HOW TO MEDITATE
What you need to meditate
It is important to be comfortable while meditating. Not all of us are able to sit comfortably in the traditional position (as shown in the diagrams below). In such cases sitting on a chair or stool is perfectly acceptable. Loose clothing is also a good idea as there will be less chance of restricting circulation during your sitting, and if possible find a location that is quite. Meditating in the dark can lead to sleepiness so have the room lit.
If you choose the traditional way of sitting then you will need;
- A cushioned mat (about 80 cm by 80 cm, 2 to 3 cm thick). A folded blanket can be used.
- A round cushion (about 30 cm in diameter and about 20 cm high). It is important that the cushion is firm so that it retains its shape over your sitting.
- A soft flat cushion of sufficient size to rest the hands on (this is optional)
The ways of sitting during meditation
Full Lotus posture: The cushion is placed towards the back of the mat so that when you sit on it the knees and feet can rest on the mat. Place your left leg on your right thigh, and right leg on you left thigh. Then, place your right hand on your left hand and the tips of two thumbs should touch each other.
Half Lotus Posture: The only difference is placing one leg on the top of the other one.
Burmese Posture: Here the legs are unfolded.
Kneeling Posture: You can sit on a meditation kneeling seat as shown or a large firm cushion. There are a number of kneeling seats which are very suitable.
Seated Posture: You should sit towards the edge of the seat with the feet placed flat upon the floor. Place a cushion between your back and the backrest of the chair to ensure an upright posture.
New practitioners often feel that “true” meditation can only be done either in the full or half lotus positions. These postures developed in cultures where sitting on the floor was very natural. In our modern western society many people find it painful to sit in these positions and attempting to do so can actually become an impediment to the meditation practice. Seated or kneeling postures are just as effective for meditation as the Lotus postures.
Preparing for meditation
Sit on the cushion or chair with the base of your spine located at the centre. Adjust the position of your body to make sure that you are in a stable position before crossing your legs. Loosen any article of clothing that you feel is restricting. Have your eyes about one third opened, with your line of sight about an arms length in front of you. Keep your focus as soft and relaxed as possible. As shown in the photographs above keep the ears in line with the shoulders and the head upright. The important point is to keep the posture upright in a relaxed way. Sitting too rigidly will lead to muscle strain and tiredness whereas too relaxed will result in drowsiness. The hands are placed lightly onto the lap and close to the body, with the right hand on your left hand and the tips of two thumbs touching as shown above, and in alignment with the centre of the body. The arms should be not be held tight against the body.
The meditation practice
There are 3 stages: Entering, Dwelling, and Ending.
Taking deep breathes produces an immediate sense of calm and so this technique is used at the start of meditation. Firstly inhale strongly through the nose, using the stomach muscles (ie force the stomach out) to ensure the breath fully inflates the lungs. Tilting slightly back can help this process. Then exhale strongly through the mouth by tilting the body forward and drawing the stomach in. Repeat these deep breaths two more times. Now take three more breaths, lighter than the first breaths but deeper than normal breaths. This will enable you to move into a normal breathing pattern. With these six starting breaths ensure that the breath flow evenly and steadily as possible. While inhaling sense that the air fills the entire body, and while exhaling sense that tension and negativity leaves the body. Now breathe normally and steadily through the nose. Have your the lips lightly touching, the teeth slightly apart and the end of the tongue resting lightly up against the palate behind the teeth. Press your joined hands down onto your lap several times to set your body in an upright posture. You will now enter the Dwelling phase.
The nature of the practice in the Dwelling phase (the main body of your meditation) depends on your level of experience and so graded level of approaches are given.
a) Breath counting
For those at the very beginning of learning meditation the technique of Breath counting should be used. This involves mentally counting your breaths (e.g. as you breath in say “one” in the mind, “two” with the next breath in and so on). At the same time maintain your focus on the breath as it moves in and out of the nose. Breath counting can be done in two different ways;
Short form: Count “one” as you breath in, and “two” as you breath out. Start again once you reach ten, and keep repeating this over the Dwelling phase.
Long form: With this form count after each cycle of breathing instead (that is after a breath in, then out).
Try the Short form first, and once comfortable with this form move to the Long form.
If you loose count then simply restart at “one”. Avoid getting frustrated with Breath counting as this will be counter-productive. The aim of counting is not to try and reach “ten”, but to help focus the mind on the breath. As the ability of the mind to concentrate improves with practice you will find that you will naturally and effortlessly be able to complete full cycles of counts to ten. Once you reach this stage you can proceed to the next stage of Dwelling, Breath observation.
b) Breath observation
In this form you focus the mind on your breathing. Observe your breath as it moves through the nostrils into the lungs and as it leaves your body through the nostrils. You should have a sense of your breath filling and emptying from your body. Naturally your mind’s attention will drift. You may find yourself thinking of something hurtful that was said to you during the day or chores that need to be done. When this happens imagine these thoughts fading away and return your mind back to the breath.
Why is the breath so important in meditation? Your life depends on breathing, with each breath a reminder that you have life and that one day the breath will stop. Your breath is a constant reminder that life is impermanent. With practice you will find that the mind remains more and more resting on awareness of the breath. It is the time to move to the next stage, Awareness of false thoughts.
c) Awareness of false thoughts
This is the ultimate focus of our Zen practice of sitting meditation. You, as the practitioner, now progress to the stage of attaining serenity without focusing on breathing. When a thought arises you do not follow it but let it subside. There is no active pushing or suppression of thoughts, but rather a sense of the thought drifting up to you on the mental stream and then drifting away. The mind should remain in a clear and bright state. In some meditation practices the aim is to have “no thoughts”. This is clearly not the case here; it is the letting go of the thoughts that is the essence of this practice.
As you continue with your practice, the thoughts (called “false thoughts” as they are not part of your true essence) will arise less frequently. As the mind grows quieter there will be times of no focus on thoughts or breath, and you will find yourself in a state where the mind is “just is” and that your awareness spreads everywhere without resting on any one thing. In this state the mind is like a pool of still crystal clear water. In our practice we refer to this as when the “master” (true nature) appears. This is also referred to as when “Concentration and wisdom arise at once,” as taught by the Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng.
Now comes time to bring the meditation session to a close. Silently recite the “Transference of Merit”
“I vow that the merit and virtue from this will go everywhere and reach everyone, all of us and all living beings so that we will realise and practice the Buddha way”
Now repeat the same pattern of breathing you used when entering the meditation but in reverse order (i.e. the three deep breaths last). As you exhale feel that all afflictions and illnesses leave your body through the breath.
Sitting, especially for more than an hour, can create stiffness in the body. For this reason we massage and stretch our bodies to relieve this stress. During this stage we maintain the mind in a quite and relaxed state.
Massage each hand, rubbing the palms and fingers. Do each hand for about 30 seconds.
Bend and raise your head 5 times so that you drop your chin down towards your chest.
Rotate your head your head from one shoulder to the other 5 times, then bend and raise your head 1 more time.
Rotate the head through a circle, 5 times clockwise and 5 times anticlockwise. Make sure that you keep the movement gently and relaxed.
Move your right shoulder in a shrugging movement (i.e. raising it towards the ear) for 5 times, and then repeat for the left shoulder. Then shrug both shoulders together 5 times.
Rotate the shoulders in a circular motion clockwise 5 times then anticlockwise 5 times.
Rub the heels of the palms together vigorously so that they become warm then press the heels against the eyes. Repeat this.
Massage the muscles of the face for about half a minute. Massage on either side of the nose, the cheeks and around the mouth.
Massage both ears, the scalp (moving the finger tips across the scalp), and front and back of the neck (rubbing the hand down the line of the muscle). Massage each location 20 times.
Then, massage your shoulders and sides with long strokes, each side for 5 times. Massage your back, chest, and stomach by rotating one hand on the front of your body and the other on your lower back (this is with the back of the hand). Then rub the base of the back on either side of the spine using both hands. Do each part 5 times.
Massage the sides of your hips, then the thighs by long firm strokes down towards the knees.
Extend your arm and massage along its length by rubbing towards the hand, 5 times. Repeat for the other arm, including the armpit.
Unfold the legs and rub each knee with both hands in a circular motion for about 10 seconds.
Rub the legs in up-and-down motion to circulate the blood.
With the legs stretched in front of you reach towards your feet for a gentle stretch.
Take the cushion out and rest one calf on the cushion so that your can massage the bottom and top of the foot. Rotate the ankle in both directions 10 times. Repeat for the other foot.
With the legs stretched in front of you reach towards your feet for a gentle stretch.
Finally rotate the upper body rapidly from one side to the other with the arms extended but very relaxed. Let the arms flop against the body as you rotate.
Stand up, recite the Metta Suttra, recite the “Transference of Merit” verse and prostrate to pay homage to the Three Jewels.
Common issues that can affect our meditation
Salivation: This may mean that your mind is wandering and following your thoughts to much i.e. you are lacking focus. Another reason could be that you have not drunk enough water and are slightly dehydrated. Bring you focus back to your Breath. Taking a deeper breath as you swallow can help bring back focus.
Head Tension: This may mean that you are being too rigid and aggressive in trying to meditate i.e. you are trying too hard to focus and control the mind. This causes tension to build up. You should relax yourself and remember to “let go” of false thoughts.
Back Pain: May mean that you are trying to sit in a position unsuitable for your body so that you may need to move to something more comfortable like a chair. It may mean your back is bending a bit much so that you need to sit more upright.
Chest Pain: This could be caused by holding your body too rigid and straight. You need to relax the chest by bending slightly at the base of the chest ie at the diaphragm. If your breath is too shallow you will need to take longer light breaths.
Shoulder Pain: Check that your shoulders are level. Possibly, one is drooping. If both shoulders are painful, it means that your arms are too tense. Relax your arms as well as your body.
Pain In Your Sides: Your body is skew. You need to erect your body.