Meditation For Beginners: What Is Meditation, and How Do You Do It?

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In the last blog post, I told you about what meditation is not.

So, now that you know what it's not, let's answer that burning question:

What the heck IS meditation?

Meditation is getting to know yourself.

The primary purpose of meditation is making friends with yourself, becoming familiar with your mind with all of its nooks, crannies, quirks, and idiosyncrasies.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche puts it this way (I took the liberty of adding emphases in bold):
Meditation practice is based on the idea of being yourself, as you are -- something you have rarely done. All along you have had problems with that. Even at an early age, you tried to please your world. You tried to please your mommy and daddy or your nanny, if you had one. Sometimes you got angry with your parents, but you never made a relationship with yourself. Instead, you created a kind of emotional insulation, which became more prominent as you grew from a teenager to an adult. Now you are continuously insulated. Because of that insulation, you have never experienced real life. You have not really learned to be with yourself.
 Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, from The Path of Individual Liberation, Vol. 1

We all define ourselves in large part by what we are NOT. When you were two, you said "I am a girl; I am not a boy. I am me; I am not my parents." Then when you grew up, you said, "I am a Democrat; I am not a Republican". "I am a Buddhist; I am not a Christian".

Sometimes we define ourselves by the roles we play. If someone walked up to you and asked, "what are you?" You would probably respond, "I am a mother." "I am a father." "I am a businessman." "I am a caretaker".

All of this works just fine up to a point. In fact, many people live out their lives just playing their roles and pushing against what isn't them. "I'm a hippy. I hate Republicans, corporations, and suits." "I am a mother and a businesswoman. I have three kids. I hate hippies."

But for some of you, simply playing your roles doesn't cut it. You're left with an itchy, annoying question that just won't leave you in peace:

What AM I? Really?"

What's more, the done-for-you explanations that are handed down by the gurus and religious leaders don't really cut it, either. "You're a being of love and light". "You're a son or daughter of God". But what does "being a son or daughter of God" really MEAN? What does being "love and light" actually FEEL like?

The only way to answer this nagging question, "What am I?" is to dig down and figure it out for yourself. You can mimic the gurus all you like, but mimicking other people isn't going to scratch that itch, once and for all. You've got to just plow in and do it.

The Origin of Meditation

About 2500 years ago, this guy from India named Siddhartha Gautama set out to answer the very same question: "What am I?" He tried various spiritual practices that he had learned as a prince: yogas and mantras and martial arts, even depriving himself of all worldly distractions, including food (asceticism).

Finally, after trying all of the other techniques and not finding the answers he sought, he plunked himself down under a tree and LOOKED.

For six years, he looked.

And looked.

And then he looked some more.

And he figured it out.

He became known as The Buddha.

And then he taught other people how he sat down under that tree and looked until he figured it out. And they were able to do it, too.

Thus, the practice of sitting meditation was born.

Sitting Practice

So we're going to do what the Buddha did. We're going to plunk ourselves down and look at what's going on until we figure out who we are.

Now the thing is, the Buddha had already tried just about every spiritual practice under the sun before he sat under that bodhi tree. He had to burn through a whole bunch of stuff before he figured out how to figure it out. And we have to do the same thing.

You and I aren't Indian princes. Some of you have jobs, families, and kids. Some of you have been through divorces, or had businesses that flopped. A lot of you come from different religious backgrounds.

You can't put your boat in the water where the Buddha was. So you start where you are, with what you've got, and you start your journey from there.

Over the years, meditation teachers following the Buddha's example developed a technique that seems to work pretty well as a starting point for us modern folks. This is the technique I started out with, and I'll do my best to describe it to you.

How To Do Sitting Meditation Practice

1. Posture 

First, take your seat. I was taught to sit cross-legged on a meditation cushion on the floor (we'll talk about cushions and stuff in the next post). If you find that this puts too much strain on your hips and knees, or if you don't have a cushion right now, it is fine to sit on a straight-backed chair.

Now, take your posture. The easiest way I've found to get this posture quickly is to imagine embracing a pillar and touching it with your nose. You could also imagine that your head is being suspended from the sky by an invisible string. This opens up your back, raises your chest, and gives your body an upright, dignified, and graceful feel, like a king sitting on his throne.

Your sit bones should be solidly in the center of your cushion or chair seat. Imagine your pelvis being a bowl full of water. In order to keep the water from sloshing out, your pelvis should not be tipped either forward or backward, but be perfectly level.

2. Technique

Basically speaking, the technique is to be spacious and not wait for anything. If something is about to happen, it will happen; if it is not going to happen, it won't."  Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, from The Path of Individual Liberation, Vol. 1

Once you are settled into your posture, pick a spot about 10-12 feet in front of you and softly rest your eyes on it. Don't use a hard focus; don't try to identify every color in the carpet or flooring. Just softly rest your eyes there with a gentle gaze.

Then begin to notice your breath, especially as it goes in and out the tip of your nose. It's a little bit cool as it comes in, and warm as it goes out. Just watch your breath -- in, out. Cool, warm. Don't try to control it or force it into a certain timing. Just watch it.

In little while, you'll have a thought. You might think of something to add to the grocery list. You might remember that you need to pick up your child from school. You might notice that you're hungry. Or you might simply space out and leave the room.

And then you'll realize that you've forgotten about your breath and you'll come back. At that point, simply label the thoughts, "thinking", and come back to the breath.

You can't make yourself come back; believe me, I've tried. It'll just happen on its own. You'll go away, then you'll come back. And each time you come back, you just say to yourself, "thinking", and come back to the breath.

That's basically it.

3. Vision

I'll leave you with yet another set of inspiring quotes from Trungpa Rinpoche, because, darn it, the guy just says it so well:

"On the whole, the practice of meditation is about being here precisely, with joy and humor.  ... When  you have solid goals, nothing happens."

"Because of faith, you have a sense of being, of existing. You are here and you are following a definite path, so it is not blind faith."

"When the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree, he wasn't tormenting himself; he was enjoying himself. For six years he had a great time."

"Once you are fully here, with mindfulness and awareness, it is known as holding buddha in the palm of your hand. Buddha is right here."

Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, from The Path of Individual Liberation, Vol. 1

A Final Note: Getting Support

Starting a meditation practice is one thing; maintaining one is quite another. I strongly encourage you to find some people to practice with.

Shambhala International has a wonderful, well-organized series of weekend-long courses where you can meet other practitioners and get some good basic formal instruction.

In addition, most major cities have a Shambhala center where free group sitting sessions are held and you can get ongoing meditation instruction.  Even small towns often have sitting groups where practitioners bring their cushions, sit together, and then maybe listen to a talk or have a discussion.

Finally, if you'd like to contact me with some initial questions, please feel free to drop me a line via my contact form to the right, or head over to my Facebook group, Witnessing-The-Mind.

Sometime soon, I'm going to create a short YouTube video to guide you through an initial meditation session. If you'd like to be notified when it comes out, subscribe to my blog by filling in the form to the upper right of this post. 

In the meantime, you'll receive a more-or-less weekly dose of inspiration in your inbox, which I hope you enjoy.

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