Month: March 2012

How to Meditate: a Few Notes for the Beginner

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Shortly after people started doing yoga with me, they want to know when will I teach them meditation. And great is their surprise when I usually tell them that they are already busy learning meditation since the very first class. Yoga in its very nature is a meditation of the body and once the body and nerves have sufficiently been calmed and prepared by a regular yoga asana practice, then only can I start to teach meditation. This process in the West takes anything from about 6-8 months.

 As Westerners, we need to understand that our bodies and nervous system is condition to our very active and rajastic lifestyle, work and play environment. Another problem initially is our bodies itself, as we are not used to sit cross-leg for long periods of time, within five minutes of an untrained body the body will become restless, legs will start to itch and needles and pins will develop, this is all signs that your body needs more yoga asana and that your nervous system is still too excitable to sit for meditation. As I live in South Africa, many white people doing yoga with me have the typical large Germanic bone structure and many of the Africans have also a large structure, which makes sitting in meditation that more challenging. Back issues, poor core strength and very inflexible hips makes the sitting worse for many.

 It is my experience that a person who starts with meditation in an unconditioned body don’t persist with the practice, while a person who has sufficiently being prepared through an asana practice is much more persistent and successful in the long-term with their meditation practice.

 This meditation article addresses the techniques to lead you to meditation and how to choose your own daily meditation practices.

Meditation: Practice the Art of mindfulness

“Calmness is the ideal state in which we should receive all life’s experiences,” writes Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship, in the book Inner Peace. Yogananda is regarded as one of the great spiritual teachers melding East and West. Through meditation, he writes, one can cultivate a wonderful inner quiet that will melt away stress and nervousness.

To meditate, you need to break away for a brief moment from your everyday schedule and life. Start by switching off your cellphone, unplug your landline, shutdown your computer, ask your family to allow you some time on your own and ask them not to interrupt you. In other words you need to ensure that you won’t be interrupted during this time.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Where Should I Meditate? You may wish to set aside a special corner of one room, your own private sanctuary, a calm, quiet and peaceful place. You might furnish the area with objects or icons that have spiritual meaning for you, developing a little altar or shrine. Use what will put you into a contemplative frame of mind. You may want to enlist the help of Mother Nature by bringing a lovely rose with a beautiful fragrance or spend time at the ocean listening to the surf crashing upon the rocks in you live near the sea, or for me a peaceful walk barefoot through my own garden puts me immediately in the right frame, or stand near a stream with water, a waterfall or even a water feature in your garden, anything that you know that will calm you down will be appropriate.  
  • How Should I Sit When I Meditate? The classic posture is to sit with legs folded and hands resting quietly on the lap or the knees. And I would suggest that you make yourself as comfortable as possible in this position. Use more cushions under the tailbone to give your pelvis a tilt and a more comfortable position, the key is to find a way of sitting that is comfortable for you. I do not recommend laying flat on your back as this position reminds the body of sleeping and this usually happens very quickly.  
  • Should My Eyes Be Open or Closed? I recommend closing the eyes, especially if you are new to meditation, this way you withdraw a key sense from the outside world and it already becomes so much easier to still the mind if there is one less sense that stimulates it. Also keep the face “soft” by relaxing all the facial muscles, drop the jaw slightly and these simple steps should already make it easier for you to become more relaxed and mindful.
  • How Long Should I Meditate? There is no fixed time frame. Initially I recommend a sitting of just five minutes for about three months just to condition the body and then a gradual increase over time. The secret is to listen to your body, over time it will tell you how long it will and want to sit. Another big issue is how much time do you have? If you have only about ten minutes say in the morning, then you sit in meditation for only ten minutes. Flow with your own time is key for me. As Sogyal Rinpoche writes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: “your practice should bring you bring you to a certain state of mindfulness and presence, where you are a little open and able to connect with your heart essence.”  To begin, try short sessions; then break for one minute. “It’s often during the break that meditation actually happens!” writes Rinpoche. It may also be useful to get into the habit of setting aside the same times every day, be they for prayer or meditation. David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and author, recommends rising 15 minutes earlier than usual to give your day a “contemplative dimension.” Without these precious moments, he says, “your whole day can slip away into a mad chase,” but with them your entire day can be imbued with meaning and joy.
  • Other considerations: Add ritual to your meditation, ritual creates familiarity for the mind and it relaxes the mind. Do things such as lighting a candle, put a flower on your altar and burn some incense. Avoid modern mixtures such a vanilla, cinnamon and strong fragrances such as rose. Start with either sandalwood or frankincense, it is said that they aid meditation and relax the mind and body. Create some ritual for yourself. After I have lit my candle and incense, I immediately go to my seat, sit and then peacefully I offer myself and my day to the Divine, then I start with a few breathing exercises and usually after the breathing slipping into the mindful state is much more easier. To end your meditation say a peace prayer or the Universal Prayer or some prayer that you like. Then add some ritual again by putting out your candle and incense if it is still burning.

Four Basic Ways to Practice Meditation

  1. Follow your breath: This is the most universal of all mindfulness techniques. First, exhale strongly a few times to clear the base of the lungs of carbon dioxide. It is helpful to review the technique for following the deep breathing method of imagining a lotus blossom residing in your lower abdomen; as the breath fills the belly, the petals of the blossom expand; as you exhale, the petals close back up. Slowly and gradually as the mind relax, let go of the conscious breathing and allow it to just happen as the mind become still and contemplative. The moment the mind wanders off, worrying about problems, start to consciously breath again and repeat until the mind learn to let go and relax.
  2. Observe an icon or object: Allow your mind to rest lightly on an object. If you come from the Christian tradition, this might be an image of Christ, the Virgin Mary or the Holy Spirit. Images of the Eastern gods and goddesses may also help you or a statue of the Buddha may be the object of you focus or even a candle flame. Again, focus with the eyes open on the image, as the image become etched in your vision slowly close the eyes and keep that image in your mind’s eye as long as possible, the moment the image disappear and the mind starts to wander, open the eyes and concentrate again on the image, repeating this process until the mind can relax and keep the image.
  3. 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 that particular 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. “Recite the mantra quietly, with deep attention, and let your breath, the mantra and your awareness become slowly one,” writes Rinpoche.
  4. Do a Guided Meditation: Guided meditation is akin to guided imagery, a powerful technique that focuses and directs the imagination toward a conscious goal. However, for this meditation you either need somebody to instruct you on what next to imagine or you need a CD with guided meditations.   

Is It Really Meditation?

The techniques described here are meditation practices rather than meditation itself, which is often described by experienced practitioners as “a state of being — a state of receptivity without expectation, a merging with the Divine.” All of the techniques are practice to get to this final merged state.

Therefore, meditation practice is not meditation. One might practice meditation for years to achieve a meditative state of being. An experienced meditator might meditate for an hour to achieve a few moments of meditative consciousness.

The Benefits of Meditation Are Subtle

While you may not feel flashes of insight when practicing meditation, its effects will become apparent to you later, when you may notice that you responded to a crisis with uncharacteristic calmness, or failed to get “triggered” in a situation that would normally disturb you. Trust in the process, let go of your expectations of achieving “results” (after all, meditation is not a contest), and you will reap the results.

The real miracle of meditation, says Rinpoche, is a subtle transformation that happens not only in your mind and your emotions but also in your body. And, this transformation is a healing one. “Even your cells are more joyful.”