Meditation 101

A cartoon figure ponders the infinite, by Jordan Pearce
A cartoon figure ponders the infinite, by Jordan Pearce

Do you meditate?  I do.  I try to keep it up as a regular practice, although sometimes Real Life gets in the way.  There’s actually a joke about that, along the lines of “You should meditate every day for at least half an hour.  Unless you don’t have the time…in which case, make that a full hour.”

But I’ve definitely found meditation to be of great benefit overall.  Here’s something I wrote about it elsewhere on these here interwebs: “Meditation can do for a person, what tuning a guitar’s strings can do for that guitar. Except in this analogy, you, the person meditating, would be serving as both guitarist and guitar, and the music you would be making…would be your life…

I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, though — not by a longshot.  And this post isn’t aimed at getting all pompous and lecture-y about “The Right Way” to meditate.  If there is a “Right Way,” I’m not hip to it.  All I can do is share some basic ideas I’ve come up with along my own pathway that might be of benefit, especially to the apprehensive beginner.

I think that’s a key point: that possible apprehension.  I know that when I first approached meditation, I assumed there was very much a true and proper way to do it, and that I would bungle it badly, embarrassingly so, right out of the gate.  And I also figured that not doing it perfectly, from start to finish, each and every time, would be worse than not doing it at all.  If that’s how you feel, I totally understand.  I also urge you to try to disabuse yourself of such notions, and just give it a shot.  You don’t need to be perfect at it to experience gains.  This is a huge early lesson!

This is not the standard to which you must hold yourself (although Bruce Lee does certainly inspire righteous awe around these parts!)...
This is not the standard to which you must hold yourself (although Bruce Lee does certainly inspire righteous awe around these parts!)…

Meditation is, in significant part, about being mindful…being in the present moment.  That’s tougher than it sounds!  Even more advanced practitioners can identify with the phenomenon of the chattering mind…  There you are, trying to sit quietly, to calm yourself, and to focus on your breathing, and on the world around you in this moment in time…and yet your yammering brain won’t kindly shut its big trap!  There’s this flood of unwanted thoughts: bills to pay, work to do, games we want to play, wrongs people have done us, fantasy scenarios that want to suck us into them…  Why is it so hard to turn down the volume on such babble?

In large part, I believe it’s because the ego — the part of us that provides the lion’s share of such jabber — is both a survival mechanism and a highly-encouraged badge of personal identity and achievement in our society.  We prize the individual very highly, and we demonize anything that would seek to rob us of our individuality.  Think about popular works of fiction such as, say, The Matrix: the message there is to rage against living life as generic cattle, to rise up and fight for individuality even if that means dying in pain and filth.  And I’m not even saying that individuality is somehow mistakenly held up in such high esteem, either, or that becoming a mindless part of a whole would be in some way advisable.

But I do believe that while individuality does have its fabulous aspects, and the ego is a very valuable component of our overall selves, there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing.  We can rely on the ego, and feed it, to the exclusion of other parts of ourselves, and this is maybe a bit to our overall detriment.  There is, after all, a universal consciousness operating in us and around us, and if we stoke the flames of the ego too high, this can rob us of our ability to also engage with that universal consciousness.  I believe we need both things in our lives in order to truly thrive, and meditation can help should things tip a bit too far in the “me-I-ego!” direction.

The ego wants what it wants...and it wants it RIGHT NOW!!!
The ego wants what it wants…and it wants it RIGHT NOW!!!

So if that all makes sense, and you’re convinced that meditation can be a positive endeavor…how exactly do you go about it??  This was a tough question for me to crack when I first began.  I read a few books and websites, but while they were great in terms of offering some interesting and attractive overall philosophy, they were pretty vague on the practical how-to kinds of info I really needed.

Now let me again state that what follows is my own personal take on things: it’s some of what I’ve experienced, some of what works for me personally, and some of what I — one lone voice among countless others that are equally valid — humbly recommend you consider.  That’s all.  These are ideas you can ponder, and maybe even try, and if they seem like a load of hooey, or if you try them and they don’t help, then by all means cut them loose like sandbags, and float on toward other possibilities!  The major point in all this is that meditation can help you, and if one person’s notions about it don’t suit you, seek others before you scuttle the concept in its entirety…

Okay, disclaimer stuff handled, here are some basic notions I hereby put forth:

Cultivate the olfactory!  Scents are sometimes good sense...
1)  Cultivate the olfactory! Scents are sometimes good sense…

1)  Set the mood.  I find it helps me a lot in attaining good meditation success if I first mark the time as something special, and different from my usual everyday affairs.  I’ll generally light both incense and a candle or two beforehand, and then I like to stand in the middle of the room and face each compass point in turn, sort of acknowledging that I’m closing myself off from the world for a little while into private space and time.  You can also play with lighting (make it darker than usual, or lighter if you prefer) and scent — in addition to incense, some people really like to rub a small amount of some essential oil onto their upper lip so the fumes gently roll upward into their nostrils while they meditate.  This can help to tag the session as its own unique interval.

2)  Be comfortable.  I know that the classic lotus position is regularly espoused, and we’re told to meditate while seated on a cushion on the floor, our backs straight, hands on our knees, palms up, or fingers cast into some mudra (specific hand position) or other…I know I risk condemnation and ridicule by other meditation enthusiasts here, but I’d suggest simply getting into a position that’s comfortable.  You won’t be able to meditate if you can’t break away from thoughts like, “Wow, this is massively uncomfortable!  My feet are asleep, my lower legs are joining them, my back hurts, my neck hurts, I’m ready to start crying…!!”  Sit in a chair if you want, sit on your bed, even lie down if that will be comfortable!  I think it’s more important to make the attempt in some way than to try to mimic some idealized vision of the perfect meditator.  Unless you’re a monk in a remote temple who’s been meditating for years — in which case, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be reading this in the first place — you don’t need to replicate that kind of expertise right off the bat.

3)  Try vocalizing.  I’m not necessarily advocating use of the “Om” syllable, or of any specific mantras — although if these appeal to you, then by all means give them a go!  I’ve personally found, though, that simply humming a bit before trying to get into meditation space can really help with becoming immersed.  And I don’t mean humming a tune.  I’m talking about just a monotone hum: one note, held out for as long as is comfortable.  Take in a nice, slow, deep breath, hold it a moment, and then let it out smoothly, with a soft, low hum audibly accompanying your exhalation as you do.  Whatever note comes out naturally is perfectly fine — this shouldn’t be a strain, and if it adds to your difficulty instead of lessening it, then don’t worry about this part.  If you like it, though, you can also try using a succession of tones — that is, try the first one that comes out of you, then after a few repetitions of that one, try a higher pitch, or a lower one.  The vibrations of the sounds moving through your body can really help to relax you.  And once you’ve tried a few bursts of tone, you can stop, and then get into the pure and silent meditation.

4)  Caution: imperfections may ensue...
4) Caution: imperfections may ensue…

4)  Be realistic.  Despite your best efforts, your body will protest with the urge to fidget, or to scratch sudden itches, and your mind will chatter.  Don’t beat yourself up for this.  Go ahead and scratch that itch, or crack your spine if you need to, or whatever.  And when your ego-self does start to pester you with its restless drivel, don’t be upset — just kind of gently identify the chattering as what it is, and start again at trying to just be, without that stream of consciousness running the show.  A common piece of advice is to focus on your breathing, and I agree that this can be very helpful.  Breathe in…slight pause…breathe out…slight pause…breathe in…slight pause…breathe out…slight pause…

5)  Be present.  This is the core of it, the crux.  This is what meditation really is, I feel: just quietly being in the present moment.  We’re a linear species living in a linear reality, and while we can contemplate the past and the future, and we certainly place immense importance on them, we can’t actually live in them.  We can, however, live in the present…so that’s what you do when you meditate.  You’re cutting loose the past and the future, and you’re just being in the present.  Just sit (or lie there) and exist…breathe, and exist…

6)  You might fall asleep.  It’s very possible — and very common! — to actually be so successful with the relaxation part of meditating that you completely doze off.  This has happened to me even when I’ve been seated cross-legged, which is not a position that comes naturally to me!  As with the mental chatter, don’t beat yourself up if this happens.  Just tally it as you having done such a great job at relaxing that you shot right past the light trance-state you were going for.  With practice, you’ll get better at hitting just the right degree of “relaxed.”

7)  Curtail expectations.  Even during an exceptionally fine session of meditation, you may not experience anything that seems outright remarkable and transcendental.  There may not be any visions of deities, no disembodied voices, no flashes of enlightenment…and this is okay.  What you might feel, though, will be an increased sense of calm and centeredness in the days that follow, and you may get more out of your actual nighttime sleep, and your physical well-being may mysteriously improve — maybe a little, or maybe even a lot.  The point is to just not put any pressure on the experience to be any one thing in particular, and especially not to be any one huge thing.  That might not happen.

Hopefully these few tips will be helpful to someone out there!  Who knows — maybe one of these days, we can chat about it on the astral plane…

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