How Should One Approach Daily Meditation Practice?
What is meditation? In the Buddhist tradition, meditation is understood as the cultivation of mind, a process of working with our thoughts to develop focus and mindfulness. The aim is to realize the true nature of our mind. The mind is originally free from vexations and limitations. Yet, we are often conditioned by our thoughts and feelings, which in turn shape all of our experiences. Our thoughts are conditioned by the environment that pushes and pulls us a certain way. So if the environment is favorable, we are happy; if it is adverse, we are stressed. In order to live happier, healthier, and transcend these conditioning, we have to cultivate the mind and see through the workings of our thoughts. We begin with quieting our thoughts by learning to focus and be mindfulness. Formal seated meditation, where we use a method such as mindfulness of the breath, provides the easiest way to do this.
The best way to learn how to practice meditation is to take a formal class on meditation. We offer a meditation workshop every month. You can also show up 15 minutes earlier to any of the Monday night sittings and one of the instructors will show you the basics.
Below are some simple principles to remember.
First, you should have a proper mental attitude towards practice. Second, you should use a method.
A good attitude is to recognize that the time you practice is the best part of the day; the little time we do spend sitting is precious. So see your sitting practice as an appointment with yourself. If you nourish this attitude, you will enjoy your meditation.
If meditation is onerous, it will be hard to persist in practice. Before you sit, remind yourself to feel happy about what you're about to do. Think of sitting as a time of release, relaxation, and enjoyment. There are no worries or concerns. Let everything go. Your only concern is to stay with the method of meditation.
How to Relax
Before you begin using your method in meditation, however, it is important to relax your body. Once you have settled into a posture, you should relax the body systematically. Do not try too hard—you might become more tense; do not be too laxed—you might become drousy. Both extremes will not lead to good results. The key to relaxation is to actually feel relaxed. It is through sensations of the body that it actually becomes relaxed—not by concepts and words. So in the beginning of the sitting, first feel your body being relaxed section by section systematically, from head to toe.
Close your eyes and completely relax your eyes. It is very important that your eyelids be relaxed. There should be no tension around your eyeballs. Do not apply any force or tension anywhere. Relax your facial muscles, shoulders, and arms. Relax your abdomen and put your hands in your lap. If you feel the weight of your body, bring that sensation down to your seat. Do not think of anything. If thoughts come, recognize them for what they are and bring your attention back to the relaxation of your body. Proceed on to using your method.
Click here for an audio file of a 25-minute guided meditation on relaxing the body, followed by silent sitting.
If sitting on the floor, sit on a round meditation cushion or an improvised cushion, several inches thick. This is partly for comfort, but also because it is easier to maintain an erect spine if the buttocks are slightly raised above the knees. Place a larger, square mat underneath the cushion. Sit with the buttocks towards the front half of the cushion, the knees resting on the mat. If physical problems prevent sitting on a cushion, then sit on a chair.
Postures for Seated Meditation
In sitting meditation, one should observe the seven points of the correct sitting posture. Each of these criteria has been used unchanged since ancient days. The purpose of these postures below is to stabilize the body so one can focus the mind.
Point One: The Legs
Sit on the floor with legs folded either in the Full Lotus or Half Lotus position. To make the Full Lotus, put the right foot on the left thigh, then put the left foot crossed over the right leg onto the right thigh. To reverse the direction of the feet is also acceptable.
The Half Lotus position requires that one foot be crossed over onto the thigh of the other. The other foot will be placed underneath the raised leg.
The Full or Half Lotus are the traditional seated meditation postures according to the seven-point method. However, we will describe some alternative postures since people may not always be able to sit in the Full or Half Lotus.
A position, called the Burmese position, is similar to the Half Lotus, except that one foot is crossed over onto the calf, rather than the thigh, of the other leg. Another position consists in kneeling. In this position, kneel with the legs together. The upper part of the body can be erect from knee to head, or the buttocks can be resting on the heels.
If physical problems prevent sitting in any of the above positions, then sitting on a chair is also possible, but as a last resort to the above postures. Even sitting on a chair, the spine must be erect and the body comfortable.
When you begin practicing, choose a posture that will be comfortable and stable for twenty minutes.
Point Two: The Spine
The spine must be upright. This does not mean to thrust your chest forward, but rather to make sure that your lower back is erect, not slumped, and that your chin is tucked in. Both of these points help you to maintain a naturally upright spine. An upright spine also means a vertical spine, leaning neither forward nor backward, right or left.
Point Three: The Hands
In seated meditation, our hands form a posture called "Dharma Realm Samadhi Mudra," which translates as: the posture or gesture ("mudra") of oneness ("Samadhi") with reality ("Dharma Realm"). This hand posture helps the smooth circulation of internal energies and helps harmonize the body with the external world. The open right palm is underneath, and the open left palm rests in the right palm. The thumbs lightly touch to form a closed circle or oval. The hands are placed in front of the abdomen, and rest on the legs.
Point Four: The Shoulders
Relax the shoulders. Be natural. And let your arms hang loose. If you feel any tension in these areas, just relax them.
Point Five: The Tongue
The tip of the tongue should be lightly touching the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth. This prevents your mouth from being dry. If you have too much saliva, you can let go of this connection. If you have no saliva at all, you can apply a little bit of pressure with the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth.
Point Six: The Mouth
The mouth should be closed. Breath through the nose, not through the mouth.
Point Seven: The Eyes
The eyes should be slightly open and gazing downward at a forty-five degree angle. Rest the eyes in that direction, but do not look at anything. Closing the eyes may cause drowsiness, or visual illusions. However, if your eyes feel very tired you can close them for a short while.
Walking meditation is especially useful for a change of pace when engaged in prolonged sitting, such as on personal or group retreats. Periods of walking can be taken between sittings.
In slow walking, the upper body should be in the same posture as in sitting, the difference being in the position of the hands. The left palm should lightly enclose the right hand, which is a loosely formed fist. The hands should be held in front of, but not touching, the abdomen. The forearms should be parallel to the ground. The attention should be on bottom of the feet as you walk very slowly, the steps being short, about the length of one's foot. If walking in an enclosed space, walk in a clockwise direction.
Fast walking is done by walking rapidly without actually running. The main difference in posture from slow walking is that the arms are now dropped to the sides, swinging forwards and backwards, as in natural walking. Take short fast steps, keeping the attention on the feet.
There are many methods for meditation, such as counting the breath, mindfulness of the breath, silent illumination (i.e., mozhao), or meditating on a critical phrase (i.e., huatou). The foundational ones are methods that involve the breath.
Once you have settled into your posture and are relaxed, forget about your body. Otherwise you will not be able to use the method. Do not follow wandering thoughts. When you follow them you're allowing them to control you and you won't be able to use the method. Once you realize that you have been following wandering thoughts, just return to your method. They will depart on their own.
The principles behind using your method are: relax, natural, and clear. Keep each session short, but practice frequently. For beginners, each session should be no longer than thirty minutes. If you do it longer, you will probably feel restless or fall asleep. You can use your method a couple of times a day; it will refresh your body and mind and eliminate some of the stress in your daily life. Gradually you will gain the stability of body and mind that makes it possible to, eventually, enter the gate of Chan.
Meditating on the Breath
Breathe naturally, do not try to control your breathing. The breath in meditation is used as a way to focus, to concentrate the minds. In other words, we bring the two things-regulating the breathing and regulating the mind together.
Counting the Breath
Regulating the mind means to stabilize and concentrate the mind. The basic method of regulating the mind is to count one's breath in a repeating cycle of ten breaths. Starting with one, mentally (not vocally) count each exhalation until you reach ten, keeping the attention on the counting. After reaching ten, start the cycle over again, starting with one. Do not count during the inhalation, but just keep the mind on the intake of air through the nose. If wandering thoughts occur while counting, just ignore them and continue counting. If wandering thoughts cause you to lose count, or go beyond ten, as soon as you become aware of it, start all over again at one.
If you have a lot of wandering thoughts that keeping count is difficult or impossible, you can vary the method, such as counting backwards from ten to one, or counting by twos from two to twenty. By giving yourself the additional effort, you can increase your concentration on the method, and reduce wandering thoughts.
Mindfulness of the Breath
If your wandering thoughts are minimal, and you can maintain the count without losing it, you can drop counting and just sense your breath going in and out. Keep your awareness at the tip of your nose. Do not try to control the tempo of your breathing: just be mindful of it naturally. A less strenuous method, also conducive to a peaceful mind, is to just keep your awareness on the breath going in and out of your nostrils. There is no need to "deal with" wandering thoughts, which may arise. When you become aware that you have been interrupted by thoughts, just return to the sensations of the breath.
Although the methods of meditation given above are simple and straightforward, it is best to practice them under the guidance of a teacher. Without a teacher, a meditator will not be able to correct beginner's mistakes, which if uncorrected, could lead to problems or lack of useful results.
In practicing meditation, it is important that body and mind be relaxed. If you are physically or mentally tense, trying to meditate can be counter-productive. Sometimes certain feelings or phenomena arise while meditating. If you are relaxed, you will not be affected by whatever that arises. It can be pain, soreness, itchiness, warmth or coolness; these are all natural reactions from meditation. But in the context of tenseness, these same symptoms may become obstacles.
For beginners, if the mind is burdened with outside concerns, it may be better to relieve some of these burdens before sitting. For this reason, it is best to sit early in the morning, before dealing with the problems of the day. Sitting times may be increased with experience. But people who meditate for extended periods may become so engrossed in their effort that they may not recognize their tensions. This frequently exists because their minds are preoccupied with getting results. So to work hard on meditation means to just put your mind on meditation itself and enjoy it. If you can just do that, tension will not arise. Deeper relaxation and calming of the body and mind will result.