The other day, my mother told me, " You know, you're a lot nicer since you started to meditate." And she is completely correct. It's not that I was an jerk in my pre-meditation life, but I handled emotional upsets in a way that created more confusion than healing.
Before I started meditating, when someone made me angry, I tried to get back at them. If someone hurt my feelings, I wrote them out of my life. If I wanted someone to like me, I would pretty much act a fool. My emotions were held in only a semi-conscious way that enabled them to direct my actions — and I didn't even know it. Since learning to meditate, I've developed an awareness of my inner states that allows me to consider options over how I act and react to stressful situations.
I’ve been a meditator now for more than 15 years and a meditation teacher for seven. I believe in the practice so much that I founded an online mindfulness community called The Open Heart Project, which now has close to 12,000 members all over the world. I want to share with you the basics of meditation, which are very simple, but also profound.
If you're curious about meditation but aren't quite sure where to start, here's what you need to know.
Find a comfortable place to sit. If you can sit on a cushion on the floor that’s great, but it is also completely fine to sit on a chair. The practice begins with how you take your seat. The main thing to remember is to sit up straight — not rigidly, but in a relaxed, upright position. Imagine that you are like a tree whose roots are planted in the ground, but that also sways and moves with the wind. In this way, your posture should be firmly planted but also supple.
When you sit upright like this, you are proclaiming your dignity.If you are seated on a cushion, cross your legs loosely in front of you and if you are on a chair, place your feet flat on the floor.When you’ve found a comfortable posture, place your hands, palms down, just above your knees or at mid-thigh. Let your shoulders and belly relax.Tuck your chin a little bit to bring some length to the back of the neck. Your mouth should be closed with the lips slightly parted. Let the jaw relax and enjoy this brief period of time when you don’t have to say anything. In this practice, the eyes remain open. The gaze is soft and cast slightly down, to a spot about six feet in front of you. It’s not like you’re staring at that spot or at anything in particular. It's more like vision is streaming out from your eyes and mixing with space like the rays of the sun, instead of focusing on one specific area. It doesn’t matter what your gaze comes to rest on, just let it settle on a spot six feet in front.
Once you have established your posture, feel your body breathing. Each breath is different. Can you tell how? There is no need to breathe in any particular way, just allow attention to ride the breath like waves in the ocean.
Placing awareness on the breath is different from thinking about the breath. Here is a simple demonstration of what is meant by placement of attention: Without moving or looking, right now, allow your awareness to settle around your right big toe. Allow yourself simply to become conscious of that little piggy. Notice if it feels squished or snug in your sock, or if you can feel the air around it. Now, also without moving or looking, move your awareness to your left ear lobe. Again, just notice it hanging out there in space. Maybe it’s adorned with an earring, perhaps it’s covered by your hair. Now move awareness back to the right big toe. Up to the left ear lobe.Whatever just moved is only your attention. That is what you place on your breath. So go ahead and do that, with a light touch.
At some point, you may notice that your attention has drifted away from the breath and become absorbed in thought. That is absolutely no problem, whatsoever. Often, I hear people say things like, “I tried to meditate but I couldn’t stop thinking! There’s no way I can do it.” Well, of course you can’t stop thinking! Trying to stop thinking is like telling your nose not to smell anything. It can’t help it, that’s just what a nose does. This is what trying not to think is like.
Instead, just let your thoughts be as they are. Most of them won’t distract you too much. However, should a particular thought run off with your attention, as you notice this, here is all you have to do: let go. The content of the thought has no bearing. It can be beautiful, important, hideous, or boring. Just let it go. And then gently come back to your breath.
When you have established your body, breath, and mind in the practice of meditation, try to sit for around 10 minutes per day. It’s better to sit for a short period every day than a longer period on some days. Consistency is more important than duration. Here's a video I made that might also help you get started with a five-minute meditation practice:
If you find that you want to make meditation an ongoing part of your life, please find a meditation instructor. Working with your own mind can at first seem like trying to get your eyeball to look at itself — it can get very odd and confusing.
In my Shambhala tradition, people are trained to be meditation instructors just as I have been. The service is free; all you have to do is show up at a local center and request an instructor. You could also visit your local Zen or Vipassana center and find support there. The only important thing is to go somewhere credible, meaning a place that is affiliated with a lineage that has been around for, say, several thousand years.