If you often feel stress, cannot concentrate, emotions are distracting you, if you cannot handle interruptions – then meditation is for you. And it’s not a religious practice – it’s the best training of mind that ever invented.
The internet is filled with plenty of articles about scientific benefits of meditation, and the happiest man in the world (measured with some brain scanning machinery) is practicing meditation daily. I will not try to convince you anymore. I will explain to you how to do it and why it works.
I am practicing meditation myself, I’ve read some books about it, attended some courses and sessions. The problem I faced that there is no decent article about meditation for beginners without mysticism. Yes, if you go to mediation courses they might explain you more, but even in most Southeast Asian meditation retreats, this is not the case. I needed to create my meditation practice from scratch, basing it on scarce resources which vaguely explain how to practice it. Courses? Later I took courses and they were amazingly beneficial. But meditation is something to be practiced daily – not once a year in a 10 days retreat (which, however, is not a bad idea too, better than nothing).
If you want to know more about my personal benefits – this is the full article. But here I will explain how the meditation works and will give basic guidelines how to do it correctly. Everything is based on bits of theory I gathered and my personal experience. For those who want to try it for the first time – I wish I had this article when I started.
How does meditation work?
To practice it correctly you need to know how does meditation work.
Does it open your chakras? I don’t know what chakra is. Does it allow the cosmic energy to flow into your body? I doubt it, cosmic energy in the form of solar radiation flows into your body every day. Does it let you connect to god? No, I haven’t connected to anything during my meditation sessions (those little green aliens do not count (joking)).
Meditation is training of the mind. It is like a gym for muscle, like a library for knowledge or like a puzzle for intelligence.
Meditation is a training of the mind to be concentrated, to keep calm, to keep equanimity.
To know how to train the mind we need to know how does it work. The mind is filled with automated reactions to various triggers – your finger is burning? Take it out of the flame. Is your hand freezing? Take it out of the freezer! Hungry? Eat a snack! Boring? Facebook! How long do you think before doing each of these things? Not long – it happens automatically.
Some reactions are useful to us, but some of them are not. For example, someone insults you, and you become angry. Is it good for you to be angry? If it is that good try to be angry more often and observe how your life crumble. Similar examples: get tired – start complaining; get enraged – break something. There is no use in any of these reactions.
But just think what would be if you needed to think before moving the finger out of the flame. It would be like considering: is it the time to leave the party? Is it? Or not yet? I can endure. Some reactions are useful. Wouldn’t it be great to jump out of the bed with lots of energy every morning after the alarm has rung? This is an example of positive reaction many people want to have.
Meditation allows us to notice those automated reactions starting. When I notice that anger comes – I have the power to stop it. When I notice negative thoughts – I have the power to change them into positive ones. If I notice that I want to break something – I start wondering, where do such thoughts come from? When I notice an urge to buy something – I start wondering, do I really need it? When I notice something, then I have a power to deal with it – anger, anxiety, fear, flustering, any emotion, physical action, word or even thought.
But to notice automated reactions is not that easy because they are automated. Like heartbeat – you don’t need to notice your heart beating, it just works. Like blinking your eyes. Like breathing. To notice such things, you need to make the mind calm and concentrated, to stop paying attention to thousands of thoughts or some gross intense overwhelming feelings. Because when you notice your thoughts – the automated reactions slip unnoticed. Imagine an eagle flying over a forest and trying to notice a rabbit. If he starts daydreaming, he will miss the rabbit and will stay hungry for today. Attention is like a laser, if it is focused it can cut the metal, but if it is dispersed, it will only make you sun-tanned. The mind is like the surface of the water – if there are ripples, you cannot see the bottom, if it is calm, you can see what others cannot.
After concentrating the laser of attention, you can notice what is happening in your body – all those thoughts, emotions, actions are there. They are the basic things that control you. It is like hacking your iPhone, rooting your android or command prompt for windows. When you notice what is happening in your body, you control your reaction to it. When the natural automated reaction arises I do nothing and it fades away. It is easy to do nothing when you sit and meditate – this way all reactions fade away one by one. However, to wipe out basic reflexes of your body (like the finger in the fire) you must practice a lot. Monks can do that – see this video with a monk burning alive – how calm he remains.
When you have no automated reactions you have freedom to choose consciously what to do. But If you want to have a new reaction you can burn it with the laser of attention. Like installing a new app on your phone.
So, this is meditation. And here is the 5 step method that is universal to any meditation technique. I will cover each step in detail.
- Calming the mind and concentration
- Training of mind
- Applying in everyday life
Before going to meditate you must know how are you going to do it and stick to the technique. Because having doubt about what are you going to do is the source of distraction and all the meditation time will be wasted. Choose the technique (I will suggest some later) and stick to it.
Then you must decide how much time you will sit. Because it is essential to not distract yourself with thoughts like – is it enough or not yet? No, it’s wrong. Turn on some music, set up an alarm, so you will know when it is time. Your time could be 5 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes. One hour (yay!). Two hours (retreat master level). I use a timer on my phone, usually, I meditate for 15 minutes, but sometimes I do one-hour “retreat”.
Then just make a resolution to stick to the chosen technique. If you randomly jump from one to another – you are wasting your time. It is best to stick to only one at a time, but you can keep a predefined sequence. For example – count up to 20 and then start observing the breath. 5 minutes of anapana, and then 25 minutes of vipassana. It is like warming up in sports. Say to yourself how are you going to practice or keep it written.
Master tip: try a resolution to sit absolutely without movement all the time (called addithana). It is not recommended for beginners because you must find the best sitting position first. But when you have found one, try not moving – feeling pain in your back or legs and not moving. Allowing mosquito biting you. Not suffering from the pain or trying to endure it, but concentrating on your technique instead. However, if you cannot endure the pain, better change position and take rest without feeling guilty. Enduring the pain is not the aim.
I suggest finding some sitting poses, trying them and choosing which one is the best for you. Just know that real überyogis do not sit in lotus pose (padmasana) – it is not the best one. It is just the most stable one, you need it if you are going to meditate for a week without a break. And only absolute beginners who want to show their high level do not use pillows. Use all the pillows you need to make your back straight and yourself stable.
Here is the summary of requirements for meditative sitting:
- Do not lay on the ground, you will just fall asleep.
- Sit with your back straight. If it is not straight – it will hurt.
- Sit in a stable position. If you must keep the balance all the time, you cannot relax and concentrate your mind. Find the position in which you can relax and not fall down.
- Try not moving, because the movement is a distraction. There are meditation techniques with movement (like yoga or taichi), but if you sit, you should not move. It is ok to straighten your back as soon as you notice it is not straight.
- Try to relax your muscles. It is difficult to make your mind calm if muscles are tense.
- Close your eyes. Views distract attention. However there are techniques of meditation with open eyes, but not that common.
- Make sure the air is fresh in the room, otherwise you might feel sleepy.
- It is recommended to sit in silence – so there will be fewer distractions. However, if you are a good practitioner, noise will not disturb you. Sometimes there is a dilemma if you practice in the city – silence or fresh air (close window or open?).
Master tip: siddhasana is the best. And it is easy to do, not like the lotus pose. Hindu texts say: Other postures are of no use, when success has been achieved in Siddhasana. Try this one.
3) Calming the mind and concentration
So, now you are sitting stable with closed eyes, what’s next?
How to make the mind be calm and concentrated? You need an object for the concentration. When you concentrate the mind on the object – you pay less attention to your thoughts and the storm of thoughts becomes calm like floating clouds.
At first, you will get something like this (let’s say you are counting breaths): “one, two, so, yesterday I have been to my aunt and we discussed…, wait, I am meditating! one, two three, when I finish I will go to eat some raw vegetable salad, …no I better go out after that, …my friend told me that … (the alarm indicating that meditation is finished)… shit… I was supposed to meditate.” It’s usual. If you try to count to twenty, it is possible that you will fail to do it in one hour, because your thoughts are distracting you. You cannot do 50 push-ups at once the first day. But if you practice every day, later you might do even 100 at once. You cannot keep the mind calm for 15 minutes the first day. But if you practice, you can do it for 60 minutes eventually.
What I will tell now is the key, read it carefully:
Whenever you notice that your mind is distracted, do not react (because we are learning to wipe out not desired reactions), just come back to your concentration object. When you notice again, that your mind is wandering, do not try to stop it wandering, do not try to stop the flow of thoughts, do not react (do not get angry, disappointed or anything), just come back to your concentration object. We are learning to notice and come back. Notice and come back. Again and again. No matter how long were you wandering – burn a new reaction with the laser of attention – “whenever I notice my mind wandering I come back to my concentration object”.
What does it mean “not to react”? It means not trying to evaluate is this thought positive or negative, good or bad, what is it about. If you think: “oh, I am failing at meditation again, I cannot sit even one minute without distraction” – this is just another thought. Let it go. Thoughts are like clouds, they flow with the wind, amorphic, shapeless. Only your attention gives them shape. So keep them shapeless. “Enough sitting, I’m done with that!” – just another shapeless thought. “Oh, I forgot to do this or that! I will do this and then come back to meditation!” – another shapeless thought. Keep them shapeless. Serious skill, serious training, huge benefit.
What are the objects for concentration? I will review some of them here.
Natural breath in your nostrils. Observe how air touches your nostrils and upper lip. Breath must be natural, absolutely uncontrolled. It is difficult to observe breath and keep it uncontrolled, so that why this practice is good, but not recommended for beginners.
Controlled breath in your nostrils. You can control your breath in a specific way. If you want to hurry less in your life, try slowing down your breath. If your mind is extremely scattered, try holding a breath for a moment – the mind will get an alert message “no air! where is the air!!!???” and the thoughts will go away.
Breath in your belly. You can observe how the air fills your belly and how the muscles there work. I couldn’t master this technique, it’s quite difficult.
The sound of breath. If you are into yoga or pranayama, you know that you can make a noisy sound while inhaling through your throat. This sound can be used for meditation too.
Counting breaths. You can count your breaths up to twenty and then start again. If your mind is wandering, don’t try to remember what was the number when you stopped – start again. If you doubt what is the next number because you forgot – don’t continue doubtful activity – start again. A good practice to fight doubt.
Concentrate on certain places of your body. Certain places are very sensitive – if you concentrate in the dot between your eyes, it seems that it is pressed. Such places are described well in a literature with Indian titles, I’m not too familiar with.
Mantra. Repeating some text fills the mind very well. Mantras are easy to concentrate on and are a good option for beginners. Mantras should not necessarily be religious – pick any phrase that has nice sound and rhythm with an even number of words that are meaningful to you. Combine your own mantra using powerful words. But beware, that what you repeat will be burned into your brain with the laser of attention. That is why religions try to burn the names of their gods into your mind. However I find “om mani padme hum” very neutral and suitable for everyone, it translates to something like “om the jewel in the lotus hum“.
Master tip: it is much better if you actually understand what the mantra means and contemplate the meaning of it. Burn into your brain only meaningful phrases, no matter in what language.
Surrounding sounds or sights. It could be music, birds, flowing river. I found it very powerful practice to sit, look at the waterfall and listen to the water. A river is a good option too. However, I think meditation with music is artificial and I don’t want to try it.
While trying to meditate you will face five main distractions.
Surrounding environment. Monks who want to avoid distractions from surrounding environment go to monasteries up to the mountains. But we mortals meditate in harsh conditions, surrounded by city traffic, annoying roommates, phone calls and so on. It is advised to isolate yourself from all these things for those 15 minutes of meditation. Do not answer the phone!
Thoughts. They come again and again, but they are not like a phone – you cannot turn them off. You must live with them and that is what we learn in meditation.
Pain. This is usually the trick of a lazy mind. The mind does not want to concentrate and creates the feeling of pain. Sometimes that pain makes sense – like the pain in your back or leg, but quite often it does not (according to my experience). So, if you feel the pain you can continue practicing and it will fade away. If it does not fade away you can concentrate on that pain, and observe how does it fade away. You will see that this abstract feeling of “pain” is either tension or heat, just very intense. However, pain can be a signal that you sit in a wrong position. It is OK to correct it.
Boredom. Yep, the process is not that exciting, it is quite monotonous. Then you will start waiting for that alarm ring that will save you from this torture. It is just another thought – let it go like a cloud. But if you really want to sleep – it is OK to stop meditating, but then make a nap instead. If you have a boost of energy after stopping the practice – then it was boredom, not the sleepiness.
Pleasant feelings. This is the enemy of everyone who practices meditation. People attending prolonged meditation courses cannot master the practice because they seek pleasant feelings. You may start feeling vibrations in your whole body (might be blood flow in your veins), might see the light (because the eyes were closed for too long), you might feel weightless (because of prolonged sitting without movement). It is pleasant, but the moment you start enjoying those feelings you lose concentration. Many people meditate only to get those feelings, they think this is the manifestation of enlightenment (oh, I saw the light and my body was so light!). NO! Treat pleasant feelings like pain. At first, ignore them, then you can concentrate on them, and then go back to your practice.
4) Training of mind
When the mind is concentrated, you can start the training. Depending on your aim there are different types of training. You will not go jogging if you want to train hands, and you won’t do push-ups if you want to train legs. There are two main types of practice:
- Removing old reactions.
- Creating new reactions.
Removing old reactions
Usually, it involves observation of your body. All your reactions start in your body, be it physical action starting as a tension in muscles, or a thought ignited by something you felt or saw.
Removing reactions to feelings. Our body continuously sends many impulses to our brain – check facebook, it is pleasant; smoke a cigarette, it is pleasant; stop exercising, it is so unpleasant; enough work, it is so unpleasant. It is only about pleasant and unpleasant. The best way to stop automated reactions is to stop reacting to pleasant and unpleasant (yes, both!). Observe basic feelings in your body – pressure, heat, tension, tickling, pulsing, pain and concentrate on them. If you will be able to observe and recognize basic feelings, you will stop considering them as pleasant and unpleasant and you will stop automated reactions. You will become the master of yourself.
Master tip: after some years of practice, you will see emotions like anger, frustration, even depression as a set of basic feelings occurring in various places of your body and you will be able to control your reaction to them. Just imagine – your body feels anger, but your mind does not.
Removing tension. Stress in our mind is followed by the tension of muscles in our body. Most often the tension in muscles remain for a long period and might become constant. Strange as it is – after a stressful day your body becomes stiff – you can observe it easily. However, the opposite is also true – tension in body sends a message to the mind that something is wrong and that causes stress. So, to reduce the stress you can try reducing this constant tension in the body. Try to relax your muscles one by one, bit by bit. If you do, the next time stress will come much more slowly.
Meditation under extreme conditions. If you want to really stop automated reactions to external triggers – meditate under strong triggers. Monks in Japan do this under a cold waterfall. You can try to do this in a noisy place, where other people are present (some public park). Try concentrate and relax under such conditions, and your mind will become like a laser quickly. But this is extreme – master level.
Creating new reactions
Verbalisation. When you repeat some mantra, which meaning you understand, that meaning might become a new reaction. If you repeat “I love all the people, I love all the people …” but you don’t really love them, or you are not sure what that love is, then you will have no new reaction. Many sects will try to convince you to repeat some predefined text, so, eventually, you will start believing what you repeat. That is dangerous. Also, you might try to repeat Indian mantras carrying some “ultimate meaning”. Translate them and understand them, otherwise, they will just provide rhythm to your breath and that’s all.
Visualisation. When you imagine things that you want to happen, you reprogram your body and mind to seek those things. The whole book “Think and grow rich” was about that – this is actually a basic wisdom known for thousands of years. Try imagining your dream achievement in detail, with all the basic feelings – sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. This way, your body and mind will seek to recreate those basic feelings in the real life and will create some new reactions to achieve this.
The difference between daydreaming and visualization is the attention laser. If you concentrate your dream to a laser – you burn it into your main processor.
Changing views. This one is similar to visualization, but instead on thinking about things to do in future, concentrate on how do you want to think or feel about something already present.
Try imagining, that you see the world through X-ray. Then all the people will look like skeletons and all the differences between clothing, race, social status will disappear. This will make you more tolerant and self-confident.
Try imagining how disgusting different parts of a human body is. Nice hair? Imagine them in your soup. Nice skin? Imagine it peeled off and hung on the wall just like animal fur. This will reduce lust, and some other body related cravings.
You can do something positive too. Try thinking about the people you love and try to feel this love. Then switch the object of your concentration to the whole world. This way you will develop your love and compassion to the whole world. (That is how Dalai Lama meditates)
Try remembering that you will die sooner or later. Then you will have more motivation to spend your every second meaningfully. Or you can even try imagining yourself as dead already. This will set you free from opinions of others. (That is how Japanese samurai meditated according to Hagakure)
Know what you want to achieve before starting meditation. Because if you practice well, your mind will be freed from different automated reactions. When there is no automated reaction, then your body will ask your mind – so, what are we going to do now? If you don’t have an immediate answer, old reactions will come back. Wanna stop anger? Think about replacing it with equanimity. Wanna stop smoking? Think about replacing it with a tea. Wanna stop facebook? Think about replacing it with a daydreaming.
My aim was to reduce overthinking. Even meditation did not help me until I realized that instead on concentration on thinking I must direct my attention laser towards the actions I do right now. “Thoughts! Go away!” – this will not work. “Thought! Give space to activities!” – that will do.
5) Applying in everyday life
Meditation is not an activity for pleasure. It is the training of the mind. If you train well, you don’t need to think about “how to apply this in everyday life?”. Just like being stronger – you don’t think about this, you can just carry more. The well-trained mind will be able to concentrate easier in more stressful situations. The work efficiency will increase naturally because you will be able to resist distractions and interruptions. Stress will be reduced because you will be able to notice what is happening in your body through basic feelings. And much much more scientifically proved and not proved benefits (my benefits in this article).
However, there are some ways how you can apply meditation in everyday life consciously.
Remember meditation object. While meditating, you try to concentrate on some object (breath, mantra, image), your mind is calm, your body is relaxed, your breath is stable, your sitting position is stable. Whenever you face a stressful situation – remember meditation object: concentrate on your breath, repeat the mantra, remember the image. Your body will remember that feeling, and your mind will become a bit calmer, the body will become a bit more relaxed, you will feel a bit more self-confident. That is all you need sometimes.
Observe the feelings. When you face negative emotions, observe what feelings in your body they invoke. The tension in muscles? Heat in the chest? Trembling in legs? The moment you notice those feelings, they can be reduced and emotion will be reduced with them as well.
Breathe mindfully. Breath is always with you. Observe your breath – is it stable or jumping? Is it deep or shallow? Is it slow or fast? If you want to stop hurrying, slow down your breath first. If you want to stop worrying, make your breath stable and deep. Three mindful inhalations will stop the negative rhythm. You can do this at home, at your job, in a meeting, talking on a phone, even while talking to people.
Concentrate on negative feelings. Meditation is used widely in medicine for pain relief. (I don’t want to just google a random article, but if you do not believe me – you can find plenty for sure). If concentration on pain reliefs it, what else could it relief?
Other ways of meditation
Meditation is everything that involves some concentration of the mind and control of the body. Other examples of meditation:
- Yoga. Concentration on movement, tension, breath.
- Tai chi. Concentration on movement, tension, breath.
- Prayer. Concentration on the object of the prayer.
- Drawing, playing an instrument or any other type of art. Concentrating on the activity you do. Losing your concentration is a cause of failure or poor performance.
- Climbing. Concentrating on stability, movement, tension. Losing your concentration might be the cause of death.
- Long hiking, running a marathon. Concentrating on will power to keep moving while all the body is exhausted and in pain.
- Watering plants.
- Brushing teeth.
- Preparing food.
- Cleaning the floor.
The list is neverending, many cultures had many types of concentration practices not called in this fancy new-age word Meditation. If you know other ways to meditate or some useful articles, please share here in the comments.
Good luck in your practice!
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