Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
by Christopher M. Weeks
Download this article as a PDF ~ Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
Meditation is the practice of focusing your mind to create a state of deep relaxation. The immediate result of the practice is that you have an overall sense of feeling relaxed and at peace. By learning to focus your mind, you also develop awareness of how your mind works, and how to gain greater control of it.
That’s the basis for the practice of meditation. Just as we use strength training to exercise our bodies in order to increase physical strength, stamina and energy - we use meditation to develop the ability to relax our mind and increase our mental awareness, stamina and energy.
Strength Training for the Mind
The practice of physical strength training is a good analogy for the practice of meditation. Strength training utilizes simple exercises repeated at regular intervals to improve physical strength and stamina. Simple strength-training exercises develop specific muscles, and also benefit the body as a whole.
During the process of strength training exercise, the body tears down muscle fiber while you strain to lift the weights. The body then repairs, rebuilds, and improves the muscle tissue while you sleep. The actual development and improvement of the muscles occurs while you sleep – while your body is at rest.
It’s a Process
Obtaining the desired results of strength training depends on the CONSISTENT practice of SPECIFIC steps of lifting weights. The more consistent you are with your practice, the better your results. In the beginning the process of weight training might feel uncomfortable, boring, or it can feel like nothing is happening in your body. If you continue the exercise program, you begin to see and feel the results of your regular practice.
There are endless variations of specific techniques of strength training exercises, yet they all stem from the basic principle of developing muscles through the consistent practice of specific, repeated exercises. By challenging the physical body, we develop the physical body.
The end result of physical exercise is an increase in physical power and stamina. After each exercise session, you usually experience an immediate feeling of being more relaxed, and having more energy and stamina. Improving the physical body also brings about an improvement in the way our mind works.
The process of meditation is similar to the practice of strength training in that it also involves simple, specific steps, repeated over a period of time. There are many variations of meditation practice yet they all stem from the same basic principle of learning to focus, calm and develop the mind.
The result of meditation is increased feelings of peace, and improved mental focus and stamina. In the beginning stages of your practice, you may feel uncomfortable, bored or feel like nothing is happening. If you continue with a regular practice you will begin to experience the benefits of meditation. After a meditation session you will feel both immediate and long-lasting results from the practice. The practice of meditation benefits both the mind and the body.
The mind and the body can be seen as separate systems in our body, yet they depend on each other for survival. We can’t exist without either one. The state of the mind affects the body, and the state of the body affects the mind. We all know that we need to exercise our body in order to maintain good physical health, but we don’t seem to have the same attitude towards our mind. We constantly use and depend on our minds, but don’t always take the time to train and develop our mind.
From Mystical to Practical
Because of the mysticism perceived with some meditation practices, some people can feel hesitant to try it. Nowadays, virtually every medical center in the world uses some form of meditation as part of a balanced exercise program, medical therapy, stress reduction, or personal development.
It is often called “The Relaxation Response Technique”, and is taught as a way to lower stress. Yoga is another form of meditation, which uses specific physical postures to relax both the body and the mind.
We naturally experience a meditative state whenever we allow our self to be completely absorbed in an activity such as a great conversation, playing sports or a musical instrument, study or work. In such activities we sometimes allow our mind to become completely focused on one thing; the present moment. This is what is called the “natural meditative mind”.
We have all had the experience of becoming so completely absorbed in some activity that time seems to fly, and we come away from the experience with a deep feeling of satisfaction and calm.
Why Meditation Matters
Meditation helps us to relax our body and mind, learn about our mind, and develop greater control of our mind and emotions. Without control of our emotions, we are controlled by our emotions. Emotions are the personal reactions we experience in response to everyday stimuli in our life. Stuff happens – we react. The intensity of our reaction depends to a large degree on our past experiences, our beliefs, cultural upbringing, and also how we have trained our mind.
The untrained mind can have extreme, sometimes uncontrolled emotional reactions, while the trained mind is better able to control these same emotional reactions. Emotional states affect not only our mental condition, but also our physical condition. When our mind is exhausted and stressed, so is our body. Stress affects our ability to think, our memory, and also affects our immune system. Our mental state can transform our physical body, either in a positive or negative way.
What Actually Happens When We Meditate?
Meditation employs specific techniques that help us learn to relax our body and focus our thoughts. When we reach a meditative state of mind – both our mind and body achieve a state of deep relaxation.
This state of deep relaxation helps us to rest and recharge both our mind and body. When we feel more tranquil and peaceful in our mind, we develop greater control over emotions. When we are not controlled by our emotions, we experience a more peaceful and joyful life.
Emotional reactions have a powerful effect on our life. Emotions can be constructive or destructive – yet all emotional reactions are creations of our mind and the way we interpret the events in our lives. We can feel joy in receiving a gift, or the deep hurt from what we interpret to be an unkind word spoken to us.
Both experiences are simply our personal emotional reaction to something that has happened in our life. Neither experience is life threatening or necessarily of particular importance to the rest of our life, yet we can experience an intense emotional reaction that has the potential to dramatically affect our life and happiness. Both of these reactive thoughts stem from the same mind – our mind.
Meditation allows us to develop the awareness of how our emotions affect us, and the emotional attachments we have about certain things. The practice of meditation does not eliminate our emotions; it simply allows us to not be controlled by our emotions.
You still feel the same emotions you have always felt, but you develop the ability to recognize your emotional reactions for what they are – temporary states of thought that we create.
Think back to a time when you thought one thing was happening and you began to have a strong emotional reaction to what you perceived was happening, then you found out that you were mistaken about what was actually happening and your initial emotional response evaporated.
You could still feel the effects of the emotion you initially had (perhaps fear, anger, sadness…) but you quickly let go of the feeling when you realized that you were reacting needlessly. Meditation can help you to let go of everyday reactions to events in your life.
What Should You Expect?
By simply reducing emotional stress and repeated over-reactivity to our emotions, we develop a calmer mind, improved mental stamina, and improved mental energy which enables us to think with greater focus, clarity and wisdom. The practice of meditation enables our natural reasoning power, what some call wisdom, to emerge and develop.
When we stop making decisions based on emotion, we naturally make better decisions. Also, as we develop greater awareness of the attachments we have to particular stimuli, we are able to begin to let go of those attachments.
The following are typical results people experience from the practice of meditation:
A marked decrease in irrational emotional reactivity
An increased feeling of calm, peace and joy in life
Improved ability to think, focus, and learn
Make decisions and solve problems with greater ease
Decreased feelings of stress, sadness
Increased sense of connectedness in relationships with people and the world at large
Less fear, anxiety or attachment about the future or possible outcomes of situations
Decreased tendency for addictive or self-destructive behaviours
The practice of meditation also brings about an awareness of how your mind works; the thought processes and patterns you use in everyday life, the emotions that come up for you in response to certain stimuli and situations, and the attachments you have to certain ways of thinking.
After you have been practicing meditation for a while, you begin to recognize your habitual ways of thinking and your habitual emotional reactions as they occur. As you begin to recognize the way you react to certain situations, you develop the ability to observe these reactions instead of actually reacting. This helps to bring about a reduction in the way you react emotionally.
For example, in response to a certain situation you might recognize your habitual pattern is to react with anger or fear. As you gain the ability to recognize your habitual way of reacting to this situation, you become aware that this emotional reaction is simply a temporary, self-manifested state of mind; and that you have the CHOICE to let that emotional response pass quickly, or to simply NOT react in the same way you usually do.
You find that you naturally become less reactive to situations that would have caused you great stress in the past. The result is that you feel less stress, and a greater sense of peace in your life. As you develop the recognition of how we all have habitual ways of emotional reactivity, you begin to naturally develop a more compassionate approach to dealing with other people and situations you encounter in your life.
Basic Meditation Technique
I studied meditation with Thai Theravadan Buddhist monks to become a certified meditation instructor. Meditation is NOT about “zoning out” in an unconscious state of “non-thought”. Meditation is about learning to achieve and sustain a heightened state of awareness of the condition of your mind; to relax your physical body; and to reduce thoughts and emotions by focusing your mind. There are a number of factors that help to build a strong foundation for an effective meditation practice.
Time of Day, Frequency, and Duration
Just as it’s important to have a comfortable place to sleep in order to achieve quality rest, it’s helpful to have a comfortable environment in which to learn to meditate effectively. After you have developed your meditation skills, you will be able to meditate anywhere. Initially, it’s best to find a quiet and comfortable place to practice.
The temperature should not be too warm or too cold. A darkened room is easier to meditate in. Earplugs can be used as a way to block out sound to help create a quiet environment for your practice. As you develop your skills you will be less distracted by noises, however it’s generally easier to learn to meditate in quiet surroundings.
When you meditate is a personal choice. Many people find that meditating first thing in the morning is most effective for them. It can help set the tone for the rest of your day. Other people like to meditate in the evening, to help bring their day to a gentle close.
Whatever time of day you choose, try to practice at about the same time each day. This helps you develop the habit of making the practice part of your life. Just like maintaining a regular physical exercise program, meditating at a regular time develops a rhythm and a positive habit in your body.
It is ideal to meditate every day, some do it twice a day, and some perhaps once a week. It is recommended that you initially try to meditate consistently once a day in order to develop an effective practice.
If your schedule allows you to only practice a few times a week – be comfortable with that. It is more important that you meditate at all, rather than having a “perfect” routine. Whatever your routine, remember that consistency is the most important factor for developing an effective practice. Just as in strength training exercise, consistent practice yields the most effective results.
The duration of your practice is also a personal matter. My teacher taught a daily practice of 30 minutes of walking meditation, followed by 30 minutes of sitting meditation. He recommends no more than 30 minutes per session initially. You can meditate for 5, 10, 15 or 20 minutes if that’s all the time you have.
Again, what is most important is that you have a consistent practice that’s comfortable for you and that you fully commit to whatever time you set aside for your practice. You can use a timer to remind you when your practice is over.
A timer with a gentle tone is ideal. Some timers make me jump out of my skin when they go off. This doesn’t hurt the meditation session; it’s just something I find annoying. I made audio tracks that have varying lengths of silence for a meditation session, with a peaceful tone at the end to gently bring me out of my practice.
As you develop your skill, you will find that you can successfully meditate in many situations, even when you have only a few minutes. You can meditate while walking, standing, or sitting, riding in a car, or any other time when you have the opportunity to concentrate.
As you begin to meditate more, you’ll discover that you will naturally find those quiet moments in your day to take a mental break. The more often you practice your meditation, the easier it becomes for you to quickly slip into a meditative state of mind. I sometimes meditate for even a few minutes before going into what I feel could be a tense meeting or situation.
Sitting Meditation Technique
While meditation can be done in a variety of positions, we will focus on a sitting meditation posture. You can sit in a comfortable chair or cross-legged on the floor. Many teachers and practitioners prefer sitting on the floor in some version of the traditional “lotus position”, but you can achieve the same results in other sitting positions. Being comfortable is the key.
Use a cushion that allows you to remain seated comfortably for the duration of your practice. If you are sitting on the floor, it helps to place a pillow or two under your bum, to take the stress off your legs.
If you sit in a chair, sit with your feet on the floor and leave some space between your back and the back of the chair. The reason you don’t want to sit with your back leaning against the back of the chair is that you might become too relaxed, lose your focus, and fall asleep. Sit with your spine and crown of your head erect – as if a string was attached to the top of your head - gently pulling your upper body erect.
Sit with both hands comfortably in your lap; palms facing upward. Let your right hand rest on top of your left palm. If you like, you can place a thin piece of fabric between your hands to prevent irritation. A handkerchief is great for this.
Above and beyond anything else, meditation is not about suffering in any way. Do not feel that you “should” maintain some specific position because you feel it’s more noble to “do it right”. Be gentle with yourself, and find a position that is comfortable for you. Trust that you will improve your sitting stamina with practice.
Begin with the Breath
After you have settled into a comfortable position, take about five deep breaths to help clear your mind, and begin focusing on starting your session. Breathing helps you to connect your mind to your body, and to help you be in the present moment for your practice. Focusing on the breath serves as the starting point in your practice.
Breathe through your nose, and allow your breath to settle info a comfortable and natural rhythm. Don’t try to force the breath in any manner, just let it happen naturally. It often helps to focus on the feeling of your breath against your skin as it enters and exits through your nostrils. Just observe the feeling as air enters and exits your nostrils. Any time you feel you need to regain your mental focus, simply return your attention to the feeling of your breath entering and exiting your nostrils.
During your meditation, if you should feel your body beginning tense up, focus briefly on your breath and relax your muscles as you breathe out. With every out-breath, allow all the tense muscles in your body to sink deeper into a state of complete relaxation.
After you feel you have begun to relax, begin “silent recitation”. This is the technique of silently repeating a word or phrase to help focus the mind and reduce the thought process. Silent recitation serves both as the starting point of your practice, and as a way to focus your thoughts and emotion.
This technique is also known as using a “mantra”. You are practicing the same thing when you pray – focusing on the words of a prayer instead of random thoughts that might come into your mind.
Choose a two-syllable word that has no emotional meaning associated with it. For instance, the word “money” or “peaceful” or the name of a family member would carry a strong emotional response that would distract you from your practice. A word that is often used in Buddhist meditation is the word “buddoh”. This is an ancient Indian (Pali) word, which means, “awaken and purify” – which is basically what you want to do with your mind during meditation.
The word is pronounced, “boo-toe” (as if you are trying to scare your toe!). “Boo-toe”. It really doesn’t matter what word you use, as long as the word has no real meaning to you. The repetition of the word is merely a focal point for you to return to your center of concentration. As you inhale, recite “boo”, as you exhale, recite “toe”. Make the word last through the entire inhale or exhale.
Continue to recite your word as long as you like. Repeating the word helps you to eliminate other thoughts, and reduce your emotion to one point of focus. In the beginning you will most likely repeat the word often, and throughout your practice session.
When I first started practicing this technique, I had to repeat my word with every breath. As you develop your skill at focusing your mind, you will begin to repeat the word with less frequency, and will have longer periods of silence between recitations.
You will always return to using silent recitation at the beginning of any practice session, or any time you wish to regain focus of your mind.
Many people find that after practicing this technique, they can use their word to prevent them from overreacting to a stressful situation by using silent recitation. When they feel they are slipping into a reactive state thinking about something or feeling stress, they begin silently repeating their word to themselves, reminding them to “observe” rather than “react”.
Using a Focal Point
After you start your silent recitation, begin to concentrate your attention on a “focal point” on your body. A focal point (or location point) is a place where you focus your attention throughout your meditation.
Common focal points are the opening of your nostrils – where the air enters and exits your nose, your “third eye” – the area in the middle of your forehead just above your eyes, your heart, or your navel.
The choice of a focal point is personal. You will tend to feel drawn to a particular point, and will find it easier to use a certain spot. Once you begin using a focal point, you generally want to keep this same spot as your chosen point of focus. It’s not ideal to keep changing your focal point.
Remember that you don’t have to “physically focus your eyes” on your focal point. This can become distracting and create eyestrain. Just “visualize” that you have put your entire focus and attention INTO this point. Some people also find it useful to focus their attention on a tiny, dot that inhabits their focal point out in space.
Focusing on this tiny dot allows them to concentrate deeper and deeper during their practice. Imagine that the tiny dot is the size of one, single atom as you continue to focus on it. With every out-breath, let your focus drift closer and closer to that tiny, atom-sized dot.
Whenever your mind begins to wander and thoughts begin to creep in, return to your silent recitation and your focal point.
The Wandering (and chatty!) Mind
This is the point in your practice where things get interesting. You are sitting comfortably, breathing, reciting your word, and concentrating on your focal point. With all this attention to these four elements, you would think that you wouldn’t have any room for thoughts to come into your mind. However, you will find that thoughts will continually come into your mind. This is how your mind has been trained – to constantly offer a stream of thoughts to keep your mind busy and distracted.
You will find that while meditating you will suddenly have a thought like, “What should we have for dinner? Wonder if I made that bank deposit? I wonder what that sound is? Is this really doing anything or is this just silly? Am I doing this right?”
This is your mind trying to be productive and helpful to you by bringing up various thoughts. This state of mind is often called “monkey mind”. It’s easy to imagine the mind as a monkey, always jumping from one place to another, always fidgeting, always busy.
Every time you have a thought, you engage your emotions and use up mental energy. As you learn to let your mind become quiet, you experience the single emotion of tranquility, and begin to BUILD mental energy.
Whenever a thought comes into your mind - gently thank your mind for the intended help, and then let the thought pass on through. For this moment, just let the thought go. You can always return to the thought later if you want to.
Remind yourself that this is YOUR “time out” from mental work. In the beginning you will most likely find that you will have a continual stream of nuisance thoughts that come into your mind – distracting you from your meditation. This is natural. This is how your mind has been trained for most of your life. The more you practice, the less you will have these thoughts.
You can think of your mind like the ever-present, vast, clear sky, and thoughts as clouds that float through the sky. Thoughts, like clouds, simply float into view and then slowly float out of view. It is the mind, like the vast sky and the limitless depths of space beyond, that endures.
Clouds are a transitory condition that temporarily obscures and clutters the sky. Thoughts are temporary emotional conditions that obscure the clarity of mind. Simply let any thoughts that come into your mind gently float on past. Don’t get frustrated if it seems like you aren’t able to quiet your mind. This ability will come.
Remember that you have spent your entire life using your mind in one way. It takes time and practice to develop your technique, and to make new connections in your brain.
Observing “The Void”
What you begin to experience and explore, in meditation are THE SPACES between thoughts. This is what some people have described as “the void”. In the beginning, you will experience very fleeting moments of silence between thoughts. As you continue your practice, you will find that the SPACE between thoughts becomes longer and deeper. You will find that these moments of quiet emptiness impart a feeling of pleasurable calmness.
It is in these silent spaces of tranquility where the magic of meditation occurs. It is this tranquil space where you want to focus your attention. You simply OBSERVE the experience of this state of silence and emptiness. Don’t judge the experience, don’t become too attached or entranced by it, don’t look for anything in it – just experience and OBSERVE it.
These periods of “empty silence” indicate that you are drifting into a deeper meditative state. During this period, people sometimes encounter mental phenomenon such as lights, colors, patterns or images.
These are called “mental reflections” and are nothing more than emotional triggers firing in your brain – similar to dreams when you sleep. Just observe them and don’t focus on them. They are not the goal of meditation; they are merely artifacts of the mind. It is these mental reflections that some people become entranced-by and attached-to.
They might visualize a beautiful door through which they imagine themselves walking into a beautiful garden. In the beginning this image might help them move into a deeper meditative state, but as time goes on the attachment to this image will only distract them and slow their progress.
The experience of these moments of empty, quiet tranquility IS the meditative state. This is the goal (at least for now). You don’t have to “do” anything in this place – just simply observe it. It is the experience of this state of the meditative mind that allows you to manifest a profound experience of tranquility, restoration, and wisdom.
This is when you are learning how to put your mind into a state of rest. The more often you are able to drift into this state, the more proficient you become at easily returning to this state. The more often you experience the meditative state, the greater levels of peace you will feel in your mind.
Medical brain scans of people in deep meditation reveal that the brain is anything but “asleep” and inactive. The scans show that the entire brain is lit up with activity. While our perception is of a tranquil void, the brain seems to be very busy making connections in ways that we don’t begin to understand.
What we do know is that the brief encounters we have with the meditative state seem to calm our emotions, recharge our spirit, and helps us tap into a peaceful wisdom within our own mind. This is similar to the effect of getting a good night’s sleep.
Be Attentive to Your Practice
The results you achieve from meditation depend on how dedicated you are to your practice. Strive to be fully attentive to the proper meditation techniques during your practice. It can be easy to let the mind wander and simply zone out during a session.
Just like the example of weight training exercise – the more attention you pay to your technique and form of your practice session, the better your results. Remind yourself that the brief amount of time you spend in your meditation session is YOUR TIME. This is time you are giving to yourself, to help develop your awareness of how your mind works.
Don’t “Judge” Your Meditation Session
In the end, don’t judge your meditation session. You will have sessions that are absolutely amazing, and sessions that will seem like a struggle. Sometimes you simply can’t quiet the mind.
Remember that it is often during sessions that you might label as “difficult” or “bad” that you are doing very constructive work. It is during these challenging sessions when you are developing strong mental skills.
It’s just like weight-training sessions at the gym; sometimes you feel you had a “great” workout, and sometimes you feel you had a “terrible” workout. In reality it is often the workout where you were struggling when you were developing greater awareness of your technique, form, muscle control and strength building.
No matter how you feel about the experience of a particular meditation session, thank yourself for the time you have given yourself. Appreciate that every time you meditate, you are building a reserve of mental energy and stamina that you will utilize the rest of your day. If you meditate, you will find that whatever else you are doing in your daily life will simply happen with greater ease.
All you have to do is to sit, breathe, say your word, and concentrate on your focal point. The benefits of the practice will happen automatically. The results can be profound.
Let me know if these instructions seem clear or if you have any questions. Questions will undoubtedly come up if you begin to practice – they always do. There are many more techniques and levels into which you can move, but what I have covered above is all anyone really needs to establish an effective practice that will serve them for their entire life. The Thai Buddhist monks I trained with follow this exact technique for 12 years before adding other techniques to their practice. There’s no rush…
I would be interested to hear about your experience.
~Christopher M. Weeks
All photographs © www.ChristopherWeeks.com
Download this article as a PDF ~ Introduction to the Practice of Meditation