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Everyday Meditation
Meditation 101 : How to Meditate

Meditation 101

How to Meditate

Excerpted from Everyday Meditation
by Tobin Blake

Meditation 101 SeriesWhen you close your eyes, what do you see? It may have occurred to you by now that you have closed your eyes many times before and experienced little of interest. Most people see their inner mind as nothing more than a field of darkness overlaid by the constant sound of their inner dialogue. This stream of thoughts is what I referred to in the introduction as the "waterfall of thought." We all have one, and it is just this wall of thoughts that keeps us trapped inside the narrow sphere of our own heads, identified with ego. As your thoughts grow more peaceful and quiet, it becomes easy to sense your connection with core self.

Initially, you may or may not view meditation as a means to find your core self, and there is no reason to do so in order to benefit from the practice. Perhaps you are interested in meditation only for stress relief, to improve your health, or for other reasons. In any case, you will find that the practice still requires you to contend with your own thoughts, and in fact this is one of the primary focuses of most techniques. Many meditative practices consist of focusing on a simple sentence, word, or image, essentially a single "thought," to the exclusion of everything else. The idea is to keep the mind focused on one thing or practice while doing your best to avoid interrupting thought patterns that trap your attention and steer you away from the meditation. In this way, the practitioner is better able to sense and connect with the quiet sphere of peace that can be felt between thoughts, beyond the waterfall.

There are many specific techniques for achieving this. Zazen, for instance, is a popular Zen practice that focuses on becoming mindful of (essentially, paying attention to) a particular sensation, such as the feeling of your breath entering and exiting your body. Sometimes, however, zazen practices may suggest specific concentration exercises, like counting the breaths. For example, when you breathe in, you count that as "one" (to yourself, silently). Then, as you exhale, you think "two." Inhale, "three." Exhale, "four," and so on. The object of this exercise is to count your breaths without allowing your mind to drift from the practice. Anytime you find that you have stopped counting and started thinking, you gently but firmly redirect your mind back to the practice of counting your breaths, starting again with "one."

This form of zazen is closely related to another popular form of meditation known as mantra. Instead of counting the breaths, however, mantra uses a single word, sound, or short sentence as the primary focus, to be repeated throughout the meditation either out loud or silently to oneself. Once again, the idea is to concentrate on the mantra instead of other thoughts. The mantra may be timed to coincide with the respiratory cycle, as in zazen, or not.

Both of these techniques may be good choices for people with a very structured mind but not as good for people with an active imagination. For those who prefer to use imagery, guided meditations and other visualization practices often prove the right fit. Visualization typically involves focusing on a predetermined image, which could be just about anything. You might, for instance, imagine yourself meditating on the beach while trying to sense your unity with the ocean; or you could picture the image of a deity, a candle and its flame, a pebble, a temple, a flower, formless light — you get the idea. As with other styles of meditative practice, the object is to stay centered on the visualization while allowing other thoughts to pass through your mind without pulling your attention away.

In chakra meditation, practice typically involves the attempt to hold your attention on energy vortices that are thought to bridge the subtle spiritual and gross physical bodies. One such practice is third eye meditation. This type of meditative practice may be difficult to understand unless you try it out, because the instructions often consist of vague suggestions like "Keep your attention focused at the point between the eyebrows." Chakra meditation is a style that lies somewhere between very structured practices, such as counting the breath, and significantly less structured teachings, like just sitting, which is a technique that offers virtually no guidance other than to suggest that practitioners sit quietly and allow their thoughts to come and go without any personal involvement with them.

As you can see, what most meditation techniques have in common is that the meditator concentrates on a specific word, sentence, image, or practice (like counting the breaths or minding a feeling), to the exclusion of other thoughts. All such techniques are effective to some degree because turning inward is actually quite natural. Therefore, the simple act of trying to change the direction of your focus will always succeed to some degree. Yet, as I have already suggested, techniques alone are somewhat limited in themselves. The reason for this is that they focus primarily on the form of practice and don't address the psychological obstacles that hold students back from getting the most from their efforts. When you give students a mantra to repeat and tell them to keep their mind focused on it, doing so inevitably proves extremely difficult and quite often serves only to frustrate them. This is particularly true when they've received no other spiritual training.

Here, I am defining spiritual training as teachings intended to help students release fear and bring their mind to a state of peace, which is the key to deep meditation. This is why, as you will notice, the one hundred daily meditations in this book teach more than just the techniques of meditation. As they progress, they increasingly focus on helping you to retrain your thoughts — or, as I like to say, reprogram your waterfall.

Next: How Long to Meditate »

Updated 1/20/14