There’s an old Zen saying, not attributed to anyone in particular, that goes like this: “You should meditate for 20 minutes a day. If you are too busy to sit for 20 minutes, though, you should sit for an hour.”
You get the idea. And in the current era, more and more people are thinking that perhaps meditation is something they could be trying. So, assuming you have decided that you would like to try to meditate, how do you begin? Kit has written a short introduction, Begin meditation’; there is a text version and an audio version as well, depending on the way you best learn.
In addition to this introduction we include the video “How to sit for meditation”; Kit recommends the “Burmese position” and this is what the video demonstrates. And if sitting on the floor is not possible for you, then by all means sit in a chair—what you do is way more important than the way you are sitting.
- Instructions – text version: scroll down
- Instructions – audio version: https://supplementary-material.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/2020-Begin+meditation.mp3
- How to sit for meditation – video on Vimeo:
Instructions – text version
Settle yourself (this practise can be done sitting, standing, or lying) and move your awareness into your body. Take in a breath and, as as you breathe out, let your body relax as deeply as you can. Take another breath in and feel all the movements in the body we call “breathing”. Let the breath out, holding your awareness on these sensations, and count, “one”. Do not try to control your breathing in any way. Take the next breath in, and as you breathe out, count, “two”. If a thought comes into your mind, take the count back to zero. Keep practising for a moment or two, and notice what happens.
What number did you get up to?
For the second practise, hold your awareness on the sensations in the body as you breathe in and out as before, and increment the count by ‘one’, each time you breathe out. Become aware of thoughts appearing in the mind and gently hold your awareness on the sensations in the body as you notice the thoughts. Let the thoughts come into your awareness and pass out, making no effort to do anything with them. Keep practising for a moment or two, and notice what happens.
What number did you get up to?
Holding your awareness on the sensations in the body as you breathe in and out gives the mind a useful task. In some traditions, this direction and holding of awareness is labelled the “primary meditation object”. The task is to lightly hold this object in awareness, and to simply notice thoughts that come, and go. The purpose of the counting is to become aware of when your attention is pulled into one of these thoughts, and taken away from the primary object—because if your awareness is pulled away sufficiently, you will suddenly notice that you have forgotten the count! If you are paying attention, this will happen many, many times. Each time, smile to yourself, and start again. Some teachers recommend starting the count at zero, if you do forget where you are in the sequence, and some recommend restarting at whatever number you are certain you got to before losing the count.
In the early days of your practise, set yourself a short time—this is to ensure that you actually do the practise every day. If you set yourself a task like, “I will sit for half an hour every day”, and something prevents you from doing this one day, and again the next, the temptation to stop all together is strong. Better, in my view, to set yourself a modest goal, like five or ten minutes, and do the practise every day, preferably at the same time of the day, than to have a “good day” and sit for half an hour, then not practise for the next few days.
Among many things, daily practise shows the mind that you are serious about developing these new skills: as you practise, and as you gather and re-gather your concentration, you are strengthening this skill. The ability to hold your awareness on an object without straining literally trains your mind to do this. In the beginning, you will be distracted (your attention will be captured by the “thought stream”, the endless creation and passing of thoughts) and quite possibly, you will not notice this happening. This is the untrained mind’s ordinary relation to thoughts, after all. We might call this ‘day-dreaming’.
As distraction happens, ask yourself, ‘do the recurring thoughts have a particular flavour’? Perennial favourites are the mind dwelling on events past, or imagining a future that may never happen. Notice that these habits (and that’s all they are) have a tendency, or ‘flavour’. And this will be different on different days, yet some themes may stand out. The contents of your thoughts are not important. Notice too that as you start to go into these thoughts, you lose connection to the sensations in your body. This is a crucial point: physical sensations are immediate, are only experienced in the close present moment (how long is that moment?); they literally come out of the unfolding present. Thoughts, in contrast, are always about the past or the future. Without straining, try to hold your awareness on whichever sensations you have chosen as your object.
A side note: for some people, holding the awareness on a small, easily accessible, part of the body, like the nostrils and the sensations of air coming in on a breath in, and out as you breathe out, is easier to hold—because the sensations are clearer than the more general direction to feel the movements in the body that accompany breathing, as I suggested above. For others, feeling the weight of the body though the feet, if standing, or the sensations of the hips pressing on the seat, or the cushion you are sitting on might be stronger. In the beginning, I recommend finding a sensation that is clear to you and stick with that. The range of meditation objects is wide—it could be as wide as the space you find yourself in to do your practise (this is sometimes called “open awareness”) or it could be the breath moving past your nostrils (sometimes described as “one-pointed awareness”). One is not ‘better’ than another: the key is to be able to find it again, and again, as you practise.
As one sits (or stands, or lies) over time, the capacity to hold the awareness on the meditation object gets stronger, and one’s capacity to notice distraction likewise gets clearer, and this happens naturally, as long as you remind yourself again and again to return to the object. Be aware that it is entirely possible to fall asleep in these practises and literally dream that you are meditating!
I have heard many meditators complain of distraction; they talk about having a ‘bad sit’ because they were being distracted constantly. But noticing that you are distracted, and choosing to return the awareness to the object, is meditation.
As your practise matures, and you become more certain that you can hold your awareness on your object, consider dropping the count. It is worth noting, though, before one does this, that a Zen Abbot once mentioned to me that the practise I outlined above, with the count, was all he did for more than 14 years. Clearly, ‘object and count’ is a rich practise.
I have found that the more deeply you immerse yourself in physical sensations, the easier it is to stay present with your object. When we set up the sitting or standing posture, we align ourselves a particular way, but this is not simply a matter of tradition—the purpose of aligning yourself precisely with gravity is to, one day, be able to sit with no tension: your tummy will be soft; there will be no tension in your knees, hips, or ankles; there will be no tension in your back, neck, or in the space between your neck and shoulders. You will be perfectly poised between moving forwards and backwards, and side to side. Because you are balancing, and have found that point that requires no effort, you will be able to let yourself relax more. As you practise, gently check all these postural cues from time to time; more in the beginning and less as your body learns to position itself this way without effort. And the closer you attend to this, the more clearly you notice that in addition to the movements of breathing, the body is never completely still, yet to an observer, you will look completely still, in time. (This is one of the reasons I recommend the Burmese position over full Lotus, assuming you can sit in this position without discomfort, because the Burmese position does not lock the pelvis into position—the benefit of this is that you are more likely to catch yourself falling asleep!)
One of the goals of the meditation practise I am recommending here is to see reality more clearly; to be present in the unfolding now more often; and, as well, you will become aware more quickly when your body-mind is organising itself to do one of your reflexive behaviours—each of us knows what these are! The point here is that awareness of these internal movements is the key to having a choice about whether “you get on this train again”, or not.
I am an advocate of including a lying form of your practise, too. For some practitioners, it is harder to stay awake, and to hold your awareness on your object when practising in the lying position, but because many people are tense these days, and do not have a clear reference experience for being deeply relaxed, it is a practise worth including, I feel. And this state of deep relaxation, in time, will be able to be brought into all other practise positions (moving, standing, and sitting). The state of deep relaxation is nothing more than being aware of where you hold tension, and the further capacity to let go of that tension—and without the baseline habit of feeling what this feels like, you will be tilting at the moon every time you try.
My last suggestion is to let go of the idea of ’the perfect meditation practise’; there is no such thing. There is only the experience of ‘what’s happening now?’ This becomes clearer as you practise. Parts of your life that have been ’sticky’ for you become less sticky. Your partner might comment that you seem more relaxed. You might find that you can spend a week with your parents! And you might find yourself happy for no reason at all. I feel the most useful stance to take into your practise is curiosity: what is happening now, and what’s next?