Each of us arrives to the cushion with our own unique individual aspirations and reasons for wanting to meditate. Why d you practice meditation?
It is said that the Buddha only taught about two things: suffering and freedom from suffering. You may meditate to reduce the stress of your everyday life and cultivate more peace of mind. That’s creating freedom from suffering. Each of our flavors of suffering may be different, but in any case, our suffering often motivates our practice.
Daily meditation practice helps us relate more peacefully and compassionately with whatever is going on in our lives. The Buddha taught that much of our suffering comes from trying to escape reality. We are often struggling against the way things are. Meditation is a way of making contact with our immediate experience and befriending ourselves. We do this by training the mind in sustained attention–the ability to stay in the present moment, attentive to whatever is happening right now.
Be Here Now
The style of meditation that I teach is called Shamatha meditation. Shamatha is a Sanskrit word that means to abide peacefully. Peacefully abiding does not mean to feel peaceful all the time. It means to be at peace with our experience of ourselves in the present moment, no matter what the present moment holds. This means that you can peacefully abide through moments of anger, or irritation, or grief, or sadness, or excitement, or joy. Peacefully abiding does not mean to be free of thought and emotion, it means to be attentive and aware of what is happening moment to moment in our experience.
In Shamatha meditation, we train in staying present by resting our attention on the breath. One reason why is there is not a breath that you can breathe that is not a present moment breath. The breath is always happening in the present.
Sitting Like a Mountain
Our posture in meditation is extremely important. It doesn’t matter if we are sitting cross-legged or kneeling on the floor supported by a cushion or blanket, or if we are sitting in a chair with our feet on the floor. What matters most is that we take a posture that feels stable and that we sit with a long spine and an open heart. When we have postural stability and we allow our bodies to rest in stillness, that stillness becomes very supportive of attentional stability. Then we can more easily attend to the breath. Attending to the breath means feeling the experience of the breath coming in and going out.
As we sit in stillness and breathe, we will become aware of sounds, sensations, thoughts, and emotions arising in our experience. All of that is perfectly okay! When something arises in our experience, it does not need to be regarded as a distraction, but rather an invitation to notice what is happening now. Our task as meditators is to recognize what is happening in our experience without getting carried away by it. As soon as we recognize that our attention has moved away from the present moment, we simply acknowledge what has carried us away, and restore our attention in the feeling of the breath moving in and out of the body.
Cultivating stability in our physical meditation posture helps to cultivate stability of mind, the ability to repeatedly return our attention to the breath. Commitment to our daily practice further fosters stability because when we meditate a little bit every day, we are able to meet our daily lives with a more stable response.
- Breath – Focus the attention on a specific place in the body where we feel the breath most easily. This could be at the nose where we feel the breath moving in and out through the nostrils, or in the rising and falling sensations of the lungs, or in the more subtle movements of the belly. Having a physical place to return to can be very helpful in cultivating attentional stability. When the mind wanders, no problem! It doesn’t matter how many times our attention wanders, the only thing that really matters is that when we notice we’re distracted, we come back.
- Hands – Another way to cultivate stability is the placement of the hands. Placing the hands palms down on the thighs is called Resting the Mind mudra. It can help us to feel a little more grounded and stable.
- Gaze – Keeping the eyes open and resting the eye gaze a few feet out in front can also be very helpful in staying anchored in the present moment. It’s much easier to drift off when the eyes are closed.
Make a Commitment to Yourself
I hope you are able to make a commitment to yourself to begin to practice a little each day. The greatest benefit comes when we practice a little bit every day over an extended period of time. It is extraordinarily helpful to choose a particular place in which to practice, to practice at about the same time every day, and to decide clearly how long you intend to practice for each day. Whether it is 5 minutes a day or 50, time spent on the cushion is time well spent! Arguably, it is the most important thing you could do with your time. Cultivating an everyday meditation practice requires a commitment, otherwise we become easily distracted by the busy-ness of our lives.
Keep it Simple
You might consider keeping a meditation journal this week, writing down the day and time, and duration of your meditation. You may include notes about what is working in your practice, what is challenging, and insights or questions that arise as a result of your practice. However, you may keep it as simple as writing down the basic details of your practice. It shouldn’t take more than a minute to do so, and it will help you begin to cultivate discipline and structure around your practice and help you track your commitments.