Meditation is a tool that can help us calm our minds, relieve stress and develop good qualities. Most beginners are enthusiastic to get started right away, without learning much about the Buddhist teachings. It’s a good idea, however, to progress in stages. Our meditation will gradually deepen as we learn more about what Buddha taught.
Here, we’ll look at some general points for practicing meditation. An advanced practitioner will be able to meditate anytime, anywhere. For beginners, it’s helpful to find somewhere conducive for quieting down, because our surroundings affect us so strongly.
We might imagine a room with candles, statues and incense as the best for meditation, and if we want that, it’s fine. Luckily, such an elaborate setup is not necessary; but an important point is that the room should be neat and clean.
When the environment around us is orderly, it helps the mind become orderly. A chaotic environment can negatively affect the mind.
At the beginning, it’s also very helpful if the environment is quiet. This can be difficult if we live in a bustling city, so many people try to meditate early in the morning or late at night. Eventually, noise won’t bother us, but at the beginning it can be very unsettling.
In Buddhism, it’s not advised to meditate with music, because that would mean relying on an external source of tranquility. Rather, we want to be able to generate peace internally.
The most important thing is to sit comfortably with our backs straight, and our shoulders, neck and facial muscles relaxed. If it’s more comfortable to sit in a chair, that’s perfectly fine. It should not feel like torture! In some types of Zen meditation, we’re not supposed to move at all. In other types of meditation, if you need to move your legs, you move them – it’s no big deal.
When we start, it’s advised to meditate for a very short time – just three to five minutes is enough. We’ll find that it’s actually hard to focus for any longer than that. It’s much better to have a short period where we’re more focused, than a long one where our minds wander off, daydream, or even fall asleep!
One of the most important principles to remember is that everything goes up and down. Some days your meditation will go well, some days it won’t.
It’s important that our bodies and minds are relaxed, and that we don’t push ourselves too hard. Some days we’ll feel like meditating, and some days we won’t. Progress is never linear, so one day we might feel wonderful, and the next day not so great. After a few years of perseverance, we will see a general trend that our meditation practice is improving.
Sticking with it is key. It’s best if we can meditate daily, starting with just a few minutes at a time. After the first few minutes, we can take a short break, and then go again. It’s better to practice like this than sitting for an hour in a torture session.
Meditation on the Breath
The first meditation that most people start with is to simply sit quietly and focus on the breath. This is very helpful for calming down when we’re stressed.
- Breathe normally through the nose – not too fast, not too slow, not too deeply, not too shallow
- Focus on the breath in one of two places – going in and out of the nose to help raise our energy, if we’re feeling sleepy, or on the sensation of the abdomen going in and out to ground us if our minds are wandering
- Breathe with awareness by counting cycles of ten in- and out-breaths – when the mind wanders, bring its attention gently back to the breath.
We’re not turning our minds off here. The real work is to recognize as soon as possible that our attention has wandered off and then to bring it back; or, if we’ve started to become dull and sleepy, to wake ourselves up. This is not easy! We tend to not even notice our dullness or mental wandering – especially if there’s a disturbing emotion involved, like thinking of someone we’re angry with. But the breath is always there; it’s something stable that we can always bring our attention back to.
Aside from helping to combat stress, meditation on the breath has other benefits. If we’re someone whose head is always “in the clouds,” then focusing on the breath will help to ground us. Breathing meditations have also been adopted for pain management in some hospitals, particularly in the United States. It not only relieves physical pain, but can also lessen emotional pain.
Generating Love toward Others
Once we’ve calmed our minds with meditation on the breath, we can use our open and alert state to generate more love toward others. At the start, we can’t just think, “Now I love everybody,” and then actually feel it. There’ll be no power behind it. We use a rational thought process to build up a feeling of love:
- All living beings are interconnected, we’re all here together.
- Everybody is the same in wanting happiness and not wanting unhappiness.
- Everybody wants to be liked; no one wants to be disliked or ignored.
- All beings are the same, including me.
Since we’re all interconnected, we feel:
- May everyone be happy and have the causes of happiness. How wonderful it would be if everyone were happy and had no problems.
We contemplate this, and imagine at our hearts a warm, yellow light like the sun, shining out in all directions with love for everyone. If our attention wanders, we bring it back to feeling, “May everyone be happy.”
Meditation for Daily Life
If we practice these types of meditation, we develop tools that we can use in daily life. The final aim is not to be able to focus on our breath for an entire day, but to use the skills we acquire to stay focused in general whenever we want. If we’re having a conversation with someone and all we can think is, “When will they shut up?!” our meditation practice will enable us to think, “This is a human being, who wants to be liked and listened to, just as I do.” In this way, meditation can help us in our personal lives and interactions with others.