You have read about the benefits of meditation and just want to get started. You are convinced that meditation can bring life lasting advantages and now you want a small map to guide you through the basics of meditation. You might have tried to sit once in a while, but never had a clear picture of what to do when and how to progress.
If you feel yourself nodding yes, then this beginners guide to meditation is for you.
This is just one way of getting started, a way I feel can have powerful and lasting effects (to also just gently let go in the end.)
Interested? This is how I have the article structured:
I will start describing a simple yet necessary posture. Then I would explain how to start a strong single pointed focus meditation practice first.
Why? It’s simple:
If you don’t develop a strong equanimity (non-volatile awareness) first, then you will be easily distracted when trying out insight meditation. You know, that area of getting your shit together (for the benefit of all beings, of course).
As I’ve been taught in numerous Buddhist retreats and monasteries, focus and insight are the two wings of meditation, you need both to fly. After reading the first phase of this beginners guide first, single pointed meditation, we cover quickly the basics that insights meditation can bring.
The Basics of Meditation
Sit in a comfortable position with your back straight, the crown of your head ‘pulled upwards’ and your chin turned in a little towards your chest. Preferably on a mediation cushion (pick a color) and a mat.
If you feel any pain in the knees or in the back or any other form of discomfort, slowly bring attention to that feeling, acknowledge its presence and the way it invites you to move. Then try to sit a little bit higher on a cushion. It is of essential importance that you can relax deeper and deeper, and potentially even fall asleep while sitting. If this is not the case on a mat, for any reason, sit in a chair or lie down on your back.
I once read that your skeleton in meditation should be the like a coat rack from which your limbs should just be able to hang. Picture a zen master and mimic. That is how we learn after all.
You can then add a few little rituals that make this moment yours. Put on some incense, say a few things that you’re grateful for, or imagine yourself doing what needs to be done. Like the divine wise horse and the great elephant, as the Tibetans chant.
I like to do all three things mentioned. I also try to release any bodily tension I unconsciously carry with me by doing the following movements:
Breathe in deeply and pull your shoulders up to your ears. Then pull them backwards and downwards while breathing out. Do it slowly and with awareness. Push your shoulders out to the front and then upwards while inhaling. Do this circle progression 5 times with deep inhalations and exhalations. Reverse the movement and do it for another five times in the other direction.
Now, the rules of the game are simple, but take a lifetime to master.
You place your awareness on one object. One only. Everything else that tries to steal it away from that object is a distraction. When you notice your awareness has left the object, you acknowledge what has distracted you, a thought, an emotion, a feeling, a sound, an image, and then gently but firmly touch your awareness back on the object.
Very broadly speaking distractions come in two forms. Pleasant and unpleasant. The first category can be something we like, or desire. We’d like to get closer. We move towards it.
The second category are unpleasant thoughts or feelings. We like remove ourselves from this. Either by adjusting our self-image to mediate any dissonance we might be feeling, or by ignoring tension and truths altogether.
All of these are distractions. The rule of the game is simple. Move your awareness back to the object.
(You can move if you feel pain, but never do it blindly.)
If you ever tried meditation, or if you’re under the illusion that meditation consists of having no thoughts, then you can imagine this being very tricky. Everything is in flux. This is known as impermanence. How to stay focused when everything moves around?
It is simple. Pick an object that is also always in flux. One that gives great biofeedback about your presence and state of mind. There is one used for thousands of years. You have it always with you. It automatically connects you to this very moment.
What is it?
The physical, bare, sensations of the breath. This will be your object of your focus.
If you are new to meditation, focus on the area around the belly, sucking air in, pushing air out. Try to breathe into the belly, here are the most veins that take up oxygen and helps the parasympathetic nervous system to calm you down. Having a lot of ruminating thoughts is the first step of being stressed out.
You develop concentration not by sticking to the object longer, but rather noticing the moments when you’re distracted. Especially be wary of justifications for your distraction. Thoughts like that are slippery slopes to missing large chunks of what happens. From your first person view, it’s not unlike dozing off.
In time, when you have developed a somewhat better concentration (read from now on, awareness of distractions, your own personal you can move to the sensations around the nostrils. The sensations here are harder to detect and thus you need to pay more attention.
Keep in mind that everything else other than the bare sensations is a distraction. Feeling good? Go back to the sensation of the breath. Having a good thought? Go back. Making sounds on the rhythm of the breath, and being focused on that? Then you are masking the true sensations of the breath at that moment. Investigate how it actually feels and go back.
You might want explicitly note every time you get distracted. So if you notice you are not on the breath anymore, label the moment ‘distraction’ and move your attention back to the object of meditation. Keep in mind, every time you notice you lost the object, you are making progress!
Start with 5 minutes twice a day. Move up once you feel like you could and are really interested in wanting to discover more. This can already happen after the first session.
Move up to 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 minutes twice a day. Perhaps even take a whole day where you practice 30 minutes every two hours, and take mindful walks between them.
How To Progress
When you are around the 10 minute mark you probably noticed already the crazy habitual stream of thoughts. It is NOT the goal to get rid of these, just being aware of them and what their effect is on your state of mind is enough. Their pull will lessen over time.
However, every time you get distracted from the breath, it means you didn’t notice the pull of the first thought that started another whole train of thoughts.
You can ask yourself, why exactly that thought, that moment?
The more you meditate, the more you will notice that thoughts are just clouds passing by in the mind space. But some thoughts still attract your whole attention. These are the ones that you desire, or, in other words, the ones that distract you from what is really happening in your body, on the sensational level.
These are the fantasies or worries that pre-occupy your existence because you don’t want to see what lies beneath.
When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick. Every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once. -Milarepa
The instruction here is to relax into your body on every outbreath, letting go, and focusing more intensely on the bare sensations on every inbreath. This creates a rhythm, a tendency, that actually resembles a kind of courage to face old neurosis and traumas.
With every breath you are more intimate with impermanence. Nothing is fixed, no stable ground to be found.
Thoughts will still be there, but they will become powerless. They will show their true face, not the commander of the human passions, but the slave that works for the passions.
The next step is to go deep into the sensations. At the start of an inbreath, the sensations are barely noticeable. At one point, where the speed of inhalation is the highest, the tingling around the nostrils will be the most intense. And at the end, when the lungs are quite full already the sensations slowly disappear.
When they are hard to distinguish from other stimuli around you, try to go deeper. Zoom in.
Can you feel a little more before they disappear? Is it really one sensation, or are there many small ones? Investigate and keep your eyes on the ball. Make it a game, try to catch the thought that pulls your awareness away from the object.
If you miss, just restart. Go back to the breath.
The more you meditate the more you find old layers of tension popping up in your awareness. Places where anxiety rests. These are the places that stress up when you are in a situation that seems hostile to you. This could be all the time (chronic tension).
The most common ones are the areas around the neck and shoulder, chest and groin. When you notice this, try to be mindful during the day. Just being aware of it and when possible, try to relax the tension.
If you do relax a bit, be extremely aware of the thoughts that arise while letting go. A certain psychosomatic phenomenon will always co-dependently arise with it.
(For example, the opening of the heart are for some individuals are paired with thoughts of self-judgment.)
When you go deeper into these areas, you might get distracted much quicker than when concentrating on the sensations of the breath. This is because your defense mechanisms house there.
You don’t like being aware of it, it feels like suffering.
You would rather be un-conscious of them. This is true every time you are completely into your thought stream and not in your body.
Thoughts can not feel suffering but your body can.
And if your body get’s too in-tense, we run into our own fabricated house of symbols. Remember that most people go through life, day in day out, without a fundamental trusting connection with their body.
To establish this, we need to be compassionate, be caring. Get massages, take sauna’s, eat well, exercise diligently and take enough rest. All these movements, if motivated by taking care of ones body, will greatly enhance your meditation practice.
Being scared and hurt can show itself in many ways, in anger, arrogance, pride, revenge, anxiety etc. These are the moments where true insight can arise. In moments of being vulnerable one can restore and heal parts of ourselves that we disowned a ling time ago.
The best way to do this is to include yourself into your circle of compassion.
If after a few months of being mindful of these problem areas you still can’t relax into them fully, then you could try to add yoga, tai chi, chi qong or dancing to your practice.
It opens up the tension, these are really powerful tool that are probably very uncomfortable for many. But, once the old knots disappear, you feel lifted, the world seems lighter and a more happy place. The different drives of your body start conversing with each other again.
At one point you will experience what is sometimes called access concentration. This is the point where nothing will distract you from the object of the breath. Thoughts still appear but they are in the background, just like the sensation of your legs while sitting right now.
They simply inform instead of screaming for attention. They start to know their place, just as another sense organ, not as the master and commander of your body (this is the ego illusion.)
At this point, which should be easy doable in 1-2 months of 20 minutes of meditation twice a day, you can choose to go three different, albeit overlapping, ways.
1. Develop Deeper Concentration
Continue focusing on the breath. Keep zooming in more and more. The breath is a great tool because the more you relax, the harder it is to detect the sensations. So the difficulty level goes up over time and so keeps challenging your limits.
Deeper concentration, being less prone to distraction, will benefit your overall well-being and other spiritual practices immensely.
At one point you can switch the object from the breath to the space of the mind. Here are where the small distractions lie that normally go unnoticed. The ones that pull you a little bit away from your moment to moment experience (because the mind doesn’t want to, I will elaborate a little bit on this later on).
The object is the mind which is everything that arises in the mind, and nothing else. Treat everything else, sounds, bodily sensations, pain etc. as a distraction. In the beginning it is very hard to distinguish this area from the more tangible sensations.
To make this a bit easier you can question yourself; what is the mind? Where does this question come from? Where is it located?
Just relax and see what answers pops up! For a great overview what is possible and how far the mind can train itself read The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind.
2. Entering Jhana
Jhanas are the blissfull altered states of mind one can enter during meditation. Jhana is also called ‘absorption’ or ‘ecstasy’. And that is exactly how it feels. During jhanas you are so completely absorbed into the object of meditation that all distinctions between the observer and the observed will cease to exist. It can give you great insight into reality and give a profound sense of bliss and joy.
There are eight jhanas but I will only elaborate on how to enter the first one. For more information you can check out this wonderful book Focused and Fearless: A Meditator’s Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm, and Clarity or this online free PDF.
If you entered access concentration and your body is as calm as can be, the places where you normally hold tension are now relaxed and thoughts are just whispers in the distance you can decide to enter the first jhana.
Slowly, without getting distracted, move your attention from the breath to a pleasant sensation. Most common areas are the hands, the chest or the breath itself. Focus on the pleasantness of the sensation. It is of utmost importance to not get distracted.
Don’t think to yourself how pleasant it is or if this is the right spot because it is very easy to lose access concentration. When you focus on something pleasant it is very likely it will cost you less effort.
In this way, you can, as it were, slide into the absorptive state. It might start out small, but it can grow to infinity in a non-linear way. In the buddhist scriptures it has been said that jhana’s act as a fire that can burn away mental defilements. Just keep in mind not to get attached to these blissful sensations!
3. Investigate The Three Marks of Existence
The three marks of existence are experiential truths you can investigate to liberate yourself from suffering.
Meditation is a tool to become skillful enough in this investigation that you can understand and face reality as it really is, at any given moment. You will not find the absolute, non-changing, timeless truth here, but will become a truthful person that can handle uncertainty, ambiguity and, most important, mortality.
Once you entered access concentration you can take any given phenomenon arising in your experiential field and find these three marks, a kind of constant falling apart while staying the same.
Anicca: Impermanence. Every sensory experience changes from moment to moment. There is no fixed substance anywhere. Everything is transitory. This is one of the easiest marks to grasp. Every sensation consists of thousand other sensations which in turn also consists of a thousand others. Some are slow, some are fast, but they never last.
To investigate this, find an object, any part of now you like, and see if you can find something that is not changing. If you find anything, take that as an object and investigate deeper. Even the worst pains and the highest joys don’t last forever and neither does the mental projection of an observer at a distance.
Dukkha: This is often translated as suffering but a better term is un-satisfactoriness. Since all phenomena are in a constant state of flux, there is nothing you can hold on, nothing you can control, nothing you can keep safe. But our desire is to get happy, and once we have happiness, to keep it. Yet this is impossible.
To investigate this, take any object and explore the anicca part of it and see what the mind does. It tries to hold the pleasant states or reject the unpleasant states. If it has something it likes, it wants more of it or wants to try to secure it. It is something we constantly do, something we can’t even imagine we can do without.
If we can let go of this continuous grasping, just like the tension I mentioned earlier, we get uplifted immediately. It takes some bravery and courage to investigate this, but it will also develop the strength needed to confront any issues you might have in life.
Anatta: Non self. There is no observer that observes. There is no thinker of thoughts, not hearer of sounds. There are just thoughts, just sounds. If you entered a jhana you understand that at that point, the observer and the observed are one.
But this goes for every single phenomena in our experience. At one point, there is just the breath, or just the hands, or just the ongoing stream of thoughts in our mind space. (Watch out! It is very easy to identify yourself with the one who has the thoughts, but remember, this ‘observer’ just arises and passes away too, it is just a mental construct designed to make something permanent).
If you made it this far, I want to thank you for reading my words. You clearly have an interest in meditation and I honestly believe it is one of most beautiful gifts we can give ourselves and others.
Every time you take a moment to sit, you show the world how courageous you are and that you are not afraid to take the whole universe into your comfort zone.
For those that show an interest in meditation but never really found a way to start or keep a daily practice. I know you can do it.
Yes, it’s hard, it’s not always fun and it takes time.
Sometimes you aren’t even sure why you are doing it at all. But isn’t this true for everything worth in life?
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Maybe it’s time to do away with the band-aids and accept our moment to moment experience as it really is and not as we wish it to be?
There is great source of joy and strength to be discovered, all it takes is a little discipline.