Most of us come to Buddhism or meditation because we are seeking something, whether relief from suffering or spiritual engagement. From the Buddhist perspective and from the experience of people who meditate regularly, meditation is a key component of both relief and spiritual growth. You may be aware that one particular type of Buddhist meditation, Mindfulness (or “Insight” or “Vipassana”) Meditation is being used medically for stress- reduction. There are various forms of Buddhist meditation (as there are various traditions of Buddhism), but all start with the same basic instructions, the same basic practice. The purpose of this one practice is to cultivate the mind habits of the concentration that is necessary for meditation. This beginning practice, by itself, brings stress relief and (temporary) peacefulness. For many it also feels like an opening to a spiritual path.
Beginning Meditation Instructions
Sit comfortably. Sitting in meditation is so central to Buddhist practice that meditation itself is often referred to just as “sitting.” On a cushion on the floor or on your bed, make sure your butt is higher than your knees (for comfort and stability). Most cushion sitters use the “tailor’s position.” This is one leg bent in front of the other. That other one is bent almost under you. On the floor, you could also try a kneeling bench position, even with big, firm cushion(s), no bench: kneel with knees pointing forward on both sides of the cushion(s); sit on the front half of the cushion. On a chair sit on the front third of the seat, legs widely spread, feet firmly on floor. This makes a stable triangle with the seat. In all positions sit so that you’re the top of your pelvic bones are slightly tipped forward. This encourages your spine to keep the slight forward curve at its base. This curve is needed for comfort (and stability) for longer sittings and opens your chest. It may be so new that it feels slightly irritating, but it is worth getting used to. Do not force yourself to take or stay in a very uncomfortable posture. There are many local resources, including going to one meeting of a sitting group, to help check out what adjustments you may need to make.
Positioning the rest of your body. Your eyes may be closed. Or you may gaze at the floor about 3 feet ahead of you and let your lids droop to almost closing. Rest your arms comfortably with your hands in your lap or on your thighs. Hands on thighs can be open palms down. In you lap use a traditional meditative hand position (called a “mudra”). This mudra is with the right hand under the left, both palms facing up, with the thumbs lightly touching. Head faces comfortably forward with chin pulled back the slightest bit. The instruction is to stay gently, not stiffly erect. However drooping happens naturally to all beginners and to most seasoned practitioners. When you notice you are drooping, just gently, without self-reproach, just be aware that you awoke to your position and readjust it.
Your mind. Feel your breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils or as it raises and lowers your abdomen. Your breath at the place you choose is referred to as your “object” of meditation. Count silently “1” for inhale, “2” for exhale, “ ”3 for inhale,” etc. until 10. Then go back to “1.” You will naturally lose concentration early in the sequence: it is part of the new learning. Do not be at all discouraged. Just be aware that you awoke to your mind wandering and gently, without self-judgment, come back to “1.” Be encouraged that each noticed wandering is a mind moment that strengthens your ability to concentrate and meditate.
Timing. Start manageably. When you are comfortable sitting for 5 or 10 minutes, increase by 5 more. Keep increasing by 5 minute intervals until you are comfortable at 20 minutes. This is a usual sitting period in most traditions for people who are meditating at home or with a sitting group.
Starting and Maintaining a Daily Practice
This is also a matter of habit change, so be patient with yourself. And be persistent. Even if you stop practicing, be persistent about coming back to it, even if that means again and again. Here are some things that help support you as you change your habits to make a place for daily meditation.
Pick one place where you will sit. Try to make it a relatively quiet place where you will have privacy. The more aesthetically pleasing the place is, the better. You may want to visually support yourself with flowers or symbols that are meaningful. TURN OFF YOUR PHONE AND TEXT SOUNDS. Use a timer with a mellow tone. Your phone may help here. Staying with one place is like staying with one meditation object: it helps establish a new habit.
Pick the most workable time of day and schedule it in daily. Again, regularity is the key in breaking old patterns and establishing new ones. Without being seriously scheduled, sitting will fall though the cracks. Most people find that “first thing” in the morning or just before going to bed work best.
Join a sitting group. There are many small sitting groups in the Philadelphia are. PBA holds one on Wednesday evening and one on Sunday evening. Most groups are very welcoming to and supportive of beginners. Members who are slightly advanced of you can have excellent advice, be able to answer many questions, and point out fine resources. The informal learning that takes place in conversations before and after sitting is priceless. Participating in a community with this common interest and intention is so important that the community itself is considered one the “three jewels” of Buddhism: the Sangha. (The two others are the Buddha and his teachings, called the Dharma.)
Go to Buddhist Activities. It is very supportive to be with like-minded people and to learn more about the many aspects of Buddhism and meditation. Being rich in Buddhist groups, the Philadelphia area and the East Coast have a multitude of lectures, discussions, day-long retreats and loner residential retreats.
There is a monthly PBA group that discusses attendees’ sitting practices. It meets the second Wednesday of the month at our Radnor location. Everyone is welcome.
Find a teacher. While most meditators start without a formal teacher, a teacher is extremely helpful. In any tradition, the relationship with a teacher is itself motivating for continuing on the path. A teacher who gets to know how your strengths and resistances work, is particularly well placed to help you not get lost in usual delusions about practice. The Zen tradition particularly emphasizes the importance of a deep relationship with a single teacher. Some local centers have their single teacher whom you can get to know. Some invite varying teachers to give lectures or brief retreats. The internet can introduce you to the sense of connection or inspiration you may get from innumerable potential teachers. Some teachers even work regularly with far-away students by phone or Skype. Tricycle magazine and its internet sangha are inexpensive and invaluable ways to meet new teachers and traditions.
More Support is Available. By email (firstname.lastname@example.org) you can (1) ask a question or (2) arrange a private meditation lesson (just before one of our weekly sits on Sun. and Wed, nights 7:30 – 9).