Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight, the crown of your head ‘pulled upwards’ and your chin turned in a little towards your chest. If you feel any pain in the knees or in the back, sit a little bit higher on a cushion. It is of essential importance that you can relax deeper and deeper, and potentially even fall asleep while sitting. If this is not the case, choose to sit in a chair or to lie down on your back.
During the meditation, try to concentrate on the physical, bare, sensations of the breath. When you are new to meditation, focus on the area around the belly, sucking air in, pushing air out. Try to breathe into the belly, here are the most veins that take up oxygen and helps the parasympathetic nervous system to calm you down. In time, when you have developed a somewhat better concentration you can move to the sensations around the nostrils. The sensations here are harder to detect and thus you need to pay more attention. Keep in mind that everything else other than the bare sensations is a distraction. Feeling good? Go back to the sensation of the breath. Having a good thought? Go back. Making sounds on the rhythm of the breath? Then you are masking the true sensations of the moment, try to find how it actually feels so go back. You might want explicitly note every time you get distracted. So if you notice you are not on the breath anymore, label the moment ’distraction’ and move your attention back to the object of meditation. Keep in mind, every time you notice you lost the object, you are making progress!
Start with 5 minutes twice a day. Move up once you feel like you could and wanted to do more. This can already happen after the first session. Move up to 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 minutes twice a day.
When you are around the 10 minute mark you probably noticed already the crazy habitual stream of thoughts. It is NOT the goal to get rid of these, just being aware of them and what their effect is on your state of mind is enough. Their pull will lessen over time. However, every time you get distracted from the breath, it means you didn’t notice the pull of the first thought that started another whole train of thoughts. You can ask yourself, why exactly that thought, that moment?
The more you meditate, the more you will notice that thoughts are just clouds passing by in the mind space. But some thoughts still attract your whole attention. These are the ones that you desire, or, in other words, the ones that distract you from what is really happening in your body, on the sensational level. These are the fantasies or worries that pre-occupy your existence because you don’t want to see what lies beneath.
When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick. Every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.
The instruction here is to relax into your body on every outbreath, letting go, and focusing more intensely on the bare sensations on every inbreath. This creates a rhythm, a tendency, that actually resembles a kind of courage to face old neurosis and traumas. Thoughts will still be there, but they will become powerless. They will show their true face, not the commander of the human passions, but the slave that works for the passions.
The next step is to go deep into the sensations. At the start of an inbreath, the sensations are barely noticeable. At one point, where the speed of inhalation is the highest, the tingling around the nostrils is the most intense. And at the end, when the lungs are quite full already the sensations slowly disappear. When they are hard to distinguish from other stimuli around you, try to go deeper. Zoom in. Can you feel a little more before they disappear? Is it really one sensation, or are there many small ones? Investigate and keep your eyes on the ball. Go back to the breath when distracted.
The more you meditate the more you find old layers of tension popping up in your awareness. Places where anxiety rests. These are the places that stress up when you are in a situation that seems hostile to you. This could be all the time (chronic tension). The most common ones are the areas around the neck and shoulder, chest and groin. When you notice this, try to be mindful during the day. Just being aware of it and when possible, try to relax the tension.
When you go deeper into these areas, you might get distracted much quicker than when concentrating on the sensations of the breath. This is because your defense mechanisms house there. You don’t like being aware of it, it feels like suffering. You would rather be un-conscious of them. This is true every time you are completely into your thought stream and not in your body. Thoughts can not feel suffering but your body can. And if your body get’s too in-tense, we run into our own fabricated house of symbols. Remember that most people go through life, day in day out, without a fundamental trusting connection with their body. Be compassionate, be caring. Being scared and hurt can show itself in many ways. (anger, arrogance, pride, revenge, anxiety etc). Don’t forget to include yourself into the circle of compassion.
If after a few months of being mindful of these problem areas you still can’t relax into them fully, then you could try to add yoga, tai chi, chi qong or dancing to your practice. It opens up the tension, it is a really powerful tool that is probably very uncomfortable for many. But, once the old knots disappear, you feel lifted, the world seems lighter and a more happy place.
At one point you will experience what is sometimes called access concentration. This is the point where nothing will distract you from the object of the breath. Thoughts still appear but they are in the background, just like the sensation of your legs while sitting right now. They simply inform instead of screaming for attention. At this point, which should be easy doable in 1-2 months of 20 minutes of meditation twice a day, you can choose to go three different, albeit overlapping, ways.
1. Develop Deeper Concentration
Continue focusing on the breath. Keep zooming in more and more. The breath is a great tool because the more you relax, the harder it is to detect the sensations. So the difficulty level goes up over time and so keeps challenging your limits. Deeper concentration, being less prone to distraction, will benefit your overall well-being and other spiritual practices immensely.
At one point you can switch the object from the breath to the space of the mind. Here are where the small distractions lie that normally go unnoticed. The ones that pull you a little bit away from your moment to moment experience (because the mind doesn’t want to, I will elaborate a little bit on this later on). The object is the mind is everything that arises in the mind, and nothing else. Treat everything else, sounds, bodily sensations, pain etc. as distraction. In the beginning it is very hard to distinguish this area from the more tangible sensations. To make this a bit easier you can question yourself; what is the mind? Where does this question come from? Where is it located? Just relax and see what answers pops up! For a great overview what is possible and how far the mind can train itself read The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind.
2. Entering Jhana
Jhanas are the blissfull altered states of mind one can enter during meditation. Jhana is also called ‘absorption’ or ‘ecstasy’. And that is exactly how it feels. During jhanas you are so completely absorbed into the object of meditation that all distinctions between the observer and the observed will cease to exist. It can give you great insight into reality and give a profound sense of bliss and joy. There are eight jhanas but I will only elaborate on how to enter the first one. For more information you can check out this wonderful book Focused and Fearless: A Meditator’s Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm, and Clarity or this online free PDF.
When you entered access concentration and your body is as calm as can be, the places where you normally hold tension are now relaxed and thoughts are just whispers in the distance you can decide to enter the first jhana. Slowly, without getting distracted, move your attention from the breath to a pleasant sensation. Most common areas are the hands, the chest or the breath itself. Focus on the pleasantness of the sensation. It is of utmost importance to not get distracted. Don’t think to yourself how pleasant it is or if this is the right spot because it is very easy to lose access concentration. When you focus on something pleasant it is very likely it will cost you less effort. In this way, you can, as it were, slide into the absorptive state. It might start out small, but it can grow to infinity in a non-linear way. In the buddhist scriptures it has been said that jhana’s act as a fire that can burn away mental defilements. Just keep in mind not to get attached to these blissful sensations!
3. Investigate The Three Marks of Existence
The three marks of existence are experiential truths you can investigate to liberate yourself from suffering. Meditation is a tool to become skillful enough in this investigation that you can understand and face reality as it really is, at any given moment. Once you entered access concentration you can take any given phenomenon arising in your experiential field and find these three marks.
Anicca: Impermanence. Everything sensory experience changes from moment to moment. There is no fixed substance anywhere. Everything is transitory. This is one of the easiest marks to grasp. Every sensation consists of thousand other sensations which in turn also consists of a thousand others. Some are slow, some are fast, but they never last.
To investigate this, find an object, any part of now you like, and see if you can find something that is not changing. If you find anything, take that as an object and investigate deeper. Even the worst pains and the highest joys don’t last forever and neither does the mental projection of an observer.
Dukkha: This is often translated as suffering but a better term is un-satisfactoriness. Since all phenomena are in a constant state of flux, there is nothing you can hold on, nothing you can control, nothing you can keep safe. But our desire is to get happy, and once we have happiness, to keep it. Yet this is impossible.
To investigate this, take any object and explore the anicca part of it and see what the mind does. It tries to hold the pleasant states or reject the unpleasant states. If it has something it likes, it wants more of it or wants to try to secure it. It is something we constantly do, something we can’t even imagine we can do without. If we can let go of this continuous grasping, just like the tension I mentioned earlier, we get uplifted immediately. It takes some bravery and courage to investigate this, but it will also develop the strength needed to confront any issues you might have in life.
Anatta: Non self. There is no observer that observes. There is no thinker of thoughts, not hearer of sounds. If you entered a jhana you understand that at that point, the observer and the observed are one. But this goes for every single phenomena in our experience. At one point, there is just the breath, or just the hands, or just the ongoing stream of thoughts in our mind space. (Watch out! It is very easy to identify yourself with the one who has the thoughts, but remember, this ‘observer’ just arises and passes away too, it is just a mental construct designed to make something permanent).
If you made it this far, I want to thank you for reading my words. You clearly have an interest in meditation and I honestly believe it is one of most beautiful gifts we can give ourselves and others. every time you take a moment to sit, you show the world how courageous you are and that you are not afraid to take the whole universe into your comfort zone.
For those that show an interest in meditation but never really found a way to start or keep a daily practice. I know you can do it. Yes, it’s hard, it’s not always fun and it takes time. Sometimes you aren’t even sure why you are doing it at all. But isn’t this true for everything worth in life? There is great source of joy and strength to be discovered, all it takes is a little discipline. It is all right to be afraid, nobody can tell us where we have come from. Maybe it’s time to do away with the band-aids and accept our moment to moment experience as it really is and not as we wish it to be?