How to Meditate
Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10)
“We practice meditation in order to see ourselves as we truly are and life as it truly is.” ( Genpo Roshi)
“Meditation brings wisdom: lack of meditation leaves ignorance. (Buddha)
There is a reason that all religious traditions involve some kind of meditation, prayer or silent contemplation. No matter what your belief system most people benefit from allowing their mind to become still and I often find myself recommending meditation to patients who are anxious or overstretched. If you have never meditated it is hard to believe how helpful it is to set aside a few minutes a day in order to quieten your mind.
Now, I don’t want to pretend that I have a perfect mediation practice. Like a lot of people I am a bit of a spasmodic meditator. In fact, sadly, when I need to meditate most I am least likely to be able to find the time. However when I am meditating regularly I feel calmer, have more perspective and am more able to cope with the ups and downs of my life.
The meditation below is a Buddhist meditation based on Vipassana or Insight Meditation which is a technique that has been practiced in Asia for over 2,500 years. Beginning with the focusing of attention on the breath, the practice concentrates and calms the mind. It is simple and yet profound in that this stillness helps you to see through the mind’s conditioning and thereby to live more fully present in the moment.
I offer it as a guide, however you should meditate in a way that is meaningful to you and resonates with your own religious beliefs or cultural traditions.
There is no right or wrong way to meditate so don’t focus on doing this perfectly: it’s more important that you practice regularly. Try not to be too ambitious when you are starting out. Setting aside 10 minutes every day is way more helpful than struggling to meditate for an hour and then giving up because you have taken on too much. If this way of meditating does not work for you feel free to find a different one
- Find a place where you can be alone and uninterrupted (for some of us this is quite a challenge).
- Complete silence is not necessary – in fact background noises can be incorporated into your meditation.
- Wear loose clothing if you can and take off your shoes.
- Sit comfortably. You can sit in the lotus position if you like but you can also just sit in a chair. Some people like to use a meditation bench or a special cushion but none of this is necessary.
- Your hands should be relaxed and in your lap
- Close your eyes and focus your attention on your abdomen. Bring your awareness to how your abdomen rises and falls with each breath.
- In your mind say the words rising and falling as you breath in and out keeping your focus on the movement of your abdomen. You are just observing. Do not try to control or prolong the movements. Allow them to be natural, whether shallow or deep.
- You will find that your mind wanders. This is normal and doesn’t mean that you are doing anything wrong. When you notice that your mind has wandered simply bring your attention back to your breathing. Sometimes it helps to put a soft mental note on your thoughts when you notice them. For instance if I find myself thinking about a member of my staff I label the thought “work” and let it go. Sometimes if a thought is persistent I imagine it inside a balloon floating off into the sky.
- Try to avoid assigning judgments to your thoughts and labeling them as good or bad. They are just thoughts.
- If you experience an uncomfortable sensation such as an itch. Instead of scratching it, observe the sensation first. Often the itch will disappear on its own. If it doesn’t, try to continue observing it, without judging it as pleasant or unpleasant. This is not about “toughing it out” but more about developing the ability to let go and observe, from a detached perspective, sensations that arise in the body. More experienced meditators can do the same with sensations that are painful. Often, for people in chronic pain, this helps them to get perspective about their pain and broadens their experience so that they become bigger than their pain and less overwhelmed by it.
- Likewise if a noise interrupts your meditation, allow it to intrude and then let it go without letting your mind follow it. If you find yourself thinking about the noise, notice what you are doing, let it go and then return to focusing on your breathing.
- Initially do this for 10 minutes every day building up to 45 – 60 minutes if you have the time available
If you would like to know more about Vipassana meditation I can recommend The Insight Mediation Society. They are affiliated with groups that meet all over the world and also run retreat centers. Several times over the last 10 years I have been fortunate to take part a 9 day silent retreat at the IMS Center in Barre, MA. Each time I have benefited greatly from this deceptively simple and yet profound practice.