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An Introduction to Meditation

It Will Pass
A student went to his meditation teacher and said, "My meditation is horrible!
I feel so distracted, my legs ache,
or I'm constantly falling asleep!"
"It will pass," the teacher said matter-of-factly.
A week later, the student came back to his teacher. "My meditation is wonderful!
I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive! It's just wonderful!"
"It will pass," the teacher replied matter-of-factly.

- From Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbors

This type of tale, known as a Zen koan, is an example of the stories used by teachers to train students in understanding Zen philosophy. It also illustrates beautifully the path most people walk as they undertake a meditation practice.

Does meditation require the ability to chant rhythmically, the predisposition to enjoy the scent of incense and the budget to acquire a wardrobe that consists of loose, flowing robes? The word itself can be intimidating, connoting something that lies beyond the grasp of the ordinary mind. Meditation, however, does not need to be shrouded in mysticism. In order to begin a meditation practice, you need only have a genuine desire combined with discipline, commitment and good instruction.

While you do not need to adopt one of the many forms of Buddhist religion to meditate, it is helpful to understand its rich historical roots, as it emerged from Buddhism in Eastern cultures. As the tale of the Buddha unfolds, at the birth of a rich Indian prince, prophets predicted that he had the potential for two destinies: either he would become a great king or, if he witnessed suffering in the world, he would become a religious leader. His father desired that his son would become a king. He raised the prince in luxury and sheltered him from the outside world, forbidding him to leave the palace grounds. At the first opportunity, the youthful prince ventured outside the palace and was shocked by the dramatic contrast of the suffering he witnessed.

At that moment, the prince chose to forsake his wealth and title to pursue a spiritual path. For six years, he lived a strict ascetic life but still did not feel that he had discovered the true meaning of life. Determined in his quest, he decided to meditate under a tree, now known as the Bodhi tree, until he could find an answer. Through fighting with mental demons, the prince finally came to understand the nature of life and of being. When he achieved this enlightenment, he became the first "Buddha." For the rest of his earthly life, he spread his insights and shared his teachings on how to attain inner peace and happiness so that others, too, could become a Buddha. Buddha is not a god in the Christian sense of the word but rather simply implies a human who has attained complete enlightenment.

The original purpose of meditation in Buddhism, as the story illustrates, is to achieve inner peace and enlightenment through liberation of the mind. This mental discipline is cultivated through years of practice and is challenged daily by life's experiences. With an undisciplined mind, a person may think life is ruled by the constant chatter of random thoughts and by unthinking reactions to life's circumstances. This mindless chatter is referred to in Buddhist practice as the "monkey mind." In contrast, through practiced mental concentration, a person can discover that his or her being or essence possesses a much greater depth and inner serenity that lies beneath the chatter. Finding this well of inner peace is one of the goals of meditation.

Of course, any person can meditate. And any person can cultivate the practice to the level that suits his or her individual needs. At the same time, it is important to understand that meditation is not stress management, even though it can help to achieve relaxation and relieve stress. Meditation is not therapy, although it can have healing benefits as measured by its ability to reduce blood pressure, reduce heart rate and reduce blood levels of cortisol. And meditation is not religion, although the regular practice of meditation is an adjunct to a Buddhist way of life.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, many methods of meditation exist. It is extremely difficult for a beginner to sit for hours and think of nothing or to have an "empty mind." Only a master, after many years of disciplined practice, can approach such mental clarity. In general, the easiest way to begin meditating is by focusing on the breath. This would be an example of one of the two most common approaches to meditation: concentration and mindfulness.

Concentration meditation involves focusing on a single point. This single point can be observing the breath, repeating a single word or mantra, staring at a candle flame, listening to a repetitive gong or counting beads on a rosary. Since it is challenging to focus the mind, plan to meditate for only a few minutes in the beginning, working up to longer lengths as your concentration improves. When you engage in a concentration meditation, each time you notice your mind wandering, simply re-focus on the object of your attention. Do not pursue your random thoughts, simply let them go. Through this process, you will improve your ability to concentrate.

Mindful meditation, in contrast, encourages you to observe these wandering thoughts. In a mindful meditation, you focus on the mental chatter as it drifts and passes through your mind. The intention is not to become involved with or to judge the thoughts, but simply to be aware of each mental note as it arises. Through this process, you familiarize yourself with the tendencies of your thoughts and feelings to move in particular patterns. Over time, you become more familiar with the impermanence of various emotional states and with the tendency to quickly judge or to label experience. This practice is also referred to as insight meditation and is a powerful tool to expanding your own self-awareness.

You can practice concentration or mindful meditation in any location, as long as you are comfortable. You can sit on the floor on a cushion, on a small meditation stool or in a chair. You can meditate as you walk or perform repetitive tasks. Ideally, you want to adhere to good posture as you meditate so that your breath flows evenly and smoothly. Your skill and ability to meditate in different contexts will improve as you continue to practice.

Meditation can be a powerful and transformative tool in your life. Ultimately, it is a highly individual practice that can help you - as it helped the Buddha - to find inner peace and understanding. It is a wonderful gift that we live at a time when we may benefit from integrating the richness of many cultural traditions from around the world into our own daily lives. May meditation enrich your perceptions and bring you a more thoughtful life about the chatter.

Observing the Breath Exercise

This exercise is an excellent introduction to meditation techniques. It increases self and body awareness and can be very restorative. Also, learning how to focus attention improves the ability to concentrate and heightens awareness of the mind's tendency to wander. To get started, sit or lie comfortably with your eyes closed. Make no effort to control the breath; simply breathe naturally. Focus your attention on the breath and how the body moves with each inhalation and exhalation. Observe your chest, shoulders, rib cage and belly. Again, make no effort to control your breath. Simply focus your attention, and if you lose your attention, simply return your focus back to your breath.

Meditation Resources

  1. Living Meditation, Living Insight by Dr. Thynn Thynn, Sae Taw Win II Dhamma Foundation
  2. Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbors
  3. Alan Watts Teaches Meditation read by Alan Watts, Audio Renaissance Tapes
  4. The Power of Meditation by Christopher Titmuss, Quarto Publishing plc
  5. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Buddhist Wisdom by Gil Farrer-Halls, Quest Books