By Craig Wenaweser, MFT –
Meditation is a powerful practice which has many physical, mental and emotional health benefits. It has been scientifically proven to lower blood pressure, calm the nervous system, increase mental focus and regulate emotional states. In addition to these physiological benefits, meditation can also guide the practitioner to a direct experience of inner peace, vitality and wholeness and a deeper connection with oneself and others. Meditation is broadly applicable and can be practiced by anyone, regardless of religious, spiritual or philosophical orientation.
As a meditation teacher and a long-time meditator, I have studied and practiced a variety of different traditions, including mindfulness, Kriya Yoga, Vipassana and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). In my 15 years of study and practice, I have developed my own teaching style that synthesizes the key elements of these different traditions into a simple and easy-to-follow method. These 5 foundations of meditation will enable the practitioner to quickly and easily begin to experience its profound benefits.
Foundation #1 – Allowing everything to be as it is
In our daily lives, our minds are in a state of constant activity. Incessant thinking is pervasive in our culture, and almost everyone has difficulty quieting their mind. This constant mental activity can be exhausting, and makes it very difficult to experience peace, calm and well-being. The first thing you notice when you begin to meditate is just how relentless the thinking mind is. This can be overwhelming, and leads the meditator to attempt to quiet the mind by suppressing or eliminating mental activity. However, our attempts to control our thoughts and quiet the mind only lead to an inner struggle and a lot of frustration. As long as we try to control our experience, we will inevitably suffer. In order to experience the peace and stillness within, it is necessary to first let go of our attempts to control our experience and instead simply allow everything to be as it is. If thoughts are present, we allow thoughts to be there, without trying to make them go away. The same goes for emotions, body sensations, sounds, images, memories and all other mental, emotional and physical content that we experience during meditation. By gently allowing everything to be as it is, we can begin to let go of the mind’s attempts to control, grasp, cling to and manipulate our experience. Paradoxically, when we let go of our attempts to quiet the mind and control our experience, the mind begins to settle and we ease into a natural state of peace and stillness.
Foundation #2 – Stillness
While sitting in meditation it is important to keep your body relaxed but also very still. Relaxing your body is essential to deepening your experience. Find a comfortable position and support your body with pillows or back support if necessary. You can sit cross-legged on the ground, using a meditation cushion or mat, or you can sit in a chair with both feet on the ground. It is good to keep the spine as straight as possible, but it is also very important to be relaxed. Feel free to lean up against a wall or a chair for back support. Once you find a comfortable position, commit yourself to remain still during your entire meditation. If we move and adjust our bodies every time the mind is restless, it becomes difficult to deepen into an inner stillness. Although stillness during meditation is important, don’t try to fight through physical pain or significant discomfort. If you are in pain, simply adjust your body and return back to a relaxed but still position.
Foundation #3 – Watching the breath
The simplest and most effective meditation technique is breath awareness. When you sit to meditate, close your eyes and bring your attention to your breathing, wherever you notice the breath most prominently, whether in the chest, the belly or the nostrils. Just simply notice the breath going in and out. When you are inhaling, be aware of the incoming breath. When you exhale, be aware of the outgoing breath. Don’t try to change or adjust your breathing; just allow your breath to be in its natural rhythm and flow and simply be present with it. Just relax the body and feel the sensation of breathing. If you notice that the mind is active and you are distracted by thought, simply observe that you are thinking, allow the thoughts to be there, and then gently bring your attention back to the breath. As other content arises in your consciousness – sounds, body sensations, emotions, images, etc. – simply allow everything to be as it is and return your attention back to your breath. By allowing everything to be as it is without trying to resist, struggle against or control your experience, you can be present with the breath and allow it to guide you into a felt sense of inner peace and stillness.
Foundation #4 – Body Awareness
Most of us spend the majority of our time and energy in our minds, consumed by restless and persistent thoughts, and with very little awareness of our bodies. One of the keys of meditation is to bring more awareness into the body, to ground oneself in the body. By being aware of the breath and present in our body, we begin to experience our natural state of stillness, peace and well-being. When you first sit to meditate, before you bring your attention to your breath, bring awareness to your body. Feel the cushion or chair underneath you and feel the contact of your legs and feet on the ground. Let your body relax and be supported by the cushion, chair or couch underneath you. You can wiggle your toes, move your hips or gently tighten and release various muscles in your body to bring your awareness more fully into your body. After you are more present in your body, you can bring your attention to your breathing.
Foundation #5 – Self-compassion
It is essential that while we are allowing everything to be as it is, we hold ourselves with gentleness, compassion and love. We live in a culture where almost everyone is very self-critical. While in meditation and in our daily lives, holding ourselves and others with gentleness, compassion and love allows us to enter our hearts and deepen into our natural state of peace, happiness and wholeness. When you sit in meditation and begin to notice the restless nature of the mind, hold yourself and your experience with compassion and then gently bring your attention back to the breath. When harsh or critical thoughts or feelings arise during meditation, just observe them and gently bring your attention back to the breath. Another practice of self-compassion during meditation is to place your right hand over your heart and your left hand over your belly, physically making contact with your body. Just relax, breathe and feel the warmth of your hands on your body. This practice can be especially soothing if you are struggling and being hard on yourself. You can add an affirmation to this practice, saying a kind and compassionate phrase silently to yourself during meditation. It’s important for you to come up with a phrase that resonates with you, but phrases like “I’m doing the best I can,” “I love myself” and “I accept myself” can be a powerful way to bring a gentle, compassionate energy to yourself, especially when the harsh inner critic is present. Holding yourself with self-compassion and self-love is the foundation upon which peace, wholeness and well-being are built.
If you are a beginner, these foundations of meditation will help you get started with your meditation practice, allowing you to experience peace, happiness and well-being. If you are already an experienced meditator, these foundations will help you deepen your practice and avoid getting stuck in an internal struggle with yourself and your mind. As you begin your practice, find a time to sit, relax and meditate each day at the same time. Two good times to begin a daily meditation practice are upon waking and before sleep. When you start out, even 10 or 15 minutes of meditation a day has the power to make a noticeable difference in your life. As you continue to sit, you can naturally extend your meditation time to whatever feels right to you. The more you sit, breathe and meditate, the more inner peace and relaxation you will experience.
It’s also important to avoid thinking of meditation as something else you have to do. We already do enough in our lives and adding one more thing to the list can turn meditation into a chore or an obligation. Instead it’s helpful to think of meditation for what it really is – nourishment for your body, mind and soul. It is a time of letting go, relaxation and rest. A time to reconnect with a deep source of peace and wholeness within.