Creating a Meditation Practice
The biggest step is committing to practice every day
Meditation is “in.” According to the National Institutes of Health, more than thirty million people claim to use meditation as some sort of treatment. It would be wonderful if meditation could cure all ills, repair broken bones, relieve indigestion, and stop hair loss. Any such claims should be examined with a soupçon of skepticism.
One thing we have learned in recent years, however, is that there is no illness known to humankind that is not exacerbated by stress. The very fact that meditation, when practiced in the classical manner, requires that we stop other activities and focus the mind on the present, will in itself allay stress. However, the practice is not about sitting and doing nothing. Focusing the mind is not as easy as it might sound.
Research has also shown that meditation can be beneficial in dealing with anxiety, physical pain, and depression. Meditation is about actively training the mind so that we can live mindfully, become more aware of what is happening in the present, and alleviate suffering. Out of this is born wisdom and the first steps on the path of awakening.
Meditation, as taught by the Buddha some twenty-five hundred years ago, was not about eliminating stress or curing illnesses, other than the illness of delusion. Meditation was practiced for the purpose of gaining insight and wisdom so that the practitioner could gain an understanding of the true nature of phenomena including the “self.” Through this process we see how we create suffering for ourselves and those around us. Thus seeing, we realize that we can bring an end to such suffering. That rare, but attainable state, the complete extinction of suffering, is called “Nirvana.”
Even though the extinction of suffering remains a distant goal for most of us, every little step, every flash of insight, every moment of clarity, may be filled with such fascination that the journey can be wondrous. It must also be acknowledged that many steps along the way can be challenging. This path to happiness is not one in which we pursue pleasure. It is rather one in which we diminish suffering through insight and wisdom. Over time, one may begin to experience greater inner peace and tranquility.
Our entire quality of life can be impacted by minimal mental adjustments. A powerful method for achieving this freedom is called “Vipassana,” or insight meditation. The complex nature of the human mind/body experience can be deeply appreciated during this practice. In the beginning, short practice sessions are fine. Five minutes a day can later be extended to ten, then twenty and more.
To practice, choose a quiet place and let others know you would like not to be disturbed. Turn off the television, radio, and telephones. Decide on the time of day that you feel would be best to devote to your practice. Many meditators prefer the morning since it is often quieter and the day’s activities have not begun. However, the time of day is not nearly as important as the commitment to practice every day.
Sit in a dignified, comfortable, and alert position, with a straight back. Rest your awareness on an object of concentration. Traditionally, that would be the sensations of the breath. It will be your anchor. Each time the mind wanders, return your awareness to those sensations in a gentle manner, without self-criticism. We do this to develop greater concentration and train the mind to become an ally. This is called establishing a mind of “single-pointed focus.”
Sometimes people say that when they try to meditate their mind becomes restless and overactive. The truth is that what they are experiencing is what the mind has been doing all along. They only notice this mental busyness when they sit down and become quiet. Anything that comes up in meditation already exists within us. The development of greater concentration is not about creating new or different thoughts, feelings, or sensations, but rather bringing awareness to the actual thoughts, feelings, and sensations we are experiencing in the present moment.
The Buddha taught this approach to his followers and was so convinced of its effectiveness that he said, “This is the way for the refinement of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the eradication of suffering and grief.”
Breathe gently and remain peaceful. If we look for something special to happen, we will likely be disappointed. Meditation reveals the ordinary, and change happens slowly. Over time, however, practice and the insights to which it leads can indeed be transformative.
Calm allows clarity, from which skillful understanding and wisdom can arise. In meditation, we observe thoughts, feelings, and sensations without clinging to them, pushing them away, or judging them. They are not “my thoughts.” They are simply thoughts that arise. There is no possessor of those thoughts, feelings, and sensations; they are not happening to a self. There is only the experience.
For many, it is easier and a more joyful experience to practice meditation with others. This is the concept of sangha, or community. Advancing in meditation practice is usually best guided by an experienced teacher. The Community Meditation Center is one such sangha and is led by a faculty with more than 100 years of combined experience. All are welcome.
Good luck and enjoy your practice.