How to Meditate
Part I: How to establish a daily sitting practice
Before you sit
As with all things, start where you are. You have everything you need right now. First, decide to sit each day. Next, plan the time, place and duration for your sitting meditation.
Choose a time
Morning is often best because the mind is calmer than it is later in the day. However, the best time is the time that you can commit to on a regular basis. If one longer sit isn’t possible, try two shorter ones.
Choose a space
There is no perfect place. If possible, dedicate a space exclusively to your daily sitting. Choose a relatively quiet space where you can leave your cushion (or chair) so that it is always there to return to. You may want to create an altar with a candle, inspiring photos or statues. These are not necessary, but are beneficial if they help to motivate you.
Choose a duration
As long as is comfortable, plus 5 minutes. This is a general guide, not a rule. Even fifteen or twenty minutes will seem an eternity in the beginning, but that impression will change with time. If you sit each day, you will experience noticeable benefits (e.g., less reactivity, more calm) and be able to increase your sitting time.
Every time you sit: Set your intention: It is helpful to recall at the start of each sitting meditation why you are doing it. Remember that your purpose, to become more open and free, will benefit you and those around you.
Set your posture
Alertness is one of the two essential ingredients in every meditation. Sit on a chair, cushion, or kneeling bench as straight and tall as possible. In the beginning, sitting against a wall can help you learn what a straight back feels like. Around this straight-back position, let the rest of your skeleton and muscles hang freely. Let the hands rest comfortably on your knees or lap. Let the eyes close, bringing the attention inward.
Openness is the second essential ingredient in every meditation. Once you feel your spine is erect, let everything else relax, hang loose, and soften. Breathing through the nose, loosen the face, neck, hands, and stomach area. You may want to begin at the scalp and move your attention slowly downward, methodically relaxing and softening each part of the body. Please don’t skip the step of relaxing/letting go! Consciously releasing body tension will help you open to whatever arises during your meditation.
Choose an object of meditation
Once you’ve established this alert and open posture, you are ready to decide where you’ll place your attention. Useful objects for beginners are:
• The breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils.
• Other body changes during breathing, e.g., the rise and fall of the chest.
• Sounds as they arise from within the body or outside of it.
• Other body sensations as they arise.
Whatever object you select, stay with it for at least ten breaths. Even with this effort, your mind will insist on going to its usual places. Make note of this when it happens, and gently lead your attention back to the chosen object of meditation. Your intention and persistence are the key ingredients for cultivating awareness, not the number of times your mind wanders. As often as you need to, check yourself—“Alert and erect? Relaxed and open?” – and begin again.
The classical objects of meditation: The four objects of meditation that the Buddha outlined in the Satipatthana Sutta are called the four foundations of mindfulness or the four frameworks for cultivating mindfulness. They are:
1) Mindfulness of the body (starting with breath).
2) Mindfulness of feeling (there are 3 – pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral).
3) Mindfulness of mental objects (thoughts and emotions).
4) Mindfulness of all dharmas (all phenomena), starting with the 5 hindrances and
the 7 factors of enlightenment and proceeding to all the sense and thought experiences
that make up human life.
If you are interested in learning more about the four foundations of mindfulness, read Breath by Breath by Larry Rosenberg, or The Heart of Buddhist Meditation by Nyanaponika Thera.
A different object of meditation
Metta practice, also called lovingkindness meditation, cultivates both compassion and concentration. The practice uses specific phrases to send loving and kind wishes to (a) yourself, (b) your parents, (c) your teachers or mentors, (d) your family, (e) your friends, (f) neutral persons, (g) difficult persons (or enemies), and (h) to all beings everywhere, without exception. The phrases might be:
May I be filled with lovingkindness
May I be safe from harm
May I be well
May I be peaceful and at ease
May I be happy
May my parents be filled with lovingkindness
May they be safe from harm…(etc.)
To learn more about metta meditation, read Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzburg.
Concentration and mindfulness
It will be important as you practice to recognize and balance the qualities of concentration and mindfulness. Concentration is the ability to gather your attention into one place. Mindfulness is pure moment-by-moment noticing. Without some concentration, mindfulness is difficult to sustain. Without mindfulness, concentration bears no fruit. In meditation practice, both are developed gradually.
Part II: Common issues for meditators
At first, you may be surprised at how active and uncontrolled your mind is. Don’t worry – you are discovering the truth about your current state of mind. Accept and “sit with” whatever comes up. Don’t try to change it by force, use patience. Sit up, relax, and gently bring your attention back again and again to the object of your meditation.
It is common to mistake thinking for meditating. It takes practice to distinguish pleasant, dreamy thoughts from having your attention connected to the changing experience of this moment. Staying focused on the body/breath is a good way to stay grounded in the present.
The classical five hindrances to practice are:
• Grasping: wanting more (or something different) from what’s present right now.
• Aversion: fear, anger, any form of pushing away.
• Restlessness: jumpy energy, agitation.
• Sloth and torpor: sleepy, sinking states of mind and body.
• Doubt: a mind-trap that says, “it’s no use, this will never work, maybe there’s an easier way”.
Meditators experience all of these states. During sitting practice, if you notice one of the hindrances arising, it is useful to name it silently to yourself, e.g., “grasping, grasping” or “sleepy, sleepy”. If it is strong, try not to pull away from the difficult energy, but bring all of your attention to it. Let yourself experience it fully through the sensations in your body, neither getting lost in it nor pushing it away. Watch what happens without expectations, and when it dissipates, return to the primary focus of your meditation. As Ven. Henepola Gunaratana encourages in Mindfulness in Plain English: “Examine [the hindrances] to death”. When you clearly see the suffering created by grasping and aversion, you will naturally start to let them go.
Part III: Sustaining a practice
Here are just a few helpful hints for sustaining your sitting practice:
• Sit every day, even if it’s for a short period.
• A few times during each day, establish contact with your body and breath.
• Remember that everyone wants to be happy, just like you.
• Practice regularly with a group or a friend.
• Use inspiring resources such as books or audiotapes of dharma talks.
• Study the Buddhadharma (e.g., the 4 Noble Truths, the Noble 8-Fold Path).
• Sign up for a retreat – one day, a weekend, or longer. The experience will deepen your practice.
• If you miss a day, a week, or a month — simply begin again.
• If you need guidance, ask for help from an experienced meditator or teacher.
L.J. Kelly, April 2001. Reprinted here with her permission
Insight Meditation Community of Washington