Calming the mind through the practice of formal meditation is fundamental to the Buddhist spiritual path. Gradually over time, one trains the mind to stay focused more and more in the present moment, and less on discursive thoughts of the past and future.
In this way, we are able to live more comfortably in the present, with less energy spent fretting over a past we cannot change, or worrying about a future which never seems to unfold the way our mind imagines. We are cultivating “mindfulness.”
Setting aside a specific time each day to meditate is an important factor in developing this practice into a habit. First thing in the morning and/or just before going to bed at night are especially good times for meditation. But if this does not work for you, pick another time; the most important thing is that you do it (not when you do it). For the beginner, try starting out meditating for 20 to 30 minutes each day. Gradually increase your meditation until you are able to sit consistently for an hour at a time.
Choose a quiet place with few external distractions (if possible). You can create a small shrine with a statue of the Buddha if you wish, but this is not necessary. Find a sitting position in which your spine is straight, shoulders are back and relaxed, and chin is slightly tucked inward. Imagine a thread pulling you up through the crown of your head. You want to be relaxed, yet alert, so an erect posture is very important!
Note: If you are sitting in a chair, it is recommended that you sit toward the edge of the chair with your back away from the back of the chair. Sitting back in the chair will tend to promote drowsiness, and is not conducive to developing good concentration.
Meditation: Focusing on the Breath, Resting in Awareness
As you begin the meditation, close your eyes and settle into the body. Feel what’s happening right now with the body/mind. Are you tense? Are you happy? How is your posture? What’s it like right now? Just observe whatever is dominant at the moment without trying to change anything.
It might help you to bring focus to the mind if you bring your attention to certain “touch points” in the body. A “touch point” could be the tip of your index finger or the point of pressure on your “sit bones;” anywhere the mind is easily focused. This will help you turn the mind away from thoughts and toward the sensations of the body right here, right now.
After you’ve settled into the body and focused the mind for a few minutes, bring your awareness to the breath. Notice what the breath is like. Is it shallow? Deep? Long? Short? Explore it. Find an aspect of the breath which is most predominant for you right now, and make this your “anchor to the present moment” for this particular meditation. It may be the sensation of the air moving in and out of your nostrils, or it may be the rising and falling of the chest. Whatever it happens to be, just watch it. Notice how it constantly changes. Learn to rest in your awareness of the breath, free from discursive thoughts.
When you notice that the mind has wandered away from the breath, gently bring it back. Don’t be reproachful with yourself for wandering away; it happens to everyone. That’s what the mind does. Instead, just acknowledge that you were lost in thought, and now you are returning to the breath. Pay attention to the release of tension that occurs whenever you are able to let go of thought. Learn to “rest in awareness,” gladdening the mind as it rests in the spaciousness of the present moment; release any felt tension, especially in the face. And conversely, notice how tension arises whenever thoughts arise. Notice how the mind shrinks up. Then gently bring the mind back to the breath again.
Do this over and over throughout the meditation, with patience and compassion toward yourself. And when the meditation is over, give yourself a mental “pat on the back” for following through, and spending your time wisely. This kind of positive reinforcement will better help you to establish and maintain the practice of meditation as a daily habit.