After almost a year of trial and error, I've finally accomplished a feat central to Buddhist Practice: I've learned to meditate. Before, just the word "meditation" was enough to make me squirm. The very thought of sitting for any length of time, doing nothing, thinking nothing, could send me running for the nearest exit. Then, I realized I was going at it all wrong. Let me be clear: I am not an expert in meditation or Buddhist Practice, for that matter. Yet, I've discovered a few of the "tricks," which those who are far more evolved and enlightened than I, might omit when providing meditative instruction—most likely because it seems so rudimentary to them. By Buddhist standards, I'm a baby, and as such, I take baby steps. Here's what I've learned.
First, from the experts. Thubten Chodron is an American-born Tibetan Buddhist nun who's studied and practiced Buddhism in India and Nepal since 1975. Her book Buddhism for Beginners is my essential primer. In it she defines mediation as "habituating ourselves to positive attitudes and correct perspective." Chodren provides wonderful instruction for basic meditative practice on her website. (Gotta love 21st century Buddhist nuns who are into the digital world.) She describes two basic forms of meditation: stabilizing and analytical.
According to Chodron, "stabilizing meditation (the type I practice) is focusing our minds on our breath and observing all the sensations that occur as we breathe. This calms our mind and frees it from its usual chatter, enables us to be more peaceful in our daily life and not worry so much." Chodren does prescribe that one study meditation with a teacher, and certainly if you want to get into analytical contemplation, such as a mediation on emptiness or death, it really is a good idea to not go that alone. But basic meditative practice can be accomplished without a lot of muss and fuss.
Meditation is central to Buddhist Practice, but not because we are trying to levitate off the floor, or clear our minds of all thought, or drain our egos to nothingness. Rather, it is a discipline of the mind, which allows us to train ourselves to "sit" with our thoughts, both difficult and pleasant, and place them in proper context. In other words, we learn to not become carried away by our fears, emotions, anxieties or bliss so when we are not meditating it is easier to get past those vexing thoughts in everyday life. Like physical exercise, the more we do it, the more we build the muscle of our minds. And that has basis in neurology. (Don't believe me? See the link below about gray matter.)
When meditating, thought appears, is acknowledged and then gently set aside. There are many ways to meditate, but the most common approach is to focus on one's breath when erosive thoughts arise. "Go back to the breath," is a common instruction in guided meditation. This reminder (hello! ya gotta breathe!) pulls the meditator out of whatever little fantasyland he is entertaining in his cinematic brain and back into the most basic function of the human body.
The idea is to sit, either on a floor cushion or in a chair (no, that is not cheating,) using relatively good posture, for a period of time. Most people start with ten or fifteen minutes and work their way up.
You sit and breathe, focusing on your breath whenever you find your mind wandering out the door. It bears repeating that the point of basic mediation is not to clear your mind of all thought. The point is to sit, relatively still, with those thoughts but not dwelling on them. For those sport-fishers out there, you can think of it as a catch and release system. It's really that easy. The hard part, for me and most novices, was keeping my ass on the floor for more than two minutes. Funny how resistant we become to the very thought of sitting with our thoughts. For months I tried to no avail. I would sit for about a minute and my to-do list would start wrestling for my attention. "Dirty dishes? Is that you calling me? Be right there!"
I finally got over myself. One night recently during Buddhist practice at Losel Maitri, I sat in meditation (with the group) and dipped for a second into that cognitive sweet spot. I'm not sure this is everyone's experience with meditation, but for one brief and shining moment, I believe I cleared my mind—either that or I ever-so-briefly nodded off to sleep, but I'm pretty sure it was the former. Akin to learning to ride a bike, once I felt that sense of peace, I felt sure I could do it again. And, like bike riding, it does require balance, mental balance that is, through placing aside all those pesky thoughts and chores and just let yourself relax into being. It's worth the effort.
Most of the time I don't dip into that warm, peaceful ocean of the clear mind, but I finally got it and now I'm much more inclined to sit. In fact, I went from not being able to sit for 10 minutes, to sitting for 30 minutes without much effort. The trick is: Let the thoughts come. Don't fight them. Lean into them. Don't hold them. Don't fixate or ruminate, or start analyzing. Just see the thought, and let it go, like a helium balloon. Then focus back on your breath.
Why should you meditate? Basically, it's good for you. Even if you have no desire at all to attain Buddhahood, meditation is excellent exercise for the brain. There's much scientific evidence that mediation provides relief from depression and anxiety. Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (MCBT), which uses meditative practice as its core therapeutic device, is practiced by many psychologists and therapists in the treatment of these disorders. And guess what? It works. There have been countless studies and applications of this type of secular therapy—which finds its roots in Buddhist practice, but does not prescribe it necessary to read one single Dharma book in order to find this mental exercise effective.
One of the leaders in this field is Dr. Zindel Segal of the University of Toronto. In a paper published in the APA's Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Segal and his colleagues found MCBT significantly reduced risk of relapse/recurrence of depression among patients with three or more episodes of depression. Zindel recently released findings that MBCT is on par with the use of antidepressants for the prevention of depression relapse. (Why take a drug when meditation provides the same benefit, and has no adverse side effects?) Likewise, earlier this year, NPR reported that meditative practice has helped death-row inmates in an Alabama prison find peace with their (more recent) past lives and misdeeds.
But MCBT and meditation isn't just for depression and anxiety. It's used to treat physical conditions such as high blood pressure and obesity. It's my theory meditation may even help children with Aspergers, ADHD and some types of autism—and there's some inroads in medical research that may prove me right. I also believe with some certainty that meditation can prevent dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Yes, there's some evidence of that as well. In fact, a report was issued in April of this year illustrated via MRIs the effects of meditative practice among monks. In 2009 researchers at UCLA showed meditative practice increases gray matter in the brain.
What more evidence do you need? Still, we are more reluctant to sit with our thoughts than we are to strap on a pair of running shoes or hit the gym on a regular basis. Inertia is a terrible thing, and there is irony in the fact that people who are depressed—and could most benefit from meditative practice, or consistent exercise, for that matter—are often plagued with the lack of energy and initiative to do so. It's a vicious cycle.
Here's the good news: Meditation is not difficult. It requires no special equipment or membership. You just have to sit. A timer is nice to have because it keeps you from checking your watch every ten seconds. Other than that, you can meditate anytime, anywhere. And it's free. Why not give it a try?