“A drunken monkey stung by a scorpion” is an often repeated description of the mind. It lurches and spins from thought to thought, dwelling on the past, daydreaming about the future, latching onto one distraction after another. The harder you try to pin it down, the quicker and wilier it becomes. Anchoring the mind in the present is not easy. It takes dedicated practice to calm the waves of the mind for meditation. Or, in the words of that great Star Wars yogi, “Do or do not. There is no try.” But with its countless benefits, meditation is one of the most important things you can do for your overall health and well-being.
First, eliminate potential external distractions. Create a quiet space—close the door, turn off the phone, let family members or roommates know you’ll be unavailable. Set a timer so that you aren’t tempted to clock-watch. And, because the biggest potential distraction is physical discomfort, choose a position that you can maintain for a period of time. The traditional posture for yoga meditation is Padmasana, but few of us can take Full Lotus without effort. Instead, substitute Sukhasana (Easy Pose) or sit on a chair. Lengthen the spine to create space for the breath, while honoring the spine’s natural curves. When the spine is appropriately aligned, the body’s weight balances on the sitting bones, and the muscles have no need to grip or hold. (One of my teachers, a former Zen monk, describes it as letting the muscles drape loosely over the body’s framework, like a suit of clothes on a hanger.)
Next, the internal work begins. Techniques for quieting the mind come to us from many cultures, ancient and modern, including the mindfulness practices of Zen Buddhism and rosary meditation from Christian tradition. In the twentieth-century, teachers from India introduced the West to Transcendental Meditation and Vipassana. In the Raja Yoga tradition, meditation is considered one of the eight limbs (ashtanga). Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras describe meditation (dhyana) as a state flowing from concentration (dharana) and continuing to Samadhi (oneness or enlightment).
Though different meditation techniques have different effects, many are based on concentration (dharana). It’s easier to “empty the mind” when it is focused on only one thing. Even so, concentration as an entry offers many doors, and you might think of yourself as Goldilocks, trying different doorways to find the one that suits you best. Consider your dosha (constitution) or your personality: This root chakra meditation would help ground a vata-dominant person, while a Bhakti yogi might find it natural to concentrate on the heart center or visualize a beloved figure like Ganesha. Classic techniques include focusing on the breath or on shambhavi mudra, as in this Third Eye Meditation. One very straightforward technique is to count breaths. When you lose count, begin again. When your thoughts drift, gently bring them back to focus without judgment or reaction. You will likely find yourself shifting back and forth between quiet sitting, concentration, and true meditation, when the conscious mind is silent and your awareness is in the present moment.
Use transitions to help you fit meditation naturally into your daily routine. You may find that practicing yoga asana or pranayama prepare the body and breath for quiet sitting. Conclude by chanting OM or sealing your experience with anjali mudra, or by sitting quietly for a few moments to observe how you feel. Traditionally, the most auspicious time for meditation is Brahmamuhurta, the period before dawn when the world is quiet, and you haven’t yet been snared by the cares of the day. Again, experiment to find what works best for you. I choose to meditate later in the day as a way to balance the effects of multitasking; it’s like taking a midday coffee break for the mind.
Do you have a meditation tip to share?
This is Part Two of a three-part series on meditation. Read Part One here.