Saturday, January 7, 2017

Starting a Meditation Practice

I first became interested in Buddhism while serving in the Peace Corps in Nepal after college. During my stay, I had the opportunity to visit Lumbini, which is recognized as the birthplace of the Buddha in 563 B.C. In my free time, I did some reading on both Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. 

When I returned to the USA, I settled in my hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota. One of the things I miss most about living there is the Dharma Field Zen Center. I attended evening meditation twice per week, classes on Buddhist theory, and the occasional weekend retreat there. It supplied a sense of community which I've greatly missed since relocating. The center is run by Steve Hagan whose book Buddhism Plain and Simple is an accessible introduction to both theory and practice.

Although my introduction to meditation came through Buddhism, the association is not necessary to practice meditation. 

Meditation is simply a clearing of the mind. I find my thoughts tend to run away with me - this is called monkey mind - and is similar to being around a toddler in my opinion! The benefits of meditation are far-reaching and include: calming and controlling negative thoughts, reducing depression and anxiety, and creating a more peaceful state of being. Here is WebMD's Opinion.

A favorite quote of mine by Albert Einstein states one of the core tenants of Buddhism in a beautiful, secular way:

The basic practice of meditation is simply to sit and focus on breathing in and out.

Pick a quiet place in your home. I find that first thing in the morning while my family is still asleep or after my son has gone to bed are the best times. The room can be dimly lit or filled with sunshine, both are equally pleasant! 

I recommend a single meditation cushion. I have used this Zafu Meditation Cushion for over a decade. I was happy to support Samadhi Cushions, but of course, Amazon offers Additional Options. If you are practicing on carpet (a yoga mat would also work) you do not need any additional bottom cushion for your knees. The main meditation cushion is specifically shaped to allow for correct posture. When you first sit down, take some time getting into position. Move your body gently from side to side and forward and back. Roll your neck. Once you feel secure in your seat, put your hands in position with one hand cradling the other and your thumbs lightly touching. Your gaze should be forward and down, do not close your eyes. If you need to refocus, pick a specific spot on the floor to look at.

***If you find sitting on the floor uncomfortable, you can meditate sitting upright in a chair with both feet flat on the floor.

Hand Position

Watching a clock is not conducive to a meditation practice. A simple kitchen timer will work and there are also a bunch of free apps for your phone or tablet. I have and like this app, but there are many others to choose from. If you are just starting a practice, 10 minutes of sitting meditation is a good time to start with. You can add time if desired as you continue your practice. More formalized practice, like I attended at Dharma Field, was 30 minutes sitting meditation, 10 minutes walking meditation, followed by an additional 30 minutes sitting meditation. I have never done that long of a session outside of a group setting.

Now that you are sitting and ready to start your timer, you may be wondering exactly what you are supposed to do!

Basic meditation involves counting breaths. The easiest way to focus is to count on both the inhale and the exhale, meaning you count "1" on the inhale and "2" on the exhale, "3" on the inhale and "4" on the exhale, and so on until you reach 10. Then you start over. On the inhale, push your abdomen out and on the exhale, pull your abdomen in. Breathe slowly and pause between inhalations and exhalations. A more advanced practice is to count only on either the inhalations or the exhalations, so you take 10 full breaths before starting over.

You can also pick a mantra or short poem or prayer for your focus point. The recitation of the Rosary in Catholicism is very similar to this type of meditation. One I would use during longer meditation sessions (taking either one or two breaths per recitation line) is:

Breathing in, breathing out.
Buddha is my mindfulness
Shining near, shining far.
Dharma is my conscious breathing
Calming my body and mind.
Breathing in, breathing out. 
Sangha is my five skandas
Working together in harmony.
Going back to myself
Taking refuge in myself
I am free.

***Dharma refers to the teachings of the Buddha. Sangha means community. The five Skandhas are Form, Feeling, Perceptions, Mental States, and Consciousness.

I highly recommend The Dhammapada for meditation readings.

Additional Resources:

Dharma Field
Postures for Meditation
Meditation for Beginners: 20 Practical Tips

Please share your thoughts on meditation and your experiences starting your own practice!

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