Note: This is an excerpt from my book Peace of Mindfulness: Everyday Rituals to Conquer Anxiety and Claim Unlimited Inner Peace.
The practice of meditation is a way to transform your mind by creating a beautiful state of stillness, silence, and clarity for sustained periods.
As you practice meditation, you come to recognize the patterns and habits of your mind, and learn to cultivate a calm and positive mental state through the cessation of mental chatter and an increase in focused awareness.
Meditation requires no money, no special equipment or clothing, and takes a relatively short amount of time, especially in light of the rewards it provides. Through meditation, you strive to completely let go of the hectic world around you, and to find freedom from the past and future in order to achieve a state of bliss.
And as I outlined earlier, there are an abundance of physical and mental health benefits associated with meditation. These outcomes alone are compelling enough reasons to embrace a meditation practice. Additionally, many religious traditions like Buddhism see meditation as a way to end suffering, enhance love and compassion, gain insight and awareness, improve concentration, and ultimately reach a state of enlightenment.
However, you don't need to be Buddhist or have any religious affiliation at all to enjoy the benefits of mediation. Vipassana (or mindfulness) meditation, for example, can be taught and learned in an entirely secular way.
Says neuroscientist and secularist speaker and author Sam Harris, “The goal is to awaken from our trance of discursive thinking—and from the habit of ceaselessly grasping at the pleasant and recoiling from the unpleasant—so that we can enjoy a mind that is undisturbed by worry, merely open like the sky, and effortlessly aware of the flow of experience in the present.”
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years in many religious and secular traditions, and there are dozens of different styles of meditative practices. However, most practices begin with the same simple steps—sitting quietly, calming your mind, and remaining detached from judgment.
The key to finding satisfaction with any meditation practice is simply to practice. By making a daily commitment to meditation, you will improve your skills and discover increasing benefits which accumulate over time.
In an interview on the blog “Lion's Roar,” Buddhist meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein describes the progression of a meditation practice:
“I think you could describe it in different phases. The first phase is just seeing that there is a technique—even one as simple as coming back to the breath— and practicing doing that. That's the hard work of meditation, coming back again and again and again.
The second phase is when the mind develops some concentration and there is stillness and steadiness and ease. It all flows by itself; there's not that same effort. That's a wonderful opening, because the meditation gets to be very enjoyable and is not a chore anymore. The mind/body feels very light and fluid and the thoughts are no longer predominant. They still come and go, but they don't have the same power to drag you away.
The third phase is building on that concentration and using it, developing insight into the actual workings of the mind. So it's not just abiding in the calm, but seeing and observing. You see the unsatisfying nature of arising phenomena, because they just all pass away, very momentarily. And you begin to see what in Buddhism is called the emptiness of self. Those are insights you begin to see with greater and greater clarity.”
Although meditation is difficult in the beginning, you will make progress and will one day have a moment when you think, “Aha, this is what all the fuss is about.” You will long for more and more of these moments and be inspired to go deeper into your practice. But for now, simply a willingness to try meditation consistently for a period of time is enough, and you will very quickly discover a peace that has always been available to you.
“Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet,” says physician, author, and speaker Deepak Chopra. “It's a way of entering into the quiet that's already there— buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day.”
How to Begin Your Mindful Meditation Practice
If you want to create a regular practice of meditation, you need to first prepare yourself, your schedule, and your space. You prepare yourself by making a commitment to the practice and sharing your commitment with others so you have a sense of accountability.
You want to be in a positive state of mind, open to all outcomes and possibilities without preconceived judgments or desires, simply knowing the benefits of meditation will reveal themselves in time. However, remember the purpose of these early sessions is to train and quiet your mind, so enter the meditation understanding this as the goal.
Determine the time a day when you will meditate, and choose a time in which you can eventually work up to thirty minutes of meditation. But in the beginning, start with just five or ten minutes and increase your time slowly. You might try a meditation in the morning and one in the evening if possible.
Find a space in your home that is peaceful and conducive to meditating. You might want to light some candles, dim the lights, and remove any distractions or possible noises. Let others in the house know you are meditating, and ask them not to disturb you.
Here are the basic steps for a mindful meditation practice:
1. Sit comfortably either in chair or cross-legged on the floor with a cushion. Keep your spine erect and your hands resting gently in your lap. Don't recline as you may fall asleep. Erect posture will help you stay alert and awake.
2. Close your eyes, or keep them open with a downward focused gaze, then take a few deep cleansing breaths—maybe three or four.
3. Notice your body and the feeling of your body touching the chair or the floor. Be aware of your body in the space around you.
4. Gradually become aware of your breathing. Notice the air moving in and out through your nostrils and the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen. Allow your breaths to come naturally without forcing them.
5. Allow your attention to rest in the sensation of breathing, perhaps even mentally thinking the word “in” as you inhale and “out” as you exhale.
6. Every time your thoughts wander (which they will do a lot in the beginning), gently let them go and return to the sensation of breathing. Don't judge yourself or your intrusive thoughts. Just lead your mind back to focused attention on breathing.
7. As you focus on breathing, you'll likely notice other perceptions and sensations like sounds, physical discomfort, emotions, etc. Simply notice these as they arise in your awareness, and then gently return to the sensation of breathing.
8. When you observe you've been lost in thought, detach yourself from the thoughts and view them as though you are an outside witness with no judgment or emotion. Label them by saying, “There are those intrusive thoughts again.” Then again, return your attention to the breathing.
Continue with these steps until you are increasingly just a witness of all sounds, sensations, emotions, and thoughts as they arise and pass away.
Taming the Monkey Mind
In the beginning, you'll find you must redirect your thoughts almost constantly. You will often get caught up in the past and future and feel frustrated with your inability to tame your thoughts.
But with time and practice, it will become easier and easier to just be the witness to all thoughts and sensations and remain focused in the now. You will experience immense peace in shedding attachments to everything except the present moment.
When you are outside of meditation in normal life, you carry many burdens and stresses in the form of thoughts. It's like having an albatross around your neck you must drag with you everywhere you go.
During meditation, you give yourself permission to remove the albatross and abandon the burdens. This creates the right attitude for freedom and joy in your meditation. As you begin your meditation, remind yourself to release and banish the past and future.
This means you don't think about your worries, your work or family, your childhood, or anything in your recent history. During meditation, you become a blank slate with no past or future and no interest in the past or future.
I love the description Theravada Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm uses on his website to teach students how to manage unwanted thoughts:
“I describe this as developing your mind like a padded cell! When any experience, perception or thought hits the wall of the ‘padded cell', it does not bounce back again. It just sinks into the padding and stops right there. Thus we do not allow the past to echo in our consciousness, certainly not the past of yesterday and all that time before, because we are developing the mind inclined to letting go, giving away and unburdening.”
During meditation, it is common to anticipate and worry about the process of meditating or the possible outcome you will or won't reach. You also may fret over how long the meditation will take or the small pains or discomforts you're feeling.
During the early days of meditating, you'll wonder if the effort is really worth it. You might think, “Nothing is happening here. This is a waste of time. I don't see the purpose of this.” You will feel your mind is a wild monkey that can't be tamed. You might even have a moment of stillness of mind, and in your excitement start a commentary on the experience—which removes you from the present moment.
Rather than engaging in commentary with every thought or feeling, simply observe and direct your attention to whatever is happening in the moment. Then observe whatever comes up and go back to the moment, and so on over and over. If you redirect your attention to the moment after every observation, you don't have time to get lost in commentary. It is like redirecting a toddler back to his bed until he gets the message you mean it.
Even if you don't feel like you're making progress, you are. Just keep at it. Acknowledge that millions of practitioners can't be wrong about the rewards of meditation and stay committed, knowing you will improve.
Just as you work for several weeks in your job before you get your paycheck, you must put in the time in meditation before you get the payoff. At some point, you will abide in silent awareness long enough to experience how sweet and blissful it is.