The following basic instructions in meditation practice were first published on this blog five years ago. I'm reposting them now because — whether we are brand new to meditation or have been practicing for years — we can never hear them too many times. And each time we hear them, we may hear something new.
Even within Buddhism, there are many types of meditation that utilize different techniques designed to accomplish different things (not to speak of all the meditations found in other spiritual traditions). The type of meditation described here is called shamatha, translated as Tranquility or Calm Abiding or Peaceful Abiding. As those labels suggest, its main purpose is to calm the mind, and to help us train in the ability to “abide” or stay present with what is happening right here, right now.
Training in this kind of Tranquility meditation is the first step in really getting to know our own minds, and creates a foundation for everything we do on the spiritual path.
"The method that the Buddha discovered is meditation. He discovered that struggling to find answers did not work. It was only when there were gaps in his struggle that insights came to him. He began to realize that there was a sane, awake quality within him that manifested itself only in the absence of struggle. So the practice of meditation involves letting be."
-- Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
The first part of the practice involves how we work with our body during meditation. Taking the right posture is essential, because the state of the body reflects and affects the state of the mind: the mind-body continuum. A slouching posture leads to a slouching, dull state of mind — and vice versa. A proper, upright posture embodies the qualities of strength, dignity, and bravery, and sets the stage for engaging with your mind in the practice of meditation.
- Sit up straight, allowing the spine to lengthen naturally — as if an invisible string attached to the crown of your head were lightly pulling you upward. If you're in a chair, you might try sitting forward rather than leaning against the back of the chair; your feet should be flat on the floor. If you're on a cushion, cross your legs comfortably in front of you.
- Let your arms drop to your sides, then gently lift only your forearms — keeping your upper arms parallel to the torso — and bring your palms to rest lightly on your knees or your thighs. The placement of the hands should not be so far forward that it causes your shoulders to slouch, and not so far back that it pinches the shoulder blades. Find the right spot to allow your back and shoulders and neck to rest upright, without straining.
- Keeping the eyes open, direct your gaze down at a point three to six feet in front of you, not looking at anything in particular but allowing the gaze to rest in one spot rather than roaming or following distractions. Allow your eyelids to relax, and soften the gaze so that you're "looking without staring." If you've practiced other meditation techniques that involved closing the eyes, it may seem awkward at first to practice with eyes open, but give it a try and see what happens. Keeping the eyes open is a step towards integrating the practice of mindfulness into everyday life, rather than making mindfulness something separate from your life that can only be practiced under restricted conditions.
- Relax the stomach muscles, the torso, the throat, the jaw. Bring the tip of the tongue to rest lightly on the spot where your upper teeth meet the roof of your mouth, allowing the lips to part slightly if it feels comfortable.
The second part of the practice involves where we place our minds during meditation. We could choose almost any object — an image, a sound, a particular word or series of words — but most people find that the simplest and most convenient object to use in shamatha meditation is the breath. It's free, you carry it with you everywhere you go, and it's already happening — it requires no particular effort. In one sense, sitting and resting our attention on the breath is the simplest thing we could possibly do; yet the cumulative effects and implications of this practice are profound. Breathing is an expression of the present moment; each breath is slightly different from every other breath, and it is only happening right now. Tuning in to the breath is tuning in to the present moment.
- Breathe naturally, however you find yourself breathing in this moment: fast, slow, shallow, deep, whatever. Don't make any particular effort to breathe in a certain way, or to control the process. Just be with whatever kind of breath you have right now. If you can, breathe through the nose.
- Bring your attention to rest lightly on the full cycle of breathing, both in and out. Allow yourself to identify with the soothing quality of the breath.
- Notice where you feel the physical sensations of breathing most acutely. Maybe it's in the rising and falling of the abdomen, or in the slight warm and cool tickling sensation at the ends of your nostrils as the breath goes out and comes in. Wherever it is for you, rest your attention on that physical sensation.
- If you can, place a slight emphasis of attention on the out-breath. Feel yourself going out with your breath and dissolving into space, letting go of conceptual mind. Allow the in-breath to happen naturally, and again go out with the out-breath and dissolve.
- Notice the quality of the moment after one breath has gone out, before the next breath has started to come in. What is your mind like in that moment?
The third part of the practice involves how we work with our minds. Having attempted to sit and rest our attention on the breath for a few moments, we have probably discovered — perhaps to our dismay — that our mind is restless and prone to wander away. We find ourselves thinking about lunch, reliving an argument with our ex-boyfriend, reveling in a sexual fantasy, fretting over our job, stewing in old feelings of shame or resentment, worrying about our loved ones, or desperately seeking entertainment by looking for shapes and patterns in the carpet in front of us: the possibilities are literally endless. Our minds seem to hop from one distraction to another with total disregard for our noble intention to stay with the breath. Welcome to your "monkey-mind." Through regular shamatha practice, we can begin to train the monkey to stay in one place for longer periods of time, and we can even learn to regard its antics with humor and compassion.
Usually, when we have a thought or a feeling, we run with it: our minds seem to control us, rather than us controlling our minds. By practicing shamatha, we train in the ability to recognize our thoughts without being driven by them. But the goal of shamatha is not to "get rid of" thoughts — this is a common misconception. The goal is to see ourselves clearly, and with compassion, by touching in with whatever we're experiencing, and then coming back to the present moment and the object of meditation. Precision and gentleness are the keys.
- When you become aware that your mind has wandered off into a thought, feeling, or fantasy, gently touch on it and return your attention to the breath. Whatever kind of thought or feeling it was, try to see it without judgment or criticism: in the practice of shamatha, there are no good thoughts or bad thoughts. No thought is to be condemned or praised — that's just more thinking.
- You may find it helpful to mark the moment of transition between thinking and returning to the breath by "labeling" your thoughts. When you recognize you've been thinking, say to yourself mentally: "Thinking." Apply this labeling technique with a light touch -- like touching your thoughts with a feather. Don't try to shoot down your thoughts or squash them, but simply recognize them, let them go, and come back to the breath.
- Above all, be gentle with yourself, and relax.