From “Basic Meditation Instructions”
Understand What We’re Doing
The benefits to meditation listed above occur because of what it is we’re doing in the practice. It’s not magic, it’s not blissing out, and it’s not pointless navel-gazing. Instead, we’re taking advantage of how our minds function in the natural world, capitalizing on the brain’s adaptability. This self-directed neuroplasticity is an amazing feature of meditation, that we can intentionally change both the functioning and even physical structure of the brain.
What is it that we do during meditation? Simply put, we’re doing a few basic things:
We’re bringing our attention to the present moment. By doing this, we start to loosen our tendency to lose focus on what’s going on around us and spend time in a past we can’t change, or a future that we can’t reliably depend on.
We observe what’s happening in that moment. This starts to weaken our habit of mistakenly identifying ourselves as our body, feelings, thoughts, or that which is going on around us.
We set aside judgment about what we observe. This helps us disengage from the narratives which often guide our actions, instead of us guiding our actions.
We can then narrow the focus of our attention to a single object, or widen it to encompass a variety of phenomenon, all still in the present moment. Whatever particular technique we use, we’re developing skills that help us respond better during the challenges of daily living, rather than reacting out of the usual habit patterns, likes, aversions, emotions, or train of thoughts.
Where and When
Set aside a location and time, perhaps somewhere quiet in your home, where you won’t be disturbed while you’re meditating. If you can find a spot that’s going to allow you to be physically comfortable, calm, where you can set aside the stresses of the day, that might be a good place to consider. Turn off your cell phone, and try to arrange with others in the house to let you have a little uninterrupted time to yourself. If folks can be quiet, too, it can help to have as few distractions as possible. You may want to have a timer, so something else can keep track of how long you meditate and you can focus on present moment awareness. Pick one that has a gentle, rather than jarring tone when the set time is up, to let you know this session’s set time is complete without startling you, and one that doesn’t tick or make any noise while you’re practicing.
Once you’ve got an understanding of the ideas of what you’re doing in meditation, your location is picked out, and you have a time when you can meditate undisturbed, the next step is to give it a try.
You don’t have to sit on a cushion, you can sit in a chair. If you do, it can help you remain alert by sitting forward, not leaning on the back rest, but fully alert, attentive, maintaining an upright posture. You can rest your hands in your lap, in a position that won’t cause tension in your shoulders or neck. Be sure to set your timer for whatever is a manageable, but reaching goal, and start it. If it’s your first time, ten minutes is a reasonable starting point.
It may be helpful for you to start with two things. First, set an intention for this session. That intention may be to put aside your stresses from the day, it may be to keep your attention on the object of your meditation, or to move your awareness through various places on your body. Second, relax and attend to the present moment, perhaps by taking three very slow, deep breaths, inviting your awareness to the sensation of the breath.
The breath is what you can start with. It is always there for you, even when you’re not meditating, and is a very useful way to develop attention in this simple activity in the present moment. You can direct your awareness to the sensation of air passing at the tip of your nose, or the expansion of your belly, whichever is easiest for you to notice and follow. Having an open and relaxed, inquisitive attitude about this simple physical process, being aware of the starting of the in-breath, through the entire duration of the inhale, up to the end, then switching to the out-breath, its arising, its duration, and completion. Then invite the attention afresh with the next breath, and the one after that, just observing the sensation.
At first we can easily get distracted by what seems like a new and increased number of thoughts, but they’re not new, we’re simply stepping back and noticing them perhaps for the first time in our lives. It’s not a problem, they’ve always been there, and they not only lack substance, but each one arises and falls, just like the breath. They’re impermanent, coming and going, and you can start to build a skill in your meditation of just letting them be thoughts instead of powerful ideas upon which you have to act. Every moment, you have a choice, and meditation helps you begin to notice that and make the best choice you can.
If you lose track of the breath, that’s okay, and is in fact very normal and expected. Don’t beat yourself up about it, just kindly and gently return your attention to the breath. You’ll do this again and again, throughout the entire meditation session. This is what we mean by the practice.
It’s a simple idea that can be hard to implement, it’s a practice, not a perfect!
There are many ways to help apply your attention and sustain it. One way to do this is to count with each exhale, starting with one, put your full attention on the inhale, then count silently two to yourself on the next exhale, put your full attention on the next inhale… all the way to ten. After reaching ten, start again at one. Again, it’s perfectly normal and expected to lose count! Just kindly and gently return your attention to the breath, and start again at one.
As you continue with a regular meditation practice, over time you may be able to maintain an unbroken count to ten for the entire meditation session of ten minutes. If you can do that consistenly, consider increasing the amount of time you meditate to fifteen, twenty, or thirty minutes. Even if you can’t maintain the count to ten, if you can meditate for longer than ten minutes, try increasing the amount of time.
You can then consider challenging your attention by just counting to one. That may sound easy, but can be even harder than counting to ten! And eventually, drop the counting entirely from your meditation — it’s not about the count, it’s about developing your ability to apply and maintain your attention. Eventually your awareness of the breath can come more easily, and instead of having to continually bring it back, the thoughts can settle more quickly and consistently, so your attention is maintained without putting forth as much effort.
Meditation isn’t about the meditation itself, it’s about building a skill that we can take out into the world. We develop both concentration and awareness so we’re able to more frequently recognize what’s happening right now, make more intentional decisions about where our attention should be, and respond to daily situations in a more skillful way.