neither ... you are you.
Sitting meditation teaches us to be patient with ourselves. I forget where I first heard it, but I think of the phrase often, "Know patience and you'll know your soul." It was not referring to meditation ... but it could have been.
The Layman's Guide to Enlightenment (a book I was going to write)