Let me begin with full disclosure: I'm a meditation addict. I do it daily, and I do it because I love it. But like many people, I began meditating not because I expected to like it, or even for the sake of spiritual growth. I started meditating because I hoped it would help me feel better. I was looking for a way to short circuit the unbroken mentalogue that played through my mind day and night, to chill out the energy of a busy and stressful life as a New York journalist, and to find a way past the subtle feeling of low-grade suffering that seemed to be part of my inner feeling state. Meditation was just beginning to get some press as a life-transforming strategy. I went for it.
For the first year I sat, my mind never once—never once—got quiet. Even so, I quickly discovered that the practice activated some center of stillness and contentment that carried over into the rest of the day. When things got rough in my world, when doors were slamming and work mates challenging my ideas, I found out that if I could sit for three or four minutes in silence, solutions would arise and emotions cool down. Meditation seemed to activate some mysterious alchemical process that went far beyond what I actually did on the mat.
Nearly forty years later, my respect for meditation as a life-skill has only grown. Millions of people would agree with me; insurance companies, psychotherapists, pastors, rabbis and priests, business consultants all use meditation as a platform. It's one of the most all-purpose life-skills in existence, a practice that can wake you up, calm you down, give you access to the kind of wisdom that only shows up when we leave the ordinary mind behind, show you that the source of love is inside you. And it is the practice par excellence for mystics of nearly every religious tradition.
That said, I meet many people who meditate regularly, say it brings them some peace, yet that they often find their meditation either boring or dry. In this column, I want to offer some of the strategies, practices, and applications that have been crucial to my own journey, and that help you move past boredom, dryness, and merely dutiful sitting. These include both sitting practices, and practices you can do off the mat, because in my view, the real gifts of meditation often come when you let the meditation current open up for you in the midst of a conversation, a work crisis, a walk, a meal.
Let's start with some basic principles for sitting practice.
- Look at your meditation practice as an experiment. Meditation is not a static practice, nor is it ever one-size-fits all. It's an experiment you perform in the laboratory of your own body and mind. When you begin looking at meditation that way, it will instantly vitalize your sitting.
- Make sure your sitting position is comfortable. As long as your back is straight, comfort trumps form. Use props to lift your hips if you sit on the floor, or sit in a chair with pillows supporting your lower back. If necessary you can even meditate lying in shavasana.
- Have a core practice that you work with to begin meditation, and use that as your anchor. In time, that practice will signal your mind that it's time to turn inside. The two most widely used core practices are attending to the breath, and mantra. These should be used not as rigid points of concentration, but as ways to catch the mind and let it turn within.
- Give yourself permission to be playful. Once you've found a core practice that suits you, take a session or two each week to experiment. Many of us learn one practice at the beginning of our journey, and stick with it even when it becomes dry or brings up resistance. The antidote to routine meditation sittings is playfulness. If you've been meditating with the breath, try a visualization. If you normally visualize, see what happens if you just sit with your attention in the heart.
- Start meditation with an intention. This will focus and give directionality to your practice. A good intention for meditation is "In the next xx minutes I will sit and turn my attention inside."
- Ask for grace. When we sit for meditation, we're opening ourselves to the subtle universe inside us. In the inner universe there is enormous help available. It's a good idea when you begin practice to ask that the helpful forces in the inner world guide your practice. You can do this by invoking a specific teacher, master, God, or the universe itself. This practice will subtly nourish your entire meditation.
- Cultivate the witness. Many teachers say that developing a witnessing awareness is the heart of meditation. Awareness of the inner witnessing presence is the secret of stepping outside our bondage to thoughts and emotions. The witness is always present, it's just that we normally don't notice it. Once you've learned to recognize the witness, it becomes a stable center that you can turn back to any time, especially when your mind is agitated or your emotions roiling.
- Learn to catch the meditation current. A great meditation teacher once said that meditation is neither an art nor a science, but a knack. What's the knack? It's the knack for touching the subtle current of meditation that is always at play just beyond the mind. The meditative state is like a bandwidth, always present. Our practice dials us into it. Or, to use a more poetic metaphor, it's like guiding a canoe on a gently flowing river. In other words, it's enough to subtly hold your attention on your focal point, or even simply let your attention simply open to the experience of the present moment. With your intention and your focal practice, the meditation current reveals itself.
- Have some simple practices for moving through thoughts, but don't worry if thoughts come. The truth about meditation is that once you are aware of the current, meditation can go on even if thoughts are playing in the mind. Focusing on the breath or a mantra, noting thoughts as they come up, or letting the thoughts move through the mind like clouds are all ways to stay present with your practice without getting lost in thinking.