“In mindfulness one is not only restful and happy, but alert and awake. Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh
A loud gong rings throughout a hall. Supplementing the sound is the background noise of birds chirping, wind blowing, and sandals clapping. It’s 4 A.M. on a Saturday, and the monks of a local Zen temple are preparing for their morning meditation.
It might sound a little crazy to wake up at 4 A.M. and immediately proceed to meditate for a full hour, but this is commonplace in Zen temples around the world, especially Japan.
Sitting meditation, or zazen in Zen (literally ‘sitting or seated meditation’ in Japanese), is not only a way to transform our pain and suffering into peace and joy, it’s a way to discover your true nature.
There’s so many reasons to learn to meditate.
There’s the traditional benefits such as attaining complete rest and a tranquil mind, uncovering your true nature, and ultimately, transforming your pain, suffering, and general stress into peace, happiness, and total liberation.
Then there’s the new science, which includes more than a dozen major psychological and physiological benefits from a simple daily practice of sitting in meditation for as little as 15-20 minutes, once or twice a day.
So, what exactly are the benefits of mindfulness?
- Boosts our immune system’s ability to fight off illness.
- Increases positive emotions and decreases negative emotions (including stress).
- Fights depression.
- Reduces the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
- Increases the density of grey matter in our brains (which is linked to empathy, emotion regulation, learning and memory).
- Improves our focus.
- Makes us more compassionate.
- Improves our relationships by making us more satisfied, optimistic, relaxed, and accepting of one another.
- Is great for parents and children- it improves our relationships with children, makes us happier with our parenting skills and improves the social skills of those children who practice it with their parents.
- Reduces student’s behavioral problems and aggression and improves happiness levels and their ability to focus. Also, for teachers, mindfulness has shown to lower negative emotions, fight depression, foster compassion and empathy and lower blood pressure.
For these many and varied reasons, meditation has the ability to completely transform your life from the ground up.
If you’ve been wanting to learn to meditate, but don’t have the time to read an entire book on it, then this is the meditation guide for you.
In just 3 simple steps you’ll be on your way to transforming your life with meditation.
Ready? Let’s go!
1. Find a comfortable place for your body
When first learning to meditate it’s important to find your most comfortable sitting position. If possible, strive to sit in the full lotus, but overall, what’s really important is just that you sit diligently no matter what position you sit in.
The full lotus position makes your body into a tripod, making it by far the most stable of sitting positions. To sit in the full lotus position, sit down in a typical cross-legged position. Now, take your left leg and place it on top of your right thigh.
Next, take your right leg and place it on top of you left thigh. While keeping your body in place, slide your bottom back a little to straighten your back.
The full lotus can be a very difficult position to sit in at first. If that’s the case, you can start off by sitting in the half lotus position until you’re more comfortable.
To sit in the half lotus position, simply place your left leg over your right thigh (or right leg+left thigh).
If neither position is possible for you, you can sit in a chair
No matter what position you sit in, it’s preferable that you sit on a pillow to straighten your back and add stability to your sitting stance.
There’s many ways you can place your hands while meditating, but for now we’re going to keep it simple: place your hands in your lap, with your palms facing down, one on top of the other (don’t let anyone convince you that a specific hand positioning is required in meditation- it’s not).
Form the proper posture
Proper posture will help keep you alert and improve your breathing, so it’s very important. Your back and neck should be straight with the top of your head pointed towards the sky. Let your stomach, shoulders, facial muscles, and the entire rest of your body relax.
Look down at the ground four to five feet in front of you and then let your eyelids drop naturally. They should be about halfway shut. This will both help keep you from falling asleep and completely stop you from having to blink.
2. Focus on your breath
Be mindful of your ‘in breath’ and ‘out breath.’
Close your mouth and breathe in and out through your nose (or through your mouth, if something makes breathing solely through your nose difficult). Deeper and more effortless breathing can be done through the nostrils, so that’s the best choice.
Put your complete focus on your in breath and out breath.Your breath is your singular focus during meditation. Don’t attempt to control your breath, simply observe it silently.
Your silent observation will calm your breathing naturally, so simply focus on being mindful of your natural breath. Follow each complete in breath and out breath from start to finish in order to maintain your concentration.
Count each inhalation and exhalation.
Count one after the first inhale and count two after the first exhale. Three after the second inhale and four after the second exhale, and so on. Count the number at the end of each inhale and exhale. The goal is to count to 10 like this.
If a thought distracts you, start the 10 count over from one.When you get to 10, start over and count to 10 again.Do this until you can count to 10 repeatedly with little effort. Then count each inhale and exhale as one. When that becomes easy, stop counting and simply follow your breath. This could take months, so don’t rush the process.
Progress naturally and let go of any idea of “advancing quickly”. That’s not what meditation is about and you’ll only harm your practice by holding onto that mentality.
3. Command your mind
To learn to meditate is to learn to become the silent observer of your own mind and body. While sitting, various thoughts and feelings will rise to the surface. But don’t push them away, this is a natural part of the process, and noticing this with your mindfulness is a very good thing.
Mindfulness meditation, zazen, is acceptance of these various thoughts and feelings, not an avoidance of them. After acknowledging the thought, let go of it and return to your breath.
Don’t become frustrated when your mind drifts though, it’s a perfectly normal part of the process and will happen a lot in the beginning. With time your mind will quiet.
To learn to meditate is to learn to become the silent observer of your own mind and body.
Ease out: Once you’re done meditating, don’t just get up and go running off. Take a moment to stretch and breathe deeply a few times. At first, the full lotus might make one of your legs fall asleep, but you’ll get used to it. It will go away eventually. Always take a moment before you get up to feel the sense of greater calm in your mind and body before continuing on with your day.
How long should you meditate?: In the beginning, when you’re first learning to meditate, you’ll want to meditate for five to 10 minutes at a time once or twice a day. Then, later, you can increase your sessions by around five minutes at a time whenever you feel comfortable.
The more often you meditate, the longer you’ll be able to meditate. My sessions vary, mostly because I have kids and sometimes get interrupted, but I sit for around 45 minutes a day, one or two sessions per day depending. It’s really completely up to you.
Meditate for however long you want, just remember that the longer you meditate the more beneficial it will be.
The most important point is just to start meditating, even if it’s for only five minutes a day at first.
Have additional questions about meditation? Leave your questions and your comments below 🙂
Matt Valentine is a father, husband, student of Zen, and a self-published author. He writes weekly on his blog, Buddhaimonia.com, about finding peace and happiness in everyday life. You can get his eBook, The Little Book of Mindfulness, free by joining his newsletter here