Meditation is the intentional practice of uncritically focusing your attention on one thing at a time. Exactly what that thing might be is relatively unimportant and varies from one tradition to the next. Often the meditator repeats, either aloud or silently, a syllable, word, or group of words. This is known as mantra meditation. Focusing on a fixed object such as a candle’s flame or a flower can also anchor the attention. Many meditators find that a convenient and relaxing point of focus is the rising and falling of their own breath. But you can use anything as an object of meditation: the calendar on your desk, the tip of your nose, or even your Aunt Mary’s maiden name.
It is important to understand that the heart of meditation lies not simply in focusing on one object to the exclusion of all other thought, but rather in the attempt to achieve this type of focus. The nature of the mind is such that it does not want to stay concentrated. A myriad of thoughts will appear and seemingly interfere with the meditation. A typical meditation might go something like this (the meditator in this case has chosen the task of counting to three repeatedly):
- One… two… this isn’t so hard… one… two… three… one… I’m not having many thoughts at all… oh, oh, I just had a thought… that was another one… two… my nose itches… one… I wonder if it’s okay to scratch it… darn, there was another thought. I’ve got to try harder… one… two… three… one… two… I was judging myself pretty harshly. I’m not supposed to do that… one… two… three… one… I’m hungry… wonder what I’ll cook tonight… one… two… three… I’m having way too many thoughts… I’ll never get this right… one… two… now don’t judge… one… two… three… one…
Each time this meditator realizes that his mind has drifted to other thoughts, he chooses instead to dwell on the original object of his attention. By repeating this one moment of awareness, a moment that consists of noticing the thought and then refocusing the attention, over time a number of surprising realizations can become apparent:
- It is impossible to worry, fear, or hate when your mind is thinking about something other than the object of these emotions.
- It isn’t necessary to think about everything that pops into your head. You have the ability to choose which thoughts you will think about.
- The seemingly diverse contents of your mind really can fit into a few simple categories: grudging thoughts, fearful thoughts, angry thoughts, wanting thoughts, planning thoughts, memories, and so on.
- You act in certain ways because you have certain thoughts that over your lifetime have become habitual. Habitual patterns of thought and perception will begin to lose their influence over your life once you become aware of them.
- Emotions, aside from the thoughts and pictures in your mind, consist entirely of physical sensations in your body.
- Even the strongest emotion will become manageable if you concentrate on the sensations in your body and not the content of the thought that produced the emotion.
- Thoughts and emotions are not permanent. They pass into and out of your body and mind. They need not leave a trace.
- When you are awake to what is happening right now and open to “what is,” the extreme highs and extreme lows of your emotional response to life will disappear. You will live life with equanimity.
Three basic meditations are provided below. Try each one a few times, then settle on the one you like best. Practice it regularly; at least once a day.
The mantra meditation is the most common form of meditation throughout the world. Before you begin, select a word or syllable that pleases you. Perhaps there’s a word that has special meaning for you. Or you may use nonsense syllables, the sound of which you find pleasant. You may use the word “one.” Many meditators prefer the mantra “om.”
- Find your comfortable posture and center yourself. Take several deep breaths.
- Chant your mantra silently to yourself. Say the word or syllables over and over within your mind. When your thought strays, note that; then bring your attention back to your mantra. If you notice any sensations in your body, note the feeling; then return to the repetition of your own special word. You needn’t force it. Let your mantra find its own rhythm as you repeat it over and over again.
- If you have the opportunity, you may want to try chanting your mantra aloud. Let the sound of your voice fill you as you relax. Notice whether the sensations in your body are different from those you felt when you chanted silently. Which is more relaxing?
- Remember that meditation is to be practiced with awareness. You may find that the repetition of a mantra, especially when repeated silently, can easily become mechanical. When this happens, you may have the sense that an inner voice is repeating your mantra while you are actually lost in thought or rapidly approaching sleep. Try to stay aware of each repetition of each syllable.
The simplest way to begin meditation is by focusing on your breath.
- Choose a comfortable sitting posture.
- Bring your attention to the gentle rise and fall of your breath. Like ocean waves coming in to the shore and going out, your breath is always there. You can focus on your inhale and exhale, the sensations of your breath entering your nose or mouth, or the sensations of your breath filling your lungs and diaphragm.
- Whenever your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to focus on your breath. Let your breath be your anchor to this present moment.
- When you find yourself becoming distracted by thoughts, simply notice and acknowledge them.
- One way to work with thoughts is to “name” them as you notice them. If you notice you are worrying, silently say to yourself, “Worry, worry, there is worry.” You can name planning, reminiscing, longing, thinking, or whatever it is in just the same way: Label it and move on. This will help you to stop identifying yourself with your thoughts and to learn how to let go to create more spaciousness and peace.
This meditation can take between twenty and thirty minutes to do. With practice, you will become able to rest your attention on your breath more effortlessly and to let go of your thoughts more easily.
An alternative form of sitting meditation is the use of counting with the rhythm of the breath. Following the gentle ins and outs of the breath creates a sense of peace and restfulness.
- Find your posture and center yourself. Take several deep breaths. Either close your eyes or fix them on a spot on the floor about four feet in front of you. Your eyes may or may not be focused.
- Take deep but not forced belly breaths. As you do, focus your attention on each part of the breath: the inhale, the turn (the point at which you stop inhaling and start exhaling), the exhale, the pause (between the exhale and inhale), the turn (the point at which you start to inhale), the inhale, and so on. Pay careful attention to the pause. What are the sensations in your body as you pause between breaths?
When you discover that your mind has slipped into thought, note this, then gently return to the counting of your breath.
- If a particular sensation in your body catches your attention, focus on the sensation until it recedes. Then return your attention to the inhale and the exhale and the counting of your breath.
As you exhale, say “one.” Continue counting each exhale: “two … three … four.” Then begin again with “one.” If you lose count, simply start over.
- It is not necessary to feel as though you are relaxing while you meditate for you to actually become relaxed. You may feel as though you are thinking thousands of thoughts and are very restless. However, when you open your eyes at the end of your meditation, you will realize you feel much more relaxed than you did before you began meditating.
- As your mind quiets with meditation, old or hidden pain can arise from your subconscious. If you find that when you meditate you suddenly feel angry, depressed, or frightened, try to gently allow yourself to experience the feeling without resistance and let go of the temptation to make sense out of your feelings. If you feel the need, talk to a friend, counselor, or meditation teacher.
- You may hear or read about ideal conditions for meditation: for example, that you should meditate only in a quiet place, only two hours after you’ve eaten, or only in a position that you can hold comfortably for twenty minutes, and so on. Yes, these are ideal conditions, but life is seldom ideal. If the place isn’t absolutely quiet or if the only time you have to meditate is right after lunch, don’t let these small obstacles keep you from meditating. If you find yourself being particularly bothered by noises or the rumblings of a full stomach, simply incorporate the annoying sensation in with the object of your meditation.
- If you adopt a daily sitting practice, you must understand that you may find there are stretches of time during which you will not want to meditate. Don’t expect that your desire to meditate will grow constantly with your practice. If you feel discouraged, be gentle with yourself and try to work creatively on ways to make your practice more comfortable. Know that these periods of discouragement will go away by themselves in time. Here are two things you can do to help maintain a schedule: Pick a regular time of the day to meditate and honor it as you would any other appointment. Find a group to meditate with—the value of finding such a group cannot be overstated.
The text on this page was excerpted from The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook written by Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, and Patrick Fanning, and published by New Harbinger Press. This is an excellent resource for anyone seeking practical strategies for reducing stress and cultivating a more peaceful life. You can purchase this book by clicking on the image below.
From the publisher: “This book has been awarded The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies Self-Help Seal of Merit — an award bestowed on outstanding self-help books that are consistent with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) principles and that incorporate scientifically tested strategies for overcoming mental health difficulties. Used alone or in conjunction with therapy, our books offer powerful tools readers can use to jump-start changes in their lives.”