Meditation Instructions for Beginners

Last Update - January 19, 2018
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What follows is a simple guide and set of instructions for starting to meditate at home. I make this available to people expressing interest in meditation, and for people thinking of joining our sitting group. This allows you to taste, a little bit, what sitting is like. You should always feel free to ask me if you have questions or need clarification.

I'll begin with a very brief description of how the practice is done, and then I'll tell you a bit about what the benefits of this practice are, and then I'll give you more details about getting started. I also provide some links to videos that might help reinforce this instruction and give more background.

To make meditation effective to you in your life it must become a daily practice. You need to set aside a part of each day to sit quietly without moving. You might sit 10 minutes a day for the first week, then 15 minutes a day the second week, building to 25 minutes a day. To sit for 25 minutes is called a "sit" and ideally you should aim to do one sit per day, eventually, if you can. Two sits per day are even better, but that will come much later if you enjoy this practice and wish to continue. For many years I have been doing 2 sits per day.

(Incense is often burned while meditating and one original purpose was to time each sit, since the incense often used lasted 25 minutes. Modern electronic timers, like the one on your phone, work well as an alternative to incense - but set your phone to 'do not disturb,' while sitting)

The benefits of this practice are many. I believe sitting will help you and just about anybody. It has certainly helped me. In addition to finding a way to cope with the crazy busyness of daily life, (among other benefits) the practice can also allow one to come in closer touch with a spiritual self. I tell you this because it will be a natural side-effect of sitting and this shouldn't be a cause for concern or alarm, and for many it is a welcome change. But if this is starting to sound like I'm describing a religious practice, I want to assure you that it is not. Many people make a connection between Zen and Buddhism, and while there is a historical connection, Zen is not Buddhism. Zen is a way of life and a practice that is for anybody and everybody. It can be practiced by those who already have a religious practice (of any religion) or by those who have no religious practice.

When you sit, wear loose-fitting comfortable clothes if you can. You will need some form of sitting support, depending on how you sit. You will have to be careful to not cause yourself any discomfort or physical harm. These supports could include a floor mat, cushions, a bench or a chair (more on this below). You must have a minute timer with some kind of indicator bell or flashing light to indicate the end of a sitting period (10 minutes, for example) as you need to time your sits and you don't want to be checking a clock while you sit. Your phone probably can do this. A quiet and dimly-lit location where you live is an ideal place to sit. Try to sit where you are as free as possible from visual and noisy distractions. The sound of voices from people talking, the radio, or the TV / internet, is to be avoided as much as possible. Things like the sound of falling rain, or traffic noise can be helpful, if it is of a type of sound that does not call for your attention. Sitters often face a blank wall in a darkened quiet room if they can. For many people the best time for sitting is early in the day, after yoga practice (or tai chi for me), but do what works for you.

To describe how to get started with the actual sitting, I will cover three main points: the body, the breath and the mind, and cover each in the sections below. Basically what you are trying to do is still the mind, and you begin by stilling the body and by watching the breath.

Sit in any way you can based on the following descriptions and by looking at the video on 'Fundamentals' that I give a link for below. A large firm cushion and a yoga mat will help if you sit on the floor. The closer you sit to the floor and the nearer you sit in the classic lotus position, the better - but only do what you can without discomfort and pain. Any way that you can sit cross legged with the cushion and mat on the floor is good, but you really need to be able to get your knees to touch the floor so that there is a kind of tripod support having three points of contact; your two knees and your buttocks. If your knees cannot touch the floor, then you can use some support cushions underneath the knees. You can also kneel on a bench or a cushion, or if none of these are possible for you then you can sit on the front edge of a chair.

If you use a chair, sit at the front edge of the chair with your feet flat on the floor and spaced shoulder-width apart. Sit erect and do not lean back on the chair's backrest. A chair without arms is best. A piano stool that can be adjusted for height is perfect.

It is important to be able to keep the body still and steady and a good body position will include some way that you make a kind of tripod with your body. As much as you can you should try to not move while you sit. Keep your back straight, with the top of your head pointed to the ceiling, chest bone held high, and shoulders dropped as low as possible. Keep your hands open, resting wrists on thighs, and your left hand placed in your right with your middle knuckles touching. Allow your thumb tips to meet and pull them towards your body to form an oval (this hand position is called a mudra and you can see this in the video link below). Keep your mouth closed, and don't clench your teeth - hold your teeth apart slightly. Rest your tongue behind your upper teeth (to control saliva flow). Keep your eyes half-open and lower them to a spot about one meter in front of your nose.

Breathe naturally through your nose and watch both inhalations and exhalations. Start with counting the breath. There are several ways to count the breath. Start this way: Silently count each in-breath and each out-breath up to ten. The first in-breath is one, the first out-breath is two, the second in-breath is three, the second out-breath is four, and so on. Once you have reached ten, go back to one... Gradually, you will realize you are one with your breathing, and that is your goal. Just sit and "be" the breathing.

To "be the breath" is the goal of sitting, but since it is so subtle, it is very difficult to maintain. Even long time experienced sitters need to return to the counting now and then. Eventually you can try other ways of counting the breath (such as counting just the in-breaths, or counting just the out-breaths...) and then the day will come when you can dispense altogether with counting, and just sit being your breath.

If you lose count, get stuck on a number, or find you have counted past the number 10, then just start over again at number one. Any way you proceed through this method is fine, so don't worry about doing it wrong. Try to avoid being self-praising or self-critical on how well (or not-well) you think you are doing. Just keep doing it as well as you can without any self-judgement.

One way to describe the aim of sitting is to say we are trying to still the mind. Watching the breath and doing breath counting will distract the mind from doing its busy work somewhat, but the mind never stops and thoughts will occur despite your breath counting. The analogy of yourself being a mountain with your thoughts being clouds passing overhead helps many people. The clouds never stop and always change. As much as possible during sitting you should avoid pursuing any thought while at the same time avoiding any rejection of thoughts. Let your thoughts alone and they will pass. Try to not pick up any thoughts and work with them. The thoughts are not a problem but we need to take a break from working with thoughts, because working with thoughts is thinking, and stilling the mind is taking a break from thinking. When you find yourself thinking, go back to counting your breath and try to do so without admonishing yourself. Just go back to counting. You will do this over and over again. This is meditation.

(Please note that while sitting you can get some wonderful and useful thoughts and ideas. These can and should be collected and saved. I sit with a pencil and pad of paper beside me so that I can jot the idea down, as it occurs to me, allowing me to pick it up later, after I sit. Otherwise the loss of a perfectly good idea/thought can create other thoughts during sitting - about regret, or hoping that you'll remember that great thought later - all of which can be avoided by writing it down and then letting it go.)

People find this practice difficult but most people are able to do it, and it does gets easier the more you do it. Sit for as long as you can each day and gradually build up to 25 minutes. If you want to do more than 25 minutes you need to take a break and stretch your legs for 5 minutes by walking slowly in a circle while you continue with your breath counting. Then you can sit for another 25 minutes if you wish. You should never sit for longer than 25 minutes at a time, as you might cause injury to yourself without periodic stretches.

The effect of this practice can be very powerful. While quite uncommon, sometimes unusual things can happen to you while you sit and if they do, you need to tell me about them so I help you see what it might be. It is called makyo. The kinds of things that might happen, things that I need you to tell me about, are different for everybody or can be nothing at all. When they do happen, they can take the form of emotional outbursts or crying, but could take some other form as well - but usually nothing happens.

"Makyo refers to the hallucinations and perceptual distortions that can arise during the course of meditation and can be mistaken by the practitioner as "seeing the true nature" or kensho. Zen masters warn their meditating students to ignore sensory distortions." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Makyo)

If you can't sit every day, then sit for as many days per week as you can. If you miss one day, don't try to make up for it the next day, just continue with the regular amount. If on one day you can't sit for as long as you usually sit, then just sit for as long as you can.

I am providing links to two videos, which come from a sitting group in Dallas Texas. These are...

The Fundamentals of Zen Practice
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hWvVwL33Ps
This describes the method almost exactly as I describe above. The video also shows how sometimes people get together to sit as a group. It is much easier to sit in a group than it is to sit by oneself and group sitting is strongly encouraged - more on this below.

The Fruits of Zen Practice
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-LhjW3jY7M
Watch this video if you're interested in hearing more about the benefits of Zen meditation.

What I have described here is the daily practice that is pretty much a fundamental requirement if you're aiming to have a Zen practice and live a Zen way of life. But one can only go so far without a teacher, and sitting with a group helps enormously. There are also many other advantages of sitting with a group, such as being able to participate in organized long-term sits that can continue for from 1 to 8 days (or longer).

Let me know if you have any problems or questions. I hope you begin and continue to build a daily practice, and I hope it helps you. Please contact me if you are interested in sitting with our group, and practicing with a teacher.

Stan
stan (dot) kr (at) gmail (dot) com


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