How does a beginner meditate? How, for that matter, does anyone meditate?
I take the view that we are all beginners in meditation; every time we meditate it is the first time. Meditation brings a person into an awareness of here and now, and this state of mind is always new, fresh, and just beginning. Contained in this point is my first tip: Don't concern yourself with comparing, in a self-critical way, your own experience of meditation to that of other people, no matter how or what their experience may be. We're all beginners at this, and your experience is as valid as the next person's.
I've met many people who say they can't meditate, only to discover this is not true after I explain a few key points with them, just as I am explaining these points to you. I ask them what happens when they try to meditate. Typically they tell me that they can't stop their mind from thinking. This is the number one reason people tell me they can't meditate, tried meditating and gave up, or simply think meditation is impossible for them. So here is the second tip which I am sure, like these people, you'll be happy to hear. Meditation is not about stopping your mind from thinking. Whether you are thinking or not is quite irrelevant. In fact your thinking mind is a perfect foundation for developing a very deep meditation practice.
Let's explore what I mean by the notion that meditation is not about stopping your thoughts. Meditation is taking place whether thought is there or not. A state of meditative awareness exists beneath the thinking you experience in the mind. It is always there. The key point of difference between meditation and ordinary waking consciousness is whether or not you are giving your attention to those thoughts or to your awareness of the thoughts. Your awareness of the thinking (as opposed to the thinking itself) is what taps you into this underlying state of meditation. Let's see how this applies in a practical situation.
I sit down to meditate. I get my body comfortable. I may then focus my attention on the flow of breath for a while in order to calm my body and mind. Naturally, thoughts arise. I may even get engaged in actively thinking about something. Then I realise "I am here to meditate, and I was busy thinking." In that moment I can ask myself, "Who is aware that I was thinking just now?" There is no need to answer this question. Rather you simply feel into the question and the awareness that you were thinking.
Meditation is all about cultivating awareness. Awareness that I am thinking. Awareness that I am sitting. Awareness that I am breathing. Awareness that I am feeling something to do with my partner or my job or whatever, and most significantly, simply awareness that "I Am." A key to cultivating awareness is to lovingly (as opposed to forcefully) disengage your mind from judging and engage it with the act of observation and acceptance. When you notice you have wandered off into thinking about something, in that very moment of noticing this, you have a profound opportunity to deepen your awareness and thus to deepen your experience of meditation. In that moment the awareness arises, "I was sitting here watching my breath, and then I got caught up (for however long) in thinking about such and such. Wow. Neat..." and it is this awareness that takes you further into meditation. How easy is that?
So the thinking and whatever else comes up whilst meditating is a gift. Far from being a problem, this incessant thinking is the very thing that will propel you deeper and deeper into the still, calm awareness at the centre of your Being. Similarly, so are the feelings and emotions that arise and distract your attention while sitting in meditation. So you can put all anguish and frustration aside now with regards to just how much your mind wanders into thinking and emoting when all you intend to do is sit and observe. Meditation does not imply the absence of thought.
Taking the above points into consideration let's look at some simple steps to effective meditation.
Find or create a relatively quiet place where you are unlikely to be disturbed. You may want to turn off the phone, and let other people in your environment know you don't wish to be interrupted. If you are interrupted, know that you can simply deal with whatever it is accordingly and then return to your meditation when your circumstances permit.
Make yourself comfortable.
Sitting on the floor cross legged is a common position and is quite fine for many people. I recommend propping the back edge of your buttocks on the edge of a firm cushion. This helps keep the spine straight and more comfortable. Try it out and see if it suits you.
If it is uncomfortable to sit on the floor (or you simply prefer not to) you may like to meditate sitting on the edge of a chair with your feet on the ground and your knees bent at a right angle. This is a position common in Taoist meditation and Qigong practices. The Taoists observe that it helps them ground their energy through their feet into the Earth, which they feel provides certain health benefits.
If the edge of a chair is not your style, then try sitting fully on a chair. I do recommend not leaning back into a chair; rather try supporting your back yourself. Although if you think it might be better for you to lean back into the chair, then try it out. This is your way that you are discovering. Experiment and have fun figuring out what works best for you.
I don't recommend lying down because in my experience most people fall asleep when they try to meditate in this position. If you think it might be the best way for you, give it a try. If you fall asleep then try another way.
State inwardly your intention to meditate and to experience the deep awareness within you for the benefit of your whole Being and your life. You may like to add that it is also for the benefit of all Beings or all your relations and relatives if that feels true for you. Personally I find this to be a life-affirming intention to engage with at the start of meditation, and that over time it provides its own unique benefits. You may also find it useful to make a resolution to meditate for at least a certain amount of time. It need not be long, and you are always free to sit there longer if you like. Among other things, these statements help train the other-than-conscious mind and bring it to your support.
Such a statement might go something like this, "I am now sitting to meditate. I am doing this for the benefit of my whole Being and my life, and for the benefit of all my relations. I resolve to meditate for at least the next 15 minutes."
Simply be aware of the breathing process taking place in your body. Observe the inhalation. Observe the transition from inhaling to exhaling, and observe the exhalation. Again the transition, and then the next inhalation. It's as simple as that. Inhale, transition, exhale, transition, inhale, transition, and so on. Just to be aware. That is all.
When the mind wanders you will eventually become aware that it has done so. Perhaps it wanders for 15 minutes before you notice, or perhaps it's even longer! That's just fine. It's fantastic you eventually noticed and this is a perfect indication you are deepening into meditation, even if you sat there thinking for a whole hour before you noticed, and then had to get up and go to work. Just to be aware. This is the key.
It's very likely the length of wandering will get shorter and shorter the more you practice meditation. Either way, it doesn't matter. Simply be aware that the mind wandered, enjoy this discovery, and again observe the breathing taking place in your body right now.
That's it. This is a great beginning to meditation. I recommend you make an agreement with yourself to keep it up for at least 20 minutes a day for 30 days. Even if on some days you only manage to sit for 5 minutes just before you go to bed or first thing in the morning, this will make a positive difference. Just so long as every day you intentionally stop what you are doing and be aware. This will help to establish meditation as a positive habit pattern. Once that occurs, your other-than-conscious mind will strongly compel you to feel like meditating every day, and then it is much easier to stick with it. Essentially you become positively addicted to meditation, and then you'll find it easy as can be to keep it up every day and experience the many great benefits this will bring you. What are some of those benefits?
One closing point for your consideration: The next time you sit to meditate there is no reason to concern yourself with your previous meditation experience. Cultivate a sense that you are just beginning, every time. That each time you sit to meditate it is the first time you are meditating. This keeps your attention fresh, alive, and present to here and now. Just as I recommended not self-critically comparing your experience to other people, you can also enjoy the freedom of not comparing your current experience with the memory of your past experience. Simply be here, now.
© Copyright 2009 Jonathan Evatt. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of the author. Jonathan Evatt is a New Zealand mystic, yogi, and award-winning author of Peace, Power, and Presence: A Guide to Self Empowerment, Inner Peace, and Spiritual Enlightenment