Meditation should be a straight forward business but is too often shrouded in a mystical fog. In fact meditation is very simple, literally as simple as breathing and should be looked upon as a basic life-skill, like swimming or riding a bicycle – things that at some time or another can prove useful, life-saving, or just life-enhancing. But where do we start? You’ve only to read a few books on the subject to realise there are so many different techniques. Which one is the best? Who knows? If you’re interested in the subject all you can do is read widely, try out those methods that make sense to you and don’t worry about those that don’t. But perhaps the best advice is to keep it simple.
In the words of Lao Tzu:
I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion.These three are your greatest treasures. Simple in actions and in thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.
I’ll outline a basic technique of my own in a moment, which may or may not suit you, but as Lao Tzu also said:
He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.
So you must make of this piece what you will.
Before we sit down to meditate there’s something we need to get out of the way or we’re wasting our time. What we should never do as lay meditators is have any ambitions of being lifted to a higher spiritual plane, or attaining enlightenment, or discovering the delights of astral travel, because it most likely won’t happen. I’ve been meditating off an on for around twenty years and I don’t know what any of these things are supposed to feel like, but I do know there is a belief that meditation is the key to them. While this may be true for certain dedicated individuals, you’ll find no secrets here.
Enlightenment is a serious business of course, but you don’t achieve it in the hours either side of your nine-to five, nor even in one of those expensive weekend workshops. You’ll most likely need to become a monk, or a hermit, or some kind of self flagellating ascetic, and unless you’re willing to give up just about everything else in your life for the pursuit of that one goal, then you should forget it, otherwise you fall into the trap of New Age Materialism. And materialism is like opium: sweet dreams for a while, but ultimately useless.
Society programs us from an early age to be ego driven and goal orientated – we have to do well at school, pass our exams, get a good job, earn some money, get a house, a bigger house, be successful and so on. It’s counter intuitive then, to grasp the notion that in order to feel good for longer than five minutes we have to forget this “achievement culture”. We have to let go of any ambitions. New age materialism? You’ve only to look all those self help books, and all the money you’ll need to spend in order to achieve the promise of a happy, fulfilled and enlightened existence. But of course the answer isn’t in the next book, nor the next new age trinket – just like for most of us meditation isn’t about sitting down with a mind to gaining spiritual awareness, or opening the door onto an astral plane.
Having said that, we’re obviously looking to gain something, or we wouldn’t be doing it. But as lay meditators I would argue we’re looking to achieve only a degree of clarity, we’re looking to feel better in ourselves, which is a much more modest goal than that of attaining Buddhahood. Let’s just say to ourselves we don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t know how we’ll feel. or where meditation will lead us,…
We’re happy to simply keep an open mind.
So why meditate?
Hopefully by now we’re no longer troubled by inappropriate ambitions in our meditation. But, at a basic level, meditation can bring about a gradual change in our outlook, in particular our sense of personal well-being, simply by calming us down and enabling us to remember who we really are.
What does that mean?
We are happiest in life when we are comfortable in our own skins, when we like ourselves, when we can look in the mirror and say to ourselves – yes, that guy/girl is okay. I’m not talking about becoming conceited or narcissistic here – it’s more a case of being at peace with yourself, also having a sense of the rightness of your life’s direction, even though it might not be clear to you or anyone else what that direction is.
If you’re not blessed with what contemporary society considers to be “good looks” – for example, if you’re fat or bald, wrinkled, over 25 and short sighted – no amount of meditation is going to change that, but what it can do, is enable you to look in the mirror, at your fat, bald, wrinkled, ageing, short sighted self, and be comfortable with it by virtue of a confidence in yourself and your God given right to simply be – how-ever, and who-ever you are.
Such a state requires mental clarity, and meditation restores clarity.
What does clarity feel like?
It feels calm.
Calmness comes from stilling the mind. It comes from slowing down the rush of one’s thoughts. If you take a glass of muddy water and you keep stirring it, this is a good illustration of the way the mind feels with its swirl of thoughts. If only the mind could become still enough for the sediment to settle and for clarity to be restored.
Meditation restores clarity.
Clarity feels calm.
So meditate. -
How to Meditate
There are many meditation techniques. What I’m about to describe is just one of them. It blends Buddhist mindfulness with a little Daoist internal energy work. But don’t worry about what that might mean. If you’re in a dark place right now, any meditation technique will help you. Whatever method you decide upon, do it every day until you feel steady enough to start forgetting the practice. If you should start to wobble again, dust off your meditation notes, or see if you can find the link to this blog posting, and start doing it again.
That’s how you meditate.
As for the method, I’ll summarise the main points at the end, so if you’re patient to get on then skip to there, otherwise here’s the nitty gritty.
1) How long shall we meditate for?
The first thing we need to do is decide how long we can spare to meditate. Ten minutes is a good starting point. As you get into it, you’ll naturally want to increase the time you spend doing it. I generally aim for about thirty minutes, but when I’m really in “the zone” I’ve been known to go on for an hour or more.
Normally I take a dim view of any gadget that’s touted as being essential for your spiritual, emotional or physical well being, but I make an exception here, because we’re only talking about a simple timer. If you can set a timer, do so – an egg timer, an oven timer, an alarm clock, anything that pings or rings or dings, but without tick tocking all the time while you’re doing it. The timer lets you relax. You’re not constantly wondering if your time is up yet and checking your watch. So, get your timer, set it, and forget it.
If you don’t live alone – and especially if you’ve got children running about all over the place, you need to be honest with them about what you’re doing. So, tell them: “Look, I’m going to meditate. I know you might think that’s a bit weird, but I’m really serious about giving it a go, and I do not want disturbing for the next ten minutes.” Or you can try:”Come and get me if the house is burning down – otherwise I’m not here, okay?”
This probably won’t work, but at least you’ve done your best, and hopefully they’ll get the message eventually. Be kind to them, and be kind to yourself. Don’t be angry if you get disturbed. Anger is the opposite of where we want to be. If they burst in, think of it as an opportunity for measuring how far away from being angry you are.
Anger, under any circumstances is really bad for you.
Fortunately, with experience, you’ll find you can shut down and meditate anywhere, even an airport terminal – though I admit it’s not the ideal place to start. Also, very few of us can enjoy the luxury of a private “meditation room” so just use your common sense and go somewhere you think you’ll be the most comfortable and the least likely to be disturbed. If that means doing it in the bathroom, then so be it.
In an instructional video on the subject of Chen Style Tai Chi, Grand Master Chen Zheng Lee describes the process of meditation with disarming simplicity:
He says: “Just sit quietly for a while.”
Really – don’t get hung up about it – just sit.
If you can manage a “full lotus” without it hurting you, then go for it. If not, just sit as best you can, legs crossed or splayed open, it doesn’t matter – the main aim is simply to provide a comfortable and stable base from which to align your back gently upright.
The back is the important thing here, and we can achieve something like the right posture if we imagine our heads suspended from a thread attached to our crown and pulling us gently upright, with our back hanging from it. Don’t worry too much about this – just do what feels comfortable. Roughly speaking the right position is somewhere between slouching over and sitting bolt upright.
If you can’t sit on the floor – if you’ve got troublesome joints and struggle to get down, or get back up again, then sit in a chair, but again, pay attention to the posture of your spine and avoid the temptation to lean back into the chair. In his famous book on Microcosmic Meditation, Mantak Chia rejects outright the idea of sitting cross legged on the floor, and heartily recommends using a chair. Confused? Me too. Don’t worry, just do what you want – we’re not looking to move the earth here.
So, now we’re sitting.
3) Quelling the restless mind
What’s next is you’ll be interrupted – if not by someone you live with, then by someone you share your head with. It’ll say something like this: “I’m not comfortable. Can we move over a bit?”
So, you’re an obliging soul and you move over and sure enough in no time at all the voice comes again: “This is no good either,” it says. “My leg’s killing me.”
You can put up with this for only so long, shuffling about, sitting this way and that, hands resting here, there and everywhere, but then some point you’ve got to say: “Look, we were perfectly comfortable a moment ago. So what’s changed?”
Quietly but firmly, say “NO” to the nagging voice.
This is the first step in letting go.
Settle into position and do not move from that position until your time is up. Really! Relax into it, then freeze. Become an inanimate doll, a living statue. Do not move a muscle. Not even one millimeter.
So, now we’re quietly resolved not to move. What happens next is we encounter the annoying conversationalist.
This is like when you’ve been given an important job and you want to focus on it, but you’re constantly interrupted by others with nothing better to do but tell you about their holidays, or a bit of silly gossip. It’s that child in your mind again – assailing you with a string of thoughts. What do you do? Well, you can’t consciously stop it, no more than you can consciously stop breathing. So, like with the real life gossip, you take a step back, and you only lend half an ear, while remaining quietly focussed on your task. And our task, remember, is nothing more complicated than sitting quietly.
Let your thoughts come and go. Don’t try to stop them, but try instead to avoid actively dwelling on them. If you catch yourself lingering over something, don’t be hard on yourself – just let it go, brush it gently aside, say to yourself – I don’t want to be thinking about that right now. It is ultimately our aim to subdue these flittering thoughts, but it’s early days yet and one never counters force with force. This is your own self we’re talking about after all, so be gentle. No sense in beating yourself up over it.
No sense in getting angry.
Anger is the opposite of where we want to be.
From the Dantien.
4) What’s the Dantien?
Chances are, in the human biology you learned at school, there was never any mention of the Dantien. The reason for this is the kindest thing western medicine has to say about it is it’s imaginary. However, if you take the trouble to imagine it, to focus your thoughts upon it as if it were real, then, eventually you will feel it as a physical presence, as something moving, something swelling, something firm, warm, tingly and inexplicably energising. Then try telling me the Dantien does not exit.
Where is it?
If you rest your hand on your belly, put the tip of your index finger into your belly button, then press down gently with the tip of your little finger, that’s where your Dantien is, a few inches inside your lower abdomen. Familiarise yourself with the idea of this “imaginary” thing called the Dantien and try to persuade your mind – perhaps against its better nature – of the physical reality of this region inside of you. Nurture it ,even when you’re not meditating. Think about it and see if you can feel it. What we need to do is wake it up and we do that, in part, by breathing. If you’ve never felt your Dantien before, don’t be afraid. This is the most intimate part of you, the very centre of your being. It’s like the best friend you never knew you had.
The way we breathe in meditation is important – in fact the way we breathe is meditation, so I’ll take a little time to describe it.
We should always breathe through the nose. Take notice of your own natural breathing, and if you discover you’ve fallen out of the habit of using your nose, then try to re-educate yourself. Nose breathing is the proper way to breathe and without too much effort it will become automatic again. Of course if you’re troubled with a blocked nose, then forget what I’ve just said and breathe through your mouth.
To help you breathe through your nose, close your mouth and touch the tip of your tongue to the hard palate just behind your top front teeth, and keep it there. You might have read about this somewhere before. Various reasons are given for it depending on the kind of books you read. A Kung Fu fighter does it so his tongue’s out of the way, and if he gets kicked in the face, he won’t bite it off. A serious qigonger will tell you it’s to complete the circuit on the conception channel that runs down the front of your body, that Chi can’t settle in your Dantien without it. For us lay meditators, it’s best to think of it as being simply a way of double sealing our mouth in order to re-enforce the message to our brain that we’re really serious about wanting to breathe through our nose.
When we inhale, we imagine the air being drawn into the Dantien, as if the Dantien itself were a kind of lung, swelling out and sucking in air. To help with this we breathe with our abdomen rather than our chest, which might seem odd. In fact what we’re doing is filling our lungs from the bottom up, so as we breathe in we push the belly out – this causes the lungs and the diaphragm to extend downwards. This is called abdominal breathing. Over time this technique will increase the capacity of the lungs and encourage a longer, slower breathing rate.
It’s healthier to breathe this way, the lungs take in a much greater volume of air and the blood becomes more highly oxygenated. It also stimulates the lymphatic system, clearing out toxins and generally any nastiness we can do without. Once your body becomes familiar with the feel of abdominal breathing it seems to become automatic, so its well worth playing about with as a technique in its own right, even when you’re not meditating.
The average, non-meditating adult breathes at a rate of between 12 and 20 breaths per minute, when resting. The higher the breathing rate, the shallower each breath is, with some people seeming to breathe only with the very tops of their lungs in a series of rapid, short, panting breaths. Everyone’s different and results will vary but after practicing for a number of years, my own natural respiration rate, at rest, is around four or five breaths per minute, and during meditation it will drop naturally to about one and a half breaths.
The Dantien and the breath are important in meditation, at least the way I practise it, and even when we’re not meditating, its good to become familiar with the feel of them. When we breathe in, we imagine the Dantien swelling as the belly expands, imagine the air being drawn down to the Dantien like a cool, silken thread, but when we breathe out, rather than imagine the Dantien collapsing, it’s as if we seal it off, it retains the air, and as the belly contracts to normal on the outward breath, the sensation in the Dantien is one of compression, compaction, or consolidation.
All of this might sound a bit silly, and to begin with it will be an entirely imaginary exercise, but if you’re patient you’ll eventually begin to feel the Dantien, feel an “energy” building up in it, and once you’ve made it’s acquaintance – even if you don’t meditate for a while, you’ve only to settle your thoughts upon it again and you’ll feel it stirring. Exactly what the Dantien is, I’ve no idea, but to feel what I can only describe as the breath energy building up in it is a very relaxing and a very comforting thing.
Getting a feel for the Dantien then is one of the milestones in the kind of mediation I do. It won’t come right away, and we shouldn’t try to pursue it, or in any way become fixated upon it. The Dantien is like a cat purring on your lap. Stroke it, feel its heat, it’s comforting vibration thoughout your body, but other than that leave it alone.
Getting a feel for the Dantien goes hand in glove with the feeling of relaxed, slow, deep breathing. Once you develop the feel for it, you’ll discover that focusing upon it has given the mind something else to do and you’re less troubled now by flittering thoughts.
But you can go further.
It also helps to listen to the sound of your breath.
If you can hear your breath while you’re breathing, you’re breathing too fast. It’s when you can hear only the sound of your silent breath that you enter into a deeper state of meditation.
5) The sound of the silent breath
A Zen koan? The sound of the silent breath. It’s like the old chestnut about the sound of one hand clapping, it doesn’t make sense at all – but really it’s very simple. If you breathe normally, and listen, you’ll both hear and feel the air moving in and out of your nose. Breathe more slowly and the sound and the feel of it will fade until you reach a point where you only know you’re still breathing because of the almost imperceptible movement of your abdomen. There is no sound, no sense of the breathing process in your ears or your nose. This is the sound of the silent breath.
See if you can find it.
(1) Decide how long you’ve got to spare. Set a timer.
(2) Sit, back straight and not touching anything. Legs crossed or open, on the floor or on a chair. It doesn’t matter. Relax.
(3) Settle on a position, say to yourself this feels okay. Relax.
(4) Don’t move a muscle until the timer pings.
(5) Say to yourself, I don’t want to think about anything right now, but don’t try to stop your thoughts arising spontaneously – it’s impossible. Aim for a centered, calm, unthinking zone. If if thoughts arise and you catch yourself dwelling on something, brush those thoughts gently aside.
(6) Close your mouth, touch the tip of your tongue to the hard palate just behind your top front teeth.
(7) Imagine your Dantien
(8) Breathe through your nose if you can. Imagine the Dantien sucking the air down when you breathe in. Imagine it is the Dantien, rather than the lungs doing the breathing. Blocked nose? Then obviously breathe through your mouth.
(9) As you breathe in, let the belly expand. As you breathe out let the belly relax back naturally, and see if you can fel the Dantien purring.
(10) Follow your breaths, slowing them down until you can’t hear them any more.
(11) Be sensitive to any feelings coming from your Dantien.
(12) Relax and enjoy them.
(13) Let the timer ping.
(14) Get up and go about your day.
Meditation, when and how often?
This is really up to you. It depends on your lifestyle and how much time you’ve got. If you’re being a martinet about it, set a specific time aside every day in your private meditation chamber, preferably some ungodly hour in the morning. If you have the discipline to do that, then go for it. See if you can manage an hour a day. Otherwise don’t worry about it.
If you’re a suburban creature with a nine to five, living with a houseful of other active folks, most likely setting any kind of specific timetable for meditation is useless as it’s inevitable some familial crisis will interrupt your neatly ordered existence. In practice you need to be flexible then. If you’re feeling troubled and tense, then try to meditate at some point every day, gradually bringing up your time spent in the zone from ten to thirty minutes. Afterwards you’ll feel steadier. Calmer.
What you shouldn’t do is get into a situation where you feel guilty because you’ve missed your meditation, either because something came up and you really didn’t get the time, or you felt an internal resistance to the idea. We’ve all been there. Be kind to yourself. Don’t feel guilty.
Me? After attaining a certain degree of steadiness from meditating every day, my practice falls off and becomes sporadic. I don’t think this matters. You come back to it when you need it. I’m not aiming for Buddahood, just a little clarity.
What does clarity feel like?
It feels calm.
Books I enjoyed and found very helpful with meditation are:
Mindfulness: Bante Gee
Being Nobody Going Nowhere – Aya Keema
Starting to meditate – Professor David Fontana
The Healing Power of Dao – Mantak Chia
The Dalai Llama’s little book of Calm – the Dalai Llama
The Secret of the Golden Flower – Cleary/Wilhelm
The Power of Now – Eckhart Tolle
A New Earth – Eckhart Tolle
The Lavender and The Rose – Michael Graeme
(only joking about the last one – it’s rubbish)
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