Many people have asked me about starting a formal meditation practice, so here's the why and the how:
My #1 rule regarding meditation practice: Be flexible.
When I became chronically ill, I had a meditation schedule that I'd set in stone ten years before: twice a day for 45 minutes each time no matter what (even on my children's wedding days!). Instead of accommodating my illness by adjusting my meditation schedule, I just quit meditating altogether. It took me over ten years of illness to finally accept that I needed to be flexible. And so, I've started meditating again. I lie down or half recline on my bed. I may meditate for ten minutes, for twenty, for forty. Flexibility!
Many studies tout the benefits of meditation (decreased stress, improved cardiovascular functioning, better ability to focus, reduction in pain levels). I'll add to the list two good reasons I learned many years ago from my teachers.
1. To rest and take care of our minds.
The Buddhist nun, Ayya Khema, said that meditating is the best way to rest and take care of our minds. At a retreat, she told us: "We take the mind for granted. It thinks all day, dreams all night. It's always busy and we expect it to just keep going. But the mind, being the finest tool in the universe, has to be treated like any other delicate tool. If it's abused and not given rest, it won't function as well."
Think of the time we spend taking care of our bodies—washing them, exercising them (if we're able), feeding them, resting them. Why not tend to our minds for a few minutes each day?
2. To come to know our minds and, with practice, change them!
When the mind becomes calm, we can see what's going on in it, and it's not always a pretty sight. The Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Pema Chödrön, draws an analogy to a lake: when the water clears, we see the sparkling jewels at the bottom, but we also see the rubbish—the worn shoes, the old tires.
We all share cultural conditioning as a result of our common experiences in the education system, in the workplace, even from the media. But each of us has also had unique life experiences that have affected our dispositions differently. And so, when the mind gets calm, for some of us, anger pops right up; for others, worry or restlessness. After practicing meditation for while, we start to see those worn shoes of our minds—the grooves that have become deep from our past conditioning. Pema Chödrön says that meditation is like doing a Ph.D. dissertation, but the subject is ourselves.
Anger, worry, and other painful mind states are just habits of the mind. This is not to say we don't suffer when we're caught up in them. But, one of the amazing effects of meditation is that, as we repeatedly and non-judgmentally observe our habitual thought and emotional patterns, they lose their tight-fisted grip on us.
Non-judgmental observation means to be consciously aware of a mind state when it arises—perhaps labeling it, "Ah, this is anger"—but not adding to it those stressful stories we are so accustomed to spinning, such as, "My boss doesn't appreciate me" or "I'll never get everything done that I have to do." These stories only serve to strengthen the painful mind state. If we drop the stories and just observe the mind state when it arises, with practice, we'll able to see it as an ever-changing fluid event in the mind, arising and passing based on causes and conditions in our lives. This holds the promise for us to get out of those painful grooves that are worn into our minds.
We can also come to "know and change" our minds by practicing mindfulness outside of meditation. But formal meditation practice makes us more adept at watching our minds when we're not meditating, because meditation sharpens our ability to pay attention to our present moment experience. (Note: If troubling thoughts are persistent during meditation and become a source of increasing stress, you should stop meditating until you are able to consult a trained meditation teacher or a healthcare practitioner who can help you resolve these difficulties.)
How to meditate
There are many different meditation techniques, even within Buddhism. What follows is a description of the most common type of mindfulness meditation technique. It's helpful to have access to a teacher who can answer questions as they arise, but these instructions can get you started. There are also books and online resources you can turn to.
Pick a quiet place and a time when you won't be interrupted. Decide ahead of time how long you'll meditate (otherwise your mind is likely to come up with any number of excuses to stop if you're finding it difficult). Find a comfortable position—sitting on the floor or in a chair, even lying down. Gently close your eyes. Start by doing a quick scan of your body, from the top of your head to your toes. Is your body tired? Is it full of energy? Is there any discomfort? Just ground your attention in your body.
Now, notice the physical sensation of your breath as it comes in and goes out of your body. Find the place in your body where that physical sensation is the strongest. It might be in your nostrils or at the back of your throat. It might be in the rise and fall of the abdomen. It might be in the expansion and contraction of your entire torso. It doesn't matter. Just rest your attention on the place where the sensations most strongly let you know that your breath is coming in and going out of your body. You'll come back to the physical sensation of your breath at this place over and over. It will become your anchor to the present moment.
As you breathe, investigate with interest the physical sensation of your breathing. Notice how the in-breath feels different from the out-breath. Notice the difference in the feeling of the beginning, middle, and end of the in- and out-breaths. When you recognize that your attention has strayed from the breath to other incoming sense data (a thought, a physical sensation, a sound), gently bring your attention back to the physical sensation of the breath going in and out of your body at your anchor spot. Whether this is your first time meditating or your ten-thousandth time, your mind will still stray from the breath! One of the beauties of meditation is that it's okay to begin again...and again and again.
Usually when you notice that your attention has strayed from the breath, it's easy to return to following it at your anchor spot. But sometimes another sensory input becomes more compelling than the breath. If that happens, let go of your focus on the breath and bring to this sensory input the same attentive quality that you brought to the breath. If it's an unpleasant physical sensation, don't attach any meaning to it; just notice the unpleasantness without judgment. When the sensory input becomes less compelling, return to the breath—your anchor to the present moment.
If it's a thought or emotion that has become so compelling that you can't keep your focus on the breath, shift your attention to the thought or emotion and just patiently watch it without judgment. Thoughts and emotions come and go in the mind in an ever-changing flow. They're not solid entities or a fixed part of your identity. They arise due to causes and conditions and eventually will pass on through the mind. When the thought or emotion becomes less compelling, return to following your breath at your anchor spot.
Those are the basic mindfulness meditation instructions: use the physical sensation of the breath going in and your of your body as an anchor to return to over and over again. Wherever the meditation takes you, meet your experience with curiosity and open-heartedness, not judgment. Then you will, as Ayya Khema said, be taking good care of your mind.
Postscript: If you've read this far and just don't want to meditate, should you feel bad? No! In the January, 2012 issue of Shambhala Sun, Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh was asked what he would say to someone who finds meditation painful and difficult. His answer: "Don't do it anymore." I was shocked! He went on to say: "In life, there's a lot of suffering. Why do you have to suffer more practicing Buddhism? You practice Buddhism in order to suffer less, right?" Not all meditation teachers would agree with his comments, but I offer them to you as words from one of the most beloved and respected teachers of Buddhism on the planet today.
For a description of a variation on mindfulness meditation called "Choiceless Awareness," see Chapter 10 of my book How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.
© 2012 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com
Thank you for reading my work. My upcoming book (Fall 2015) is titled How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide.
My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.
I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers.
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