We have all experienced the benefits of peaceful and meditative moments at some point in our lives, whether we were aware of them at the time or not. Perhaps when walking along the beach, completely absorbed in the moment. No thoughts of the past, no plans for the future. Making no distinctions, judgments, or comparisons in the mind, just feeling at one with our surroundings. At one with the sand, the waves, the sea breeze, the universe. Completely at peace, totally absorbed and focused in the moment. Allowing ourselves just to be.
While this may be a fleeting and random occurrence, it need not be if we choose to make meditation a part of our daily lives. The practice of meditation has been utilized for thousands of years, and it is neither complex nor associated with any particular religion or doctrine. It is available to people whatever their background or belief structure, and requires no conversion or abandonment of a present spiritual orientation. It goes by many different names, including the relaxation response, centering, transcendental meditation (TM), and the calm technique, to name a few. Meditation can enable you to experience the deep reservoir of peace within you, no matter where you are, whether at the beach or in your home. Once you become familiar with it, you can gain the benefits wherever you happen to be.
The practice of meditation is the culmination of a process, which involves two preliminary steps:
Once the mind is completely still and focused, the meditation process is fully engaged and its benefits are forthcoming. The mind is no longer responding to external stimuli, and has gone beyond its erratic state of skipping from one image, thought, or idea to another. The mind becomes completely focused on the object of concentration.
When in a meditative state, a sense of profound peace is experienced, and medical researchers have found correspondingly positive physiological changes to occure.
These benefits include:
In addition to these physiological responses, people who meditate regularly report feeling a heightened awareness through focusing the mind, a greater sense of relaxation, and a breaking down of feelings of isolation. As Dr Dean Omish has shown in his landmark research, on reversing heart disease, people who feel isolated have three to five times the rate of mortality, not only from heart disease but from all causes of death, compared with those who have a greater sense of intimacy. Isolation can often lead to feelings of chronic stress and emotional pain. We can be isolated from others, from a higher force, from our bodies, from our feelings, and from our inner peace. Meditation is just one of the components of the HELP approach that will help us break down these walls of isolation as we learn to be more mindful and aware. Meditation can remove isolation by quieting the mind enough to experience an inner sense of peace and well being that is unifying in nature rather than divisive.
The subtle benefits of meditation may include:
As indicated in previous chapters, the mind is the primary agent in determining our overall well-being. The meditation process is one which allows us to channel the energy of the mind in a positive direction to facilitate the healing process. By disciplining the mind, we can reduce the mental and emotional disturbances and their accompanying physiological responses. This process will allow you to gain that control over the mind through regular practice with a spirit of dedication.
The mind is often compared to a wild horse or a drunken monkey. It races from one thing to the next, and is very difficult to discipline. Try a simple exercise of just closing your eyes for a few minutes and observing any thoughts or images that pass through the mind. When you have finished, open your eyes and record in your journal what happened.
Now attempt to focus the mind on a single object. Close your eyes and visualize a rose for a few minutes. When finished, open your eyes and answer the following questions in your journal:
It only takes a simple exercise such as this to understand the busy nature of the mind. Add to that our daily schedules and the bombardment of sense stimuli during the course of the day, and there is no question that greater control over the mind would not only benefit our physical health but have spillover effects in just about every area of our lives.
Our attention span will be increased and the tendency of the mind to get caught up in the events, words, and emotions that take place around us and leave us feeling unbalanced will be diminished through regular practice of meditation. A sense of greater control, and an ability to be involved in the world and yet have a sense of equanimity in witnessing the events of the mind come and go will allow us to reduce stress and improve the quality of our lives.
How do you feel when you wake up in the morning? The alarm goes off, you get out of bed and go through your morning routine. What thoughts and ideas are going through your mind? Doing the practice of meditation first thing in the morning after fully waking up is an excellent way to start the day with a clear mind, and to develop and deepen the sense of balance. All of us awake and are conditioned by factors in our subconscious and conscious mind, including patterns of behaviour that may have been ingrained since our childhood. The meditation process will alert us to this conditioning through enabling us to witness the mental activity, and then to go beyond it.
It is essential to practice meditation regularly in order to gain the physical benefits of a reduction in stress levels and the psychological benefits of greater focus and awareness, with feelings of profound peace and relaxation. All the other components of HELP will benefit from meditation, becoming easier to implement and more effective. Through greater mental concentration and awareness, you will be able to reduce patterns of behaviour and reflex actions that may have been detrimental to your overall health, while developing the discipline to substitute the health-promoting techniques of HELP.
Take a moment now to reflect on this basic introduction to meditation and how it can benefit you. Try to understand it fully before proceeding further, and be able to explain why it is important in your overall quality of life. Then think about your current lifestyle and the degree to which the benefits of meditation may enhance your life, whether in your relationships, work, personal health, spiritual development, leisure time, personality issues, conflict resolution, or ability to assist others around you. To what degree could you gain the benefits of the meditation process in any of your other daily activities? Once you have considered this, proceed to the next stage, which will allow you to put this information into action.
Preparing for meditation is extremely important, as it will set the tone for all that follows. While we have covered a number of the benefits of meditation, it is best to begin by having no expectations whatsoever, as these will color your mind and will have to be released before any progress can be made.
Approach the meditation process in a state of mental neutrality with no fixed agenda of what you desire to happen. By beginning with a commitment to the practice but no anticipated experiences, the mind will be able to proceed through the first two stages-sense withdrawal and concentration-without the obstacles of comparisons and distractions of what is “supposed” to happen.
While you should not become attached to the perfect environment for meditation or any physical objects necessary for you to be able to meditate, if you have a choice, there are ideal surroundings and items, which will facilitate the meditation process. For some people these are not possible or even necessary, and you should not let their absence in any way deter you from meditating.
The best times to meditate are after you wake up in the morning and before you get tired in the evening. The very early morning hours are ideal, and try to do your meditation in the peace and quiet of this part of the day. If you are still sleepy, you may want to splash some cold water on your face, have a shower, or do some stretching and yoga postures to awaken the system. Do not eat before meditation, and in the evening always allow a few hours for your dinner to digest before meditating. It is best to meditate twice a day, and if you start and end your day with meditation, you will establish a very peaceful routine to live by.
Make sure your clothing is clean, loose fitting, and comfortable when you meditate. You may choose to use certain clothes only for meditation, which are always available and will cause no discomfort or distraction.
One of the most important preparations for meditation is your posture. Meditation is available to everyone regardless of their physical flexibility, and can be practiced using any number of different aids to assist you in achieving a position that is both steady and relaxed. You do not have to sit cross-legged on the floor for long periods of time.
The key things to be aware of with your posture are:
Whether you prefer to sit in a straight-backed chair with your feet on the floor, or cross-legged on the floor, these five guidelines regarding posture apply.
Some people find that it is difficult to keep the spine straight unless sitting in a chair or sitting on the floor with their back up against the wall. Both of these aids are fine. Others prefer to sit on a kneeling stool with their legs tucked underneath the stool, or, if on the floor, to have their buttocks slightly raised by sitting on cushions. Do experiment with a variety of positions at first. Find one that meets the basic requirement of a steady comfortable position, which allows you to adhere to the five guidelines. Remember, you want to be able to go beyond your awareness of the physical body, so do not choose a difficult posture that will leave you focusing on tensions in the body during your meditation time. However, we do not recommend lying down on your back, as the tendency in this position is for the mind to begin to wander and lose its focus.
There are several benefits of keeping the spine erect and the head, neck, and trunk in a straight line. It is virtually impossible to succumb to the temptation to fall asleep if this posture is maintained, and the erect spine will help you to remain alert and focus the mental energies on the technique of concentration. As soon as the mind begins to wander or drift off, you may notice that your posture is not as straight as it could be, and that is the time to correct it.
The importance of keeping the chest area open with the shoulders back cannot be stressed enough. The key is to have the chest spread out so that the breath can flow deeply and smoothly in and out of the body. We often hear people say that when we are angry we should take three deep breaths before saying or doing anything, as a way of centering ourselves and calming down. In meditation, the breath is able to become smooth flowing and the rate of respiration is able to decrease as a result of our relaxed state. It is important therefore to allow the chest to expand fully and to avoid the collapsing of the shoulders forward which would restrict the flow of breath.
For many, this posture may seem slightly uncomfortable at first, due to a usual tendency to slouch forward and not have the head, neck, and trunk in a straight line. Do not force too much discomfort onto yourself at once; be gradual, as it is important not to feel stiff in working toward this posture. Eventually the position should be comfortable and allow the body to relax while keeping the mind alert. Work on improving the posture but not in a way that leaves you feeling stiff and distracted. Allow the hands and the arms to relax on the knees or the thighs, wherever is comfortable. Once you have achieved a steady posture, make a firm resolve that you will not move until the end of meditation. If the posture is constantly moving, so is the mind.
The first stages of the meditation process are really techniques of concentrating the mind. Once the mind is concentrated on one point, even the object of concentration will disappear, and the mind will then be in the meditative state. This might take place for just a fraction of a second. However, through regular practice, the meditative state will expand as you gain control of the modifications of the mind.
There are a variety of options to choose from when selecting a technique of concentration for the mind. They will be considered later. For now, we will look at a key component, which is common to all the techniques of concentration: dealing with distractions. First, external distractions (sounds, smells, and so on); and then, internal distractions (thoughts, images, and so on).
Suppose you are waiting in a room by yourself to see someone who is busy at the moment. As you sit in the silence you hear a loud ticking noise from the clock mounted on the waiting-room wall. The ticking of the clock is disconcerting to the point of being annoying. All of a sudden someone you know enters the room and sits down beside you. You begin a conversation. Twenty minutes pass and the person leaves. Sitting alone once again, after reflecting on what was said in the conversation, you become aware of that terrible ticking sound again. It’s not that the clock stopped ticking while your friend was present, or your voices drowned it out, because even when your friend left and you were mulling over the conversation you did not hear the clock. What happened was that your concentration was focused elsewhere, and even though your ears were picking up the sound of the clock, your mind was filtering out that input as irrelevant at the time.
We are constantly letting go of sensory inputs to the mind that will distract us from the task at hand and prevent us from concentrating on what we have put our minds to. It is the ability to do this consciously, which is the aim of concentration.
When choosing one of the following techniques, remember that the goal is to withdraw your awareness from sensory inputs flowing into the mind, whether they be sounds, smells, or physical sensations. Your mind should ideally become absorbed in your object of concentration to the exclusion of these inputs. Once you have found a technique of concentration that seems to work for you, stick with it. By constantly changing from one technique to another you will not be able to deepen your practice. If you have difficulty leaving the sensory input out of your awareness, begin your practice with a mental inventory of all the senses you are aware of. For example, identify whatever sounds come into your awareness, let them go, and move onto the next. When the mind has settled somewhat, focus your awareness on your technique of concentration.
The next set of obstacles to overcome, after you have moved, to some extent, beyond the senses, is the distracting thoughts, images, and ideas that flow through the mind. These may include memories of the past, concerns about the future, doubts, fears, unfinished business, thoughts of what else you could be doing at that moment, and so on. Do not expect the mind to rest peacefully-it is always a challenge to gain mastery over the mind and make it one-pointed.
There are many ways to deal with distracting thoughts. The first is just to ignore them. Thoughts can be transitory in nature, and as quickly as they come they will also go, if you do not dwell on them. Just return to your object of concentration. If ignoring the thoughts is not successful, there are other ways to handle them.
Acknowledge the distractions and then just let them go. See these distracting thoughts or feelings as leaves falling from a tree and landing in a flowing stream. Always return your awareness to the stream and let the current of the stream carry the leaves away, just let them go. The leaves just flow out of the mind, without getting trapped in it. The stream is always flowing; let it carry any debris of the mind away.
Do not get discouraged by the distractions coming into the mind. When you are focusing your awareness within, it is common for thoughts, images, anxieties, and worries to emerge. Quieting the mind makes you more aware of thoughts that are already there but have gone unnoticed because of your external focus.
Another way to deal with distracting thoughts that still persist is to make a deal with them, as if you were drawing up a contract with the mind-the agreement being that the thoughts leave you alone during the meditation session, and in return you promise to address them as soon as you have finished. Thus you are acknowledging the thoughts and reassuring the mind that you will attend to these things later, but in the meantime you are getting on with your practice.
Some meditators choose to analyze distractions for a few moments as a way of calming the mind. Ask the thoughts why they are coming up now. Let them know that your focus is elsewhere at this time, and ask them why it is so urgent that they be attended to now.
If all else fails in your strategy of dealing with distractions, you may choose to surrender to a particular distraction with awareness. Let that distraction know that it has won, and you will now shift your attention to it. Once you have given in, usually the distraction will disappear and you can return once again to your object of concentration. Remember never to lose your peace over intruding thoughts; that will create two problems out of the one.
In summary, the techniques for dealing with distractions are to:
Know that your periods of meditation will be challenged but, through your commitment and spirit of adventure, even particularly distracting sessions will pass if you persevere, and this will allow you to experience deep inner peace. If you know other people who meditate, you may find it helpful to meditate in a room with them. This may help you to remain regular in your practice and committed. Group dynamics can be beneficial for all components of HELP, as we all can use a bit of help from our friends.
There are many techniques to choose from in developing your practice of meditation. Despite what any person or organization may say, there is no technique that is better than any other, although you will probably find one that works best for you. The technique is a tool to help steady and focus the mind. Your full attention upon the object you have chosen is the key, not the object itself. Experiment with the techniques given below, find the one that you feel comfortable with, and remember to stick with the one you have chosen.
There is a variety of techniques to choose from including gentle gazing, breath awareness, and focusing on a sound.
In Integral Yoga, the practice of gentle gazing is also called tradak, and involves focusing on any object or symbol that will allow your mind to become focused upon it. Begin by determining where and how you will be sitting. Then place the object or symbol that you will be concentrating on at eye level. This object may be a flower, candle, religious symbol, picture, or anything you choose that will not serve to remind you of your daily activities. Obviously, if it is an uplifting symbol or object that you hold sacred, all the better. But remember, the object of concentration is a tool to help still and focus the mind, and then to be transcended once the mind is fully concentrated upon it.
Now relax the neck, and move the head slowly from side to side to release any tension. Have the head, neck, and trunk in alignment, with the shoulders back but not tense. Gaze in the general direction of the object you have chosen but do not strain the eyes. Remember not to stare at the object but just gently gaze in its direction. If you find your eyes are becoming tired, close them and visualize the object in your mind as you re-create it. When the image fades, open your eyes once again and resume the gentle gazing. Repeat this process, noticing over time that the fleeting images you see at first when the eyes are closed are replaced by a steady image once the powers of concentration are developed. After a time you will go beyond the image of the object, even if just for a moment, and still have the mind completely absorbed and one-pointed in a meditative state. Do not be in a hurry, and use the techniques listed previously to deal with any distractions that may arise.
When finishing the gentle gazing, close your eyes and use the following technique to allow them to relax fully. Rub the palms of your hands together briskly, building up a heat between them. Once you feel this heat, cup the palms over the eyes, and let the warmth and darkness soothe and relax the eyes. Once the warmth subsides, stroke the fingertips across the eyelids a few times, and then relax the hands and open the eyes when ready.
When practicing gentle gazing, never strain the eyes, and gradually build up the time you do this practice. Once your powers of concentration are developed, you will no longer need an object to gaze at, as it will become part of your powers of visualization.
A second approach to concentrating the mind is to focus on breathing. This practice is strongly recommended, as the breath is always with us, and it is a very good indicator of our mental state. By focusing on each breath we can keep our mind in the present moment; as soon as we lose track of our breathing, we can be sure the mind has become preoccupied in areas other than the present moment. Take a moment right now to close your eyes and just follow your breathing for 20 seconds.
The simplicity of this technique is deceiving as it is often just a very short time before the mind begins to wander away from the breathing. You may drift off into thoughts of the past or future. You may be asking yourself why a grown person is sitting with their eyes closed observing the breath, and thinking about all the other things you could be doing with this time. You may become aware of a pain or itch in the body, or any of a thousand other distractions vying for your awareness. Use the tools listed above to help you let go of these distractions and return to the breathing.
Close your eyes and become aware of your posture. Begin by breathing deeply. Slow and deep inhalations and exhalations. The mind is following the breath. Forget the outside world and focus exclusively on the breathing. At this stage do not try to control or influence the breath; just let it flow naturally and observe as it enters and leaves the body. You may wish to focus on a particular aspect of the breathing now. Perhaps the observation of the abdomen rising and falling as airflows in and out of the body. Repeat to yourself, “rising”, “falling”, “rising”, “falling” with each breath. Or you may choose to bring the awareness to the nose and observe the air as it enters and leaves the nostrils. Becoming aware of the temperature of the breath, as it enters the nose in a cool state and leaves in a warmer state, is yet another tool of breath awareness.
If you still find that you are encountering difficulties keeping the awareness focused on the breathing, you may choose mentally to count your breaths. By keeping count, we must concentrate on each breath, which again helps to keep us in the moment. After the first exhalation count “one”. The next time you exhale, count “two”, and continue up to four. After your fourth exhalation, begin again with one, continuing up to four. When you lose track of the count or count beyond four, it is a clear sign that the awareness has shifted away from breathing. Bring the focus back to the breath and start from “one” again. Over time your power of concentration will improve, so do not be critical. Just reaffirm your commitment. As with the mind, so with the body. Make a firm resolution to keep the body still.
A final technique of breath awareness is to tune into the sound of the breath. Close the eyes, check the posture, and observe the breath, allowing it to flow naturally. Now begin to listen to the sound of the breath. If you are careful, you can hear a sound with each inhalation and exhalation. The inhalation may sound like “so” and the exhalation may sound like “hum”. The sound may be difficult to hear at first but as your awareness deepens so will your attunement to it. “So” as the breath flows in, and “hum” as it flows out. Just stay with each breath and the sound. If the mind drifts away, gently bring it back to the breath. After practicing this technique for your allotted time, slowly let the sounds go and become aware of the breathing alone, and breathe a little deeper. Then slowly open your eyes when you are ready.
We are all aware of the power of sound and the qualities that different sounds promote, whether they be a soothing lullaby to help a child relax and drift off to sleep, or the theme song or chant of a sports team to get its supporters revved up. Sound has become a powerful tool in technology (such as sonar or ultrasound) in assisting both navigators and medical personnel. The power of sound can also be harnessed to assist us in the meditation process.
The key is to choose a sound that will help to focus and steady the mind. There is no one sound that is right for everyone, but focus and steadiness are two qualities that whatever sound you choose should promote. It can be a word that has a particularly relaxing effect on you, such as “peace”, “calming”, “love” or it may be a word or phrase from your religious or philosophical background, such as “amen”, “shalom”, “Hail Mary” or “Om Shanti”. The term mantra refers to a sound formula often given in yoga teachings as a way of steadying the mind, and it is a common meditation technique in many Eastern traditions.
Choose a word or phrase that works for you and, once you have found one that helps to keep the mind focused and steady, stick with it. The sound that you have chosen will over time become associated in your mind with the qualities of meditation, and will assist you greatly by cueing in the mind to the fact that it is time to calm down and focus the awareness on this sound or phrase.
Now close your eyes, check your posture and take in a few deep breaths. Allow the breath to flow naturally and begin to repeat the word, phrase, or sound. At you may wish to repeat this sound aloud, and then repeat it silently. If the mind begins to wander once you are repeating it silently, begin to repeat it aloud again. Always train the mind gently to return to the sound or phrase whenever it drifts away. Develop a tempo and tone that promote a feeling of calmness and are comfortable for you. You may wish to coordinate the repetition of the sound with the breathing to maintain a linkage with the breath. When concluding, bring the awareness to the breathing, deepen the breath and when ready slowly open the eyes.
Feel free to experiment with other techniques of concentration you may read about or be exposed to, but remember that once you find a technique that resonates with you, stick with it, even during difficult times of distraction. Beware of any person or organization who claims that their technique is the “only way” to experience the full benefits of meditation. There are as many different approaches to meditation as there are ways to prepare food. Some people like Italian cooking, others Greek, and so on. Choose the technique that you are attracted to, and generally keep it to yourself as there is no need to advertise it to anyone else. Always remember that the object or technique of concentration will dissolve when you are in deep meditation, so do not get caught up in one technique being better than another, by continually searching for the best or most powerful.
As mentioned earlier, it is suggested that you meditate twice a day, early in the morning and then in the evening. If you tend to have very late dinners, it is perhaps better to meditate before the evening meal, and likewise before breakfast. When choosing the length of time to meditate for, begin by meditating twice a day for 10 minutes at a time. If this seems easy to do, add to your practice in increments of 5 minutes at a time, practicing each increase for at least a week before expanding the time further.
The guiding rule with your daily meditation time is to be realistic. Select a length of time that you are confident you can do daily. It is far better to meditate twice a day for three minutes a session than once a week for a half-hour session. Regular practice on a daily basis is the key to your meditation. You can then slowly expand the duration of your sessions as you become more experienced.
Once you have chosen a period of time for each session and the time of day that works for you, make a commitment to it. Let nothing stand in the way. Excuses for skipping meditation will always be spilling forth from the mind as a way to resist the discipline of the practice. See the games that the mind plays as you develop that internal witness state, and then let them go, remaining faithful to your practice. However, if for some reason it is impossible for you to meditate on a given day, do not give yourself a difficult time for missing your practice. The whole idea of meditation is to assist you to calm and focus the mind, leading eventually to a state of profound peace to heal and repair body, mind, and spirit, which are all intimately connected. If you spend time chastising yourself for not doing your meditation, you will not be promoting this peace. Just make a renewed positive commitment to being regular in your practice. Know that by gaining control over the thought forms of the mind, you are no longer bound by them, and will then experience peace and joy, your true nature.
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