Why and How to Meditate

dalai-lama-laughJune 16, 2015 – I heard that when the Dalai Lama was asked what he would do if he had fifteen minutes left to live, he replied, “I would meditate.”

I thought about his response a lot, and his words changed my own meditation practice. There’s something bigger and more infinite happening when we meditate, not just a quietening of one’s being for a short while.

Why meditate? There are many reasons, and many different types of practices. I remember a wonderful magazine interview with a Carmelite nun, in which the nun was asked about her daily routine and practices. She described the tasks, the meals, the leisure time – and then said “and then it is time for prayer – which is the time we love best.” It was said in the same tone that many of us look forward to a party or a date or a movie. It’s how I feel about my own meditation practice.

centered-moonMeditating instills an equanimity that helps you to feel peaceful even when there are outwardly stressful or urgent situations surrounding you. Instead of getting sucked into an emotional, uncontrollable vortex of fear or anger, you remain calm. Emotions are good – when they’re kept in balance.

By meditating, you train your thinking to be intentional, not at the mercy of reaction to others’ emergencies. And when you are serene, you help others to be serene as well.

There are all kinds of ways to practice meditating: you can sit, or whirl, or pray. You can walk, but try not to think. Instead, observe what is around you, without judgment. Focus on your breath if your mind starts wandering. Move through the natural beauty that surrounds you, and observe it with compassionate detachment.

Dancing is another form of meditation – sometimes moving to music helps your mind focus, as on a mantra. It’s important to be gentle with yourself – I’ve known some people to get exasperated with their inability to meditate! The mental chatter that tends to overtake us can be overwhelming. But anyone can find a way to find the quiet stillness of one’s innermost being. Be patient. Half the exercise is slowing down, being very still, listening to yourself, listening to the holiness that is you. Peace doesn’t come from somewhere outside – nor does happiness or calm. It comes from going inwards.

At the very least, the practice of meditation trains your mind to be your tool, rather than you being a servant of your mind. In life, you can get lost in a dizzying array of splendid thoughts and ideas and conversations. Meditation helps to remind you that your head is as useful as your hands for writing or your feet for walking. But your mind is not your being, your real self. Your mind is useful – but it needs to learn how to be still and empty to make room for creativity and calm.

If you haven’t meditated before – or only rarely or with a teacher – here’s a beginner’s basic:

Find a place where you know you won’t be interrupted. Be seated comfortably. Close your eyes. For five or so minutes, focus on your breath. You’ll hear it going in and out, and you might get twitchy and bored and begin to think of something else. Gently focus your mind back on your breathing.

After five minutes, gently let go of your concentration and open your eyes.

That’s it.

communicating with a storkOver the course of the next few days, increase your meditating time to ten – fifteen – twenty minutes. Eventually you’ll find the time that works best for you. Transcendental meditation recommends twenty minutes twice a day. Za-zen monks meditate for seven or eight hours at a time.

If you already know how to meditate, but only do it on occasion, try to do it as a regular practice for a week and observe any changes.

If you’re a seasoned meditator, then try a different kind of meditation for a week or two, to stretch and flex your meditation muscles. There are so many varieties to choose from – focusing on a mantra, moving meditation, walking, dancing, whirling, breathing, emptiness.

It’s your meditation practice – choose one that works for you.