Sunday, June 22, 2008

Meditation

Meditation is the single most effective tool I've ever found for cultivating calmness, positivity and self-acceptance. It's an ancient technique that's simple and free. In fact, it's so simple, I'm about to teach it to you in five minutes over the internet. I personally practice Zen meditation
several times a week, by myself and with a sitting group. Meditation is not fundamentally a religious practice, although it has been used by spiritual people in every major religion. Don't think you're patient enough for meditation? That's exactly why you should be doing it!


Let's start with posture. The main purpose of the meditation posture is to allow you to remain still for long periods of time without discomfort. I'll discuss two postures: cross-legged and kneeling. Before you elevate your mind though, you have to elevate your backside. Find something you can sit on- a firm cushion or a folded blanket will work well. Your pelvis should be at least four inches above the ground. Now cross your legs. Your knees should be lower than your pelvis. Adjust your posture until you can maintain a straight back without any muscle tension. You'll have to rotate the top of your pelvis forward slightly, curving your lower back in toward your stomach.

Now put your hands together so that your left fingers rest on top of your right ones, just above your lap. Your palms should face up. Now touch your thumbs lightly together. That's it! You are now sitting in a very nice meditation posture. It will get more comfortable over time as you adjust to it.

The kneeling posture is the same except you kneel and put the support under your pelvis, between your legs. Wooden 'seiza' benches work well for this, but are not necessary. Your pelvis should be at least six inches off the ground so that you don't hurt your knees. This is my preferred posture, but I'm admittedly in the minority.

Now that you know the posture, face a blank wall three or four feet away. You can also look at the floor (while keeping your head and neck straight) or anything else that isn't likely to capture your interest.

Try breathing 'into your stomach'. To do this, breathe using only your diaphragm, in such a way that it makes your stomach rise and fall rather than your chest. Breathe slowly and deliberatley, pausing after each exhale. Bring your full attention to the rise and fall of your stomach. That's it, you're meditating! Really. Don't get fancy: it's counterproductive to try to actively relax yourself or achieve some different mental state.

In Zen, we call meditation 'sitting'. We use such a simple word because that's all it is: paying full attention to the moment, while you sit. Just bring your attention to your breath. If your mind drifts, gently bring it back. Don't try to stifle your thoughts, just acknowledge them and come back to your breath. If you can't focus, that's normal.

Try this for 15 minutes at first. Every day is best, but do what you can. When you're more comfortable with the technique, increase your time to 30 minutes. Meditation is a practice that changes and ripens with time.

7 comments:

reid said...

I think what's easier said than done for most people is the "clearing your mind" part. Focusing on breathing when the mind drifts is probably the most helpful basic practice. There's also a number of visualization techniques to use depending on what works best for oneself.

In modern society we're constantly inundated with information, so in a sense meditation is like an intermittent fast for the mind. Also, benefits of meditation seem to be supported by studies in the field of neuroplasticity.

Yuneek said...

For those interested in the developing field of neuroplasticity I highly recommend

The Brain That Changes Itself

by Norman Doidge


From the LiveScience article:

""People know physical exercise can improve the body, but our research and that of others holds out the prospects that mental exercise can improve minds."

Actually there is research that shows that physical exercise is one of the most potent developers of new neurons, even over "mental exercise". Complex real world movements being the best as compared with the modern gym world which involves the low level stimulus of sitting down at a machine and moving a lever.

Stephan said...

Reid,

That's a cool study. I like the quote:

"This attentional blink finding shows a little wedge of what might be a much larger dimension of experience that could be opened up by meditation techniques," said neuroscientist Clifford Saron at the University of California-Davis Center for Mind and Brain. "You can imagine that life is a series of attentional blinks, and we might be missing an awful lot of what's going on."


Yuneek,

Thanks for the recommendation. I've heard about the exercise-BDNF-neurogenesis link. Intermittent fasting also increases BDNF. I believe the link between neurogenesis and cognitive ability is pretty murky though.

Trevor H. said...

Very good post. An excellent introduction.

I recently started sitting zazen and am amazed at the profound effect it has had on my mind throughout the day. (I tend to sit in the mornings.)

If you plan on starting to sit regularly, I highly recommend Shunryu Suzuki's, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. It is an excellent overview of Zen practice for beginners, but is equally beneficial for those who have tricked themselves into thinking they know what Zen is. I learn something new every time I read it.

lostinchina said...

Living in China has availed to me, by deliberate means, some degree of direct access to "pure" and traditional forms of martial arts of which I seem to only be interested in TaiJi. As I learn TaiJi and its forms, I have quite happily discovered the meditative state that is induced by "doing it right"... as in:
moving your hand from left to right quickly connects 2 coordinates. Slow down the same movement requires you connect more coordinates... now slow it down more while maintaining more complete awareness of you body as it to moves as your hand moves... and the coordinates you are connecting seem to be toward infinite.
For me and seemingly many others, the result is your mind and body "merge" and intermittently and with increasing duration, thought processes "stop" and the moment lingers in a deepening calm... ever deepening...

Scotlyn said...

There is also taijiquan "standing" meditation. Same idea - posture, alignment, relaxation, breath observation and relaxation, calmness of mind - but in a standing, rather than a sitting, posture. It takes a good teacher at first to help the posture relax and grow strong. But the end is the same. To practice standing is to begin to learn the heart of taiqiquan.

David Spector said...

I know this post is four years old, but it still appears open for comments, and I believe mine is relevant.

There is a reason why skilled meditation teachers don't post quick instructions.

Such 'teaching' produces only relaxation, at best, not the expansion of consciousness and reduction of trait anxiety that truly improves life.

Placing the awareness on the body or on the breathing does not allow the mind to do what it wants most: to transcend thought entirely and experience pure awareness, without distraction.

Transcending requires a subtle technique, which in turn requires skilled instruction. It requires a deep understanding of consciousness, the mind, and the nature of stress.

But it's worth learning, according to research conducted by hundreds of independent scientists. Even we, a small volunteer organization, have published two papers in peer-reviewed psychology journals on the reduction in state and trait anxiety produced by transcending.

Information at www.tm.org for Transcendental Meditation (TM) and at www.nsrusa.org for Natural Stress Relief (NSR), the two principal sources for instruction in transcending.

David Spector
President,
Natural Stress Relief/USA