Congratulations! You want to meditate, but you’re not sure how to meditate properly. If you’re one who can’t handle too much esoteric sweetener in your spiritual coffee, here’s a great guide to starting up a meditation practice from scratch.
Meditation is so powerful, even Dark Vader meditates. The canon novel Lords of the Sith explains why Vader meditates on page 5:
Vader completed his meditation and opened his eyes. His pale, flame-savaged face stared back at him from out of the reflective black transparisteel of his pressurized meditation chamber. Without the neural connection to his armor, he was conscious of the stumps of his legs, the ruin of his arms, the perpetual pain in his flesh. He welcomed it. Pain fed his hate, and hate fed his strength. Once, as a Jedi, he had meditated to find peace. Now he meditated to sharpen the edges of his anger.
Of course meditating to find peace is always good idea.
Anyway, the benefits of meditation can be easily outmatched by the frustration of actually trying to meditate. Ever try to bathe an excited puppy? Not easy. It doesn’t matter how your dog got downward or dirty. Let’s make the practice of meditation more accessible so you can actually enjoy it.
This is just one way of getting started, a way I feel can have powerful and lasting effects (to also just gently let go in the end.)
Interested? This is how I have the article structured:
I will start describing a simple yet necessary posture. After learn to meditate, I would explain how to start a strong single pointed focus meditation practice first.
Why? It’s simple:
If you don’t develop a strong equanimity (non-volatile awareness) first, then you will be easily distracted when trying out insight meditation. You know, that area of getting your shit together (for the benefit of all beings, of course).
As I’ve been taught in numerous Buddhist retreats and monasteries, focus and insight are the two wings of meditation, you need both to fly. After reading the first phase of this beginners guide first, single pointed meditation, we cover quickly the basics that insights meditation can bring.
Beginning Steps to Get You Started
Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight, the crown of your head ‘pulled upwards’ and your chin turned in a little towards your chest.
Your meditation space should be a place you feel at peace, and free of distractions of any kind. The temperature should be such that you are comfortable – you don’t want a hot, stuffy room that will put you to sleep, and you don’t want to be uncomfortably chilled, either!
Don’t eat just before meditation (you will probably get sleepy) and don’t be too hungry either. Find a happy medium; be sure you’re hydrated but not to the point where you will need to get up during meditation to relieve yourself.
The place you choose to sit (a meditation cushion, stool or a chair) should be comfortable, but you don’t want to slump or slouch.
Learn to relax your body while keeping the spine straight. You want your back to be straight and relaxed, avoiding physical stress that hinders emotional release. You simply want a tall straight back that allows for the free flow of energy. You’ll be surprised how easily you can sit up straight for any amount of time when your posture is correct: shoulders back and relaxed, chest open, chin up and a natural curve in your lower back.
Change your meditation postures from time to time, to invoke different mental energies. You can do walking meditation, cross-legged seated meditation, chair meditation or even yoga.
Meditate when you are calm. Busy days make it harder to practice singular concentration. You’ve spent all day letting your mind and body run a mile a minute. Yes, meditation will relax you, but if you’re on edge, you’ll have a lot of difficulty quieting your mind. Go for a gentle walk, take a bath or do some stretching before meditation to get the mental and physical kinks out!
You can meditate with your eyes closed or open; and unless you are interested in following a rigid meditation style with very precise body positions, it’s more important that you are comfortable (so you can forget about your body for a while).
Don’t force it, but slow your breathing so that it is deep and rhythmic. This will set your pattern for meditation. It’s all about singularity of focus here. Focus on your breathing as a way to quiet your mind and relax the body.
Focus on your breath – or, alternatively, on your Omarmonics soundtrack. This will ultimately allow you to rise above the noise in your mind
Start with 5 minutes twice a day. Move up once you feel like you could and are really interested in wanting to discover more. This can already happen after the first session.
You can get more insight here: How do you start a meditation habit?
Move up to 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 minutes twice a day. Perhaps even take a whole day where you practice 30 minutes every two hours, and take mindful walks between them.
How To Progress
Often it’s hard to tell whether you are making progress or not. I emphasized earlier that one of the things that will help you to stick with your meditation practice is the ability to notice and appreciate small changes. You can read At what point do the Meditation begins?
You can use the counting to give you a sense of whether you are developing more concentration. Being able to count to ten even once may be a step forward. If you make it to there, then you might want to aim to count to ten three times in a row. You might notice that you have the ability to count continuously and also have a lot of thoughts arising. That’s great! Pay more attention to the fact that you have developed more continuity of awareness than you do to the fact that there are still a lot of stray thoughts.
When you are around the 10 minute mark you probably noticed already the crazy habitual stream of thoughts. It is NOT the goal to get rid of these, just being aware of them and what their effect is on your state of mind is enough. Their pull will lessen over time.
However, every time you get distracted from the breath, it means you didn’t notice the pull of the first thought that started another whole train of thoughts.
You can ask yourself, why exactly that thought, that moment?
The more you meditate, the more you will notice that thoughts are just clouds passing by in the mind space. But some thoughts still attract your whole attention. These are the ones that you desire, or, in other words, the ones that distract you from what is really happening in your body, on the sensational level.
These are the fantasies or worries that pre-occupy your existence because you don’t want to see what lies beneath.
When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick. Every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.
The instruction here is to relax into your body on every outbreath, letting go, and focusing more intensely on the bare sensations on every inbreath. This creates a rhythm, a tendency, that actually resembles a kind of courage to face old neurosis and traumas.
With every breath you are more intimate with impermanence. Nothing is fixed, no stable ground to be found.
Thoughts will still be there, but they will become powerless. They will show their true face, not the commander of the human passions, but the slave that works for the passions.
Be patient with yourself. As a beginner, you can expect it to be challenging at times to completely turn off your mind while meditating. Don’t make it an exercise in frustration! See it as a process and be interested in the workings of your mind. Being able to completely drop out and leave your noisy mind behind takes practice and discipline.
The next step is to go deep into the sensations. At the start of an inbreath, the sensations are barely noticeable. At one point, where the speed of inhalation is the highest, the tingling around the nostrils will be the most intense. And at the end, when the lungs are quite full already the sensations slowly disappear.
When they are hard to distinguish from other stimuli around you, try to go deeper. Zoom in.
Can you feel a little more before they disappear? Is it really one sensation, or are there many small ones? Investigate and keep your eyes on the ball. Make it a game, try to catch the thought that pulls your awareness away from the object.
If you miss, just restart. Go back to the breath.
The more you meditate the more you find old layers of tension popping up in your awareness. Places where anxiety rests. These are the places that stress up when you are in a situation that seems hostile to you. This could be all the time (chronic tension).
The most common ones are the areas around the neck and shoulder, chest and groin. When you notice this, try to be mindful during the day. Just being aware of it and when possible, try to relax the tension.
If you do relax a bit, be extremely aware of the thoughts that arise while letting go. A certain psychosomatic phenomenon will always co-dependently arise with it.
(For example, the opening of the heart are for some individuals are paired with thoughts of self-judgment.)
When you go deeper into these areas, you might get distracted much quicker than when concentrating on the sensations of the breath. This is because your defense mechanisms house there.
You don’t like being aware of it, it feels like suffering.
You would rather be un-conscious of them. This is true every time you are completely into your thought stream and not in your body.
Thoughts can not feel suffering but your body can.
And if your body get’s too in-tense, we run into our own fabricated house of symbols. Remember that most people go through life, day in day out, without a fundamental trusting connection with their body.
To establish this, we need to be compassionate, be caring. Get massages, take sauna’s, eat well, exercise diligently and take enough rest. All these movements, if motivated by taking care of ones body, will greatly enhance your meditation practice.
Being scared and hurt can show itself in many ways, in anger, arrogance, pride, revenge, anxiety etc. These are the moments where true insight can arise. In moments of being vulnerable one can restore and heal parts of ourselves that we disowned a ling time ago.
The best way to do this is to include yourself into your circle of compassion.
If after a few months of being mindful of these problem areas you still can’t relax into them fully, then you could try to add yoga, tai chi, chi qong or dancing to your practice.
It opens up the tension, these are really powerful tool that are probably very uncomfortable for many. But, once the old knots disappear, you feel lifted, the world seems lighter and a more happy place. The different drives of your body start conversing with each other again.
Also remember that just because you are done with a meditation session does not mean meditation stops completely. Practice mindfulness – ‘being here, now’ – as much as you can during your normal daily life. Mindfulness is calming and even better, it helps you live your life more fully. The difference between not being mindful and being mindful is like being at a dinner party where everyone has their cell phones on and they’re constantly checking their messages. How rude – and these people are not ‘here, now’ at the dinner, interacting with each other. Their minds are somewhere else! How many interesting conversations will they miss out on because they are giving attention to somebody who isn’t even there?
At one point you will experience what is sometimes called access concentration. This is the point where nothing will distract you from the object of the breath. Thoughts still appear but they are in the background, just like the sensation of your legs while sitting right now.
They simply inform instead of screaming for attention. They start to know their place, just as another sense organ, not as the master and commander of your body (this is the ego illusion.)
At this point, which should be easy doable in 1-2 months of 20 minutes of meditation twice a day, you can choose to go three different, albeit overlapping, ways.
1. Develop Deeper Concentration
Concentration means being able to free your mind from all objects of distraction — including your own thoughts and emotions — and to direct it toward a single object — whether reposing it in a single state of awareness, or directing it toward a single goal.
To many people, such mental control implies effort. And so it does, of course, in a sense. In another sense, however, they are mistaken. For as long as you try to concentrate you will not be able to concentrate really effectively.
Deep concentration is possible only in a state of relaxation. Where tension exists, whether physically or mentally, there is a separate commitment of energy, like the stray strand of thread that refuses to enter the eye of the needle. If, for example, your brow is furrowed in worry, or if your jaw or hands are clenched, these are signs that this much energy, at least, is not being directed toward your true objective.
To make this a bit easier you can question yourself; what is the mind? Where does this question come from? Where is it located?
Just relax and see what answers pops up!
2. Entering Jhana
Jhanas are the blissfull altered states of mind one can enter during meditation. Jhana is also called ‘absorption’ or ‘ecstasy’. And that is exactly how it feels. During jhanas you are so completely absorbed into the object of meditation that all distinctions between the observer and the observed will cease to exist. It can give you great insight into reality and give a profound sense of bliss and joy.
The method for entering jhana begins with generating access concentration. You begin by sitting in a comfortable, upright position. It needs to be comfortable, because if there is too much pain, aversion will naturally develop in the mind. You may be able to sit in a way that looks really good, but if your knees are killing you there will be pain and you will not experience any jhanas. So you need to find some way to sit that is comfortable. But it also needs to be upright and alert, because that tends to get your energy going in a beneficial way that keeps you awake. If you are too comfortable you will be overcome with sloth and torpor, which is an unwholesome state of mind that is totally useless for entering the jhanas.
So the first prerequisite for entering the jhanas is to put the body in a position that you can just leave it in for the length of the sitting without having to move. If you have back problems or some other obstacle that prevents you from sitting upright, then you need to find some other alert position that you can maintain comfortably.
If you entered access concentration and your body is as calm as can be, the places where you normally hold tension are now relaxed and thoughts are just whispers in the distance you can decide to enter the first jhana.
Slowly, without getting distracted, move your attention from the breath to a pleasant sensation. Most common areas are the hands, the chest or the breath itself. Focus on the pleasantness of the sensation. It is of utmost importance to not get distracted.
Don’t think to yourself how pleasant it is or if this is the right spot because it is very easy to lose access concentration. When you focus on something pleasant it is very likely it will cost you less effort.
In this way, you can, as it were, slide into the absorptive state. It might start out small, but it can grow to infinity in a non-linear way. In the buddhist scriptures it has been said that jhana’s act as a fire that can burn away mental defilements. Just keep in mind not to get attached to these blissful sensations!
3. Investigate The Three Marks of Existence
The three marks of existence are experiential truths you can investigate to liberate yourself from suffering.
Meditation is a tool to become skillful enough in this investigation that you can understand and face reality as it really is, at any given moment. You will not find the absolute, non-changing, timeless truth here, but will become a truthful person that can handle uncertainty, ambiguity and, most important, mortality.
Once you entered access concentration you can take any given phenomenon arising in your experiential field and find these three marks, a kind of constant falling apart while staying the same.
Anicca: Impermanence, also called Anicca or Anitya, is one of the essential doctrines and a part of three marks of existence in Buddhism. The doctrine asserts that all of conditioned existence, without exception, is “transient, evanescent, inconstant”. All temporal things, whether material or mental, are compounded objects in a continuous change of condition, subject to decline and destruction.
Anicca or impermanence is understood in Buddhism as the first of three marks of existence
To investigate this, find an object, any part of now you like, and see if you can find something that is not changing. If you find anything, take that as an object and investigate deeper. Even the worst pains and the highest joys don’t last forever and neither does the mental projection of an observer at a distance.
Dukkha: Dukkha is an important Buddhist concept, commonly translated as “suffering”, “pain” or “unsatisfactoriness”. It refers to the fundamental unsatisfactoriness and painfulness of mundane life, and inspires the Four Noble Truths and nirvana doctrines of Buddhism. The term is also found in scriptures of Hinduism, such as the Upanishads, in discussions of moksha (spiritual liberation).
To investigate this, take any object and explore the anicca part of it and see what the mind does. It tries to hold the pleasant states or reject the unpleasant states. If it has something it likes, it wants more of it or wants to try to secure it. It is something we constantly do, something we can’t even imagine we can do without.
Anatta: The concept of anatta, or anatman, is a departure from the Hindu belief in atman (“the self”). The absence of a self, anicca (the impermanence of all being), and dukkha (“suffering”) are the three characteristics of all existence (ti-lakkhana).
But this goes for every single phenomena in our experience. At one point, there is just the breath, or just the hands, or just the ongoing stream of thoughts in our mind space. (Watch out! It is very easy to identify yourself with the one who has the thoughts, but remember, this ‘observer’ just arises and passes away too, it is just a mental construct designed to make something permanent).
If you made it this far, I want to thank you for reading my words. You clearly have an interest in meditation and I honestly believe it is one of most beautiful gifts we can give ourselves and others.
Every time you take a moment to sit, you show the world how courageous you are and that you are not afraid to take the whole universe into your comfort zone.
For those that show an interest in meditation but never really found a way to start or keep a daily practice. I know you can do it.
Yes, it’s hard, it’s not always fun and it takes time.
Sometimes you aren’t even sure why you are doing it at all. But isn’t this true for everything worth in life?
Maybe it’s time to do away with the band-aids and accept our moment to moment experience as it really is and not as we wish it to be?
There is great source of joy and strength to be discovered, all it takes is a little discipline.