How to Meditate 1
It’s curious how hard we find meditating, given that all we have to do is to sit quietly with ourselves and watch what happens.
I suppose we all have images of the Buddha in our heads, sitting impassively in bliss beneath his bodhi tree; or of the smiling face of the Dalai Lama, who always seems so cheerful and inexhaustibly kind. People who are meditating always appear calm and at peace from the outside and we've no way of telling how busy their minds are inside, so it's easy to think that they can do it and we can't, because when we sit our minds just go crazy.
When I sit to meditate I spend a good amount of time watching my mind thinking, chattering and darting about. It will be projecting into the future, making plans for supper or wondering what to pack for a weekend away; it will wander into the past, remembering something someone said or did and wondering about it; it will fantasise, about someone or something, or some imagined possible future event. So often, to start with, my mind will be everywhere except right here, in my meditation, being still and quiet and focussing on a mantra, or whatever focus I have chosen for my meditation that day.
Don't think you're failing if your mind won’t keep still... it is the nature of your mind to think. That’s what it’s for. What you are actually looking for in your meditation is to drop behind all of those random thoughts to the quiet space that lies behind everything. What you are actually trying to do is to draw the diverse strands of your mind together into some sort of focus and to find a space in your mind where you can watch the never-ending movements of consciousness without getting involved in any of it. You're seeking to foster a sense of detachment, so that your mind can do it's thing while your focus is elsewhere, somewhere deep inside where you can be quiet and find peace and listen to whatever comes to you out of that silence. All this takes time and practice.
You don’t need to sit in lotus pose on a yoga mat to meditate. Not many people find lotus pose comfortable and if you’re not comfortable then you'll be preoccupied by your internal commentary on your position (...my hips hurt, especially the right one, why does the right one hurt more than the left? My foot’s going numb, maybe I should move, but I’m not supposed to move, I’m sure I’m meant to sit still while I meditate, now my lower back is aching, maybe if I sit up a bit straighter my back will stop hurting, but ouch now I’ve done that my foot has gone completely to sleep...). The chatter in your mind is enough without adding bodily discomfort to it. Perhaps one day, a seated cross-legged position will be comfortable for you, but until then find something that works for you now...
- Sit on the floor on a cushion with your back against the wall
- Sit on a hard backed chair, feet placed evenly on the floor (put your feet on a telephone book if your feet don’t reach the floor
- Kneel and sit on a stack of blocks/books
- Kneel with a bolster, or rolled up quilt between your legs
There are some beautiful places available for meditation – incense-filled rooms lit by candles, chapels, churches and yoga studios... there’s an Indian tradition of retreating to a cave to meditate. But the truth is that you can meditate anywhere. When I worked in London I used to meditate on the train (as long as I could get a seat) by listening to a guided meditation on my ipod. There's something very calming about being in a public space and moving towards your destination, but being lost in a good meditation.
The amount of time you spend on your meditation will vary according to how much time you have and where you are with your practice. When I started meditating, 5 minutes seemed like plenty to me. I couldn't seem to sit for longer without becoming irritated or uncomfortable in my body or my mind. And 5 minutes felt like enough; even that short amount of time left me feeling calmer and more clear in my mind. Now I sit for more like an hour and wish I had more time to give to it, but the essence of my meditation is the same now as it was in the beginning... periods of mental chatter, mixed up with images and fascinating daydreams, interspersed with beautiful moments of unclouded contentment and peace. Sometimes I sit and get lost in that feeling. Sometimes I sit and get lost in thought. Mostly it's a mixture of the two. Still, I keep my appointment with myself; I keep turning up to sit quietly and see what's there.
So meditation is really simple, it's being patient with yourself that's hard; it's being able to gently forgive yourself each time your mind takes you off track and to gently, calmly turn yourself back inwards every time. And it doesn't matter what you call it, either... quiet sitting, collect, prayer, meditation... It's just sitting with what is and learning not to judge it or colour it or try to make it different; it's listening and watching and learning how to be emphatically who you already are.