A Short, Simple Guide to Meditation
By Tobin Blake
There are many great reasons to start meditating:
- Better health
- Less stress
- Reduced depression and anxiet
- Pain relief
- Spiritual awakening
Beginning a meditative practice is easy and it requires very little time to be beneficial. Studies have shown that even when people feel like meditation is not doing them any good, they are still getting all the benefits.
The following guide will give you all you need to develop a satisfying, healing meditative practice, from how to sit, how long and how often to meditate, how to use specific meditations like mantras, visualization, Zazen, and mindfulness, and how to deal with thoughts during meditation.
The surface purpose of meditation varies from person to person. For instance, some people start meditating for better health, reduced stress, enlightenment, etc, but the goal during meditative practice is to relax into an awareness of the state of being or presence.
Presence is the natural state that underlies all life. It is the opposite of thinking and doing, which is what many of us spend most of our time engaged in.
When you meditate it is best to focus on:
TIP: Instead of struggling to maintain a perfect focus, and instead of fighting against thoughts, simply focus on letting go and feel as if you are sinking down toward the center, or deepest part of your being.
Presence is impossible to describe, but you will first encounter it in the quiet, still spaces between your thoughts. Once you begin to experience such moments, focus on letting them deepen and expand.
How Should I Sit During Meditation?
Aside from a few general guidelines, there is no special posture. Sit up when you meditate to avoid drowsiness, and keep your back relatively straight, with your shoulders squared and chest proud.
You can cup your hands together in your lap or rest them on your legs however is most comfortable. Some people like to sit crosslegged, others prefer to sit on a chair or sofa with their feet flat on the floor.
How Long and How Often Should I Meditate?
There is no set rule, but most practitioners meditate once or twice a day. It is wise to set a regular time and stick to it whenever possible, especially in the beginning.
First thing in the morning and just before bed are good times to practice.
At first you should keep your meditations short to avoid resistance. Anywhere between 3 to 20 minutes is a good place to start. Increase the amount of time as you become more comfortable with sitting longer.
Set a timer to keep track of time.
TIP: The quality of your meditations is more important than the quantity. Whether you meditate for a few minutes or an hour, be sure to give your practice your full intention. Above all else, practice regularly, ideally daily.
Before You Begin, Get Settled and Relaxed
There are many forms of meditation. However, regardless of the style you choose, it is helpful to spend a minute or two getting relaxed. Here’s a simple method:
- Choose a relatively quiet place and time where you can be alone. Turn off your phone, close the door, and dim the lights if you like.
- Sit comfortably and close your eyes.
- Take a few deep, slow breaths, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, then let your breathing return to normal.
- Next, focus on relaxing your body, one muscle at a time. Try to feel the tension and stress flowing out of you body and dissipating into the air. Begin with your toes, feet, and legs, then move upward through your hips, back, and shoulders; down your arms and into your fingers; and finally over your head and face. The whole relaxation sequence need only take a minute or two, and it should leave you feeling as if you have been wrapped in a warm cocoon, in which you feel safe, quiet, and perfectly at peace.
- Once you are relaxed, begin your meditation using whatever technique you prefer.
Try a Mantra
Mantra is one of the most common forms of meditation. It is easy to use and great for beginners. A mantra is simply a word, sound, or sentence/s that is repeatedly spoken aloud or thought silently during meditation. Mantras occupy the thinking, or ego, mind while you are attempting to relax and allow the state of presence to surface into awareness. The mantra gives you a repetitive thought to focus on, which helps you avoid straying into random thought webs, which trap your attention. Mantras can also instill a sense of quietness, wellbeing, and tranquility.
For this exercise we will use the mantra “Peace, calm, still.” You can find many more mantras in meditation books (such as my book The Power of Stillness).
- Get settled and relaxed.
- Spend a few minutes enjoying this sense of restfulness, then, when you are ready, begin repeating your mantra. For this particular form, repeat one word during every exhalation. So, as you breathe out, think, silently to yourself, the word “peace.” Then, during your next out-breath, think, “calm.” Finally, with your third exhalation, focus on the word “still.” Continue to repeat the mantra every time you breathe out for the duration of the meditation, starting over again with “peace.”
- Many thoughts will occur to you as you practice. At times you may forget to repeat the mantra altogether. Minutes may pass as you become lost in some pattern of random thoughts. Don’t struggle or allow yourself to become frustrated when this happens. It’s normal. Do try, however, to view your thoughts impartially, as if they are nothing more than clouds passing overhead. Let them come and go, and whenever you remember, recall your mind to the mantra.
- Pay particular attention to the quiet spaces between your thoughts and exhalations, which is when many students first connect with presence. Allow any sense of spaciousness you may feel during the practice to intensify.
- After you are done, open your eyes and sit quietly for a minute or longer.
TIP: Every time you exhale you may also find it helpful to focus on the sensation of relaxing your body. Imagine that no matter how relaxed you become, your body is always capable of relaxing just a little deeper. Let go and surrender fully to this sense of tranquility.
A few other popular forms of meditation include Zazen, mindfulness, and visualization. The use of these is similar to mantra in that you adopt a central focus while attempting to relax into an awareness of pure being.
In Zazen, instead of using a word or sound to focus on, you count your exhalations from one to ten, and then start over again from one and repeat.
During visualization, a mental image becomes your primary focus; just about any image you find comforting or inspiring can be used—an enlightened teacher, the thought of formless light flowing through your body, any spiritual symbol, or just envisioning yourself meditating by the ocean or a river.
In mindfulness the idea is to concentrate on the sensation of the breathing cycle. This does not mean that you try to control your breath or think about the respiratory process, but rather feel it directly.
Once more, whichever technique you use, the ultimate goal remains the same—to quiet your thoughts and connect with presence. It is through these precious moments of insight into the true nature of your deepest Self, no matter how fleeting or trivial they may at first feel, that meditation’s many benefits nestle into your life and begin spreading like a healing balm throughout your whole being.
What forms of meditation work best for you?