What is Meditation, Really?

For the last twenty years of so, it has well established in medical research and popular culture that meditation is the cheapest and most effective way to relieve stress, and therefore improve your overall physical, mental and emotional health.

But what exactly is meditation? Most people believe that meditation is a form of self discipline, forcing yourself to sit upright with your eyes closed, in order to will yourself not to think. When people approach meditation this way, they very quickly come to the conclusion that they “can’t meditate” or that “meditation is not for me”.   I approached meditation like this for many years. It did not lead to insight. After torturing myself in this way,i would get up and go about my day taking distinctive pride in having survived yet another sit. Wrongly influenced by images of meditation that we see in movies and magazines, will sit and do deep breathing for a few minutes and then get up, believing that we have meditated. But have we, really?

Meditation is the practice of learning to sit patiently and non-judgemental with your mind, body and breath. It is a practice of learning how to cultivate an clear awareness of how one exists in their body, and how their mind and body interact with each other to either generate a sense of ease and clarity, or more often, a sense of tightness, stress, and mental confusion.  Meditation is not a competition, something you should will yourself into doing, rather it is a commitment to take the time to cultivate a sense of peaceful co-existence with yourself.

So if you want to meditate, how do you get started? Here is a simple breath meditation. First find a quiet place, where you can sit undisturbed for a few minutes. You may choose to light a candle or a stick of incense if you are at home to get you focused. However this is not necessary.  If you are very new to meditation, set a timer for no more than five or six minutes. Sit in an upright and relaxed position. It’s fine to sit in a chair or your couch. You can also on the floor with your legs crossed comfortably, maybe leaning your back against something. Another way is just to sit upright on your bed with your legs crossed.

Breath Meditation for Beginners

Close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths.  After no more than five breaths, simply let your attention move to the feel of the rising and fall of your breath in the back of your throat. Try not to hold the breath or control the breath. Just gently bring your attention to the feel of it in your throat. You might quietly note to yourself if your breath is long or short, ragged or smooth, or even if you are holding your breath or trying to control it in someway.  It doesn’t matter, just gently smile to yourself and continue notice qualities of your breath.

If your mind wanders, relax. It’s okay. Just gently bring your attention back to the breath, and begin again. The most important thing is not to judge yourself if you start thinking, or planning or daydreaming, because you will! Just gently and peacefully return your attention to the breath. Try this once or twice day, gradually extending the time in two-three minute increments until you can sit for a full 30 minutes.

Here are some things that people often notice when they first start meditating: (1) “My mind is often thinking or planning,” (2) “I am trying to control my breath”, (3) “I often holding my breath” (3) “I feel restless, my body wants to move.”  Congratulations! These are the first insights gleaned from meditation. The chances are that when you are not meditating your mind is doing the exact same thing (i.e. thinking and planning, wanting to move, holding or controlling your breath).

Always thinking and planning, distracting yourself, and holding or controlling the natural flow of our breath causes stress and unease in the human body. These practices make our heart rates speed up, increase blood pressure, and cause our muscles to tighten up so that we end up feeling tense. As we learn to meditate, we can practice bringing our awareness back to breath when are minds are racing, judging, planning, and do it is thing. The practice of meditation teaches us to notice when we are relating to our bodies in such a way that causes us stress, or what the Buddha called suffering (dukkha). When notice we are stressed when we are not meditating we can learn to how (1) relax, (2) know that it’s okay (not judge ourselves), and (3) begin again to gently bring our awareness awareness back to the natural rising and falling of our breath.

“We can stop with what occurs and see its true face without calling it the enemy. It helps to remember that our spiritual practice is not about accomplishing anything--not about winning or losing--but ceasing to struggle and relaxing as it is. This is what we are doing when we sit down to meditate. That attitude spreads to the rest of our lives.”  --Pema Chodron