Introduction to Meditation
Written by Kevin Commons
The purpose of meditation.
In our world of intense activity, meditation is often recommended as a means of relaxation and reduction of stress. Whilst it may well have these effects they are not the main purpose for the religious practice of meditation. Meditation in different forms is practised in all the world’s main religions. As a spiritual practice, it is a way of harmonising ourselves with the Source of our being from which compassion love and wisdom flow and so meditation is the foundation of Buddhist practice. This means that meditation is not a vehicle for thinking, daydreaming or fantasizing.
It is best to meditate in a quiet, well-ventilated room, which is not too bright or too dark. Wear clothing that does not restrict the waist or legs. Do not meditate immediately after meals, when physically tired or in extremes of temperature. You may find that meditating in a group is also helpful as well as receiving formal guidance from a senior monk or authorised teacher/instructor from the tradition you have chosen to follow. It is well to be sure of the credentials of whomever you ask to give you instruction and you should expect this to be given free of charge.
It is important for you to find the posture that is the most stable for you. Consequently, the use of an appropriate aid will help to ensure that your physical posture is centred and comfortable. A chair, a bench, or cushion are all suitable for this. The height of the chair seat, bench or cushion will vary according to your height.
It is important to be able to sit comfortably but with the back upright so that the weight of the head is carried by the spine and other parts of the skeleton and does not rely unduly on muscle to hold the position. If you choose to sit on a bench or cushion you may find that a thick mat is helpful in cushioning your knees and ankles. If you sit on a cushion your knees should touch the floor. This can be achieved by using the full lotus position or half-lotus position, or one of its variations. If your legs are not sufficiently flexible to sit like this then use a bench or chair.
The head should be held upright, with its weight balanced on the shoulders, and the chin slightly tucked in. The hands should be brought together in the lap, one palm on top of the other, with the thumbs touching lightly.
Having centred the body in a relaxed, upright, position it is necessary to pay attention to what the mind is doing. You may find that your thoughts wander off in all directions or that emotions or physical sensations distract you. This is quite normal but meditation involves helping the mind to stay focused in the present moment. So if a thought arises just notice that it has done so without engaging with it in internal dialogue. It will pass on its own. Similarly, if an emotion or physical sensation distracts you just allow it to be there and let it pass in its own good time.
To help keep the mind focused some practices recommend the use of a meditation object such as the breath, which can be observed as it goes in and out at the nose or causes the belly to rise or fall. Other schools suggest counting the in or out-breath up to ten. If you get distracted then begin counting again at one. If you reach ten without distraction then start again at one. Other traditions recommend the use of a mantra (single word or short phrase) which is repeated continuously. In other traditions, there is no formal object of meditation. Practitioners just sit trying to be aware of everything that arises inside their body or around them without clinging on to it or pushing it away.
Whatever your practice you need to be careful if you think you are having a vision or so-called paranormal experiences. It is best to discuss such matters with a very experienced practitioner, ideally a senior monk.
The important thing is to find a practice that suits you at the moment. This may change in the future but it is good to stick to one practice, once you have found one that suits you, rather than chop and change.
Length and regularity of practice
It is better to establish a regular practice by trying to meditate at least once every day: around the same time if possible. It is helpful to start by sitting for short periods, say five minutes a day, and then extend the period as you become more practised. If you want to meditate for a long time then it is good to do a period of walking meditation between each period of sitting, none of which should exceed 45 minutes.
Daily life practice
meditation is not an end in itself, limited to formal practice. The stillness from sitting meditation should be taken into everyday life. This means doing the best you can to focus wholeheartedly on the activity in which you are engaging, whether it be working, watching television, reading, thinking, riding a bike, swimming, eating, talking to someone or anything else. From a Buddhist point of view, this helps us to take refuge in the Triple Gem, keep the Precepts and follow the Noble Eightfold Path.