“Become skillful in regards to yourself and other through contact, from confronting and dealing with things, not from running away.
Wherever it hurts, wherever there’s friction, we must investigate. Confront the problem head on. Find the thorn and take it out.”
-Ajahn Chah, Food For The Heart
Before I knew anything about Buddhism or Eastern philosophy, the word “meditation” sounded so mystical to me. I imagined Buddhist monks chanting in caves for 12 hours at a time, utterly calm and peaceful, learning how to use the power of their thoughts to lift objects or see into the future. When I began to practice meditation for myself I realized that the reality of meditation is much simpler but potentially more profound.
In the most basic sense, meditation is about sitting and paying attention. In the Vipassana practice, which is style I’m familiar with, you sit on a cushion for a variable period of time and focus your attention on your breathing. You stay present in your body as you breathe in and out. You can even label the breath – “in, out…” to help your mind stay present. When you become distracted, you gently bring your attention and focus back to your breath.
The breath is not the interesting nor valuable part about meditation, though. The interesting part is seeing what happens when you sit on your butt and try to pay attention to your breath. It won’t be as easy as it sounds. You’ll be able to focus on your breath for a few seconds before your mind wanders to something else. You’ll be distracted by physical aches and pains and your body adjusts to the sitting position. You’ll be distracted by thoughts and doubts such as “Am I doing this right?” or, “Did I forget to pick up milk at the market?” or a million other things.
These difficulties are your teachers. Meditation is a tool that reveals the thorns that have been sticking into you side all along, while you’ve been too busy running from one thing to the next to notice them. When finally do start paying attention, you may be overwhelmed by the number of insecurities and doubts that were lingering just below your consciousness. You may be surprised that your mind jumps from one thought to the next without any rhyme or reason. You may be disappointed to see how little time you actually spend in your body and in the moment because your mind is a million miles away.
But now, you have an opportunity to investigate why these thorns are there in the first place so you can pull them out. The purpose of Vipassana is to gain insight, and through insight, to reveal better ways of interacting with yourself and the world.
In meditation, you learn by struggling. Each struggle is a teacher that can show you something about yourself and your nature. Most of us move all day and don’t take any time for reflection. But when you sit and just pay attention a whole world can open to you.
Here’s a basic meditation exercise taken from The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield, one of my favorite books:
- Select a suitable place for your regular meditation. Put a meditation chair or cushion there.
- Select a regular time for your practice. Begin sitting for 10 minutes at a time – later you can sit longer or more frequently.
- Sit erect without being rigid. Feel your body firmly planted on the earth, your hands resting easily, your eyes soft.
- Turn your attention to your breathing. Notice where you feel the breath the most easily, whether as a coolness in your nostrils, a movement of the chest, or a rise and fall of the belly.
- Let your breath be natural. Feel the sensations of each breath carefully, noting how they come and go without effort.
- After a few breaths your attention will probably wander. No matter how short or how long you have been away, gently come back to your breath. Before you return you can mindfully acknowledge where you’ve gone with a soft word in the back of your mind, such as thinking, wandering, hearing, itching.
- When strong feelings, emotions, sensations or thoughts carry you away from your breath, you can label and acknowledge them as well.
- Your meditation practice will be like training a puppy. When you try to tell a puppy to sit, it will wander all over the place. Like the puppy, you will need to bring your mind back a thousand times. As time passes your mind will become better trained and more patient – like the puppy.