The very early morning is silent except for the soft growling of the laptop’s cooling fan and the muffled tapping of the keys as I press them to write these words.
As I sit at my desk and compose this post, I hear a slight ringing in my ear s from age onset tinnitus. The sound of air passing through my nostrils overpowers it. The sensation of my belly and chest moving in and out is present, too. My thoughts focus on paying attention to what is happening in the present moment.
This description of the sensations is the result of mindfulness. You could say that this is what happens during a “mini-meditation”. A “mini-meditation” can be the seed for a formal meditation, too. Meditation can really be that simple.
A few people who have asked me about meditation have thought that meditation involves special training and that meditators must believe in arcane religious concepts and practice obscure physical postures. I usually reply that those things are not at all necessary. Some meditators enjoy elaborate rituals and unusual beliefs. Some serious meditators wish to attain “ultimate enlightenment” or ascend through “higher” levels of spiritual awareness, whatever they believe those things to be.
Such practices are OK if that’s your thing. The meditator must be careful that the fancy practices and concepts don’t become distractions, lead to feelings of exclusive specialness, or spiritual pride. Thousands of people practice some form of secular meditation each day. One of the most famous secular meditators is Sam Harris. Yes, the famous secularist, Sam Harris.
Harris is an avid advocate of meditation and mindfulness. He even has some guided meditations on iTunes. At present he is working out the details of a meditation app for smartphones. His method is meditation without the woo. Anyone, believer or not can do it.
Meditation or formal mindfulness has been practiced for many centuries in one form or another. Its longevity can be attributed to the fact that meditation is much more than a mere relaxation technique to alleviate stress. When practiced long-term, meditation is the best way to get to know yourself and your reactions to what goes on around you.
What begins as paying attention to the breath, evolves into paying attention to your thoughts. That is the essential core of meditation. Everything else is mental gingerbread trim.
I selected the title of this post because, it takes approximately 28 days or so to engrain a new habit. Formal meditation is probably one of the best habits anyone can cultivate. By the way, formal, in this sense, does not mean to don special clothing or use particular implements and paraphernalia.
Personally, I recommend the use of a special place or simple shrine for formal meditation. Find a quiet place in your home or apartment you can use each day. You only need enough space for a flower or candle and you to sit. My blind friend uses one of those little six-volt water fountains to help him focus on the present moment. Whatever simple thing works for you is perfect. Best of all is the great outdoors, if you prefer.
Choose a time of day or night you will honor each calendar day. Wear comfortable clothing that is suitable for the season. Decide how long your meditation session will be, and perservere through it. Do a little stretching just prior to sitting down, loosen your lower back, neck and shoulders. If you sit in the lotus position, pay attention to your legs, too.
If you’re flexible, you can sit in the lotus or semi-lotus yoga position. If you prefer, a sturdy, non-upholstered chair is best–sit on the chair’s seat but don’t use the chair’s back. The idea is to sit in a straight, not stiff, unsupported posture. Your head should be upright but not stiff, your chin level with the floor or ground. Your shoulders should be back, not stiff, and your hands can be placed in your lap.
Keep your eyes half-closed. Either look down at a space in front of your knees or enjoy the flower or candle flame ahead of you. Take a deep breath, hold it for a few seconds, then slowly exhale. Do this twice, then mentally let go. Now, gently bring your attention to the inflow and outflow of your breath, don’t make any effort to control your breath while doing this. Just pay attention to the sounds and physical sensations of breathing.
When your mind’s attention drifts away from your breath, make a mental note of the thought; don’t dwell on the thought; honor the thought and return to your breath. This will probably happen frequently during the meditation. Don’t worry, this is called “monkey mind”. Even the most experienced meditators and gurus experience monkey mind.
Stay in meditation until your time goal expires. Keep track of the time with the countdown timer function on your phone, or other device. There are also meditation apps you can download and use if you’re reliant upon those sorts of things. Just make sure the alarm is configured to its most gentle sound.
“Dedicating some time to meditation is a meaningful expression of caring for yourself that can help you move through the mire of feeling unworthy of recovery. As your mind grows quieter and more spacious, you can begin to see self-defeating thought patterns for what they are, and open up to other, more positive options.” Sharon Salzberg
After you’ve developed the meditation habit, you may wish to explore other forms of meditation later on. Maybe you want to try Zen “sitting meditation”. Perhaps guided meditation is something you want to explore. Be careful that the narrarator simply guides you through the stages of meditation. Avoid auto-hypnosis or religious audio when doing meditation. Those programs are best used for other purposes. The idea of meditation is to explore your “inner core” not to reprogram your mind or condition yourself to particular belief systems.
If you do not have time for formal meditation each day, that’s fine. Do, however, remind yourself to take a few moments now and then to pay attention to your surroundings, to your state of mind, and to your breath. By the way, there are apps for mindfulness breaks, too.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes the Zen monk, thich Nhat Hanh. “Meditation can help us embrace our worries, our fear, our anger, and that is very healing. We let our own natural capacity of healing do the work.”