I thought I should finally come clean. In reality, I believe all this spiritual nonsense is a bunch of hooey. It’s a waste of time to smudge or meditate or care about your fellow humans. And what about all this stupid playing with rocks, like there is something special about them? Come on, people, wake up to reality! It’s a dog eat dog world and if you aren’t looking out for number one, then you’re just a schmuck!
Of course those are not my views at all. In fact, this month I’m going to focus on one of the most important spiritual tools we have – meditation.
I’m often surprised by people’s reactions when I mention meditating as a possible practice to help them find peace, happiness or just general well-being. It seems that meditation has a reputation for being an esoteric and mystical thing meant only for gurus on a mountain top.
Far from it!
Meditation is both a practice and an attitude. And, just like learning a musical instrument or even learning algebra, it takes some discipline and some time to get to that place where it clicks and you are playing a song or solving an equation.
I had let my meditation practice slip and slide away for a while, but in the past few months I’ve reincorporated it into the end of my yoga practice. After some time away, I can’t understand why I ever stopped and let resistance get the better of me. Now, receiving those benefits that only come with meditation, I thought it was a perfect time to discuss it a bit.
While meditation does have deeper spiritual meanings that focus on the release from suffering for all beings and detachment from the ego, it also has a personal aspect, and that’s what we are exploring here.
When approaching something new, the best place to start is at the beginning, and the beginning of meditation practice is breath. If you are interesting in learning to meditate, don’t go rushing off to a cushion and try to sit still with an empty mind for an hour. Very few people can jump right in and create a meditation practice on the first go.
Instead, begin by noticing your breathing throughout each day. Take three slow deep breathes whenever you think of it. Do this repeatedly for a few weeks, and you’ve got a foundation upon which to build.
After you’ve spent some time learning to focus on your breath while engaging your normal routine, it’s time to take it to the next step. This is akin to slowing entering a pool of cold water rather than jumping in all at once.
You don’t need a cushion. A chair or the floor will do just as well. It does help to find some solitude. Somewhere quiet where you will not be interrupted and where the atmosphere is soothing. Light some incense or candles if you like. It’s also wonderful to burn sage (aka – smudge) first, as it sets a tone and helps to ground you. Also, try siting outside when the weather is good. We are not, however, going to be here that long this first time. Set yourself a goal of 5 or 10 minutes to begin.
Sit quietly and again, focus on your breathing. Notice your inhalations and exhalations with calm attention. Attempt to quiet your thoughts. Inevitably, a thought will, however, arise. That’s what the mind does, it makes thoughts, so don’t judge yourself. Give the thought a nod and then watch it float away. Don’t hold onto it, and return your attention to your breathing. Thoughts will continue to arise. Continue to let them arise and pass away, always returning to your breath.
As those wise in the ways of meditation know, it can be a good idea to listen to the same music and/or burn the same incense, each time you meditate. Your senses remember sounds and smells so very well, it helps facilitate the meditation by signaling to your subconscious “it’s time to meditate.” Eventually just lighting your meditation incense or putting on your meditation CD will begin to promote a meditative state immediately. Similarly, don’t use that particular music or incense for other activities, especially driving!
Finally, many of us find that crystals can facilitate meditation. A really fun thing to do is visit a shop that sells crystals and spend some time holding different ones until you find one that creates a sense of calm and peace. Or perhaps you already have a collection of crystals and you might spend time with each one in meditation until you find one that resonates with your practice.
In a perfect world, you would meditate every day, gradually increasing the time from 5 minutes, to 10 minutes, to 15 minutes, etc … but in our busy lives, that isn’t always possible. Yet to make progress, you’ve also got to make a commitment. So be realistic when setting your meditation goals, but stick to them. Two or three times a week is often enough to see steady, reliable progress.
The experience is somewhat different for everyone, but eventually you will notice that you have extended periods of time where your thoughts do not intrude. Even from the first, you are likely to finish your meditation with a feeling a lightness and a lessening of burden. After some time and practice, you can arise from a meditation practice feeling as if you’ve just had a good night’s sleep. Rested and alert.
There are also interesting and wonderful side-effects from a meditation practice. When your mind is still and you are centered in yourself, you often receive ideas and insights that are quite wonderful. Insights that can’t break through your normal mind chatter and have been hovering around just waiting for you to get quiet.
Occasionally you may also experience spontaneous dreamlike visions of an archetypal nature that cannot only be quite beautiful, but informative as well. These may not be the goals of a meditation practice, but they are some of the benefits.
For some people it helps to use mantras to keep the mind from obsessing on its usual worries and concerns. There are plenty of mantras you can use from different traditions, but you can also make up your own.
There is the most famous mantra of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Om mani padme hung, which is quite beautiful orally, and very popular among meditators. For more mantras of this nature, there is a great wikipedia article on mantras if you’d like a more in depth explanation. These mantras have great spiritual significance and are rooted in deep traditions, but for the beginner it may be simpler to create one. Think of a mantra as a one sentence prayer, such as “May I bring light to the world this day,” or something of that nature.
The most important thing when taking on a meditation practice is to not judge yourself. Be as gentle and kind to yourself as you would to someone very dear to you. Meditation is not a quick fix, it is part of a lifestyle that promotes peace, well-being and healing not only for yourself, but as the Buddhists put it, to all beings.
A meditation practice is a wonderful journey, which can add many new dimensions to your life. I know I’ve quoted it here before, but I’d like to end with the Metta prayer, which although not a true mantra, I have used in meditation practice many times.
May all beings be peaceful
May all beings be happy
May all beings be safe
May all beings awaken to the light of their true nature
May all beings be free!
photo of Tee meditating by Grace Liggett 2001