How to Meditate?
Our busy modern minds bombard us from morning to night with thoughts, the vast majority of which are profoundly unhelpful. The 'noise' of the mind tends to make us tense and it obscures our body-based intuition and innate wisdom. So, if we want to live more wisely, we need to settle the mind - at least to some degree and there are many ways of doing this. In my experience most people that I have worked with, find that the optimal way for them is through meditation.
Now, there are many forms of meditation ranging from prayer to the kind that asks of you to focus on a relatively neutral stimulus such as your breath. This kind – following the breath – is common both to many spiritual traditions and to modern mindfulness practice simply because it is so effective.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, following the breath is called shine (pronounced ‘shinay’) translated as ‘calm abiding’ or ‘tranquility meditation.’ I particularly like the term ‘tranquility meditation’ because that is exactly what this method naturally gives rise to. Here is the essential method: Firstly, make sure that you’re not going to be disturbed. Sit comfortably with your back relatively straight. Sitting on a chair with your feet on the ground is just fine. If you know how to sit comfortably in a lotus or semi-lotus position, that is fine, too. Relax your stomach and allow your body to breathe deeply. If you do, your stomach will go out when you breathe in and in when you breathe out. Bring your attention to the sensations in your belly as you breathe. Just notice what it feels like in your belly. Rest your attention there. You will get distracted - by thoughts, by sounds, by itches, by pains... Every time that you notice that you have got distracted, gently bring your attention back to the sensations in your belly as you breathe. And, that’s the essential practice.
It appears very simple but, there are numerous subtleties and potential misunderstandings so it is very helpful to get careful instruction. If you would like me to prepare a downloadable online meditation training, please let me know by clicking here and, if there is enough interest, I will do so.
If you want to get a taster, I have uploaded a guided version of tranquility meditation which you are welcome to download by clicking here.
If you decide to practice on your own, I'd strongly suggest that you read through the sections below before listening to the downloadable meditation. It will help you to come to the meditation with a more helpful attitude. Common difficulties with Tranquility Meditation Many people think that the aim of meditation is to stop your thoughts. This is entirely incorrect. Your mind produces thoughts and images. That’s its ‘job.’ The idea in the meditation is to take your attention off the thoughts and bring them back to the sensations in the belly. As a side-effect of doing this over and over again, your mind will tend to settle in the sense that there will be fewer thoughts and so there will be bigger and more frequent gaps in which there are no thoughts. Even so, on some days, particularly when you’re tense, there may be many thoughts and images and you may be caught in a chain of thinking many times. That’s just how it goes.
Over time, however, your mind will become more tranquil. Another common difficulty occurs particularly for people who tend to be very critical of themselves. They tend to berate themselves when they notice that their attention has wandered. This is unhelpful because it just generates more thinking: “Oh Bugger! I’ve lost it again! I’ll never get this right! I really am useless...” As much as you are able, when you notice that your attention has wandered, recognize that this is how it goes for almost everyone. Be gentle with yourself and simply take your attention back to the sensations in your tummy. The metaphor that is often used in teaching this meditation is that of training a puppy to pee on the lawn. It does not help to beat the puppy up when it pees inside. That’ll just terrify and confuse it. Instead, each time that we see it pee, we simply take it outside to pee on the lawn. And, we apply the same gentleness to ourselves when we get lost during a meditation. We simply gently bring our attention back to the belly. In this way, Tranquility Meditation becomes a training in self-compassion too. Another way in which people become seduced by their critical minds is if their belly is feeling bloated or big. Thoughts then tend to arise about getting fat or about loosing weight. This is a time for self-compassion. As much as you are able, just let your belly be exactly as it is. Let it soften further and just notice and be present with it's falling and rising as the body breathes. A third common error is that many people doing this meditation think that they are doing well if they get into a sort of warm fuzzy state - a comfortable state - like being half-asleep under a snug blanket on a rainy Sunday afternoon. When this happens, you have gone relatively unconscious. The aim, in the meditation, is not to obtain a warm and fuzzy state but to wake up out of the trance of thought. So, during the practice, you need to keep yourself present, leaning into the simple experience of the sensations in your belly. Another very common misconception occurs when people feel very pleasantly ‘spaced out’ during the meditation. This happens when people are not sufficiently grounded in their bodies and, although it may feel very 'spacious' it is a relatively unconscious state. You can inhibit this from happening this happening by ‘settling’ before the meditation. To settle before you meditate, you can begin (for example) by taking a deep breath. Let the breath go and relax and have a sense of coming down into your body - taking up residence in, and occupying, your body. Now, notice points of tension in your body - your shoulders, your neck, your arms and hands, and so on - and relax them as best you can. Don't worry if tension remains. Now, bring your attention to the meditation i.e. the sensations in the belly as your breathe. This is where the mediation proper begins. Settling is a very helpful thing to do before each meditation session. It only takes 5 minutes or so. An example of settling is included in the downloadable meditation. Common questions about tranquility meditation Is this meditation the same as mindfulness? Mindfulness is about being present and awake without buying into thoughts (stories, fantasies, beliefs, etc). This meditation certainly, then, can be called a mindfulness practice. How often should I meditate? People often ask how often you should meditate. I would suggest that you start with 20 minutes once a day, preferably in the morning before you start your day. It is better to find a regular time to meditate so that the practice becomes a habit. Can I lie down when I meditate? There is a tendency for us to fall asleep during the meditation if we are lying down. So, for most of us, it’s better to sit in a chair. Should I breathe through my nose or my mouth? Advice varies on this a great deal. Certainly, at the beginning, it is more important to feel comfortable. so, breathe as it suits you. Should I keep my eyes closed? Beginners generally find it much easier to meditate with their eyes closed. As you become more experienced, it is preferable to meditate with eyes open. This makes it easier to take a meditative (mindful) state back into ordinary life. Where should I put my hands? For our purposes, simply find a comfortable position. What happens if I get sleepy? It happens from time to time that we get sleepy during a meditation. Try to stay awake and attentive as best you can. Do not create too much tension in trying to do this, however. Increasing the tension will result in your mind getting even more active. So, do the best you can to stay awake and alert without creating too much tension. When you are sleepy its often helpful to open your eyes and look upward. This counteracts the sleepiness to a certain extent. What happens if I start dreaming while I’m meditating? This often happens when one gets a little more experienced. What has happened is that your brain has relaxed so much that it’s gone into the equivalent of dream sleep. As with the sleepiness, it is often helpful to open your eyes. Why do we focus on the sensations in the belly? Different teachers will suggest different points of focus. Generally, the focus is on the breath because it is a relatively neutral stimulus and so the mind tends not to get triggered by focusing on the breath. I like the focus on the sensations of breathing in the belly because this focus is particularly grounding. When I focus on my breath, I realise how anxious I am and that makes me even more anxious. This may happen to those people who have struggled with high levels of anxiety in the past. The practice then becomes to just become aware of the various sensations in the body that we call 'anxiety' - heart beating fast, butterflies in the stomach, muscle tension, dry mouth, etc. Having done this, the challenge then is to just focus on these sensations without buying into the stories ('Oh, god, I'm very anxious,' 'What happens if I get even more anxious?' 'I really hope that I don't have a panic attack,' ...). I know that, if you are very anxious, this is easier said than done. So, if you find that you are unable to do this, it would be an idea to get help from a meditation teacher or a cognitive-behavioural therapist otherwise you will always be afraid of the symptoms of anxiety. Is this meditation only for Buddhists? Not at all. Conventional science has demonstrated the enormous value of meditating in this way over and over again. It is simply a scientific fact that, if we focus on a relatively neutral stimulus, over time our thinking minds will tend to settle.
I am a Christian and I am worried that this practice contradicts my faith.
Historically, many Christians meditated. I think, for example, of the Desert Fathers, Mother Theresa and Thomas Merton. Thomas Keating is currently a very strong advocate of meditation. Christian traditions often refer to meditation practices as 'contemplation' or 'prayer.' There is no way in which this meditation contradicts Biblical teachings.
Please be aware that:
It is much easier to learn meditation when you are getting skilled instruction. I teach a number of very helpful forms of meditation and am happy to teach a group or on a one-to-one basis online. If you are interested, email me to set up a session by clicking here.