Basic Mindfulness Meditation Instruction
Mindfulness meditation is a practice of attention, really seeing and experiencing your life and deepening your relationship with yourself and others, opening your heart and cultivating wisdom that is both intellectual and intuitive, grounded in what you learn and also what you instinctively know.
How to Meditate
Preparation and physical posture:
- Designate a place for meditation, in- or outdoors.
- Find something to sit on– a pillow, cushion or edge of chair.
- Sitting: Sit with legs crossed, or feet squarely on floor if sitting in a chair. Place hands on knees or palm over palm in meditation mudra: hands open and one on top of the other-right on left, palms up, thumbs touching.
- Posture: sit with spine erect, chin straight, head balanced on neck and shoulders. Shift left/right, back/forth until comfortable.
- Eyes: half closed, looking downward to nothing in particular about three or four feet in front of you.
- Mouth closed, tongue at roof of mouth.
- Breathe through your nose.
- Walking meditation: place one hand as a fist in the palm of the other hand. Hold your arms at navel level. Walk slowly and observe every sensation in your legs and feet as you walk. Attend also to your breath. As Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us, “kiss” the earth with each footstep. Attend to breath and body sensation with each movement.
What to do:
- Breathe in and out as you normally do, but focus mostly on your out-breath. Simply breathe; you have no other purpose or task except just to breathe and sit or walk in this posture. Just sit. Just walk. Just notice each breath—moment/out-breath, each movement. And then, again: out-breath, out-breath. Each moment is a new breath. And each moment in walking meditation is a movement, and then another one. And another one. No purpose, just what it is. Breathe. Move.
- When thoughts come into your mind, or you “hear” your thoughts or see your daydreams, remember conversations or mental pictures of many things, just say silently to yourself, “Thinking,” and let these phenomena pass like clouds in the sky of your mind, or like objects on a conveyor belt that you put into boxes as they move on down the line. Just breathe as you single-pointedly focus on your breath, label thoughts if they come up, and return to your breath again.
- Return always to your breathing. And then return again. And come back again. You might have thoughts like,”I am not doing well in meditation,” or “Hey, I like this. I am good at this,” but instead of engaging in this thinking or pushing away or fighting this thinking, instead, again, just come back to your out-breath. Just OBSERVE and do not become distracted by your discursive thought process. Just label pop-up thoughts and images, noises and sensations. Silently label them “Thinking,” or “Sound,” or “Pain,” and so on. And then come back to your out-breath, again and again.
- Note that you do not push away or attach to any thoughts. You do not judge them or resist them or go away with them. Just observe them. Do nothing more and just breathe.
- Go on and on like this or a while, and re-attend to your breath.
- Meditate as often as possible-every morning is best. Do not try to do it for some particular length of time, but do it! Fifteen minutes in the morning, right after you wake, and fifteen minutes before going to bed is a good beginning schedule. Gradually, increase the amount of time you meditate. There are benefits when you become comfortable with it and can do it for a longer length of time, say, a half hour. Build up gradually. Do it just a little longer than you want to each time. If you skip a few days or more, do not let your attention be taken up by thoughts about how you have blown it. Just come back to it and be gentle with yourself. Do not force it but remain mindful that it does take some discipline.
A few points to digest:
- Meditate without purpose. Simply do it for no reason. This is not so simple! But really, do it without intention to do anything except just to sit and breathe, and then “watch” your thinking and attend to the processes of your mind through bare attention with occasional labeling of thinking/sensory phenomena. The whole process is about drawing your attention back to the object of your focus, your breath.
- This kind of meditation is not used as a vehicle to experience euphoria or to distance yourself from pain, displeasure and the difficult realities encountered in being alive. In addition, it is also not a substitute for psychotherapy, so when you are done meditating, thinking and reasoning about your life and condition are still important. But when you meditate, you will train your attention to be more focused yet more panoramic, awake to your life in totality. You will acquaint yourself with subtler states of consciousness and this will help you to become both more observant and relaxed, awake and aware through the medium of your senses and the process of thinking.
- Meditation leaves most people feeling relaxed, but some meditators report that their minds seem even busier, and their thoughts even “louder,” when they begin to meditate. And that’s hardly relaxing! However, by attending to the process of mind for the first time, I mean, really observing its activity, you will notice a lot of stuff going on. And that’s not because meditation increases your mental activity. Rather, when you really observe the activity of your mind for the first time, single-pointedly, you are attending to your everyday distracted consciousness which is comparatively coarse. The more subtle states of meditative consciousness, however, are usually occluded by your daily activities, discursive thinking, habitual ways of reacting to your life. As you meditate and focus single-pointedly, the discursive mind eventually becomes quieter and your awareness of how things actually are becomes sharpened, and you begin to know that there is an awareness that exists apart from what you see, smell, hear, feel, taste and think—the objectless state of consciousness that is not the same thing as the senses or thoughts.
- When you meditate, if you become relaxed, note that it is easy to become attached to that state and to meditate to recapture a feeling of bliss. This undesirable in the long term because when we use meditation in this way we remove ourselves from “unpleasant” but potentially rich and informative experiences that can teach us something valuable. Therefore, the idea is not to dissociate and leave the here and now, and the idea is not to suffer, but to remain here, now, feel your feelings, take all of the activity of mind into observation and increase your being awake to what’s right in front of you (projected from your mind) and work with it. This is not to say that relaxed states are undesirable. On the contrary, in relaxing a bit you might be less inclined to be reactive and harmful to self and others. However, combining relaxation with meditative attention to what’s in front of us and the activity of our mind is the pathway to acquiring wisdom and skill and a happier life. This is transformative.
- Meditation and following your breath: Breathing is not just a thing you do to stay alive. Breathing is physiological, psychological and a perfect medium through which you can train your mind. Breathing is something you have been doing your entire life. You can count on it–literally–and use it to tether your wandering mind, to bring your mind into an awake, meditative and observing state in any situation at anytime, on the meditation cushion in silence or on a busy avenue with cars, buses and throngs of people passing by.
“What does attention to the breath do?”
- Meditation and following your breath allows you to focus single-pointedly on the breath, and then gradually generalize that single-pointedness to no object at all, not even the breath, so you can remain generally and pervasively aware of everything going on around you—all at one time. In this way you begin to perceive and experience situations, people and events in abundant totality, without the usual or social/conventional recipes, concepts, constructs and filters that we all learn to use like a lens to narrow the perceptual field and focus and take mental snapshots of what is in front of us.
- So, following the breath takes you out of conceptual (limited) mind and creates a great expanse through which to create “Big mind,” as Shunryu Suzuki used to say. This is, in the most developed state, what some meditation masters tell us can take “many eons” to cultivate and is sometimes described as “Buddha mind”. So, become familiar with your breath for it is a dependable guide on the journey into subtler states of consciousness. You may even find that this practice takes you into a spiritual realm, which is what many of us call the experience that is not thinking or feeling, or any of the other senses. Indeed, the breath is a thread that runs through your entire life. It is present even when you are not attentive, and it is available for your use as an anchor point to become present and awake, and later on, applied to relationships, more skillful in the world.
- Your body: Become aware of your body, and all of your senses, including thinking, when you meditate on the cushion and when you bring meditative states of consciousness to your daily routine. After you are practiced and comfortable in Shamatha meditation—you have done it daily for quite some time, you can begin systematically to focus on all of your senses when you meditate. In Vipassana meditation (see Shinzen Young’s web page in the Resources/links section of this site), and through the teachings of the ancient Tibetan Buddhist sage, Nagarjuna, we observe that our thoughts and concepts are manifestations of the names our mind assigns to things. Therefore, the forms that our perceptions take are not totally reflections of external, objective phenomena, and not totally of the mind, but interdependent with many causes and conditions, and fluid and impermanent.
- “Eventually, through meditation, you achieve insight that the “World” is your mind.”Things exist externally but not necessarily as they appear. They are softer than they appeared. You may find that their appearances consist mostly of your imputations than the qualities they inherently possess. The same can be said about the “Self,” and our views of self and assessments of other people, their behaviors and values, and our world.