*Note: Before attempting meditation in the Buddhist tradition, I’d recommend taking a look at why we meditate.
The Buddha stated that the ultimate goal of entering the path is “unshakeable liberation of mind.” He also stated that meditation is the heart of that path. That said, many people believe that meditation is inaccessible to them; that it is something mystical or supernatural. And others feel that it is a waste of time or meaningless. In actuality, these thoughts and feelings are merely the labels of a non-liberated mind, and so are the very reasons to undertake the practice of meditation.
Meditation is useful to any human being, but can be especially beneficial to those living in the high-stress environments of big cities. Studies have indicated that meditation increases blood-flow, lowers blood-pressure, reduces anxiety, improves concentration and will-power, among many other things. For more information on the scientifically proven benefits, check out this Mayo Clinic Article.
Now that I’ve convinced you, the following is a very simple meditation practice that ANYONE can use. It is called mindfulness of breath meditation. Some accounts say that this is the type of meditation the Buddha ultimately used to attain enlightenment. In any case, it is very useful for the beginner.
What you’ll need:
- A quiet space: this can be anything from a large room to a designated corner
- A cushion (optional) or a chair. If you are new to meditation, chances are you will need a cushion. The purpose is for elevation of the hips to take pressure and strain off tight muscles in the hips, thighs and groin area. Sometimes, even the cushion does not alleviate the tension and a chair is required. There is nothing wrong with using a chair.
- Patience: meditation can be very frustrating for beginners, but do not fret. Like anything else in life that requires effort, it takes time.
I always recommend stretching before mediation because I tend to be on the stiffer side. If you are very flexible, I salute you and you may not need to stretch. For the rest of us here are a few simple stretches to loosen up the back and the hips. I also like to add child’s pose as the last stretch. Hold it for a minute.
Now that’s out of the way, find your spot. Place your cushion or chair down. If you are using a cushion or multiple cushions, the general recommendation is to be elevated about 1-3 inches from the ground, however every person is different and it may vary depending on your body. When I started, I needed about 4 inches elevation.
When you sit down on cushion or chair, make sure you are sitting on the edge of the seat in either case. Let your sitz bones anchor you into the ground. Your sitz bones are the two points at the bottom of your pelvis that point directly downward when you are sitting. You can feel them through your cheeks.
Let the spine be erect, but not rigid. This is a difficult concept to grasp at first, but it should feel as though your vertebrae are stacked and sitting comfortably one on top of the other. If you are a beginner, you will inevitably experience some sort of back, hip, shoulder or neck pain at first. It takes some time to figure out your best posture. Your shoulders should be hanging off of your spine (so to speak) and your neck should be long with your head feeling as though it is gently reaching toward the ceiling. A good way to find that head position is by making sure your chin stays down and level. Neither pointing up, which causes the neck to arch, nor retracted into the neck so much that your neck bends.
If you are sitting in a chair, your feet should be planted on the ground. If you are sitting on a cushion, you may cross your legs in any of the traditional postures. You should feel as though your legs are pretty released and the hips and groin are not doing much work to keep your body erect. Your lower back should not be arched or slouched. Try to find a balance between the two. Abs should be released. Finally, the hands should either be cupped, one over the other, palms facing up resting in your lap or each hand resting on your respective thighs, palms up or down.
- Set a timer for 10-15 minutes. I would not recommend doing more than that if you are a newbie. If you have a smart phone, there are many wonderful timers designed specifically for meditation.
- Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths to begin. You want to be sure you are breathing diaphragmatically or abdominally. This means when you take a breath, you should feel expansion in the lower ribs, stomach and lower back. Avoid high chest breathing.
- Let go of the deep breaths and breathe normally. This is important. You do not want to get into the habit of deep breathing. That is a different form of meditation.
- For now, you have two options. You can either focus on the rise and fall of your abdomen or the tip of your nostrils where you can feel the breath entering and leaving your body. Put all your concentration on one of those places. If your mind wanders (and it will), gently bring it back to the breath. AND THAT’S IT.
Two of the most common hindrances during meditation are mental chaos and physical pain. The remedies for both are rather similar:
- For mental chatter, overwhelming thoughts, feelings, anxieties, you must allow them. Do not resist and do not engage them. Simply observe what’s happening and let the thought die. Then gently, without judgment or self-deprecation, bring your attention back to the breath.
- For physical pain, again you must allow it. Do your best not to adjust your body once the meditation has begun. Of course you shouldn’t be in excruciating pain, but decide how much you can take. If there is a particular area or areas, observe it, make it the focus of your meditation until it releases. Often when we do this, the pain will subside a bit. Another way is to imagine that you are allowing breath to reach that area and thus loosen the muscle. If it is pain you can handle, simply acknowledge it, and return to the breath.
If you are new to meditation, I highly recommend getting a few books to help you on your journey. Here are 3 that have been indispensable to me in my practice.
- Mindfulness in Plain English; This is hands down the best introduction to meditation that I have ever read. Simple, straightforward, and practical. If you’re serious about meditation, get this.
- Stages Of Meditation; The Dalai Lama’s teachings on how to meditate. If you’ve ever seen or heard the man speak, you should be excited about it. He brings the same wisdom, compassion, and warmth to this book.
- Stretching: 30th Anniversary Edition; A fantastic, easy-to-use, illustrated book with HUNDREDS of stretches. If you’re not one for yoga, and want to stretch on your own, pick this up.
If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. Bring the light.
By Terence Stone
Chief Editor and Founder of Urban Spiritual, I’m a classically trained singer and actor living in New York City, who has performed in the U.S. and Europe. I’m also a writer, traveller, meditator, arts-lover, and well-being enthusiast.