By Paul Kleiman
Years ago, during a particularly trying period in my life, I began visiting a behavioral psychologist to address anxiety and insomnia. A guided meditation was a common part of his sessions, in which he would speak to me in gentle tones as I lay on the sofa, breathing deeply.
The meditations lasted about 20 minutes, and I wondered if they were just a way for my therapist to take a break from listening to my life crap, but I found them to be quite calming, and I felt peaceful and rejuvenated afterward, two feelings that don't come easily to me.
My therapist commended me on my breathing after just one session. He observed that I could slow my breathing and take very long, deep breaths, which helped me achieve a different state of consciousness. Is there a higher level of consciousness? Maybe. Are you calm and relaxed? Definitely, at least during the duration of the meditation and for a short time afterward.
He inquired as to if I had learned this elsewhere. I informed him about my years of studying Kundalini Yoga with a well-known LA teacher. It wasn't everyday training; instead, it was a class or two a week in a studio or in the instructor's living room with a group of other students.
Breathing techniques such as "Breath of Fire" (rapid in and out breaths controlled by the diaphragm) and techniques such as filling your lungs with as much air as possible (or blowing ALL the air out of your lungs and keeping them empty - always much harder) and then doing yoga while holding the air in or out can help improve breathing technique.
There were also gong meditations, which involved lying on your back, eyes closed, and breathing deeply while the instructor struck a giant gong, which you could hear as well as feel (sound waves) during the meditation. My therapist then suggested that I teach people how to breathe as a massage therapist and massage therapy educator.
So, with that in mind, here are some suggestions for those of you who wish to include a meditation practice into your life in order to reap the benefits of meditation's proven benefits: When should you meditate and how often should you meditate? Creating a conducive setting for mediation What you will require in order to meditate Is it better to have a mantra or not? Techniques for deep breathing Getting your thoughts straight (what to think about... or not) Mediation's Advantages "Mindfulness." What exactly does that imply?
1. SELECT A SUITABLE TIME AND BEGIN SMALL.
Did you know that the Buddha intended to sit under the Bodhi tree (ficus religiosa in Latin, which sounds like a Hermoine spell from Harry Potter) until he attained enlightenment? It's unclear how long he sat, although it may have been weeks. There is no food.
The good news is that you don't have to.
Begin small. Most people who meditate "religiously" (it is spiritual, but not always religious; even the Big 3 religions refer to silent or personal prayer as "meditation") do so first thing in the morning (and some do, in fact, get up at 4:30 a.m. for "sadna," a pre-dawn meditation practiced by some Sikhs, when spiritual energy is said to be especially strong), and then later in the afternoon or early evening (before or after dinner is great).
Before bed, deep breathing is an excellent technique to relax, but full meditation is not recommended because it may deceive your body and brain into thinking you've already slept enough. And, while early morning meditation may appear to be ideal for some, be honest with yourself. If you despise getting up early, don't force yourself to meditate at 5 or 6 a.m. You'll be more likely to keep doing it if you do it when it's handy and easy for you.
Beginners and even expert meditators should avoid meditating for a week (or longer) without food and water as the Buddha did. Most people benefit from a session of 15-20 minutes, although even five minutes is beneficial, and some long-term practitioners may conduct lengthier meditations. Starting out, five minutes is an excellent quantity to aim for because it's simple to achieve and gives a novice a taste of the positive outcomes. Try it for a week or a few days, then increase to 10 minutes, 15 minutes, and finally 20 minutes. 20 minutes seems to be the sweet spot for me and most meditators.
2. THE BEST LOCATION FOR MEDITATION
An airport, a subway station, or a campaign rally are all good places for experienced meditators to meditate. However, most people prefer a quiet, dimly lit environment. Although light is not an issue, many people find that a darker or dimly lit space (candlelight works well) is more relaxing. Of course, the Buddha meditated outside, and many people love doing so on a stump in the woods, on a rock on a mountain top, or on beach sand. Complete silence (or calming music or nature noises) is ideal in every setting.
To the amusement of the locals, Thich Nhat Hanh famously claims to practice walking meditations in airports and on crowded city streets. Keep your eyes slightly open and focus on a space a few inches in front of your eyes, according to certain meditation techniques. I'm of the "eyes closed" school of thought. Try it out for yourself.
3. MEDITATION EQUIPMENT
There is no need for any specific equipment. You'll only need yourself and a spot to sit or lay down. Most people meditate while sitting up straight and in a stable position. It's fine to lie down, however, it's easy to fall asleep this way, and napping isn't the same as meditating. Deep breathing is not the same as taking a nap. There's nothing wrong with taking a nap.
You might want to sit on a pillow. Some people prefer to meditate sitting up straight with proper posture, while others prefer to lean against a wall or a cushion behind them, or even meditate on a chair or couch. Some Buddhists place a flat, cushioned mat on top of which they place a pillow shaped like a chocolate layer cake, about 8-10 inches across. Sitting on this cushion with your legs crossed on the mat or kneeling might feel incredibly secure and comfortable.
Some people sit in lotus or half-lotus positions (cross-legged with one ankle on the opposite knee for half lotus or both ankles on the opposite knee for full lotus). This is difficult for many people, and even those who can sit in this position will discover that their foot becomes painful or falls asleep after a few minutes. Comfort, so you are not distracted by discomfort, and proper posture is the most important thing to acquire in a sitting position. It's fine to perform this in any posture that enables it, including lying down.
Meditation can be enhanced by using candles, incense, and music. If you wish to listen to music, try non-melodic noises like chimes or bells, or random flute and nature sounds. It's either that or nothing. Words, melody, and rhythm in music are distracting and should be avoided. Nature sounds, such as the ocean, a stream, or rain, can be soothing, especially if you live in an urban region with traffic noises, sirens, people's music, garbage trucks, and other environmental aural clutter.
A kitchen timer is an excellent investment. You can also use a timer on your smartphone (or if you don't have one, your dumb phone). I have a kitchen timer that I purchased before smartphones were popular. I set the timer for the amount of time I want to meditate (typically 20 minutes, but I add a minute to give myself time to settle in), and that's it. What's the point of using a timer? Then there's no need to look at the time. And you'll want to check the clock a lot when you first start off, and when you do, after feeling like you've meditated for a half-hour and seeing that it's only been four minutes, you'll see why a timer is so useful.
4. DO YOU WANT A MANTRA OR DON'T YOU WANT A MANTRA?
That is an excellent question. I've experimented with both. "ong namo gurudev namo," which means "I bow to the instructor inside me," is one of the mantras used by Kundalini practitioners. That appeals to me since it is non-religious. There is a slew of others as well. You don't need to understand what they imply because the mantra is all about saying or thinking it. The noise. The monotony. It aids in getting you in the appropriate frame of mind. It's probably best if you don't know what it means. Those who were taught to pray in Hebrew or Latin may agree.
Mantras are not prayers if you are a religious person who does not feel comfortable participating in religious rites other than your own. However, some of them sound like prayers. If this is a problem for you, try finding a secular mantra or repeating a short prayer from your own religious practice.
Some organized meditation movements or groups have existed for decades and are quite expensive. One was almost $2,500 (for your personalized mantra and training), but it's now closer to $1000. People I know who have been doing this for 40 years swear by it. Howard Stern, the King of All Media, has been a lifelong practitioner (following in his parents' footsteps) and claims it is one of the best things he has ever done, which he does every day. If you have the financial means to do so, go for it. If not, I'm sure a Google search will turn up a mantra technique that you can use for free. Please don't let on that I told you this.
I've never purchased a mantra. I've chanted alongside members of the Buddhist Church of America (affiliated with the Buddhist Church of Japan), and they continue to chant throughout the meditation (the well-known "nam-myoho-renge-kyo"). It was a pleasant experience to be in a room with 20 other people chanting in someone's home, but it wasn't my cup of green tea. I found it too difficult to keep up with the chanting, and it didn't help me focus as well as I would have liked. So, despite the fact that the individuals were friendly and the post-meditation snacks were great, I never returned.
However, you don't have to be Buddhist to meditate, and many Buddhist organizations welcome people of all religions. While I occasionally begin with a mantra, my primary mantra is my breath, which I shall discuss next. If you're looking for a mantra, Thich Nhat Hanh's books are filled with what he refers to as "gathas," or short poems that are effective. Although most of them were written in Vietnamese, he translated them into French and English. My personal fave involves breathing as well:
My body relaxes as I take a deep breath in.
I smile as I exhale.
I take a deep breath and focus on the current moment.
I know it's a lovely moment as I exhale.
Isn't it lovely? This isn't a prayer. For a few minutes, do this with in-breath and out-breath. There's no need to repeat this throughout the meditation. You can eventually condense it to "in-calm, out-smile, in-present now, out-wonderful moment." And as you say it, follow your breath and grin.
In fact, Thich Nhat Hanh points out that most depictions of the Buddha in meditation show him smiling, and that you should smile whenever you meditate. This not only relaxes your facial muscles but also makes you feel fantastic. Yes, even when you're in a foul mood, smiling makes you feel better. He also suggests that you smile because meditation is lovely. When can you smile if not while meditating?
5. TECHNIQUE FOR BREATHING
This takes us to the most crucial aspect of the process: breathing. Breathing is meditation, and meditation is breathing. Breathing is the process of inhaling and exhaling air. Your diaphragm contracts when you breathe in. When your diaphragm relaxes, you will exhale. The elasticity of your lungs and diaphragm returns them to a resting posture, allowing the air to escape. Your body performs this on its own (so you can breathe while sleeping), but you can influence it to some extent. In meditation or deep breathing, we strive to slow down the breath and take in as much air as possible without straining. You want to take a deep breath, not a forced one.
Take calm, lengthy breaths while sitting (or resting) comfortably, but don't force it. Maintain a calm attitude. Only inhale and exhale via your nose (of course, if you have a cold, mouth-breathing is fine, and some meditation techniques call for exhalation through the mouth). To begin, take a regular breath and gradually increase the length of each breath by inhaling a little deeper with each inhale. Exhale in the same way. Exhale slowly, letting out the majority of your air before inhaling again. Remember not to push, strain, or exert control. Simply take a few deep and long breaths.
If you're using a mantra, you can do this while breathing in and out the mantra, or just thinking about the mantra, or gatha, in your mind. After a while, you'll just be breathing and without thinking about the chant or anything else.
Focus on two things: your abdomen pushing out with each inhale and pulling in with each exhale (right around and just under your navel, which also happens to be the anatomical center of the body), and the cool feeling of air entering your nostrils near the tip of your nose (which also helps clear the mind).
Keeping your attention on these two physical sensations will prevent you from being too attached to the fleeting thoughts that arise throughout the meditation. "Did I remember to get milk" (or soy milk if you're a Vegan) comes to mind? And, on the subject of ideas...
6. MINDFUL MINDFUL MINDFUL MINDFUL MINDFUL
We are thought, creatures. We are constantly thinking. Even when you're sleeping. Even when we're engrossed in anything else (such as watching a movie or conversing with a buddy), we may forget we left the stove on. Being human entails this.
Contrary to popular belief, meditation and deep breathing do not necessitate a clear mind. While meditating, ideas and thoughts will come to you. Some of them may even be motivational. You might have an inspiration for a hit song, in which case you should stop meditating, write down the tune, and resume your meditation. Don't sacrifice a top-40 hit song because you're a dedicated meditator!
It's acceptable if you have thoughts like "maybe I'll have Chinese food tonight" or "my coworker Michael is such an a-hole." Recognize the notion, hold it close to your heart, and then release it. Return your attention to your breathing. The chilly air entering your nostrils, the feeling of your abdomen rising and sinking.
The thought will go as quickly as it appeared. Another will come in to be recognized and released. This is a normal component of the procedure. Return to your breath if you become stuck on a notion. If you're having trouble, try counting your breaths from 1 to 10 and then going backward. You'll never make it to number ten if you're doing a decent job. That's fantastic. Simply start over.
After a while, you'll notice that your mind clears, those thoughts occur less frequently and for shorter periods of time. You might be able to have that "leave the body" sensation, where you feel as if you're outside of yourself, gazing down from above or across the room at yourself meditating. Another sensation is to reach deep within yourself and feel your mind's core. It's almost like a command center for your consciousness, located deep within the brain. Is this a true location? Most likely not. But it has the appearance of being so. It's like traveling across the universe of your consciousness in a spaceship. Whoa.
7. MEDITATION AND DEEP BREATHING BENEFITS
Meditation and deep breathing have been shown to be very effective in most research conducted throughout the world. As the practice progresses, the effects and advantages become more pronounced and significant. Just be aware that the benefits have been demonstrated to aid in the treatment of hypertension, sleeplessness, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, pain management, and even cancer treatment side effects, as well as addiction and rehabilitation. And that's the end of the list.
Some meditation masters, such as Thich Nhat Hanh, advise people to join a sangha, or small group of people who can meditate together. Meditation classes with a guide are available all around the world. Many schools and houses of worship, as well as yoga studios, provide classes or guided sessions. For novices, meditating in a group can be more informative, pleasurable, and straightforward than doing it alone.
Using guided meditation apps, CDs, DVDs, or downloads is another option. YouTube has a lot of good (instructive and guided) videos. One example can be seen in the Resources section below.
Remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to meditation. Make the decision that feels right to you. If it makes sense to you and feels good, you'll do it on a regular basis. Go with your instincts and feelings no matter where you do it: alone or with others, during the day or evening, with or without music, mantra or no mantra, sitting or lying down. It's best to do what works best.
"Mindfulness" is currently the most over-used term in the "whole being" world. From shopping to uncoupling, everything these days is conscious. Is that a conscious decision? It doesn't matter. It's a little excessive. There's even a website dedicated to "mindful eating." Aaaauuugghhh! I first heard the term in Thich Nhat Hanh's writings (many years ago), and that is the true meaning for me. It entails being fully present. Here. Now. Aware. You're completely focused on what you're doing.
When eating an orange, pay attention to the skin as you peel it, the texture of the fruit, the juiciness, the sweetness as you bite, and the sensation of the little juice sacs on your tongue. Before ingesting, chew carefully and thoroughly to properly pulverize the fruit and taste it.
According to Thich Nhat Hanh, if you're doing the dishes, DO THE DISHES. Concentrate on what you're doing, how it feels, and how well you're doing it. Wash the dishes afterward and ponder about what's on TV. Simply clean the dishes. This is what mindfulness is all about. You may even meditate while doing the dishes or eating the orange if you are observant enough. The fundamental definition of mindfulness is this.
This isn't going to work. It's intended to be a pleasurable experience. It's supposed to make you feel fantastic. It is not drudgery. It's not as if we're told, "Oh, I better work out today or I'll get fat," or that it's something we have to do rather than something we want to do. So remember to grin when you do it, and try to do it once or twice a day.
You don't have to put in a lot of effort. And you'll find that it's simple to do and that you don't want to miss it after a short amount of time (it varies with the individual, but I'd estimate within a month). When that happens, you'll see why so many people around the world have made meditation a part of their daily routine, and why so many doctors, therapists, and others involved in physical and emotional health believe that meditation is one of the most effective ways to achieve true wellness and peace.
Take a deep breath and inhale serenity, health, and pleasure. Exhale any feelings of anxiety, illness, or melancholy. And take care of yourself!
The author has had a meditation practice for many years, starting with Kundalini yoga. He learned more from the writings of Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and has participated in retreats at the Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, CA. Paul is not a Buddhist by faith, nor is he affiliated in any way with Deer Park or Plum Village. Nonetheless, Paul has found the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh to be the best source of information on these topics. Please try this guided mediation if you are interested, although many more are available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AW66B_aGuiA
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