New to Meditation
Beginning Meditation Instructions
Excerpted from “The Art and Skill of Buddhist Meditation”
It can be helpful to establish an environment that is relatively free from distraction. As meditation develops and your ability to calm your mind and remain mindfully present strengthens, it will not matter when or where you choose to practice. You will be able to meditate in any situation. Especially in the beginning, though, finding a time and place relatively free from noise or commotion can be a great support. Pick any place you like to sit quietly for the duration of the meditation period. It does not have to be perfectly quiet. Just do the best you can with whatever situation you have to work with. You can meditate at any time of day, early in the morning, late at night, or during a lunch break, whenever feels best and your schedule will allow.
Perhaps turning off your phone will support you to let go of thinking about messages or other distractions. Some people use a timer to end the sitting period so they do not have to think about when to end. It is okay to use a clock, but be careful not to fall into peeking at the time too often. Or you can meditate without timing the period at all, simply sitting however long you wish. See what works best to help you be more fully present for the meditation.
When the meditation period is over, you can get up whenever you feel ready. You may want to remain sitting a short while to reconnect with and transition to your surroundings. Sometimes this helps to carry the meditative awareness back to your ordinary activities. Or you can get up right away.
We will begin with the simple practice of mindfulness of breathing, connecting with our experience of the breath wherever in the body we can feel it most easily and clearly. We will pay attention to how the practice unfolds, using whatever actually happens to inform what is needed at the next step.
It may be obvious that mindfulness of breathing is a good fit for you or it may not be clear or easy to figure out. Give it some time. Just because you cannot concentrate well on your breath does not mean it is not a good meditation subject for you to work with. Often, it simply means that your mind is not yet trained, so do not be too quick to give up on the breath and switch to something else. What happens as we meditate will be different for each of us, and we each have our own strengths and ways of working.
If, after trying out mindfulness of breathing for a while, you feel drawn to one of the subsequent practices I offer, feel free to give it a try. Mindfulness of breathing is not the best practice for everyone. Find a style of meditation that you feel drawn to do.
Mindfulness of Breathing: Our Foundational Meditation Practice
Begin meditation practice very simply, with mindfulness of breath- ing, by resting your attention at some place in the body where you can feel your breathing easily and clearly. The breath is our teacher; we are learning how to be present with something as we connect mindfully with the experience of breathing just as it is happening now.
Sit in a way that is relaxed and upright with as much ease and comfort as possible, finding the balance between not straining to sit straight and not slumping. Your posture does not have to be very formal, and it can be in a chair, or in a cross-legged position on a cushion, or on a meditation bench on the floor. If you have back problems you could even lie down as long as you are able to stay alert and not get sleepy. If you are new to meditation it may require some experimentation to find a posture that best supports you to sit for the duration of the meditation period with as little pain as possible. Our bodies will not allow some of us to be comfortable regardless of the position we choose, so just do the best you can to find a posture that will allow you to sit quietly without moving too often.
Let your eyes close in a relaxed way and take a few moments to feel your body sitting. Notice that you do not have to do much and that the experience of your body, in whatever position it is in, is easily known just by paying attention in this very simple way. Some people think meditation is complicated or mysterious, but the foundation of our entire practice is simply opening to, and mindfully connecting with, our experience in order to meet each moment just as it presents itself.
Bring your awareness to your body breathing. As you pay attention to your body, you can become aware of your breathing in a simple, uncomplicated way. This is not thinking about your breathing or analyzing it, but just resting your attention on the direct, bare experience. Try to let go of your judgments or opinions—This breath is not clear enough, This is not right breathing—and see how you can become more receptive to the pure simplicity of each breath.
Check in with your body to see where you naturally and most clearly feel the physical sensations of breathing. It could be at the nose, in the abdomen, or whole-body breathing—all are part of the body. Give emphasis to mindfulness of breathing, letting other experiences stay in the background of your awareness as much as possible without struggling to do so. Try not to control the breath, but let the body breath at its own rhythm. We are not trying to make the breath be any special way. The body knows how to breathe all on its own, breathing itself without you having to make it happen.
Find where your attention naturally wants to settle and stay with that. We do not want to be jumping around from one place to another. It does not matter where in the body you connect with your breathing. All places work equally well to cultivate even the deepest stages of concentration and insight; the key is to find the place where you naturally feel your breathing most clearly and easily, without strain. If you do not have an obvious preference, try bringing your attention to the area of your nose, feeling the air going in and out. For some people, concentration strengthens more quickly and sharply by focusing their attention there, though that is not true for everyone. Later, as your meditation evolves and concentration deepens, your awareness may naturally be drawn on its own to other areas in your body. When that happens, don’t fight yourself, but simply follow your experience, let it unfold and present itself to you. This is not jumping around, but is following the organic progression. For now, keep it simple and stay with your breathing in one place.
Do not move your attention to follow the breath from the nose down into the chest and back up. Being mindful of breathing at the nose is sometimes likened to a saw cutting wood. The saw’s long blade moves back and forth, but only touches the log at one place. Air moves from the outside to deep in the lungs; though it “touches” the body in more than one place, we do not follow it with our attention from the nose down into the lungs. Let your awareness rest at one place, either just inside the nostrils or anywhere deeper inside the nasal passage area. Try it out and let your attention fall wherever in the area of the nose you naturally feel the breath.
You may feel your body breathing most clearly by noticing the rising and falling of your abdomen. In this case you are not feeling the sensation of air, but the physical movement of your belly expanding and contracting with each in-breath and out-breath. Again, let your body breathe at its own pace, as deeply or shallowly as it wishes, and let your awareness rest on the physical sensations of the belly rising and falling.
Variation: Whole-Body Breathing
Another way to practice is called “whole-body” breathing. This does not mean trying to feel the breath everywhere in your body, including the arms and legs, but entails widening your mindful aware- ness to include the experience of breathing at the nose, chest, and abdomen—the whole torso all at once, rather than focusing nar- rowly just at the nose or the abdomen. You may not feel your breathing everywhere, and it is fine if you notice the breath at some places in your body but not at others. For example, you may feel breathing at your chest and abdomen but not the nose. Let the sensations of breath present themselves to you naturally, not trying to make your- self feel them in any particular way.
It may be immediately obvious where you feel your breath best or you may need to experiment, spending some time following your breathing at each of these places. If you are not sure, just pick one of these styles and stick with it for a while to see how it well it works.
Later we will talk about working with all the other experiences that can arise—the range of body sensations, sounds, thoughts, and moods that pull our attention and that can make it hard to stay with the breath. For now, give emphasis to awareness of the breath, not clinging to it or pushing away any other experiences, just with a strong preference for that particular awareness while letting other experiences remain in the background. Stay relaxed the best you can.
Continue practicing in this way, returning to the physical experience of breathing over and over again. In the following chapters we will talk about some of the common ways meditation can unfold and how to work with our experience in each case. For now, just stay with your breath in a simple way. Later, as the practice unfolds, we will pay attention to what happens, which will inform the next steps. As we emphasized in the previous chapter, there is no one- size-fits-all instruction for what to do next. We will not know until we see how the practice unfolds and what actually happens.
When the Mind Wanders
At any time, and especially in the early stages of practice when our minds are not trained, the mind can have tendency to wander away in thoughts of planning, worry, or fantasy, completely forgetting to be with the breath. This is to be expected; it’s the nature of an untrained mind. One of the first insights we have is the realization of how out of control our minds are.
You cannot stop your mind from wandering. Such wandering is natural and it will happen many, many times. Remember to stay relaxed and do not struggle to remain present and connected. Once you realize you have forgotten about your breath you are already back, so just start again and stay with your breathing the best you can. Meditation is a process of returning over and over, each time you drift away. Try not to create a problem or beat yourself up because you have wandered away again.
You can try experimenting with mental noting, an aid that helps direct the attention to remain present with the breath. Some people find this technique very helpful to stay more connected and consistent with mindful breathing and not wander off so much, while others find it unhelpful or unwieldy. If the latter is the case with you, just let it go and continue simply with the bare experience of breathing.
Mentally repeat the words in and out with each in-breath and out-breath, keeping most of your attention on the sensation of breathing itself and letting the words remain soft and in the back- ground of your awareness. If you are mindful of your breathing at the abdomen, you can use the words rising and falling with each rise and fall of your belly, or simply breathing, breathing, with each whole-body in-breath and out-breath.
Just as mental noting is an internal aid, a mala is an external aid to help keep the breath in mind. The mala is string of beads of any size and length that is comfortable to pass between your thumb and any other finger. If you use a mala as an accompaniment to breath- ing meditation, a single bead marks each complete in-and-out breath cycle. Place your thumb on the bead with the in-breath and pull it across your finger with the out-breath. Just as with mental noting, you may or may not find the mala helpful to stay more present with the breath. Breathing, mental noting, and the mala can all be used together, giving your mind three things to do at once, all pointing toward one thing, mindfulness of breathing. You can coordinate mental noting and the tactile experience of moving the beads by grabbing the bead with the in note and pulling it across your finger with the out, always keeping the physical experience of breathing foremost in your awareness. These props, mental noting and the mala, will begin to feel cumbersome at some point as your concentration strengthens. The very supports that you may have found so helpful early on will have done their job and you will need, and want, to let them go. Feel free to use them as much as you like for now, especially when you need lots of support, but be watchful to not become attached or reliant after their useful time has passed.
Alternative Meditation Practices
The breath is commonly taught as a universal meditation subject, suitable for everyone. But for some people the breath is not a good object to work with. I knew a man who had a choking incident as a child, and paying attention to his breathing brought up feelings of anxiety. Another person with asthma found that she became tense whenever she focused on the breath. If you are one for whom the breath does not work well, there is nothing wrong; this will not hinder your ability to meditate. It’s just a matter of finding the right practice in these early stages to substitute for breath meditation.
Here are some techniques you can try if you think mindfulness of breathing is not a good practice for you. These common alternatives are not the only methods that can substitute for mindful breathing, but the full range of possibilities is beyond our scope here.
Mindfulness of Sound
In the instructions for mindfulness of breathing we let all other experiences stay in the background of our awareness, not forcing or pushing them away but bringing a gentle sense of allowing them to be in the background while giving some preference or predominance to awareness of our breathing. In the same way, with this practice we allow other experiences to stay in the background and we give preference or predominance to the experience of sound. You may feel a natural draw or pull to awareness of hearing, and this practice can be very calming and settling. Those for whom mindfulness of sound works well commonly report it as an easily accessible and even compelling meditation object. You may be drawn to awareness of the sounds themselves or you may be more naturally aware of the act or the process of listening or hearing.
Mindfulness of sound entails working with either inner or outer sound. Even though it may be very quiet where you are meditating, you may feel drawn to rest your awareness in listening to however many or few sounds may be present at any time. Other people hear an inner sound, a clear perception of ringing or some other sound, experienced not through the ears but in the mind. You can see if you have such an experience and if you are drawn to rest in awareness of inner or outer sound.
If you are working with mental noting, you can mentally repeat hearing or sound if that helps keep you stay connected and centered with the auditory experience. If you practice mindfulness of sound, just substitute hearing every time I use the terms breath or breathing.
Pick a few places in your body—touch points through which you cycle your attention. They can be any place. For example, you could choose the feeling of your hands touching together or wherever they are resting on your thighs or knees, the feeling of your lips touching, and the feeling of your bottom pressing against the chair, cushion, or bench. It does not matter where in your body you choose, as long as they are places where you can feel some sensation easily and clearly.
Place your attention at one of these points and rest it there for a few moments, maybe as long as two, three, or five breaths, however long you wish, making a mental note of touching, touching if you are using noting. When you are ready, move your attention to the next place, and then the next, continuing to cycle through your touch points in this way. You do not have to bring awareness of breathing into the process, though you can if you wish. If so, experiment with how awareness of breathing can help deepen your connection with touch points.
Body scan involves sweeping your attention systematically through your body, generally moving down through your body (though you can move up if that is more natural for you) and placing your awareness at each place for a few seconds or longer. As you move your attention through your body, you may have a lot of sensation at a particular place or just a general sense of having your attention there without any particular sensation being noticeable.
For example, if you start at the top of your head, rest your aware- ness there and when you are ready slowly move your attention down through your head. You could spend a lot of time, going into detail, putting your attention into many parts of your face, the back of your head, the sides, and so on, or a general sense of moving your aware- ness through your head without spending time in so many detailed places. When you are ready, finding your natural pace, continue moving your awareness slowly through your head, neck, and down into your shoulders, paying attention to each place in as much or as little detail as you wish. You may or may not put your awareness individually down through the arms. Continue in this way down through your torso, possibly in your chest or back or just a general sense through your torso, and so on, moving your awareness all the way down through your legs and into your feet. When you are ready, start again, move your attention back to the top of your head and repeat the body-scanning process throughout your meditation session.
Mantra meditation involves choosing some word, sound, or phrase that is repeated mentally over and over again. The words or phrases may or may not have meaning. You may have heard mantras chanted out loud, but as we are teaching here, all mantras should only be repeated mentally. In this way of practice, just as with the breath or sound, give strong preference to repeating the mantra and let all other experiences stay in the background.
This is a very powerful, concentrating practice if it is the right practice for you. You may know some mantras you want to try, or you could just pick something. For example, you could pick the name of the Buddha and you could repeat Buddha, Buddha, over and over again. It is not necessary, but you could coordinate the mantra with your breathing, repeating Bud on the in-breath and dha on the out- breath, and similarly for any other mantra you might be working with. You can use a mala to help you stay present and connected with the mantra, whether or not you coordinate the mantra with your breathing.
An example of mantra practice is the way that metta (loving- kindness) meditation is often taught, which is through the use of phrases of loving-kindness. Pick one, two, or three phrases of loving- kindness, which could be directing loving-kindness to yourself or to others. For example, you could repeat May I be happy or May you be happy or May you be peaceful or May you be safe. These are just some examples of phrases of loving-kindness; you can make up your own. Repeat them over and over, rotating through them one by one, and this mantra repetition can become the foundation for your meditation. Let that be the vehicle to take you into deeper states of concentration. Practicing metta in this way brings all the concentration power that repeating mantras offers, but because the phrases have meaning, that meaning comes in and becomes extra empowered through the use of the mantra.
As you begin to work with any of these practices, try to incorporate a feeling of balance and ease into your meditation. For now, do not worry about anything else except establishing a connection, a relationship, with your primary practice—breath, sound, body scan, touch points, or mantra. Gently bring your attention back, over and over, to reconnect when your attention has wandered away.
In the coming chapters you will learn to practice so that mindfulness, insight, and concentration are integrated. We are not only learning to flow seamlessly between concentration and insight, we will bring insight into even the deep states of concentration. Mindfulness comes up to meet whatever level of concentration you have, so that awareness of the body, mind, and heart is retained and the opportunity for insight is never lost. In this way insight meditation is right there along with the concentration.
A steady, undistracted awareness that can see when we really are resting at peace within the ever-changing experience of our life is the goal of a balanced and unified practice. Without chasing after or pushing away anything, and doing nothing that takes you away from yourself or out of your experience, aim toward clarity and calm. Let every experience be your teacher.