MeditationSeptember 2, 2011
I occasionally get asked how one goes about meditating, so I thought I’d write it down in case it’s useful for someone. First, understand that there’s no “correct” way to meditate. There are lots of approaches, and more than one possible goal that you might be trying to achieve. The style of meditation that I was taught is oriented towards mokuso, or clearing one’s mind before practice, but it works equally well when used as zazen, seated meditation for the purpose of calming, centering, and expanding the mind.
Before I get into details, I have to make a disclaimer. They say “the zen that can be spoken is not zen”, and it’s true. What that means is that a lot of this stuff is not amenable to verbal description – it’s hard to put a state of mind into words. I’ll do my best, but if it occasionally sounds like gibberish, I apologize.
The technique, as I was taught, is to sit in a centered position (more on that in a bit). Just that, and nothing more. That’s a whole hell of a lot harder than it sounds, however. You’re not sitting and thinking, not sitting and breathing (consciously), not trying to adjust your position so your back doesn’t hurt, and most specifically not worrying about whether you’re doing it correctly.
If you just try this, you won’t get very far. So, instead, there’s a series of steps you can go through in order to work up to “just sitting”. The idea is to give your mind something to focus on so that you don’t have to try to quiet it entirely. You can really use anything, but the classic technique is to concentrate on your breathing. The easy way to focus your mind on your breathing is to count breaths. Since you don’t want to “go anywhere” with this, you’re going to count one to ten and then start over. At first, you count both inhales and exhales, so (in) 1, (out) 2, (in) 3…
Eventually, as your mind quiets, you can try counting just the exhales. This is harder, because the numbers are farther apart, so there’s more time for your mind to wander off and do something else. Note that “eventually” here might mean months – this stuff takes time, and there’s no way to rush it. When the counting starts feeling like a distraction, stop, and just let your mind “hover”. Done correctly, it feels like you’re the still point in the middle of everything.
Inevitably, thoughts will arise in your mind. Don’t fight them, because this just makes you cling all the harder. You can get rid of the thoughts this way, but you can’t get rid of the thought “I shouldn’t be thinking”. Just let the thoughts drift away on their own. Pay attention to where they’re coming from, and where they’re going, but don’t try to hold on to them. See what I meant earlier about gibberish? It will make sense when it makes sense, and until then it won’t. Don’t worry about it.
Some technical details: first, the sitting position. The important thing is that your breathing is unimpeded. The classical position is the lotus, but most people (most definitely including me) aren’t flexible enough to reach that position. I personally sit in seiza to do my meditation, but since I find that I get distracted when my feet fall asleep, I put a buckwheat cushion under my butt to keep my weight off my ankles. They still fall asleep, but it takes longer. The “tailor-style” cross-legged position can work if you’re flexible enough that you don’t have to work to keep your back straight. Another option is the Burmese position – see http://www.mro.org/zmm/teachings/meditation.php for nice images (and also another set of instructions that might complement these). Finally, it’s possible to meditate in a chair, but it’s difficult to find a chair that won’t compress your diaphragm and hinder your breathing.
Most people will tell you to close your eyes while meditating. I was taught to meditate with my eyes open, and I find that it helps a great deal, especially for martial artists. The idea is that if you close your eyes, you tend to focus inward, and that’s not what we’re trying to achieve. As a martial artist, my goal is to be able to get to a state where I’m effortlessly aware of everything around me, and can spontaneously react (from my training) appropriately. That requires that I focus outwards, which in turn means my eyes must be open. Also, and more practically, there’s much less chance of falling asleep if you keep your eyes open.
Hopefully this will be of use to someone. If you want to practice meditation seriously, I strongly recommend that you find a teacher. There are many “false paths” that one can follow, and it’s possible to waste a lot of time working on something that won’t actually get you any farther down the Way. Good luck!
Coming soon…why to meditate.