By Lou Kavar Ph.D
While there are many books written on meditation, some from particular religious traditions and others based on individual experience, it’s challenging to find a simple, practical guide for meditation.
There are many people who just want to know how to meditate. For them, here is a brief introduction to the process.
Step 1: Begin by selecting a reasonably comfortable place for meditation. Sit in a quiet room that is relatively free from distractions. While no place is fully silent, turning off music or notifications from smart phones is important. Most people will find that sitting in a straight back chair, with both feet on the floor, and hands resting on one’s thighs will be a comfortable position for 15 to 20 mins of meditation.
Once seated, begin by setting a mental intention to meditate for the period of time you select. Those who hold a belief in God may do this by saying a brief prayer for inspiration or illumination. Others may simply remind themselves that this time is a gift to self to simply be present to one’s inner self.
Step 2: The 2nd step of meditation is to use a technique to maintain focus. Maintaining focus is a matter of choosing to be aware of one thing. There are several common techniques.
Option A. Shift your awareness to your breathe. Be aware of each breathe as it enters your body and as you exhale. Rather than attempting to control your breathing, simply be aware of it: whether it’s slow or fast, deep or shallow, or if it changes. Following one’s breath is a common technique for focus in Eastern religions. Today, it’s commonly associated with the practice called mindfulness.
Option B. As you breathe, slowly repeat a word or short phrase on your breath. It may be a word like peace, healing, life, or wholeness. It may be a word that is sacred to you, like the name of God or a simple prayer like, “Lord, heal me.” This technique is commonly associated with a Christian form of meditation called centering prayer.
Option C: Fix your visual focus on one particular object, like a lit candle, a sacred picture or icon, a work of art, or a flower or tree. Allow your gaze to fix on it without staring. Maintain a visual communion with this object. This technique is found in Eastern Christian spirituality, as well as in nature-based religions like Wicca.
Find which of these 3 options is best suited for you. Try not to switch from one to another within one meditation sitting. Instead, see how well a particular technique serves you during a 15 to 20 min meditation sitting.
Step 3: During your meditation sitting, your mind will continue to be active. Thoughts of all kinds will come and go (called monkey thoughts by some). This is nothing to be concerned about. When you become aware of your thoughts gently shift your awareness back to meditation by using the technique you’ve selected: following your breath, using a word for meditation, or focusing your gaze on a particular object. Many teachers recommend that as you make this shift of focus, simply label the thing you’re thinking about or the distraction as “a thought.” Whatever ran through your mind, it is just another thought, nothing too important. Let it go.. If important, it will still be there when you’re done with your time of meditation.
Step 4: When you’ve completed your appointed time of meditation, allow yourself to think and feel a sense of gratitude for the time spent in quiet. This may include a prayer or familiar saying. Some Christians find it helpful to slowly recite the Lord’s prayer; some people in 12-step groups recite the Serenity Prayer; others simply say “thank you for this time.” Stretch a bit and, as you are ready, return to your other activities.
Common Challenges in Meditation
There are some very common challenges people experience when incorporating a meditation practice in one’s life. To be honest, they don’t necessarily go away over time. Instead, with regular meditation, one generally becomes used to moving through these challenges. Among the most common difficulties are:
1. The ability to be quiet and in silence for a period of time. We live in a culture that values multi-tasking and lots of activity. There’s also lots of noise around us each day. Silent meditation causes one to break the busy patterns common of daily life. It’s a difficult pattern to break. If you find that sitting for 15 mins makes you want to jump up and run away because it’s too difficult to be still, do not get all caught up in feeling like you are doing something wrong. Instead, reduce the time in meditation to what is comfortable. Perhaps 5-10 mins is a good time for you. Quality is more important than quantity.
2. The thoughts just keep coming. Many people find themselves remembering things they need to do, like planning the evening meal or remembering odd jobs they have put off for months. Sometimes memories of past conversations come to mind or concerns about certain responsibilities. All that is very normal. Remember that your brain doesn’t stop functioning in meditation. The solution is simple: no matter what it is, label it: “I’m thinking” or “that’s a thought.” Then use your technique to shift your awareness back to the silence.
3. The variety of emotions can be confusing. Some people begin a practice of meditation and find that it feels great: relaxing, peaceful, or renewing. Some people find it difficult to be still so that the experience makes them a bit anxious. Some find that they remember difficult times in life. Some people find that nothing much is happening at all. Whatever emotional experience you may encounter, trust that it’s part of your individual process. Rather than focusing on the emotion, remember that your awareness should be fixed on the meditation process. That is done by using 1 of the 3 techniques described in Step 2. View your emotional experience as just another thought. Of course, if something that’s difficult for you persists, it’s a good idea to speak to someone with more experience in meditation.
Some who read this will be experienced in meditation. If you are please comment about your experience and/or resources that have been helpful to you.
Paul Ebeling, Editor
Eat healthy, Be healthy, Live lively