Let’s learn how to meditate. Before we start, it may be helpful to establish the definition of meditation.
What is meditation?
If you trace the history of any culture around the world, you find that for last 2000 to 3000 (may be more) years, a small set of people within that culture have followed a particular type of activity. At best this activity can be described as doing nothing.
These people sit down, close their eyes and engage in a form of non-doing. Or they sit down with eyes closed or open and engage in repeating an activity or repeating saying something over and over again. May be to the point of absurdity.
This phenomenon is not unique to the eastern cultures. Christians have done the same. So have Jewish and Muslims. Even if you were to study any lesser known culture, you still find people who continue to do this type of activity. It almost seems like a common human attribute.
This activity seems strange to the rest. It was also shrouded in mysticism for a long time. Because of its association with religion and spirituality there was very little interest or awareness in the west for the longest time.
It was observed that those who engaged in this activity tend to have rather different personality. They tend to have more organized personality. They seemed to have an equanimous temperament. They didn’t easily get agitated even in the midst of very difficult situations.
This aroused some interest from the scientific community and a bunch of curious people. This led to more research on the topic. Eventually it was found that the practice is a type of mind training. And it can lead to the changes in the brain.
Which is the reason, people who engage in this activity have a rather stable personality. More research has also revealed that, there are physical as well as mental health benefits of engaging in this practice.
This practice is meditation.
Although the common English meaning of word ‘meditation’ is more like thinking, planning or contemplation, the actual practice is very unlike thinking or planning. Perhaps people mistook someone sitting with eyes closed as thinking.
So what really is meditation? It is now known that meditation is a very broad topic, with a wide range of possible practices. For our purpose, it would be best if we thought of meditation as a type of mind training.
The mind is also a very broad concept. It includes several different faculties, e.g. memory, creativity, thinking and so on. What does mind training actually mean?
When we refer to mind training, we specifically mean training in the attention. It can be helpful to think of meditation as attention training. If you want to train your attention what do you need?
You need an object to attend to.
And you need to pay attention to the object.
That’s it. Meditation is very simple at its core. We chose an object of attention and we start paying attention to it. We try to continue to rest our attention on the object.
What is a good object of attention for meditation?
What kind of object should one choose to attend to? When you are just starting out, it helps to choose an object that is static or stationary. Also, it helps to select an object that is simple and small.
Our visual field of focus (attention) is very small. Most of the visual field is peripheral vision. We can pay attention only to a very small area, smaller than our fist, at a time. This means you can choose an image, or part of an image.
Our ability to pay attention is not limited to the visual field. This means we can pay attention not only to something that we see, but also to something that we hear, smell, taste or touch.
Consequently the object of attention can be something other than the visual image. But in the beginning, it may be helpful to start with the visual field.
Many people use the breath as an initial object of attention. Just because it’s portable. An image, you may have to carry with you. Your breath is always with you. Feeling breath may not be as easy as viewing an image.
The breath can be felt in a variety of different ways. Sometimes you can just hear the sound of air passing as you breath. Other times you may be able to feel the belly or the chest rising and falling, through what we call the sense of interoception.
Interoception is the internal sense of the body. This sense can help us feel the chest or the stomach rising and falling as we breath. This can be a bit difficult to feel initially. But with practice you can master feeling your own breath.
What’s more interesting is what happens once you start paying attention. You immediately realize that it is very difficult for you to continue to hold your attention. Your mind is very distractible and easily starts wandering away from the object of attention and starts doing its favorite activity – thinking.
And this is completely OK.
Many people have this idea that meditation means emptying the mind of all the thoughts and you shouldn’t be thinking while meditating. Well, emptying the mind is not an immediate goal of any type of meditation.
It is almost impossible to empty the mind of any thoughts even for a few minutes. Your mind is very used to thinking and it is not at all a reasonable expectation to empty the mind for extended periods of time.
So what do you do?
If and when you realize that you are lost in thought, you come back to the object of attention, or you come back to attending the object. Without being harsh on yourself. That’s it!
This has often been compared with puppy training. Because your mind behaves like a puppy. A puppy will continue to wander away no matter how many times you bring it back on the paper. You wouldn’t want to beat up your puppy, right?
Your jobs is not to worry about this wondering. What you need to do, if and when you realize that you are not paying attention to the object of attention and have wandered off to thinking, you simply bring yourself back to the object.
You decide to sit for 5 minutes, and if your mind wanders for 4 and 1/2 minutes, that is still okay. Even if you spent all 5 minutes lost in thoughts, but you just brought yourself back once, that still counts!!
When you begin to meditate, you have all sorts of questions. What is the best time to meditate? What is a good posture to meditate? How long to meditate? Etc.. Let’s address some of those questions here.
What is the best time to meditate?
There is no preferred time for meditation that has been passed down to us. The best time to meditate is when you will not fall asleep. Or the best time to meditate is whenever it’s available to you. Many of the considerations for meditation are driven by the need to ward off lethargy or sleepiness.
When you fall asleep while meditating, that is not meditation. Although, meditation is a relaxation inducing exercise and can induce sleepiness, if you are sleep deprived.
People can and do use this fact to their advantage. It is best to try and meditate while lying down, if your aim is to fall asleep. That would not be a meditation, but hey, if you suffer from insomnia and if it helps you fall asleep, why not?
What is the best posture for meditation?
Sitting on the floor with full lotus cross legged posture is not the best one. Keep in mind that whatever helps with not falling asleep is a good posture. Whatever prevents a lot of physical discomfort is also a good posture.
Although some amount of physical discomfort is inevitable in any meditation, if there is a lot of discomfort, it will be too much of a distraction for your meditation. And it doesn’t help.
Sitting on a chair is perfectly okay. Standing up is okay too! You can use a cushion and sit on the floor. You don’t have to buy a fancy cushion. Your pillow can work just fine.
When you sit cross legged, the most important thing to remember is that your knees should be resting on the floor and you shouldn’t be holding them up.
Meditation bench can be a very good option. But, those are expensive. Someday I hope I would offer you a cheaper and viable bench.
You can refer to the following video to get a better idea about different postures for meditation.
How long to meditate?
Most of the research done in the last few decades assumed people to meditate for at least 30 to 45 minutes a day for at least 6 days a week. If that sound like an impossible task, you are not alone. It can be daunting for a beginner to start meditating 30 minutes at a single stretch right away.
If you use guided audio, it could help expand the amount of time you meditate. And you should use that to your advantage. If you want benefits to start right away, you can be motivated to start trying 30 minute session from the get go. But don’t be discouraged if you can’t.
Because you can always choose the path of gradual increase. Start at 5 minutes and gradually increase it up to at least 30 minutes.
Do you have more questions about meditation? Please post them in the comments below and I will try to answer them here on the page.