As I mentioned in my post Practical Zen in a Nutshell, there is nothing mystical about meditation. In fact, it’s simply about paying attention. Unfortunately, ever since the 1960’s when the Beatles traveled to India to study Transcendental Meditation with a Maharishi at the height of the psychotropic drug movement, meditation has gotten a bad rap.
If the hippie-guru-New Age association doesn’t turn them away, others think things like, “Meditation is all well and good for you, but there’s no way you’re going to catch me sitting down in a room by myself with nothing to do but be with my thoughts” or “Who’s got time for that kind of nonsense anyway?” Hence, meditation as the “M” word.
Yet, for whatever reason we are attracted to it, there are those of us who are actually open to the idea but often have no clue how it works or even how to approach it. Well, let’s see if we can demystify meditation and try to make it as practical as possible.
By way of a little background, the first thing to note about meditation in Zen is that ‘Zen’ is actually the word for meditation in Japanese. And if we want to be a bit more precise, the traditional way of practicing Zen meditation is what is known as ‘Zazen’ which simply means ‘sitting meditation’, but, as we’ll see, sitting down isn’t actually a requirement for practical purposes. So what exactly do we do in meditation?
In Zen meditation (or as it’s coming to be more popularly known, mindfulness meditation), the practice itself centers on paying focused attention to an object or anchor of attention such as our breathing, while maintaining a compassionate awareness of our thoughts and feelings. Then, when the mind wanders (and trust me it will), we simply observe what it has wandered to, then gently return to our breathing. Those are the basics, but now I’ll elaborate on some details.
Meditation does not have to be done sitting in a crossed-legged lotus position. My favourite posture happens to be crossed-legged sitting, but not in the cramp-inducing lotus position. It’s more like the kind you do in the park when you’re hanging out, the only difference being that I keep my back straight and head level over my spine. Keeping the spine straight and the head level is pretty standard and I definitely recommend it.
Of course I’m no spring chicken, and when I neglect my stretching exercises for a time, my back can sometimes play up when sitting crossed-legged for extended periods, at which point I’ll just sit in a chair or sofa with my bare feet on a rug we have in the living room, my spine straight, and my head level. If sitting in a chair is best for you, by all means go for it. There’s no right or wrong with this, only what works.
You can also meditate lying down (especially if you’re doing what’s called a body scan meditation), but I have a bad habit of ending up watching my dreams instead of my thoughts when I try to meditate on my back so I tend not to do that very often.
Once seated, there is no requirement for the hands to be in any kind of particular position. I’ve kind of lapsed into the standard Zen meditation position where the left hand rests in the cradle of my right, thumbs touching. Both hands then rest on my lap tucked against my (all too soft) stomach. Bottom line, though, all you really need to do is place your hands somewhere comfortable so that you can forget about them while meditating.
Now let’s go to the internal process of meditation and add a few details to that.
The anchor of attention
Once situated, the process begins by paying focused attention to an object or anchor of attention, such as our breathing.
When I was in my 30’s I gave meditation a go but for some reason it just didn’t click. I first tried focusing on my breathing by counting each breath, but that turned out to be a nearly soul destroying drudgery. I also tried staring at a candle, but that just left me with spots in my eyes for the rest of the night (not that I’m knocking those techniques if they work for you – the key is to do whatever works). It may just be that I wasn’t ready for the practice at that time.
Then for some strange reason it all clicked into place five years ago when I discovered a subtle detail that made a world of difference. That detail was paying attention to the feeling of the breath – the actual sensation of the breath coming in and going out. I picked this up from Jon Kabat-Zinn in his excellent book, Full Catastrophe Living. Paying attention to the feeling of the breath can be done by either concentrating on the feeling of the air as it moves just inside the nostrils (my personal favorite), the lungs as they move up and down, or the stomach as it moves in and out during the breathing process.
The reason I like the centering on the nose is because I see it as a symbolic half-way point between the thoughts in my head, and the feelings in my heart which helps when maintaining an awareness of my thoughts and feelings during meditation (more about that in a bit). So if you’re going to use your breathing as the anchor of attention, and I’d recommend doing so since you always have it available, remember to concentrate on the physical feeling of the breath.
Now, let’s go back to the kind of attention we pay during meditation.
I’ve called it ‘focused attention’ for the purpose of describing it, but really, the best way to describe it is ‘one-pointed attention’.
One-pointed attention is a laser-like attention that is focused during meditation on the anchor of attention – for our purposes the feeling of the breath. We pay one-pointed attention to the feeling of the breath until such time as our mind wanders (seems like about 1.5 seconds for me), then, when we become aware that our mind has wandered, we note where it has wandered to, and gently bring it back to the breath.
When practicing one-pointed attention I actually visualize the dot of a laser pointer on whatever it is I’m centering my attention, including the exact place in my nose where I feel my breathing coming in and going out. This is a good visual cue to help the brain refocus after I’ve drifted to where no man has gone before. So that’s the attention aspect – focused, laser-like, one-pointed attention.
Now let’s take a look at the concept of awareness. You’ll note that in addition to paying focused, or one-pointed attention, I’ve described meditation as including a compassionate awareness of our thoughts and feelings. So what is this awareness, and why is it compassionate?
Awareness is a human being’s unique ability to step back within him or herself, and observe their thoughts and feelings. Human beings can even be aware of the awareness which is pretty amazing (I won’t go further back than that because it starts to sound like a skit out of Little Britain).
Now I know I promised to keep these posts practical, but a fascinating question is, who is it that’s actually aware?
Without delving too far into metaphysics, or indeed, spirituality, I happen to believe that the awareness we all have within is who we truly are on a spiritual level, our true nature. Not the “crude matter” of the body, as Yoda put it, but the real spiritual core of our humanity that is good, and kind, and benevolent – and also aware. I’ll delve a little more into that when we discuss our true nature in a future post, but that’s just what I happen to believe awareness actually is – who we really are at our spiritual core (feel free to stop and get a cup of coffee if you want to ponder that one).
Returning now to the compassionate component of awareness, here we can ask the question, why should we actually try to cultivate compassion in our awareness of our own thoughts and feelings?
The short answer is because the majority of us spend much of our days allowing our inner critic to beat us up day and night for any failings or even perceived shortcomings, and we’ve been doing that for years and years and years. It stems from the internalization of all the negative messages we received from our upbringing and early socialization.
We all beat ourselves up on occasion, and some of us do it almost daily. If we blow an interview, say something embarrassing, or we fall short somehow at work or school, we instantly find that we are calling ourselves every name in the book, and some that haven’t even been invented yet – at least not in English.
The fact is, however, that we will never make much progress in curbing self-created suffering, until we start being kinder to ourselves, and once we do that, we can then turn around and be far kinder to others and with a greater depth. The way we treat ourselves, therefore, is key to our growth both in the practice of Zen which seeks to engender compassion, and as human beings.
So are there any other aspects to this awareness that we should be seeking to cultivate when practicing meditation other than compassion? The answer is yes: a spacious and non-judgmental awareness. But what the heck does that mean? Let’s look at spacious awareness first.
The best way to describe spacious awareness is through an illustration involving a raging bull. If a raging bull is kicking and thrashing inside a very small barn, he will deeply injure himself, and destroy the barn. But put that same raging, kicking and thrashing bull into an open field and all that will happen is the bull will exhaust himself and collapse, unhurt and untouched.
Our hearts are the raging bull in the small barn of our bodies. But if we can visualize our hearts in a open field, it gives us much more room to feel whatever we’re feeling.
This is such a useful illustration for me that I utilize it when meditating and (when I remember to) during my day. When I sit down to meditate I visualize my heart in an open field, similar to the bull, and my mind as the blue sky above it. My awareness therefore becomes a spacious field of awareness (literally and figuratively) similar to a background image on a desktop, all the while keeping one-pointed attention on my breathing.
This field of awareness creates a distance between me (my awareness), my heart (emotions), and my mind (thoughts). When I drift from the breath, the distraction will come into awareness either first as a feeling in the heart, say, of restlessness, or as a thought like a cloud across the sky, or a bubble floating by (the rhyme was unintentional).
One good practice as well when a distraction comes into the field of awareness is to describe what’s happening before returning to the breath. This is where the non-judgmental component kicks in.
When a distraction comes into the field of awareness, I observe it from the standpoint of a compassionate, non-judgmental observer by saying, “Ah, there is the feeling of restlessness” or “Ah, there is the thought, ‘I wonder what’s for lunch?'” It’s then that I simply return to my breathing with one-pointed attention.
I don’t try to fight the thought (or feeling), and I don’t try to repress it. I simply return to my breathing with one-pointed attention within the field of awareness, and the distraction usually just dissolves.
If it’s a particularly sticky thought or feeling, I then just sit with it in spacious awareness and turn my attention to it rather than the breath. I can then observe it compassionately and non-judgmentally in the field of awareness and say, “Ah, so that’s what annoyance feels like” or “Ah, so that’s what re-hashing an old argument is like”. This is actually a technique for letting go of attachments that we’ll look at again in a future post.
Putting it all together and a little encouragement
So to sum it all up, and including all the aspects we’ve now looked at, meditation is:
- paying focused (one-pointed) attention to an object or anchor of attention (the feeling of our breath),
- while maintaining a compassionate and non-judgmental, spacious awareness of our thoughts and feelings (the compassionate observer in a field of awareness).
- Then, when distracted from the breath, describe the thought or feeling that took us away (Ah, there is restlessness), and gently return to the breath.
Remember, with awareness, you are taking the position of a tenderly compassionate, non-judgmental observer of your thoughts and feelings in the field of openly spacious awareness.
Try and create a visual distance from your heart, the seat of emotions. Picture it as being away from you so that you can observe it, and do the same thing with your mind using whatever visualization works for you such as an open sky. This gives you room to feel your emotions and see your thoughts rather than getting all tangled up in them.
One last thing you can try as well. Although it may sound weird, when you sit down to meditate, smile slightly, almost imperceptibly. Research indicates that smiling can create a feedback loop to the brain to make us feel better even if we’re not feeling happy, and that certainly can’t hurt in a meditation practice.
I’m not, of course, talking about a goofy grin, but even just a very slight smile can really help. I’m actually at the point where when I settle down to meditate that I don’t even think about it – it just happens naturally. It’s like the relaxing smile you get when you settle into a hammock at the beach, and I believe that small smile makes me feel better right off the bat, even if there is a whirlpool of thoughts and emotions otherwise going on inside.
As with any of my suggestions, though, do what works best for you. Play around with it and be open. This doesn’t have to be solemn, serious ritual. It’s really just about coming home to yourself, to who you really are, and to who you’ve been all along beneath all the roles and responsibilities society says you should take on.
And above all else, when starting a meditation practice, do not get discouraged. A lot of people sit down to meditate, find that their mind goes off in all kinds of tangential directions, declare themselves a failure, and quit.
Your mind is going to wander no matter what you do. You are not a failure because your mind wanders – that’s just the mind – that’s what it does. Zen practitioners don’t call it the Monkey Mind for nothing. The thoughts in your head can sometimes be like one or more monkeys jumping around in a cage.
Having your mind wander and bringing it back isn’t failing, it’s winning. The process of bringing your mind back from wandering is the best thing for you. It’s the equivalent of a mental bicep curl and does all kinds of cool things in the brain that we’ll look at in the next post.
So if you’re just starting out, start slowly, even 3 minutes at a time just to get a feel for it. Then when you’re ready extend to 5 minutes, then 10 minutes. I aim for 30 minutes a day (and am looking to extend that), and I set my phone’s timer to keep track, but you don’t have to use a timer or anything else.
And whatever time you do end up settling on doesn’t have to be done all in one sitting. If you end up after a while shooting for 20 or 30 minutes a day, you can do two or three ten minute sessions and get as much out of it as doing it all together – and certainly more than if you skip it that day because you didn’t have a 30 minute block available.
Also note that you’re not looking for any particular result from meditating. Don’t go into it with a goal of, say, relaxing, or achieving inner peace, or bliss. Those will likely come in time (though not every time, I can guarantee you), but for now just trust the process: sit, focus, and return when your mind wanders, and know that you’re doing yourself a world of good (as we’ll see next post). Then if you do happen to feel better – great!
Just keep in mind that this isn’t a miraculous process, it’s the first steps of what will hopefully be a life-long journey of self-discovery and renewal. And if you stick with it, you may find that in time it becomes such a game-changer that you won’t even know how you managed without it.
In the next post we’ll take a look at what science is discovering about the benefits of meditation, and how doing something as simple as bringing our minds back to an anchor of attention can physically change the structure of the brain with all kinds of pretty amazing benefits.
That’s it for now. Thanks for stopping by and see you soon.