Believe it or not, you can improve your concentration and slow down your day-to-day life with meditation without ever uttering the word "chakra". Incense, yoga pants and annoying dinner conversation are also optional. All you need is your breath.
Photo by 'tess.
Why meditate, especially if you're not planning to drop everything you're doing and Google for the closest mountain retreat? If you're anything like me, meditation will help you realise just how far, and how fast, your mind can wander from what you're supposed to be doing at the moment. In an age of multitasking, hyper-scheduling and instant internet distraction, that alone can be a huge help. Beyond just anecdotes, it's also been suggested that meditation can actually exercise your brain's "muscles" to increase focus, and has been shown to lower stress and increase forgiveness among university students who take up the practice.
I am far from a meditation expert — very, very far, in fact. I've only been practising meditation in a formal group for a few months and working on home practice since a year ago. I've paid brief visits to my mind to try and calm it down in the past, but it's only recently that I've developed an interested in learning more of the "hows" and "whys" available to the non-monastic person. So I'm not a teacher — just an "advanced beginner", as some would have it, and one who's hoping to share some advice to nudge a few others into considering the benefits of slowing down, taking time to watch what your mind is doing and following one's breath.
One more side note: While much of meditation derives from customs, philosophies and practices associated with certain faiths (Hinduism and Buddhism, in particular), the practice of what most people know as meditation, or mindfulness, isn't indelibly tied to religious practice. In other words, meditation is an integral part of many faiths, but those faiths are not an integral part of meditation alone. Keep an open mind.
What You'll Need
- Nothing: This is a fact. Meditation requires only a willingness to concentrate on what's happening and, in most cases, slow your mind down and follow your breath. You can do it lying down, in a chair, or using equipment and spaces you've set aside for such practice.
- A quiet, still place: For beginners, especially, a quiet room without a lot of sensory distractions is a big help. You'll likely practice with your eyes closed, but visual clutter can still feel imposing and draw your mind elsewhere as you try to settle in. Music is not at all necessary — in fact, it can be distracting at first — but could be a helpful exercise later on.
- Sitting gear, if you'd like: In the Zen tradition of meditation, one sits on a pillow, or zafu, while you and the pillow are on top of a larger mat, or zabuton. You can find all kinds of comfortable sets all over, made from various materials and colours. You don't need to learn how to sit in a leg-stretching position. Beginners without great flexibility (yours included) and exercise in sitting can sit seiza, or on your knees, or even sit in a regular chair — though you'll likely want a pillow to more evenly distribute your weight and relax your feet.
For more on the practice of sitting and achieving a comfortable rest, I recommend the Zen Mountain Monastery's Zen Meditation Instructions. It is firmly based in the Zen/Zazen tradition, but I've found its general advice on posture and sitting to be universally helpful.
The Basics: Following Your Breath
There are many ways to meditate. Some seem like complete contradictions — "Keep your eyes open and focus on an object or light piece of music" versus "Close your eyes and try to focus on nothing". Whatever you tend to believe brings you to a relaxed state, following and steadying the breath is the most universal of meditation techniques.
In The Miracle of Mindfulness, a classic text that introduces the thinking and practice behind meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh lays out a thoughtful case for how the breath is connected to the mind, which controls the body. By actively watching one's breath, and evening it out, one can bring their entire being to what some call the still point. Written less floridly, you'll be focusing on just one very important thing, and teaching your mind how to engage one thing fully. Sounds like a skill your boss would really value, no?
From early in the book, Nhat Hanh writes:
The instant you sit down to meditate, begin watching your breath. At first breathe normally, gradually letting your breathing slow down until it is quiet, even, and the lengths of the breaths are fairly long. From the moment you sit down to the moment your breathing has become deep and silent, be conscious of everything that is happening in yourself.
For some of us, that's easier said then done. You start focusing on your breath, and after a brief victory, in comes the growing wave — oh shoot what about getting cash out for lunch I totally forgot to tell Dan that I'd be late wonder if Susan replied to my email. Hanh offers the simple, straight-ahead counter:
If (following the breath) seems hard at first, you can substitute the method of counting your breath. As you breathe in, count 1 in your mind, and as you breathe out, count 1. Breathe in, count 2. Breathe out, count 2. Continue through 10, then return to 1 again. This counting is like a string which attaches your mindfulness to your breath. This exercise is the beginning point in the process of becoming continuously conscious of your breath. Without mindfulness, however, you will quickly lose count. When the count is lost, simply return to 1 and keep trying until you can keep the count correctly.
Hanh goes on to suggest that controlling the breath is useful in many situations beyond the quiet moments of meditation. I've found it helpful in the moments before having to do any kind of public speaking, when feeling overwhelmed at the sheer number of RSS items to read through on a Monday morning, and whenever I can catch my brain trying to seek my opinion or action on 12 different matters at once. The concept of "mindfulness" is also discussed at length in Hanh's book, and it's very related, but it requires a lot more space and different consideration.
Mantras, Guided Meditation and Other Practice
HowStuffWorks provides a great overview of getting started with meditation, including a shorter summary of following breath and some pointers toward other techniques:
Seek inspiration: If you are inspired by Eastern spiritual traditions, you might reflect upon an image or icon of the Buddha. You can also use a flower, crystal, or other object that has meaning for you. Lightly allow your attention to sit there, quietly and peacefully.
Recite a mantra: A mantra literally means "that which protects the mind." So reciting a mantra protects you with spiritual power. It is also said that when you chant a mantra, you are charging your breath and energy with the energy of the mantra. Again, choose something with meaning for you within your spiritual tradition: recite the Rosary, for example. Tibetan Buddhists use a mantra for peace, healing, transformation and healing.
Do a Guided Meditation: Guided meditation is akin to guided imagery, a powerful technique that focuses and directs the imagination toward a conscious goal. (Think of a diver imagining a "perfect dive" before he leaves the platform.)
Photo by Theresa in MS.
You'll find a lot of guided meditations, mantra suggestions and other resources, both free and for sale, around the web. Stick to the freely offered tools, as they tend to be more authentic and less confusing in intent, given the nature of those practising mindfulness.
Zencast.org, previously mentioned in a post about a podcast introduction to basic meditation and mindfulness, offers a wealth of meditation instruction for all levels, and it's generally provided with a mind toward all faiths and traditions.
Of particular interest to the Lifehacker set might be Zencast's meditation timers and reminders. The first set is a collection of Flash-based and download-able audio files that help you time your meditation sessions. The second is a collection of Windows, Mac and iPhone software that, basically, rings a bell or other sound on a regular basis, to remind you to bring your focus back to one thing — to collect your thoughts, if they've scattered. There are, most likely, many other tools for computer workers that can replicate this simple attention exercise.
For examples of specific meditation techniques put into practice, check out Ryan Irelan's "Blue Energy" technique to beat insomnia, or a 10-minute dark room meditation technique that's ideal for office lunch or coffee breaks.
All of these meditation techniques are just that, of course — techniques. They don't guarantee you'll achieve a peace of mind that strengthens your focus and resolve, but simply help you try and get there.
That's our layman's introduction to something we're still working on understanding ourselves. If you know of a great resource that helped you learn to meditate or offered a few tips on technique, we'll certainly take them if you'll drop them in the comments.