How To Meditate

Why?  The first thing to consider is why?  The purpose of meditation is to combine concentration and mindfulness so as to allow you to see into the true nature of reality.  The Buddha taught that when we use meditation to see things just as they are, our illusions of greed, anger and ignorance fall away and we become happy.

Different Approaches To Practice.  The various traditions of Buddhism have developed different approaches to describing the state of enlightenment and how to achieve it.  You must decide which of these approaches best meets your needs.

The Theravadin View:  The Theravadin tradition is active today in the area of Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma.  This conservative school of Buddhism emphasizes older texts known as the Pali Canon and stresses monasticism.  The Theravadins hold that the  Buddha said meditation allows us to see that every event, thought and material object is characterized by three marks:

  • All compound things are impermanent (anicca)
  • All compound things are unsatisfactory (dukkha)
  • All things are without a separate self (anatta)

When we see these three marks of being, we cease to crave or reject and we achieve wisdom.

The Mahayana Alternative: The Mahayana School developed later in Buddhism’s history, has its own texts and puts more emphasis on lay practice.  This school is most often found in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.   Zen, Tibetan Buddhism and Pure Land are all part of the Mahayana. There are important differences in the Mahayana sects so that it’s difficult to summarize what’s common among them.  All of these sects do recognize the principle of Shunyata or Emptiness as taught in the Heart Sutra.  They also hold the ideal of the Bodhisattva, a being who has achieved enlightenment but postpones his or her entry into final Nirvana until all other sentient beings can be saved from delusion.

Blissful States. While meditation may produce periods of bliss, this is not its purpose.  The happiness achieved in meditation is temporary and often doesn’t occur at all.  The effort to recreate blissful states can even become a hindrance rather than a help.  Meditation that becomes an exercise in grasping and clinging is doing exactly the opposite of what it is supposed to do.  Just meditate with great doubt, great faith and great determination.  The rest will take care of itself.

How To Get Physically Ready:  Sit comfortably on a cushion or chair and keep your back straight but not rigid.  If you use a cushion, sit in one of the classic postures of full lotus, half lotus, seiza or Burmese.  The most important thing is to find a stable and comfortable posture.  Keep your eyes partially open or closed according to your preference.  Sit as long as you can but not so long as to make the experience unpleasant.  The best place is one that is clean and quiet.  Make any ordinary spot a sacred space by bowing before and after you sit and by using props such as a Buddha image and altar.  Wear loose and comfortable clothes.  Breath through your nose, not your mouth.  Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and swallow so as to create a slight vacuum. This will help prevent salivation and constant swallowing.

How To Get Mentally Ready: Relax and enter into meditation with a light mind.  If you are overly serious you will find the experience unpleasant and frustrating.  Meditation should be enjoyable and it will be if you approach it correctly.

Counting The Breath: One way to meditate is by counting the breath from one to ten.  Count each in breath and out breath separately so that each time the breath changes direction you will count.  Feel the breath at some specific point in the body.  Some schools (such as Zen) focus on the hara, the point within the abdomen a few inches below the navel.  Others, (such as the Theravadins) recommend that you focus your attention on the feeling of the breath at the rim of the nostrils. It’s OK to experiment and find the most comfortable point of focus.  When you have chosen a focus, stick with it and don’t let the point wander aimlessly.

Distractions: When you become aware that you have lost the count, acknowledge the thought that has distracted you and return to one.  Some schools advocate mentally labeling the distraction with some specific word such as anger, desire, etc.  Other teachers hold that it is a mistake to use such a word since it just adds a new distraction.  Decide which method is good for you and follow through. Whatever you do, don’t blame yourself for losing the count since everyone, even experienced meditators, has this experience.

Neither should you become attached to praising yourself when you consistently get to ten.  The important thing is to just notice what is happening and just continue to meditate.

Following the Breath: When you are able to consistently count to ten without losing the count, you might want to go on to following the breath.  Just notice the stages of the breath and the pause at the end of each inhalation or exhalation.

Awareness, Not Control: Let your breath move at its own pace and rhythm.  Do not try to make it faster or slower or try to regulate it in any other way.  The thing that you are trying to do is to be mindfully aware, not to control.

Balancing Mindfulness and Concentration: When thoughts and other distractions arise, you must decide how to deal with them.  Some schools advise that the meditator emphasize concentration and move back to the subject of meditation as soon as possible.  Other sects believe that the distractions themselves are just as good a subject of meditation as the primary object so that you should be mindful of the distraction until it disappears.  When your mind is really scattered you may find that an emphasis on concentration makes you calmer.  At other times you may feel a need to mindfully examine the distractions that come up.  The most important thing is to be sure that you maintain a clear awareness of something at all times and don’t let your mind drift off to where you have neither mindfulness nor concentration.  There are times when concentration is clearly more appropriate then mindfulness.  While driving a car or handling a sharp knife, concentration is very important!

To Move Or Not To Move: Sitting in meditation can be uncomfortable, especially for those without experience.  We are tempted to shift our position so as to be more comfortable.  The problem with this is that it breaks our concentration and prevents us from learning how to overcome discomfort.  Try to move as little as possible but if you feel that you must move, do so as mindfully as possible.

Walking Meditation: In walking meditation we begin the transition from formal sitting practice to life outside the meditation hall.  When walking, concentrate on moving your legs and feet and keep your mind in the present moment.  Because we move differently in walking meditation it may feel odd at first.  Just be careful and keep your concentration on your movement so that you can continue to see the mind-body process.

Bowing:  Bowing is one of the more difficult practices for Americans to deal with.  The first impression many people have is that when Buddhists bow, they are worshiping an idol.  This is not our understanding of bowing. We bow to the Buddha to show respect for the teacher, the teaching and those who practice with us.  Bowing is also a wonderful way to learn humility.  It’s quite difficult to keep an exalted idea of yourself when your face is on the floor and your backside is in the air! Bowing is a form of meditation.  When you bow, pay close attention to the movement of your body.  Just watch this movement without internal comment or judging.  You will come to see bowing as a wonderful part of the practice.

Everyday Life: The mindfulness that we practice needs to be carried over to ordinary life and this is where it gives us its greatest rewards.  Practice mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind and mental objects when you do ordinary things like walk, drive, work, and care for others or do the most mundane things.  Doing this can be a new challenge.  Thich Nhat Hanh recommends using short phrases, called, Gathas, to help with these ordinary activities.  He suggests many such Gathas in his book, Present Moment Wonderful Moment.

Find A Teacher? While some of us have substantial experience in Buddhist practice, none of us claims to be a master or teacher.  There are many different methods of meditation and many schools of meditation. When you have mastered the basics you will need to decide whether to speak to someone about how to go on.  If you decide that you need a teacher, choose one who is interested in your benefit, not in exploiting your body, mind or money! The current trend in American Buddhism is away from hierarchical, paternal, teacher centered practice.  In adapting Buddhist practice to modern life we need to separate out cultural accretions from the true Dharma.  It’s a mistake to blindly follow a teacher or a practice just because that is the old way of doing things.  But there is also a danger of throwing out the baby Buddha with the bath water.  Some American Buddhist practice has slipped into self indulgent, egoistic New Age fluff.  The Buddhist Sangha of Bucks County maintains a space for Spiritual Advisor on its Board and in its By-Laws.

For two thousand five hundred years millions of men and women have preserved and protected the Dharma for out benefit.  We should be careful not to cut ourselves off from this precious treasure.  We need to carefully consider how to find the right balance of freedom and discipline, self-expression and self-control, innovation and tradition.

Not For Everyone:  Meditation isn’t for everyone.  Some people have severe mental, emotional or physical problems that may be aggravated by intense meditation.  If you are not sure about this, speak to a doctor before becoming involved in serious meditation.

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