Although many sources say that meditation is difficult, if not nearly impossible to teach, learning about the various paths into meditation can help you choose a way suitable for your current state. Especially if you are teaching yourself, follow a program that makes you feel better rather than force yourself to adhere strictly to one discipline. Remember, as mystic Rabbi Nahman of Bratislava wrote, “God chooses one man with a shout, another with a song, another with a whisper.”
Read about the various types of meditations described and try one for 10 minutes a day for two weeks. If it is right for you, you will feel better after doing it, and will want to increase the time gradually. A meditation may suit your phase of development for a while, and then it may be appropriate to try another.
Take an object (a natural one works best) and hold it at comfortable eye’s distance. Feel free to move the object or the eyes, but dynamically regard it without words. Each time you notice your mind wandering into other thoughts; gently remind yourself to return attention to the object. Use the same object for about two weeks, in 10 minute sessions. The focus, the attention, “binds the mind staff to one place.” In her fascinating book called “Kundalini Yoga for the West”, Swami Sivananda Radha discusses this type of contemplation of physical objects for beginning meditators.
Gurumayi, also known as Swami Chidvilasananda, recommends contemplating topics, questions, issues in your life. Once the mind is able to stay focused on an object, it is possible to allow the mind to focus on an issue, such as “what is love?” or “what is God?” or “what is forgiveness?” See her excellent book, “My Lord Loves a Pure Heart: The Yoga of Divine Virtues”, published by the SYDA Foundation.
This is a structured medtitation of the “outer” way. In traditional Zen practice, Suzuki Roshi of San Francisco Zen Center (author of Zen Mind, Beginners’ Mind) taught the practitioner to count to ten breaths and then start at one again. Lawrence LeShan found, in teaching meditation in numerous workshops across the country, that most people get lost attempting to sustain a count of ten, and recommends instead counting to four. Either way, this practice helps the practitioner develop focus and concentration, doing just one thing completely.
Meditation of the Bubble
One of the most difficult aspects of meditation is that the desired goal is to “still the mind.” One puzzles whether stilling the mind is always the best thing to do – perhaps there are some important thoughts, solutions to problems, intuitions arising during meditation that best be heeded. Meditation of the Bubble is an excellent antidote for those who’ve been overly influenced and perhaps unduly harsh in their attempts to still the mind.
In this meditation you observe your own consciousness without interfering. As you imagine yourself sitting on the bottom of a clear lake, let each thought, feeling, perception that arises be as a bubble arising into and passing from view. Observe it for the 8-10 seconds of this process, and then watch and wait for the next one. This helps you learn to observe without needing to make connections, or interfere in any other way.
Variations of this method: instead of sitting at the bottom of a lake, by lying on the ground watching puffs of clouds or sitting around a campfire watching puffs of smoke; also there’s the Tibetan method of thoughts are logs floating down the river.
The Theravadan schools are characterized by contemplation of self-generated rhythms within the body.
One example is with back erect – either in a sitting posture, or lying down – let the hands come to rest on the abdomen. Using the fingertips, sense the movement within the body for 15 minutes at a time. Focus can be on the digestion, the pulse, or the rising and falling of the abdomen due to breathing. As in the other methods, gently bring your attention back to the sensations felt by the fingertips when you notice your mind wandering.
The traditional meditation of this school is to focus on the edges of the nostrils during breathing, noticing the sensations during all parts of the breathing – inhale, pause, exhale, and pause.
Another traditional meditation is labelling sensations as they arise as pleasurable, not pleasurable, or neutral. This practice can be extended throughout the day during appropriate times (standing on line, waiting in traffic, taking a break from work) to increase focus, concentration, awareness on the inner experience.
Mantra meditation has been stereotyped and charicatured in Western culture. However, if viewed merely as “sound prayer” it can be more easily understood within the context of our Judeo-Christian culture. Gregorian chant and the liturgy of the Catholic Church dating from the middle ages and renaissance are examples of sound prayer. Many sources teach that it is not the particular sound that is holy – in other words, it is not necessary for a Westerner to repeat a Sanskrit mantra such as “AUM” or “Om Nama Shivaya” to achieve results. The mantra “so-ham” or “ham-sa” is supposed to represent the sound of the breath. A Westerner can use a sound from his or her own spiritual experience, such as “God,” “love,” “Jesus,” etc.
The Mantra is associated with the yoga of devotion – in Eastern terms, Bhakti Yoga. The “Teacher” or “guru” is the focus of the practiitioner’s devotion. We are not talking about blind devotion and total subservience, rather an informed gratitude towards the teacher for passing on teachings that have really made a positive difference in the quality of one’s life.
There are many excellent sources of information about chanting and mantra in Eastern spiritual practice. Repeating a mantra is a way of focusing the mind and associating it with an aspiration “to escalade the very sky.” In Siddha Yoga, for example, it is taught that repeating the mantra can cleanse “samskaras” and eventually enable the practitioner to experience the Truth, that we are One, and experience the bliss of love in our daily life. The Sivananda Companion to Yoga, by The Sivananda Yoga Center, published by Simon and Schuster, has a good section about Mantra meditation.
In this meditation, described by Lawrence LeShan, the practitioner develops an awareness of the inner emotional landscape by scanning the entire body. Very gently and carefully, seek that area within that is the locus of the tender emotions – love, forgiveness, sincerity. Once this area is found, rest in it. It is your safe harbor, inner sanctuary, refuge.
We have come to know Yoga here in the West in the last century, but there has been some archeological evidence to suggest that it began in Sumeria over five thousand years ago. Knowledge of Yoga was traditionally passed down from teacher to student; but there are some scriptures that have survived during the past thousand years, and have recently come to light as a result of the work of B.K.S. Iyengar, an Indian teacher who has developed a large school in India that has branches throughout the world. Knowledge about yoga has increased exponentially during the past 20 years. It has become more accessible through improvements in communication, and it has also become a subject for scientific and medical research.
Through the practice of gentle stretching and synchronising movement with breath, the performance of asanas can be greatly beneficial by toning muscles, nerves and organs; and increasing body awareness, mental concentration and focus which facilitates the practitioner to further develop a sitting meditation practice.
Tai Chi is the “slow” martial art that along with Chi Gung, recently gained favorable attention in Bill Moyer’s Journal dealing with Alternative Health. It evolved during the latter part of the 1800’s in China. There are several schools; each one has evolved a slightly different “form” or series of movements. The form can vary from teacher to teacher, even within the same school.
Usually consisting of 18-36 positions in the short form and 108 positions in the long form, the practice consists of slow, continual motion during which the practitioner is to cultivate awareness of the continuum of the movement along with the breath. Initially it has a calming effect, probably because it calms the autonomic nervous system. But a deep study of Tai Chi also reveal such benefits as increased mental power and physical healing, because not only is it connected to the tradition of martial arts, but it also is related to the Chinese system of medicine. Meridians, or energy pathways within the body, are associated with the various organ systems; and by massaging these meridians and organs, the practitioner’s health is enhanced.