Guided introduction to insight meditation practice
As with any new regimen, at first, it may be challenging to make time for meditation. To help motivate you to give meditation a try, here are a few of the most obvious benefits that can come from regular meditation:
- Relaxation, release from everyday tensions, a little time out from frantic activity to settle down and get centered.
- Regeneration and healing, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Scientific studies are continually showing significant health benefits to meditation.
- Clarity and compassion.
- Self-exploration, insight, and discovery; potential for personal growth and transformation.
- Accessing an inner wellspring of wisdom; feeling connected to the universe with a sense of complete acceptance and belonging.
- Meditative awareness in daily life, enriching every moment with boundless appreciation and joy.
- Transformation of relationships when operating from a sense of connection. (Your family and friends will appreciate your meditating, so don’t think it is selfish to take this time for yourself!)
- Potentially global transformation and world peace as more people operate from that sense of connection and find peaceful resolution to conflicts.
Once you are meditating, forget all the above. Don’t let them become goals to attain. That would only cause a sense of expectation, comparison, impatience, and be disruptive rather than helpful.
FORMS OF MEDITATION
There are many methods of meditation including repetition of a mantra, visualization, visual concentration, and various movement meditation practices. The form I do and that I will be sharing instruction on is awareness or insight meditation. In its most basic form, it is following the breath, being fully aware of what is in the present moment, including any arising thoughts, emotions, sensations, and sounds. With continued practice, we can develop a spaciousness field of awareness, clear and present, able to expand to hold in awareness all that arises without entanglement.
WHY WE THINK MEDITATING IS DIFFICULT
Since meditation is not yet a part of our daily life, we easily forget to do it. Just like exercise or any other habit we try to fit in to our lives, it takes an initial effort to get us hooked. Once we feel the positive effects of regular meditation, it is much easier to remember to do it.
We often have an exalted idea of what meditation is and believe that it is an experience beyond our mere mortal capacity to achieve. So we discourage ourselves from trying. If we do try it and our own experience doesn’t meet our expectations of cosmic euphoria, we give up. There is a mystique around meditation with a resulting elitism that we can ill afford at a time the very earth is crying out for us to take a few moments to quiet down, listen in, and feel connected.
While we all have thoughts during meditation, the harsh critical thoughts we may have when first beginning to practice meditation, the ones that belittle us for being foolish to sit quietly, can derail the meditation if we let them. But if we continue despite these voices, they will eventually soften and dissipate.
Spiritual ambition may motivate us to practice meditation but it doesn’t allow us to relax into the very experience it struggles to create. Instead, it creates judgment and comparison. It sees what it believes to be enlightenment on the horizon. But horizons never come any closer, so the striver is caught in an eternal living for the future. If we can just allow for this experience right now in all its richness and complexity, even if at first glance it seems dull as dishwater. If we just pay closer attention we might see that even dishwater has some pretty fascinating rainbow bubbles.
PREPARATIONS FOR MEDITATION
A practiced meditator can meditate any time, any place, under any conditions. But for most of us, developing the practice of meditating requires some degree of ritualized preparation. Just as we have some before-bedtime habits that cue the body-mind that it is time to sleep, so we prepare ourselves for meditation.
For meditating at home, it’s nice to have a specific chair or floor space for a cushion that reminds us to practice. It’s helpful, especially at first, to be able to shut the door and request that others not disturb you for this period. Turning off cell phones and other potential disruptions will aid in create a quiet time and place for practice. It doesn’t matter if there is noise outside our immediate area. The ‘perfect’ setting isn’t necessary and the desire for one only gives us an excuse not to get started.
Meditating on a full stomach is not recommended, so preferably meditate before a meal or at some neutral time of day or night.
Stretching before meditation is always a good idea to help release knots and tension. If you do yoga or other forms of movement, consider meditating directly afterward.
Sometimes if you are feeling tense, taking a few deep breaths helps release inner tensions. Allow this to be a real cleansing breath, and with each exhalation, feel yourself relaxing deeper and deeper. Unless you are doing a particular breath work meditation that calls for continued purposeful breathing, return to normal breathing after these few relaxing cleansing breaths.
The longer we sit, the more important it is that our position be sustainable. To this end make sure that if you are sitting in a chair you are not reclining on cushions but are sitting upright, preferably on the forward part of the chair with your feet squarely planted on the ground.
It is important for the back that the buttocks be positioned at least slightly higher than the knees, whether you are in a chair or on the floor. In a chair you might want to add a cushion under your buttocks. If sitting on the floor in a cross-legged position, if your knees are up in the air, you need more cushions under your buttocks. If the knees are still in the air, you might want to put cushions under them to support them. OR you might prefer to sit in a kneeling posture with the buttocks on a cushion of a height that feels comfortable for your body, or you can use a low meditation bench to support you.
Sense in to your body and adjust until you feel solid and stable in your position, relying as much as possible on the skeleton to support you, so that the muscles may remain relaxed.
How Long to Meditate
If you are new to meditation and trying it on your own, I suggest you start with five minutes. Set a timer and see how it goes. That’s not much of a commitment, but it’s enough to get a sense of the experience. Then build up to twenty, thirty, or forty minutes over a period of time. Gandhi is quoted as saying that since he was expecting a particularly busy challenging day, he would meditate for two hours instead of one. So find the amount of meditation that supports your ability to be fully present and engaged in your life.
We begin by closing our eyes (you can leave them open with a downward gaze) and setting our intention to be present with our experience and to be compassionate with ourselves when we get lost in thought. That’s the basic instruction. It’s really simply sitting and being aware that you are sitting, continually bringing the wandering mind back to the present experience.
Anchoring awareness again and again into physical sensation is the essence of staying present. Notice when tension arises; breathe into it to gently release it to whatever degree is possible. When the mind wanders, gently and kindly reset the intention to be present and bring your attention to sensation. This is the valuable practice of embodiment.
In meditation, you might experience frustration or boredom. You might notice expectations not being met. You might notice the fear of not ‘doing it right.’ You might notice the judgment of the experience. You might notice comparing this experience to another you’ve had or to something someone else said they had.
This is all fine. Just stay with noticing. It’s not the experience itself but the development of our ability to stay present with it that is important. And like any activity, it takes practice, developing new ‘muscles’ we haven’t really used before. Be as kind as you can be to yourself.
Inevitably thoughts, sensations, and feelings come up during meditation. Your goal is not to get rid of them, but to be fully aware of them and to notice them passing through without getting attached to them. One technique that helps many people to release the attachment is called ‘noting’.
When you become aware of a thought, you say (silently) “thought”. When an emotion rises up in you, you simply name it “feeling”. And when you hear a sound outside or have an itch, simply say “sensation”. It sounds way too simple to work, but it really does quiet them down. Try it!
When you find yourself tempted to pursue a thread of feeling, just note it. (If you like you can remind yourself to look into it later. Right after meditation, you are in a very receptive state to get answers to questions like, “What was that feeling about?” It may be a rich vein for self-exploration. By promising yourself to explore it after meditation, you satisfy that feeling’s need to be acknowledged without getting yourself off track.)
If it is helpful to you, think of your mind as a little puppy, rambunctious, lovable, and all over the place, bouncing from one thought or sensation to another, chasing down butterflies of feeling or our own tails of thoughts, lost in the experience. By thinking of the mind this way, we can be more loving and forgiving of its natural wanderings. We don’t scold a puppy for being a puppy, but if we want to train it we do encourage it gently but firmly. And that’s what we do with our minds. Imagine your puppy mind on a leash. When you find yourself lost in thought gently pull your puppy mind back from where it wandered. Eventually you will become aware of your wandering puppy mind much sooner, and the leash will be shorter. And maybe sometimes the puppy will calmly walk beside you…but don’t count on it!
If you find you fall asleep during meditation, try doing it at a different time of day. If that doesn’t help, do a standing meditation or meditate with your eyes open. It is simply the mind being unclear what is expected, and eventually you should be able to stay awake during meditation. (If you find you fall asleep even when well rested, you might consider some self-inquiry to see if there is something you are afraid to face or learn in the quiet space created through meditation.)
To get the most value out of the meditation, allow time for a slow easy transition back into daily life. Don’t schedule any appointments or obligations immediately following meditation. Instead, allow time to walk, make notes in a journal, do household chores, prepare and eat a meal, or do personal hygiene in a mindful way. Rushing after meditation wastes the calm centeredness you have to which you have become attuned.
See if you can sustain whatever awareness, openness, and appreciation you have attained through your practice. Ultimately the gift of regular meditation practice is the spaciousness it brings into our lives. It is a gift that benefits all beings, not just ourselves.
Develop a daily practice
Strengthen your ability to stay present, cultivating awareness and compassion by meditating every day. You can start out with a few minutes and build up. You might find the Insight Timer app helpful to remind, time, and encourage you. Also on Insight Timer are many guided meditations, including some of mine.
Most people find it helpful to attend a weekly class to learn to meditate and to stay inspired. Look into ones in your area. These are Insight meditation sanghas where you will receive guidance for meditating in silence. Traditionally, there will then be an exploration of the dhamma, the Buddhist teachings, as they apply to modern life.
If you feel more drawn to other types of meditation with more rituals and/or chanting, then you’ll want to find a Tibetan Buddhist or Zen Buddhist group near you.
If you don’t want to explore Buddhist teachings but are looking for simple relief from anxiety, you might find MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) a better fit. Just Google ‘mbsr classes near me’.
There is nothing more richly transformative than sitting in silence for extended periods. Especially for those who love to talk a lot. What a relief!
After you have developed a regular practice, joined a sangha, and feel ready for more, explore the retreats offered at these retreat centers and see if there is one that calls to you. (Again, these are predominantly Theravada/Vipassana/Insight Meditation centers.)