University Counseling Center
If you go to your doctor for stress related problems, she or he will likely tell you that perhaps the best treatment for stress is Meditation. The suggestion that you start meditating leads you to two problems. The first is where to get appropriate direction in how to meditate. By finding this website, you’ve already solved that problem. The other is understanding exactly what Meditation is.
Meditation is a three step process that leads to a state of consciousness that brings serenity, clarity, and bliss. As depicted in the first illustration, our “normal” state of mind is actually not quite so. We receive sensory stimuli and react in a completely uncontrolled way (although we tell ourselves we have great control). We bounce from one thought to another and follow with our emotional and physical reactions. The same thought can bring about diametrically opposite reactions at different times. For instance, we may see a dog and then start a thought process that reminisces about a pet dog we once had and loved. Emotionally, we then start feeling all warm and cuddly; physically, we feel very relaxed. Another time, we may see the same dog and fear it may attack us and start thinking paranoid thoughts, get fearful and uptight physically.
The second illustration demonstrates Concentration. This is the first step in Meditation and is the start of gaining control over the mind and thereby life. The procedure is deceptively simple and seems like it would be very easy to do, but there are few tasks more difficult to master. The idea is to pick an object/subject to place your attention on and then to focus exclusively on it without diversion. An example of this would be if you decided to focus on love. To start, you would relax your body, sit in a comfortable position, calm your emotions and begin repeating the word “love” over and over. The problem is that your mind has been your master your whole life and won’t easily relinquish its position. To trick you back into obedient slavery, your mind will divert your attention, often by giving you a tantalizingly interesting distraction. It usually goes something like this: You’re sitting there repeating love, love, love when your mind suddenly adds “I love candy. They sell the candy I love at the 7-11 up the road. I can get into my car and drive there and get that candy. I know it will be delicious when I bite into it …” and so there you are — instead of concentrating on love, you’re eating an imaginary candy bar at a 7-11. What you are supposed to do is to witness your being distracted and return to concentrating on the object of your meditation. Concentration is well worth persevering in and ultimately liberating, spectacular and a blessing.
The third illustration depicts Meditation. Here we have unbroken attention. The classic description of the difference between Concentration and Meditation is given in the example of pouring oil from a bottle into a bowl. At first the oil drips out a drop at a time. This is concentration. Then the oil comes out in a steady stream. This unbroken pouring out is Meditation. If you really examine the process closer, you would notice that when the oil was coming out drop by drop, each drop caused a splash and the droplets of the splashing can be considered analogous to the distractions that interrupt our concentration. Once the stream starts becoming steady it flows effortlessly. Similarly, when Concentration flows into Meditation, the attention paid to the object of Meditation becomes deeper and deeper effortlessly and spontaneously, true knowledge about the object presents itself.
Using love as the example again, you would concentrate on love, love, love, love. You might then find your mind filling with thoughts of love — motherly love, fatherly love, love of country, love of money, qualified love, unqualified love, puppy love. Everything in the universe that love is connected to will come to you. Every feeling of love, every sensation, every thought. And since, as Albert Einstein tells us, everything in the universe is relative to everything else, ultimately your meditation on “love” will connect you to everything. At this point, the unity of the object of your meditation and your mind, as illustrated in the fourth illustration, occurs. This is the state of Contemplation and is the pentultimate state of consciousess. Where we usually are only conscious of our body and ego and consider ourselves apart from the rest of the universe, with the experience of Contemplation we become conscious of the cosmos and know ourselves to be a part of it and realize our unity with all of it. This is Realization, Cosmic Consciousness. Thus the justification in expending whatever energy is necessary to learn to meditate and to begin to make Meditation an important part of our lives.
Mindfulness Meditation: (Mindfulness of Breathing)
In the mindfulness of breathing we use the breath as an object of awareness. We follow the physical sensations of the breath as it flows in and out of the body. This meditation practice isn’t a breathing exercise. We allow the breath to flow naturally and are simply aware of it. So there is no control over the breath. One of the first things we learn when we try to do this meditation practice is how distracted our minds are! All sorts of thoughts and feelings flow into our awareness, and then we find we’ve forgotten all about the breath. This is a good thing to learn. If we don’t know this we can’t do anything about it. Most of what comes into our minds is not very useful, and often it’s actually bad for us. For example we find ourselves worrying or getting angry, or putting ourselves down. The simple principle behind this meditation practice is that if we keep taking our awareness back to the breath — over and over again — then our mind gradually quiets down and we feel more contentment. Usually we do this with the eyes shut, to minimize distraction.
You’ll need to know how to sit effectively, so you can either go to the Meditation Posture guidelines or, if you already know how to sit, then go directly to the Meditation Practice.
The first thing to learn in meditation is how to sit effectively. There are two important principles that you need to bear in mind in setting up a suitable posture for meditation.
- your posture has to allow you to relax and to be comfortable.
- your posture has to allow you to remain alert and aware.
Both of these are vitally important. If you’re uncomfortable you’ll not be able to meditate because of discomfort. If you can’t relax then you won’t be able to enjoy the meditation practice and, just as importantly, you won’t be able to let go of the underlying emotional conflicts that cause your physical tension.
From reading that, you might well think that it would be best to meditate lying down. Bad idea! If you’re lying down your mind will be foggy at best, and you may well even fall asleep. If you’ve ever been to a yoga class that ends with shavasana (the corpse pose), where people lie on the floor and relax, you’ll have noticed that about a third of the class is snoring within five minutes.
Forget about meditating lying down. The best way to effectively combine relaxation AND awareness is a sitting posture. You don’t have to sit cross-legged, or even sit on the floor. The following will show you how to set up an effective posture in three positions: sitting in a chair, sitting astride a cushion or on a stool, and sitting cross-legged. All of these work: the important thing is to find one in which you will be comfortable.
Remember: you may think it looks really cool to sit cross-legged, but if you don’t have the flexibility it takes to do that then you’ll simply suffer! Make it easy on yourself. Choose a posture that is right for you.
Before we can start on Stage 1, we need to do some essential preparation — what is called “Stage 0”. Stage 0 involves setting up your meditation posture, then taking your awareness through your body relaxing as much as you can.
You can practice Stage 0 as a practice in its own right, spending anywhere from five to twenty minutes on this exercise, or you can go straight into Stage 1 after working through the material below.
Start with adjusting your posture
- Adjust your cushion height so that your back is relatively straight, and also relaxed
- Make sure that your hands are supported
- Relax your shoulders, letting them roll back to open your chest
- Adjust the angle of your head, so that the back of your neck is relaxed, long and open, and your chin is slightly tucked in
You’re now ready to begin working on body awareness and relaxation.
Take your awareness through your body, from your feet to your head, becoming aware of every muscle, and relaxing it as much as you can. If your awareness wanders, just come back to your body. Once you’ve scanned through your entire body from your feet to your head, then be aware of your body as a whole, continuing to make sure your posture is open and upright, and that you are continuing to relax.
Then notice the sensations of your breathing — right in the center of your experience. Let your awareness fill your breathing, and let your breathing fill your awareness. Just keep on bringing your awareness back into your breathing, and let the relaxed rhythmic movements of your breathing have a calming effect on your mind.
You can continue doing this for several minutes, or you can go onto Stage 1 of the practice, which involves counting your exhalations.
Once you’ve taken a tour of your whole body, begin to focus on the physical sensations of your breath. Let yourself become absorbed in the sensations of the breath flowing in and out of your body. Notice how the sensations are always changing.
Then begin counting (internally) after every out-breath:
- Breathe in – breathe out – 1
- Breathe in – breathe out – 2
- Breathe in – breathe out – 3
- Breathe in – breathe out – 4
- Breathe in – breathe out – 5
… and so on until you reach ten. Once you get to ten, start again at one. Keep following the breath, and counting, for at least five minutes. If your mind wanders, just come back to experiencing the physical sensations of the breath, and begin counting again. Bring as much patience into the process as possible.
In the second stage of the practice we continue to count in cycles of ten breaths, the difference being that this time we count just before each inhalation. Whenever you regain your awareness after being distracted, take your mind gently back to the breath.
Now you’ve tried the first two stages of the practice, we recommend that you spend a few days practicing them together, and appreciating the subtle differences between them. Once you’ve done that, feel free to come back and try stage three.
As you’re practicing stages one and two together, you can return to the site and explore around these stages to answer any questions you might have.
In the third stage of the practice, drop the counting, and just follow the breathing coming in and out
OK, you know the score by now. Try doing all three stages for a few days. Practice them every day, if possible, and get to know them well. Watch out for any tendency to want to skip over one stage (maybe because you don’t like it as much as the others). Each stage has its own special function, so remember to do them in the correct order. You might want to make your meditation a little longer now, perhaps five minutes per stage, making fifteen minutes.
In the fourth, and final stage of this practice, begin to narrow the focus of your awareness, so that you’re focusing more and more on the sensations where the breath first passes over the rims of the nostrils.
Of course we don’t usually notice those sensations, but it’s an excellent exercise to try to be aware of the breath passing over your nostrils. Having to pay attention to such a refined sensation encourages your mind to move onto a more subtle level of perception. And since it’s not possible to remain aware of such a subtle sensation unless your mind is very still, the fourth stage encourages deeper levels of mental and emotional stillness.
Frequently Asked Questions
How often should I meditate?
Optimum results come from daily practice – once or twice daily. However, you may choose to meditate on an as-needed basis.
How long should my meditations be?
If you are just beginning meditation and wish to practice regularly, it’s best to start meditating 10 to 15 minutes once a day. After a while, you may want to increase that to 20 minutes once a day, or 10 minutes twice a day.
More meditation is not necessarily better. Why is this?
Meditation taps into some very powerful inner energies. These energies are very healing and uplifting, but it takes some time to acclimate to their higher frequency, and this is best done gradually. Also, these higher energies tend to catalyze some degree of emotional and physical detoxification… a release of stored negative energies. This may be particularly noticeable when you are first beginning to meditate (during or outside of meditation). If this initial detoxification is accomplished gently, you are more likely to continue the practice of meditation. Generally the experiences when one begins to meditate are quite enjoyable. People often report feeling more peaceful, positive, loving and centered in daily life. Many experience new insights and greater clarity.
How do I know when my meditation time is up?
When you think that your designated time is up, open one eye and peek at the clock. This won’t bring you all the way out of meditation. If there is still time left, close your eye and continue. You can also set a watch alarm or musical alarm, or place a wind-up kitchen timer under a pillow.
What time of day is best to meditate?
Any time of day is good. It is best to have a specific time that is your meditation time. At first, though, you may find it helpful to experiment with various times to see if one particular time of day consistently produces more enjoyable meditations. If you are having trouble finding time to meditate, do it first thing in the morning.
What should I be experiencing when I meditate?
The possible experiences when meditating are unlimited. They can range from extraordinary to ordinary; from blissful to boring; from peaceful to turmoiled; from astounding insight to incredible nonsense; there may be periods of no thought and periods of myriad thoughts; you may feel energy flowing or energy blocked; you may feel tired and foggy or quite alert. All of these experiences are alright and perfectly normal. The point is to accept whatever occurs in meditation.
Meditation experiences tend to be based on cycles of “clearing” and “clarity.” During periods of clearing – when we are releasing accumulated psychic toxins – experiences tend to be more thought-filled and not seem very deep. At times when there is less clearing, there tends to be more clarity and depth, and fewer thoughts. It is important to remember that both poles of this cycle are necessary and valuable parts of a larger process of profound growth and transformation.
At times in meditation I experience a state that feels a lot like sleep, but it’s not exactly sleep. What is it?
This state of consciousness has been called “Yogi Blackout” or “Yoga Nidra.” You have slipped into a deep state of awareness, but your inner senses are not alert enough at that time to experience this clearly. With continued meditation, you will gain more clarity at this level of consciousness.
Enlightenment for Beginners: Discovering the Dance of the Divine
The simple story about how (and why) you’ve been cleverly imagining yourself to be only a separate and limited Being.
Author: Chuck Hillig
Paperback, 236 pp.
Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings
The best-selling collection of the most popular enlightenment stories, anecdotes, and koans of Zen literature, introducing a generation of Americans to Zen.
Author: Paul Reps, Nyogen Senzaki
Paperback, 285 pp.
Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life
Draws on the Buddhist concept of “mindfulness”–of living fully in the moment.
Author: Jon Kabat-Zinn
Paperback, 304 pp.
To Know Your Self: The Essential Teachings of Swami Satchidananda
Author: Swami Satchidananda
Paperback, 264 pp.
The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
Author: Thich Nhat Hanh
Paperback, 140 pp.
The Path to Tranquility; Daily Meditations
A fresh and accessible introduction to his inspirational wisdom, offers words of guidance, compassion, and peace that are as down to earth as they are rich in spirit.
Author: Dalai Lama Bstan-dzin-rgya-mtsho
Hardcover, 413 pp.
The Only Dance There Is: Talks Given at the Menninger Foundation, Topeka, Kansas, 1970, and at Spring Grove Hospital, Spring Grove, Maryland, 1972
Based on talks by Ram Dass.
Author: Ram Dass
Paperback, 180 pp.
American Society for Meditation – RealAudio guided meditations and personal meditation coaching online.
Realization website – Techniques for finding enlightenment including yoga, meditation, self-enquiry, discrimination, Kundalini, and surrender.
Information adapted from websites belonging to American Society for Meditation, and Worldwide Online Meditation Center