How to get started with meditation
Today I want to take a look at meditation and what it can offer to us, mainly because I have been neglecting my own meditation practice of late, and a small voice inside my head keeps whispering to me that I need to get back to it.
So today is a gentle reminder for those of you familiar with meditation and who perhaps like me having been neglecting your practice and also an introduction for those of you just starting out. It is written by Tami Simon, founder of Sounds True, a wonderful online resource and shop for the world’s spiritual teachings.
What is meditation?
Meditation is a method for synchronizing body and mind in the present moment. When our body and mind are in sync, we are naturally relaxed, alert, open, and aware.
What does it mean to “synchronize body and mind”?
For a moment or two, right now, pay close attention to the feeling of the rising and falling of your belly with each in-breath and out-breath. You will notice that when you pay attention in this way, even after just a few moments, your mind and body start tracking together, and everything in you starts to calm down, relax, and open.
Most of the time, our minds and bodies are not in sync. Our minds are like broken record players, going over the same habitual thoughts again and again. Our bodies are often ignored; sensations of pain and pleasure alike are “run over” by the speed and busy-ness of our lives. The experience for most of us in any given moment is that we are stuck in our heads, ignoring our bodies, and living one step removed from our immediate situation.
When we slow down and take time to synchronize body and mind, we experience ourselves and the world in a direct, unmediated way, without conceptual filters. It is this direct experience of the fullness, vitality, and splendor of life that is the gift of meditation.
Meditation Is a Universal Method
Many people wonder if they have to be interested in Eastern religions in order to practice meditation. The answer is no. Meditation is a universal method that is not owned by any religion or spiritual tradition. While it is true that training in meditative techniques has historically been a special focus of the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, we can also find meditative techniques in the Christian Contemplative tradition (in the form of Centering Prayer and the practice of Lectio Divina, the reading of sacred texts), in the Kabbalistic tradition (in the form of precise visualizations, e.g. The Tree of Life), and in the Sufi tradition (in the form of the dhikr, the repetition of the names of Allah), to name just a few examples.
More recently, meditative techniques have been taught outside of any spiritual tradition whatsoever as a practice that is useful for stress reduction; pain relief; and increasing overall health, happiness, and vitality.
In order to explore the benefits of meditation, you do not need to have an interest in following a particular spiritual path. All you need is an open mind and the willingness to experiment with meditative techniques. You can evaluate the results for yourself, based on your own experience.
Mindfulness and Awareness
Let’s return to our beginning meditation practice of synchronizing mind and body by paying attention to the feeling of our belly rising and falling with our in-breath and out-breath. You will notice as you do this that your thinking process begins to slow down and your body starts to relax. In fact, there is a direct correlation between discursive thinking and tension in the body. When we calm our mind, our body relaxes, and when we relax our body our mind becomes calm.
In order to calm the mind and relax the body, meditation practice often begins with focusing on an object, literally “tethering your mind” to an object of meditation. This is the aspect of meditation known as mindfulness, paying close attention to an object of meditation, returning again and again to attending to the object in a nonjudgmental way.
There are many possible objects of mindfulness that you can use during meditation, including sensations in the body, a sacred word, a candle flame, or even the vastness of space itself. It is often suggested that beginning meditators start by focusing on the breath because it is so readily available as a felt experience. You can focus on the movement of the breath as it comes in and out of the nostrils at the tip of the nose—slightly cool on the in-breath and slightly warm on the out-breath—or, as we have discussed here, on the feeling of the belly rising on the in-breath and falling with the out-breath.
If you focus on an object of mindfulness for a period of time, you will notice that your mind and body begin to settle. You start to feel more grounded, more present—relaxed and alert at the same time. At this point, you can begin to open to a second aspect of meditation: awareness. When we are aware, we are not concentrating on any particular object; instead we are open to experiencing whatever arises in the moment. Resting in awareness, we neither grasp onto experience nor push anything away; we simply allow experience to unfold in a natural and unobstructed way. This is sometimes called “resting in the natural state” or “resting in the presence of God.” When we rest in awareness, we are completely open, available, boundless. In this receptive state, insight spontaneously emerges, and we begin know ourselves in the depth and fullness of our being.
Meditation and the Transformative Process
When we rest in awareness, we invite all experience—including repressed memories and other unconscious, disowned, or “shadow” material—to surface and present itself to us. Anything in us that has been experienced, but not consciously felt, is invited to come forward and be known and released. No matter what experience knocks on our door, we open the door, welcome the experience, and feel it fully.
When we push away experiences that we don’t like (which is what we usually do), our lives become partial and incomplete. Alternatively, when we welcome all experience into the light of awareness, we begin to become whole and fearless.
Resting in awareness accelerates the transformative process and the unfolding of our genuine personhood. Stuck energy from our past keeps us contained in a partial, compromised identity. When we hold on to pockets of stuck energy, we feel we need to defend ourselves against anything that might undermine our protective self-structure. When we rest in awareness in an unconditional and receptive way, this blocked energy is unlocked and invited to flow freely. This enables our lives to unfold and flower, for all identity structures to be released, and for us to boldly express who we are and the love that we feel in a natural and spontaneous way. Meditation becomes a path to wholeness, a way of synchronizing body and mind in service to the expression of the fullness and depth of our being.