The Liberated Life Guide: How to Meditate
In a previous post, I offered some general guidance about how to start or deepen a spiritual practice. The article below is the first in a series of “how to” posts which will give more in-depth information about specific practices. Think of it as a kind of “World Tour” through some of the practices that can help to center and ground us, including yoga, different types of sitting meditation, chanting, gardening, and more.
For this first article, I write about sitting meditation. In the future, you can look forward to guest authors writing about other practices. May it be of benefit!
First of all, let’s start by talking about what meditation is and what it isn’t.
There are a number of different kinds of meditation, including zazen (a Japanese word that means “sitting meditation”), vipassana (also known as insight meditation), and transcendental meditation (TM). Meditative practices are found in nearly all religious traditions, including Christianity and Judaism. All these forms of meditation are similar in many ways and different in a few ways.
The guidance I offer here is informed by my experience with Zen meditation over the past 15 years, but it’s general enough that you should be able to work with it in your own life no matter what your spiritual orientation.
The most important thing to tell you about meditation, at least as I understand it, is that it’s not a self-improvement program nor a relaxation program.
Meditation is about seeing reality more clearly and responding to your life from that place of clarity. You may find that some of the consequences are that you become more relaxed and better able to deal with stress, but the practice of meditation is not about tuning out. It’s very much a tuning-in and waking up process.
As a result, you may find that things get worse before they get better.
You know that saying, “Ignorance is bliss”? Well, yes. But ignorance is the kind of bliss that can get you into trouble later on. A sincere and deep meditation practice can help you understand that awareness leads to the kind of bliss that sustains and nourishes us.
So if you’re still game after knowing that, let’s get to the heart of the matter – how to practice meditation.
1. Create the conditions that will support your meditation practice.
Perhaps most important of all, cultivate the mindset of making this a regular habit in your life. Meditation is most effective when you practice it on a consistent basis, ideally every day at the same time. It’s better to make yourself sit down in your meditation space for a short period of time each day rather than skipping days and sitting longer amounts of time to make up for it. Aim for consistency.
There are three other conditions to pay attention to before you begin:
1. Space: Find a quiet space in your home and designate this as your meditation space. It helps if this is the only activity you do in this space. You may want to create a simple altar with objects that have special meaning for you – pictures of loved ones and people who inspire you, stones from a place in nature that nourishes you, and other sacred items.
In this space, set up your meditation cushion as well as a pad underneath it. (If you need to purchase a meditation supplies, I recommend DharmaCrafts.)
It’s also fine to sit in a chair if you have physical limitations. But generally, it works best to sit on a cushion on the floor if you’re able. I don’t know any technical reason why this would be so, but my intuition tells me that being closer to the earth helps. Part of my own practice is about reminding myself that the earth supports me at all times, and by sitting on the ground I am literally feeling that truth in my body.
2. Time: It helps to meditate at the same time each day so that you can establish it as a habit. Some traditions consider the hour before sunrise to be the most auspicious time for meditation. That’s a bit too early for me, but I definitely find that it works best to meditate first thing in the morning before I do anything else. The longer I put it off, the easier it becomes to make excuses that I don’t have time.
Choose an amount of time for your meditation period. If you’re just beginning, I’d suggest 10 minutes as the minimum amount of time to allow your mind and body to settle. You can gradually increase from there. I find that a 25-minute sitting period is optimal for me; other people like to sit in 35- or 45-minute periods. Over a process of experimentation you’ll find what’s right for you.
There are some fancy, expensive meditation timers (like the Enso), but all I use is a simple digital kitchen timer which works great. The advantage of setting a timer is that you release yourself from the need to check a clock every so often.
3. Intention: We need a compelling reason to do anything, otherwise it’s easy to lose our way and our energy. In the case of your meditation, find what it is that motivates you to take up this practice. Perhaps it’s for your own wellbeing, or for a more peaceful world. This can become a touchstone you can return to when you feel frustrated or challenged by your practice.
I find it really helpful to light a candle and incense at the start of my meditation period. There’s something about sitting with the glow from a candle that helps remind me of my own inner strength and spirit, and that’s a quality I want to cultivate during a meditation period.
2. Find the posture that works for you.
If you don’t have physical limitations, it’s best to sit on a cushion on the floor rather than on a chair. If you’re sitting on a cushion, you have a couple of choices. One is to sit in the seiza position, which means that you sit on your knees, either using a meditation bench or putting your cushion in a vertical position. Seiza looks like this:
The other choices are to sit in a full lotus or half lotus position:
If you’re new to meditation, the lotus positions are more challenging to hold for a long period of time, depending on how flexible you are. You may want to start out sitting in a chair or in the seiza position and ease your way into these.
In the kind of meditation I do, zazen, it’s important to hold your body as still as possible throughout the meditation period and not react if you have an unpleasant sensation like an itch or an ache. In other types of meditation, this is not as critical. Even so, it’s good to practice staying with a sensation for as long as possible before you change you body posture.
This may seem difficult at first, but this sensation can become an object of your meditation, and you can investigate it more thoroughly… look into the length and quality of the ache, notice how it changes over the course of your observation of it.
There’s a life lesson here – meditation can help us have more resilience in the face of difficult circumstances. This physical practice is a reflection of that.
3. And begin. Start by paying attention to your body.
People often have the impression that meditation is all about the mind, but actually it’s a very physical experience.
Breath and body go together in this practice, though often in our daily life we might not experience them in an integrated way. Meditation is all about bringing dualities into oneness… so this is a chance to work with your breath and connect it back to your body.
Pay attention to your posture, especially your spine. Visualize a thread going from the base of your vertebrae, where your buttocks make contact with the cushion or seat of your chair, all the way through your spine to the top of your head and beyond that to the sky. Breathe gently into this thread and allow that breath to help your backbone naturally come into alignment, without too much effort.
My first Buddhist teacher, Roshi Joan Halifax, has a wonderful way of describing the posture used in meditation and how it translates to our life. In her book Being With Dying she writes:
All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open, representing choiceless compassion…
How can we give and accept care with strong-back, soft front compassion, moving past fear into a place of genuine tenderness? I believe it comes about when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly — and letting the world see into us.
So our aspiration with our posture is to embody a strong back and a soft front… resilience and strength tempered with openness and vulnerability.
4. Now the fun begins.
Yes, at some point your mind will become an issue. Perhaps this sounds familiar:
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 helpless. No problem.
That’s a passage from one of my favorite meditation manuals, Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. I don’t know about you, but he just nailed me!
The most important point is Bhante’s last sentence: Don’t worry about this too much. The most important thing you can do to sustain your practice is to realize that what your mind is doing is completely normal. Don’t get discouraged. Stay with it.
5. So what do I do with my crazy mind and intense emotions?
If you’re doing it “right,” meditation will churn up a lot of sludge from your unconsciousness. That’s really the whole point – to bring those less conscious aspects of ourselves into the light of awareness.
This “sludge” might come in the form of a torrent of thoughts, perhaps not so pleasant:
- “I know I shouldn’t have said that to my girlfriend!”
- “That’s a**hole! I can’t believe he’s treating me this way!”
- “How will I ever find a job that makes me happy?”
- “I can’t stand my landlord!”
- “Did I remember to turn the iron off before I left?”
…and so on and so forth.
Once you’ve created more space through meditation you may also start feeling things that you’ve long suppressed. Or if you’re going through a particularly difficult situation right now, meditation may open a floodgate of emotions.
All of this is okay… the practice is to simply witness these thoughts and feelings without getting swept away by them.
Again – there’s an important life lesson here. Our practice is teaching us how to be present to the conditions of our life without feeling overwhelmed by them. And we are learning how to find a place of equanimity within, even if the outer circumstances of our life are in turmoil.
As a thought arises in your mind, see if you can get into the habit of simply noting it without entertaining it. (That’s a funny expression, isn’t it? “Let me entertain that thought.”)
One way to do this is the practice of labeling your thoughts. You might notice that you tend to dwell on things in your past that you wish you had done differently. When these kinds of thought arise for me, I gently say to myself, “Re-playing,” because what I’m doing is re-playing a past scene in my life, ad nauseum, just like a bad movie. You may find that you’re planning for a future encounter or event. When this happens to me, I say, “Rehearsing.”
You can use the same technique with emotions. You might note that you’re feeling sadness, or anger, or even joy. All of them will rise up and pass away.
In the moment that you have labeled the thought or feeling, you have just had an experience of awareness. Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg calls this “the magic moment.” In this way, distraction during our meditation is actually a gift, not a curse. We get to practice being present to ourselves, over and over and over.
You can also use your body and breath as an anchor. One mantra that I use quite often during my meditation period is: “Come back home to my body; come back home to my breath.” I say this to myself to help me return attention to my body and breath.
You may also want to try this sequence that I’ve adapted from Bhante Gunaratana’s book:
1) Find your breath, become aware of the physical, tactile sensation of the air as it passes in and out of the nostrils. Pay special attention to the point just inside the tip of your nose. Use this point to keep your attention fixed.
2) Make no attempt to control your breath; simply observe its movement in and out past this point. Don’t increase the depth of your breath or its sound.
3) Observe the breath closely, and allow yourself to be fascinated by its intricate movements, and by its variations: long breath, short breath, ragged breath, smooth breath, and more.
Caveat: There may be times when sitting meditation is actually not the best practice for you. If you’re going through an extremely painful situation, like the recent loss of a loved one, the feelings that arise during meditation may be almost unbearable. I would advise giving yourself a break and not expecting yourself to endure that painful level of intensity in sitting meditation. I remember going through a difficult relationship break-up and feeling like I was about to explode with grief while I was sitting. A teacher advised me to do gentle walking meditation outside as a way to work with those powerful emotions in my body. That guidance was incredibly helpful… I realized I needed some kind of more active movement practice to process the intense feelings of anger and sadness I was experiencing. In a few weeks, I was able to resume sitting meditation.
6. The payoff.
Okay, I know that meditation isn’t about having a goal to achieve. And yet I want to let you know that there are some really important reasons to start meditating and to sustain it over time.
I wrote about this in detail on this post but I’ll cut to the chase here: the very best part of a meditation practice is that it helps us to see old patterns in our life much more clearly. Because of this awareness, we have the ability to liberate ourselves from choices that make us suffer. And because of awareness, we increase our capacity to feel compassion, joy, and equanimity.
Your life will change because of this practice. I guarantee it. And the longer you continue your practice over weeks, months, and years, the bigger the change will be. So keep on!
7. Find a community of people with whom to sit.
Practicing alone is good, but practicing with a group is even better. Because the heart of meditation practice is about realizing our interconnection with all beings and then understanding how to actualize this realization in our everyday lives, it really helps to sit with other people.
Also, when you connect with a meditation group, you may be able to find a spiritual teacher or mentor who can guide your meditation practice more closely. I encourage you to do so. The deeper you go into meditation, the more it helps to have a personal relationship with someone who has been through the same territory.
Here are some ways you can find a meditation group near you:
- Buddhist meditation groups (international listings)
- Directory of Christian meditation groups (international listings)
- Jewish meditation resources
I hope that you find these suggestions useful in beginning or deepening your own sitting meditation practice. If you have questions that aren’t addressed here, please let me know in the comments how I can support you.
And most importantly, simply begin your meditation practice… it’s never too late!
If you’re looking for some great books to help you dive deeper into meditation, here are some suggestions:
- Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
- Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guid for Teens by Diana Winston (don’t let subtitle of this book throw you–it’s actually a great introductory read for everyone)
- Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation by Sharon Salzberg
I’d love to stay in touch with you! When you sign up for my mailing list, you’ll receive my monthly newsletter with reflections on life and liberation, as well as my e-book, “9 Keys to a Liberated Life.”
And if you’re interested in starting or deepening your meditation practice, please consider participating in my online program, Waking Up to Your Life.