Meditation. To learn to meditate is one of the best things you will ever do. It will become a gift that keeps on giving, but it will also cause upset at time. Strangely, to sit and do nothing and make your mind and body behave is one of the hardest things to do, but therein lies the satisfaction.

What meditation is is a tricky thing to define. It is usually based on concentrating upon something, from something as basic as your breath to something as grand as God. It is not something mystical - although it is used by mystics. It is not a form of relaxation - although it will help you relax. It is not some psychological tool - although you will get insights into the workings of your mind. To be honest, it's easier to say what it is not than to say what it is. When it is going well, it produces a calm, clear and introspective state and a sense of well being. Of course to see what it is like, you'll have to do it yourself.

I am a Buddhist, and so this guide will be biased towards Buddhist meditation techniques, but if you're not a Buddhist this doesn't matter. There's nothing particularly religious about any of them I'll list here.

What you will need:

Where you meditate should be quiet and somewhere you won't be disturbed. Your bedroom is probably ideal. Most people meditate either first thing in the morning or last thing at night - try both, and find the best for you.

You will need to sit down somewhere. Good posture is the important point. What you sit on not that important - either a chair or a cushion can be used. The lotus position is what most people think meditators use - but this is not the case. Unless you are really flexible and can do it easily, you'll hurt yourself, and that's the last thing you want. Half lotus is much easier, but the two best ways for beginners to sit on the floor is to sit either a) cross-legged or b) sit on a cushion, or stack of cushions that is between your ankles. Avoid any kind of strain on your hips, ankles or knees. You have to look after these well! When doing this, tight trousers can restrict the flow of blood in the legs, and you don't want to get pins and needles. If you have bad knees or can't deal with sitting on the floor for 20 minutes, then use a chair - a cushion on the seat to tilt your hips forwards is useful.

I often use a blanket when meditating, wrapped around my waist, or draped around my shoulders. This is quite a good idea I think - but it doesn't have much of an effect other than giving you a 'platform' to put your hands on.

So, sit down on your cushion(s) or chair, and now you need to sort out your posture. The traditional approach - and it's traditional because it works - it to have a straight back, slightly curved in at the small of the back. Not slumped, and not exaggeratedly straight - just comfortably straight. (If you imagine a cord pulling the top of your head upwards, you will see how a comfortable position can be found between these two extremes of posture). The shoulders should be rolled back and relaxed, the nose in line with the navel, the earsin line with the shoulders and the face looking down slightly, as if looking a spot on the floor a few metres away.

The hands should be placed on the lap, one on top of the other, palms up, with the thumb tips gently touching, making an O shape. This is called a dhyana mudra in Sanskrit, if you want to know. The hands should be an inch or two below the navel, and it helps to rest them on something such as the blanket I discussed, or a cushion or something similar. The elbows should be back a little, and naturally bent. Your mouth should be gently shut, with your tongue resting against the front two teeth. Relax your face and eyes. The can be open in a natural way, or they can be half open, pointed at the spot on the floor a few metres away.

In short - the position you use for meditation should be alert and upright, and most of all comfortable.
  • Now you know how to sit - on with the meditation.
  • A good way to start, and to be 'at home in your body' is to do a body scan. Start at your toes and imagine you are 'painting them with awareness'. Give them a wiggle, and just be aware of them - the skin and the muscle and the bones. Move your concentration slowly to your feet, and be aware of them. Then move to your ankles, your lower legs, then to your knees, then to your thighs. Move your awareness to your hips and backside, and be aware of the sensations of sitting. Then travel up the spine and lower back - also being aware of the belly. Be aware of the shoulders and the chest, and then move your concentration to your hands. Move your awareness slowly all the way from your finger tips to your shoulders. Once you’ve reached your neck, be aware of your head and scalp. Then your face - aware of your cheeks and eyes and mouth. This should relax you and once you've done it you should feel aware of your body and feel like you're actually 'in it' - far more than before. This is not required, but is easy to do and quite worthwhile. It should take about 5-10 minutes.
  • The most basic form of meditation taught, in Buddhism and elsewhere, is breath based. This means that the process of breathing in and out is used as a concentration object]. This method is great for beginners, and great for those who have experience. Lots of variations exist, but the following is fine:
  • Having sat in the meditation position, become aware of your breath. Do not attempt to control it, just watch it move in and out. With the mouth shut, so the air is moving through the nose just feel it, and be aware of it's movement.
  • You can either focus on the belly, near the navel, or on the nose. Either is fine, but you should not swap them around. What you concentrate on is specifically the rising and falling of the belly or the sensations at the tip of the nose while you breath quietly.
  • To help you concentrate on the breath, you should count the breath (silently). Count them to 10 and then begin again from 1. If you loose count then start at 1 again.
  • It is here that you will start to get your first difficulties arising. The 'mental chatter' will try and interrupt you, and you may find your thoughts wondering away from the object of concentration, the breath. This will happen again and agin, so be patient, and bring back your concentration to your breath. Don't try to stop thoughts - it's like trying to herd cats. It isn't going to work. As you become calmer and more focussed, then the thoughts will start to slow and stop making a nuisance of themselves.

    Getting rid of thoughts is not the point here, this is a very common misconception about what meditation is. Meditation is just paing attention to what's there, by cultivating a calm, clear concentration. The best thing to do is calmly avoid interfering with them when they arise. You can't push them away, so don't even try.

  • Keep up your calm awareness of the breath at your chosen point (belly or nose) for 20 minutes - the most common period people seem to use for meditation when begining. To keep track of time, use a clock or watch on the floor. Ideally, you should expand your practice to at least an hour a day. Build up to this slowly.

How often do you need to do this? Daily, I'd say. The more frequent, the more effective. Every morning or evening would be great.

Other forms of meditation exist - thousands in fact. They are, in Buddhism, split into two groups - vipassana, or insight meditation, and samatha, or calming meditation. This is an example of samatha. But this practice is a necessary place to start. The best place to learn is not from a book or from this, but from a real live teacher. Meditation classes are everywhere, from Buddhist monastaries to community centres. This will enable you to progress well, as you'll have a guide to show you what's what.

Remember - this needs patience, but it's very, very rewarding.

Good luck, Grasshopper.

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