We often say “I am thinking”, but really it is the other way round; “thinking is doing you”, what I mean by this is that our sense of “self” is a product of our thought processes. There is no fixed self or personality, we recreate our “selves” from moment to moment.
So, if your personality is a product of our thought processes then who or what is doing the thinking? This is called the “our essential nature” in the Zen tradition and often illustrated by the Koan “What did your face look like before your parents were born?”
Siddhartha recognised this and realised that this self-made prison of “self” inhibits us and traps us in repeating unuseful patterns of thought and behaviour over and over.
Mindfulness meditation is the ultimate form of minimalism, not only do you abandon your possessions, you abandon your fixed concept of personality, you become free of the baggage of psychological ticks, hang-ups, contradictions and prejudices that make up “you”.
With the notion (And current trend) of “self development” all you are doing is making your cage more comfortable, you are going the wrong way, self “deconstruction” is the key.
Mindfulness is traditionally a Buddhist meditative process, but has been explored and studied by psychologist since the 1970’s and has been formalised into a number of therapeutic applications that have been shown to work with issues such as stress reduction, anxiety and depression and chronic pain.
Mindfulness is best described by John Kabat-Zinn as “…paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
In the beginning mindfulness meditation is a practice of concentration, with a focus on following or counting the breath. It is essential to build up the required level of concentration.
This concentration and focus on the present moment can be a powerful outcome of it’s own. In the Zen tradition this is called Joriki. You develop a level of mental fortitude and concentration that Zen master Yasutani Hakuun Roshi has referred to as “a dynamic power that enables us even in the most sudden and unexpected situations to act instantly, without pausing to collect our wits, and in a manner wholly appropriate to the circumstances.”
However, mindfulness meditation is much more than just concentrating, it is a powerful tool of self-inquiry, boundless in its scope and ability to reveal the true basis of reality. Through mindfulness we come to realise selflessness and the interconnectivity of all things, which has the potential to transform our lives and those of others.
Meditation: A Simple How to Guide
There are hundreds if not thousands of different types of mediation, from guided mediation (which are closer to self hypnosis) to Transcendental Mediation(tm), to the hardcore hyper-speed psychotherapy for the soul of the Zen tradition. Some of these methods require the guidance of a teacher (and therefore are open to abuse and cult like tendencies, so do be careful if this is your bag).
However, the purest form of meditation is the practice of mindfulness and can be practiced by anyone (although, it is often recognised that a teacher can be useful) at any time. Here is a basic introduction:
Correct posture is essential to proper meditative practice. It is almost impossible to meditate if you are slouched, or even lying down. It can take some time to become flexible, strong and comfortable enough to sit for long periods of time, so it is a good idea to practice physical exercises to improve strength and flexibility outside of your meditative practice.
The key to correct posture is to have an elongated, unsupported spine and a strong base. There is no need to be able to sit in full lotus, although this a noble aim. Full lotus (or half lotus if you cannot manage full lotus – I sit in half lotus as do most practitioners I know), has been traditionally the meditative position to be in as it allow the body to be held completely steady for long periods of time by giving you a good solid, stable base using your bum, thighs and knees.
With a bit of practice you will be surprised how quickly you can sit comfortably in a good posture (although full lotus may take a few years to achieve!).
To begin with maybe you can only manage to sit in a chair (keep your back straight and unsupported, unless you need to), that is fine, don’t force yourself into an uncomfortable position, you won’t get as much out of your practice and maybe even injure yourself. You can buy an inexpensive kneeling stool to help you sit in a kneeling position, I have used one for years and it is preferred if you can to sitting on a chair.
Stretch and practice the postures outside of your meditating and then start to incorporate it when you feel ready. Even if you, say, sit in half lotus for five minutes and then complete the rest of the meditation time on a chair.
For an excellent and detailed description of postures and recommended exercises to help improve them you cannot go fair wrong with Robert Aitken’s “Taking the Path of Zen“.
You can close your eyes, but this often promotes a lot more mental activity and it is easier to get distracted or drop off. So it is best to keep your eyes half open and defocus looking at the ground about 4 feet away.
Put your hands palm up in your lap and just gently rest one palm on top of the other and gently put the tips of your thumbs together.
You can use a stopwatch, glance a clock, or you can download a fancy app for your smart phone (I use the SotoTimer app for my iPhone, it is free and I find it does everything I need very well). Or you can use counting beads (mala), I like counting beads and find them useful tool when I cannot use a clock or timer, I wear my beads around my wrist or neck and find them a positive trigger and reminder to remain mindful (see “Everything is Mediation” below).
Start with a very short period of time, say five minutes and slowly build up by adding a minute a week until you reach 20 – 25 minutes. If you dive straight in with a 25-minute session you will find you get twitchy and distracted and give in very easily, it is better to do a short period time, even if you want to go further. This builds up momentum.
When to do it
It is often recommended to meditate twice a day; first thing in the morning, right after you wake up, and at the end of the day just before you go to bed.
For some people this just isn’t feasible and for others it isn’t the best time. I find it takes me a long time to get going in the morning and with the best will in the world I just don’t get as much out of meditating at that time. So I often sit mid-morning (admittedly I can, I work from home most of the time) after breakfast and few morning chores, I find I can then concentrate and focus better. I don’t often meditate in the evening unless I am sitting with a group.
Find your own rhythm and what works for you, it is most important to find a time that suits you and build up a regular practice (see “ritualising your practice” below). Experiment, we are all different.
Where to do it
You can meditate anywhere, but it helps to develop an area in your home where you go to meditate. This helps put you in the mood and act as a trigger, that when you are there that is what you do, it can be a room, or just a corner or a part of a room, you may want to make a little “shrine” with some flowers a candle, some incense (smell is a very powerful mood trigger and I find the smell of a particular incense always focuses me on meditation), a statue of the Buddha or some other religious artefacts if you have your own personal beliefs.
Buddhism recognises the power of ritual and by ritualising your practice, by doing it an specific time in a specific place, you will find you will build the habit much more quickly and gain the benefits of a meditative practice in a shorter period of time.
What to actually do!
I have talked a lot about how, where, when and how long to sit for, so now it is time to talk about what you should actually do when you are there.
In fact the “content” of mindfulness practice is the easiest to explain (but the hardest to master…).
To begin with, the first few times you meditate, just sit still, don’t try and focus on anything, just sit there, get used to doing nothing for five minutes or so, get used to the fidgets, the twitches, start to notice your mind racing around trying to fill the time. Once you have done that for a week or so and started getting in to the habit, you want to draw your attention to your breathing, don’t force it or try and change the way you breathe, just relax (by relaxing you will notice your breathing will lengthen, deepen and slow down). To help you focus, we count the breaths, you can count the in-breath, the out-breath, or both, it is up to you, see what works best. Count up to 10 then return to one.
We use or breathing as an area of focus as it is always with us, no matter where we are, or what we are doing, we can draw our attention to our breath.
You will notice that your mind carries on thinking, that’s what your brain does (your heart beats, your lungs breath, you brain thinks), the goal of meditation is not to “stop thinking” but to disengage from your thoughts, to just let them drift by like clouds in the sky. As you meditate more, you will notice that your thinking will slow, things will seem less important, less requiring of your immediate attention.
If you find during your sessions that your mind does wander, or gets caught up in the hustle and bustle of your thoughts, just gently disengage, take a couple of long deep breaths, check your posture and then return to counting your breaths.
It really is that simple. For years I thought, “Is this it? Is this all I should be doing?” I worried that it shouldn’t be that simple (it isn’t easy…), and I would sit in meditation and question myself and hunt around (and try out) different styles of meditation. But the more I hunted the more a I kept returning to the breath counting, to it’s purity and simplicity.
Stick to it, you will soon realise the benefits.
Everything is meditation
“The real meditation practice is life itself. The real meditation teacher is life itself.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
Sitting meditation is just a chance to practice mindfulness and build concentration, the real process of mindfulness happens in your day-to-day life. Everything is meditation. Everything you do should be an act of mindfulness. Whether you are working, showering, cleaning your teeth, eating or waiting for the bus, everything should be done with awareness. This can take years of practice to remain fully aware throughout your day, but by making an effort to be fully present for moment through the day, whether that is for just three minutes as your clean your teeth, as well as regular “sitting” practice, you will find that your clarity of thought, concentration and ability to cope with what used to seem like ridiculously difficult situations.
You will become “grounded in the present moment without being swept away by it”.
Now isn’t that cool?