More on meditation

“In Emptiness, there is Good; there is no Evil. There is Wisdom, there is Principle, there is the Way – the Heart is Emptiness.” – Go Rin no Sho

Last time I talked about why you should probably be meditating, if you’re not already. Here I’ll discuss how I meditate, how I work it into my schedule, and some tips for getting started.

My general practice is to do zazen (座禅– “sitting Zen”) meditation morning and evening, for 15 minutes or more each time. However, I employ quite a bit of flexibility, and as long as I do some meditation twice a day I’m fairly satisfied and seem to benefit quite a lot. Right now my university classes are on break, so my schedule varies a lot more than it does more than during the semester.


How I meditate

I’ve been doing this for a while, so I have a dedicated “meditation space”. This isn’t necessary, but like other dedicated spaces it does create a kind of instant focus. I generally sit on a pair of cushions on the floor (a thick round cushion, called a zafu 座布 in Japanese, supports my hips and a larger one underneath it cushions my knees). Sometimes I light incense; this element of ritual also seems to help transition out of the usual noisy mind.  My position depends on two things: how warmed-up my legs and hips are, and how long I intend to meditate.  If I’m planning to meditate for a longer period – say, more than 15 minutes – and my legs and hips are warmed up and feeling loose, such as after exercise, I’ll sit in the “lotus position” (kekkafuza 結跏趺坐 in Japanese).  This is by far the most stable and well-aligned position, and if it can be achieved in relative comfort allows for the best sustained meditation without postural problems. However, if my hips are tight, for example first thing in the morning, it is hard for me to attain this position comfortably enough that I can focus.  Also, for very short periods of meditation getting into the position seems more of a nuisance than it’s worth.  In these cases I simply sit in a seiza 正座 kneeling posture with my hips supported by the zafu. My formal training in meditation has been almost entirely in the Sōtō 曹洞 Zen 禅 tradition (there’s a good primer on how to do this style of meditation here), but most styles of meditation are largely similar: straighten the posture, relax the rest of the body, focus on the breath, breathe abdominally. Some styles meditate with eyes closed, but I keep mine slightly open, which makes dozing off less likely, and also is believed in the Zen tradition to lessen the intrusion of the imagination.


I find a timer useful: I use an iOS app called simply Zazen, which has lots of settings options, but really any kind of timer would do.  Alternatively you can light a stick of incense and simply meditate until it has burned out (this remains the traditional method of timekeeping in many Zen monasteries).


I usually meditate once shortly after I wake up in the morning. If I’m feeling sleepy I may wait until I feel more awake or until I’ve had a half-cup to a cup of coffee, since otherwise I may doze off (more caffeine tends to make my mind more hyperactive and more difficult to settle down, however). Then once again in the evening, after I come home from work or the gym and before dinner.  This was a tough habit to get into, as I’m usually hungry when I get home.  But a full stomach also can cause drowsiness (you want to be relaxed, but not drowsy), and I also like to have a glass or two of wine with dinner, which is also not very conducive to good meditation.  Also, after meditating, preparing and eating dinner is a much more relaxed and focused activity.  As I said, though, I’m quite flexible with the routine, and sometimes meditate at different times and for varying lengths, just to see how it goes.  In the end, I gravitate toward the morning-and-evening routine.


Here is my “meditation space”:


This is where I do most of my meditation practice.

This is where I do most of my meditation practice.

You don’t need anything like this to get started, though.  You can meditate virtually anywhere.  It’s not necessary to sit on the floor, especially if you find it uncomfortable; you can just as easily meditate seated in a chair (as noted in the link above), lying down (though in my experience this increases the likelihood of falling asleep), or even standing, if meditating for short periods of time. If ambient noise makes it difficult to focus, try earplugs, or a white-noise generator – I use an app called SimplyNoise. Paired with the timer, this makes it possible for me to meditate just about anywhere I can sit comfortably; I’ve even had very successful sessions on the train (make sure you set the timer a little in advance of your arrival time so you don’t miss your stop!). Or, if you can use headphones at work, you might be able to take short meditation breaks right at your computer (turn the screen off). Some people find white noise a little disconcerting at first, but I find it masks ambient noise well, and has a calming effect – the oscillating varieties especially end up sounding very much like wind blowing through trees, or surf, which you can also find recordings of, and which also do a good job of masking distracting ambient noise. If you can actually sit in a place where such sounds are part of the natural environment, even better!


Key points to remember:


1. Straighten up.  Hold your head up, elongating the back of the neck, chin tucked very slightly. Proper posture for meditation is often described as either pressing the crown of the head toward the ceiling, or feeling as if you were suspended from it by a thread attached to the crown of your head. The spine should be in its natural “S” curve, with the lower abdomen slightly protruding. If you try your meditation lying down (this is basically what in the shavasana or “corpse pose” in yoga is), the posture should be essentially the same, except with less curve in the spine and the abdomen will protrude less or not at all. Remember the caveat about lying down, though: it’s much easier to fall asleep like that.


2. Relax everything else. Let your shoulders down and back, relax your face, chest, abdominal muscles, arms, and legs. Experiment with different sitting postures and find the best combination of stability and relaxation for you.


3. Focus on your breath. Breathe through your nose, or in through your nose and out through your mouth, and breathe abdominally.  Your ribcage should ideally not expand and contract at all, or at most only very slightly.  You may discover that you have a lot of tension in your abdomen you didn’t realize you were carrying there, and it may take some attention to release it. Do not force your breath in any way (except possibly in the preparation phase: I find a few forcible exhalations and inhalations right at the outset sometimes helpful to “reset” my breathing and relax my abdomen). Relax, and carefully notice the sensations of breathing.  Allow them to fill your consciousness.


4. “Follow” your breath; “watch” your mind. One of the most basic practices is to simply count your breaths from one to ten, then starting over again, repeating until you have finished the time you have decided on. Try simply counting along internally as you allow your breath to happen naturally: “onnnnnnne… twooooooo… threeeeee….” (you can also try inserting “and” on the in-breaths).  At some point, other thoughts will creep (or barge, as the case may be) into your consciousness.  This is inevitable.  Do not try to stifle them, and do not berate yourself for having them. Simply observe them, as if from a great distance, and let them go, returning to your breaths and counting them.  Likewise, you may notice that your posture has slipped in some way: your neck is kinked, or your lower back has become rounded.  In these cases as well: don’t berate yourself, just gently correct your posture. Be disciplined, but be kind to yourself.   By the way, if you at some point forget your counting, but no other thoughts intrude, that’s fine: good even – in fact, that’s one of the later “steps”.  You may find yourself in a very quiet space in your mind for a while; if so stay there. When thoughts intrude, you can return to counting breaths. Don’t feel in a rush to get to “that place”, though, and don’t worry if it doesn’t happen for a long time. Just relax, and count the breaths, paying attention just to the physical sensation of breathing. With practice, your mind will eventually become “empty” for longer stretches on its own.


5. That’s it – you’re meditating!


How long to meditate


Even as little as five minutes has a noticeable effect on my focus and the quickness of my mental processes. At a maximum, 45 minutes: even at intensive Zen meditation retreats (known in Japanese Zen as sesshin 摂心), the practitioners take short walking breaks after sessions of this length. As I mentioned previously, personally it usually takes me 15-20 minutes to shake off the worst of the “monkey mind” and reach a really deep calm.  If I have time, once I get to this condition I’ll stay there for as long as it persists naturally, usually 10-15 minutes.


My suggestion: start slow. Try ten minutes at first.  If that’s frustrating, even five.  As you practice it should become easier, even pleasurable, and you’ll be able to continue for more sustained periods without too much difficulty.

If you’re just getting started meditating, or even if you’ve been meditating for a while, let us hear about your experience in the comments.Also, let me know what you think about the inclusion of the kanji 漢字 for Japanese terms: interesting/informative? Intrusive/distracting? Just kind of there? Your input is appreciated. Thanks!

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