At this point you want to begin a meditation practice. Meditation will be part of your practice throughout your spiritual journey, although it will change a great deal along the way. Each level of awakening calls for a different type of meditation practice, but the foundation for all meditation is built in these simple beginning practices.
You will need to begin with the most basic meditations that simply increase your ability to concentrate and focus your attention. Most of us were never taught to do this in an effective way. Up until now your mind and thoughts have been controlling your attention. You haven’t noticed this because you thought this was you. Now you’re going to learn to change this and put yourself back in the driver’s seat. These simple meditation practices will help you do this. But you need to be disciplined and consistent in doing them. Begin with five minutes first thing in the morning and at night before you go to bed. Any time during the day when you can spare a few minutes do them then. Make a commitment. It will pay off in ways you cannot now imagine.
As you feel ready move to 10, 20, 30 minutes. The more time you put in, the more effective they will be. Don’t tire yourself out. Don’t make it a burden. It will be challenging to begin with, but the more you practice the easier it will be. And the payoff is worth it.
Sit in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Meditation is traditionally practiced sitting on the floor. There are several traditional sitting positions for the floor: cross-legged, lotus position, half lotus, quarter lotus, Burmese and kneeling. Each of these postures are illustrated here. Yoga can help increase your flexibility for these postures. If you are not flexible enough to sit on the floor, use a chair. Keep your back straight, but relaxed. Image there is a string attached to the center of your head effortlessly pulling it upward. Sit in a position that is comfortable for you. Don’t strain. This is not an endurance contest. Enjoy it.
Meditation Cushion and Mat
Meditation is a practice you will be doing throughout your entire spiritual journey, so develop a strong solid foundation. You want to be as comfortable as possible. If you are sitting on the floor, you want to have a good cushion (zafu) and a mat (zabatan) to keep your feet and knees comfortable. Here is a high quality traditional cushion and mat to get you started. At $150 for the set, it’s not the cheapest option. You can search Amazon for less expensive ones. But for comfort and reliability, it’s a good investment. You can choose either kapok or buckwheat to fill the cushion. Kapok is firmer, like cotton batting. The buckhwheat hulls conform to the shape of your body. The set comes in a variety of colors. Click here to see this set on Amazon.
The first basic practice is simply to count your breaths. This is the practice of concentration. The breath is always available to you. Place your attention on your breath, your in breath and out breath. Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. Notice how your belly rises when you breath in and falls when you breath out. Notice how the air feels as it moves past your nostrils. These are simple things you may not have paid attention to before. Place your focus here now.
Begin to count each out breath from one to ten. If a thought distracts you and you lose count, begin again at one. Continue doing this for five minutes. After a short time, you should notice a peace arising in you, a calmness. This is because you are not living in your mind, in your thoughts while you are doing this simple practice. When you are completely focused on your breath, on your in breath and out breath, you are present. And being present feels good. Now you are already experiencing the benefits I promised you. It’s wonderful, isn’t it? Keep practicing.
The more you practice this very simple exercise, the easier it will become, the less you will be distracted by thoughts and the more peace and calm you will experience.
Gatha for Practicing with the Breath
Here is a simple Gatha for practicing with the breath that Thich Nhat Hanh teaches.
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
(After awhile, just use one word for the in breath and one word for the out breath.)
You may like to use this Gatha to get you started. After a while, just focus on the breath without any words.
Multiples of Seven
Once you are very good at counting your out breath to ten without being distracted, you can make it a little more challenging. This will increase your ability to concentrate and focus attention even more.
Count your out breaths to seven. Start back at one and this time double it to fourteen. Start back at one and add another seven to twenty-one. If you get distracted and lose count, go back to one and start over to seven. Continue doing this to as high a number as you can go. Perhaps105 or more. See how far you can go. Make it fun. Relax. Don’t try too hard. Enjoy.
Watch Your Thoughts
Now that you are able to count your breaths pretty well without being distracted by thoughts, your ability to concentrate has improved enough for the next meditation. This ability may take some time. So don’t jump the gun. If it takes six months; it takes six months. If it only took a few weeks; it only took a few weeks. Be honest with yourself.
In this meditation, you are simply going to focus on your breath, without counting. Just put your focus on your breath. And you are going to watch your thoughts arise and pass without getting lost in them or following the “thought story”. Just let them come and go like clouds effortlessly coming and going in a vast blue sky. You are the vast blue sky that these thoughts are passing through. Let them come and go without distracting you from the rising and falling of your breath. This practice is to help you begin to free yourself from your attachment to and identification with your thoughts.
Up until now you believed your thoughts were you. That voice in your head was you. It’s not. Your thoughts are not who and what you are. They are just thoughts. They are JUST thoughts, nothing more. That incredibly important thought that will save the entire world or solve all your problems, it’s just a thought, nothing more than a thought. It’s not you. You are the one aware of the thought. Let all thoughts come and go in this infinite blue sky that is you.
That thought that says, “I can’t do this.” It’s just a thought, nothing more than a thought. It’s not you. You are the one aware of the thought. You are the one watching the thought. Let all thoughts arise and pass through this infinite sky of awareness that is you.
As you become aware that your thoughts are not you and you can successfully observe them coming and going without attaching to them, you begin to wonder what is it that’s aware of these thoughts. Previously you thought you were your thoughts. Now you realize you’re not. So what are you? That question and the awareness of that question brings you to the next stage in awakening and the next meditation practice – becoming aware of awareness itself.
Here are some good beginning meditation books to get you started. I chose books by Thich Nhat Hanh because I think these are the best for a beginner. Their simple, gentle, loving and encouraging style have launched many people onto a solid meditation practice. Enjoy.
The Miracle of Mindfulness, a wonderful, simple book by Thich Nhat Hanh about beginning a meditation practice.
The Blooming of the Lotus is a book of Gathas, meditation phrases, to help you get started.
The Posture of Meditation, a book by Will Johnson that will help you align your meditation posture no matter what posture you take.
The Three Pillars of Zen by Roshi Philip Kapleau is a Zen classic. It is a book you will keep throughout your spiritual journey. Among its description of Zen practice and the enlightenment experiences of many students, there is a wonderful description of all the traditional sitting postures and how to do them.