By Michael Jones, Ph.D.
Ever want to learn how to meditate but never had time to travel to Tibet? Meditation as a general practice dates back thousands of years. Recently, scientific studies have found numerous benefits of meditation. These benefits range from decreasing anxiety, managing chronic pain, and decreasing relapse from depression and substance abuse. Brain imaging studies have shown regular practice to be associated with key areas of the brain associated with happiness and well-being. Meditation can be thought of as a practice in focusing concentration and awareness and in the process coming to understand one’s mental life more fully. It is not some weird, altered mental state, but a practice of making use of very ordinary mental abilities that we all have to some degree. In short, meditation is learning how to pay attention. You might be thinking, “Oh come on, is that all there is to it? It can’t be that easy.” Meditation might be described as being deceptively simple. You don’t have to go to a monastery in the mountains somewhere to receive some basic meditation instruction. What follows is basic Meditation 101.
First, find a place to sit. You don’t have to sit in any special fashion. Sit comfortably, but in a balanced position. You don’t have to be uncomfortably rigid, but comfortably erect and balanced with your posture. Keep your back straight. This position facilitates an alert state of mind. At first, it will be important to find a quiet location where you will not be interrupted during your practice. Later, you will find that you can practice almost anywhere.
Next, settle into your practice. You might think of this phase as a mental warm-up. Settle into your sitting position. Take note of your frame of mind. Does your mind feel quiet or busy? Are you happy, angry, excited, or neutral? You might notice that your mind is filled with the recent events of the day or anticipation of ones in the near future. Don’t do anything special with what you notice, just notice. Have a sense that your “center” is settling into your sitting position. Continue to settle by taking a few deep breaths. Draw the air in deeply, experimenting with a “belly breath.” Try to breath slowly using your diaphragm so that your stomach expands when you inhale and then deflates when you exhale.
Your mind is always thinking thoughts, just like your lungs are always breathing breaths. Don’t try to control the thoughts or try to make the mind “go blank.” Just try to be very aware of what is going on. Awareness is like a spot light. It can be directed and focused. Mediation practice is an attempt to exercise control over our awareness and make this control stronger, like a muscle. To do this we need to practice focusing on something. It is an old tradition to use the breath as a place to focus.
Watch your breath go in and out and mentally whisper to yourself the word “in” during the inhalation and “out” during the exhalation. Watch the in and out of your breath like it was the most important thing imaginable. Pretend that you are on a game show and the host will ask you unexpectedly “IN or OUT?” and if you answer correctly you will win a million dollars. Imagine that the secret of the universe will be revealed in your breath and that if you lose focus you will miss it.
The reality is that everyone loses focus. For this reason, in between every breath cycle we add the count: one, two, three, and so on. When you realize that you have lost the count, gently bring yourself back to your breath and start again at one. Don’t beat yourself up if you lose the count. But if you do, just recognize that those are just more thoughts and gently keep the focus on your breath.
Regular meditation practice can help you develop a quality called mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to intentionally focus on the present moment without judging it harshly. Much of the time we spend our day analyzing, judging, and focusing everywhere but where we are. Anxiety often resides in the future or in problems that haven’t yet manifested. There is an old saying that if your well-being leaves you it is hiding from you in the present and that is where you should look for it. Regular meditation practice will help you do just that.