This note is really not about meditation in the sense that it is used in various religious traditions. Here I use the word meditation to mean a simple technique for resting the mind. Therefore the first thing is to understand why we need to rest the mind.
The body needs rest. We all know that and it is generally easy to tell that we need physical rest because we are quite familiar with physical fatigue. So from time to time we are forced to stop physical activities and rest. During sleep, we cease nearly all physical activities except for the involuntary ones such as respiration. After sleep, our capacity to continue physical work is restored.
During waking hours, normally our minds are constantly working. During sleep, our minds are not really totally dormant. There are various stages of sleep – one of them called REM, or rapid eye movement stage. I think the mind does housekeeping during REM, such as putting things in long-term memory, etc. The main point is that the mind slows down but does not totally stop carrying on its work.
The meditation I am talking about refers to giving the mind a rest period. That is all. (Henceforth, I will use the word to mean only this and not any other meaning used elsewhere.) It is an act undertaken deliberately and consciously, unlike the rest the mind gets when one sleeps when the mind rests because it has no external stimulus to engage its attention.
In the normal waking state the mind is constantly active. There is constant mental movement – in conversing, reading, solving problems, planning, regretting, anticipating, fearing, and a million other things. Even when there is no specific task at hand, the mind is into what is called “discursive thinking.” It is defined as “passing aimlessly from one subject to another; digressive; rambling.”
That discursive thinking is the normal state of affairs. It is always in the background. Imagine a car engine. When the car is moving, the engine produces power and moves the car. That is tiring for the engine. But when the car is stopped at a traffic light, the engine is “idling”, not shut down. It is working but not producing any movement. That’s the equivalent of “discursive thinking” when you are not thinking about anything specific at all.
Imagine that you never shut down the car. Even when it is parked in the garage for the night, its engine was left on idling till you again needed to go somewhere. It would stress the engine. Meditation is shutting down the engine for a bit instead of letting it idle. What meditation does is to rest the mind somewhat like sleeping rests the body.
After meditating, you will find that the mind is more acute in the sense that it works better. You see, hear, feel, think, etc, with greater clarity. In a sense, mental power increases. It is as if constant mental work depletes the batteries of the mind, and meditation recharges those mental batteries.
Like Learning to Ride a Bicycle
First thing to note is that the technique is very simple to state. It is very difficult to learn. Once you learn it, it is very easy to do. This is like learning how to ride a bicycle. Easily enough told how to learn to ride; quite difficult to learn; once learned, it is so easy that you wonder why it is difficult for someone who does not know how to ride a bike.
So set yourself the expectation that it will take effort. But it can be learned with sufficient practice. Learning is easier for people who already are mentally disciplined than for people who have a short attention span or are scatter-brained.
1. The setting. The place has to be where you are not going to be disturbed, is quiet, comfortable, and the light is soothing and not harsh.
2. You can sit on a chair or on a cushion on the floor. You keep your spine straight and your head comfortably balanced with your spine. Shoulders relaxed but not slouching. Your forearms on your thighs and your hands resting lightly in your lap. Feet resting on the floor if sitting on a chair; if on a cushion, legs in the lotus position or simply crossed. The main idea is to find a posture that you can comfortably maintain for about a half hour.
3. Close your eyes and start.
4. The first thing we do is to learn how to be in the present.
Stage 1: Paying attention to the breath
Start with paying attention to your breath. Note how your chest and your stomach rising with your breath, the air moving in and out of your nostrils. Notice how you breathe in and breathe out.
Don’t judge. Don’t try to interfere with the breathing. Just breathe and keep your mind on the physical act of breathing. Don’t think about anything for the next 30 minutes.
In a few seconds, you will notice that you forgot to pay attention to your breath and instead started thinking about something. When that happens, just stop that discursive thinking and get back to paying attention to your breathing.
Don’t question. Don’t ask yourself, “Is this working? Am I doing this right? Why can’t I focus on breathing?” If you do, don’t judge. Just go back to paying attention to your breathing.
When you start, the length of time when you can pay attention would be like 10 seconds. After about 20 to 50 hours of simply paying attention to your breathing, you will have learned how to not become lost in discursive thinking and you will find that you can pay attention to your breathing for as long as four or five minutes at a stretch.
Stage 2: Being in the Present
After learning how to pay attention to the breath, you learn how to be in the present. You note what is going on around you at the moment. You don’t think about the past or plan for the future. You become totally aware of what is reaching your sense. If there is a sound, you note that and move on to the next thing that impinges on your consciousness. If there is nothing going on in your surroundings, just note your breathing. The idea here is to be totally present at the moment.
Stage 3: There’s no Stage 3
That’s all there is to it. You learn how to sit still, pay attention without getting distracted, and being in the present.
When you finish a meditation session, it may not appear that you have achieved anything at all. But changes have happened regardless of whether you notice them. It is like exercising on a stationary bicycle. It is like thinking that exercise cycles are pointless since you end up going nowhere even after all that physical exertion.
In a few weeks, you will notice that after your meditation session, you feel mentally relaxed.
How long should you meditate
Use a timer. Such as a gentle ringing tone on your phone. Start off with 10 minutes for a week, then bump it up by 5 minutes every week, till you reach 30 minutes per session.
Once a week after that, meditate for one entire hour.
Try to do your meditation at the same place and at around the same time. Best is to do it in the morning when distractions are the least. Or late at night before going to bed.