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Meditation is often recommended by Complementary and Alternative Medicine practitioners as a way of reducing stress and its effects on our overall health and vitality. Studies show its usefulness in lowering blood pressure, raising immunity, and improving concentration, among other benefits. It is a technique, however, for which there are millions of theories and influences. Outside of the time commitment, many people have a hard time getting started with meditation because they get carried away with the style to choose, what philosophies to subscribe to, and so on. In reality, these issues have next to nothing to do with the science of meditation.
Meditation, in essence, is a scientific technique that will change your brain chemistry, emotions and interactions with people and your environment over time. The religious and philosophical relationships have very little to do with this. If you have a spiritual background it will only be strengthened and fostered by meditation, regardless of the tradition or techniques you use. For those of us who are not going to live in a hermitage, or join a monastery, and just want less stress in our lives and changes in our abilities to deal with "stressful" situations, the following techniques are for you.
This article comes from my experience in helping my patients get started with (or restart) a meditation practice. Some of them have meditated before and found it difficult for various reasons, or they have quit because they didn't feel that they had the time. The results from meditation are easier to obtain than people realize, and the total time of meditation does not matter as much as people believe it does. The only aspect of a meditation practice that seems to make a difference is being consistent. In my experience, most people can easily follow the instructions I have laid out below and are able to start a simple meditation practice. I offer these in the hopes that you will benefit in some way from the techniques.
As stated above, one of the major considerations when establishing a meditation practice is to think of the consistency. The factors to consider are when, how long, and where you will meditate. Your practice will flourish so long as you start with a practice that you can stick with.
When: Generally people will meditate either in the morning or in the evening - or both. To not overdo your practice you should start with only one session. The key to choosing when to meditate is the time where you are relatively awake and relaxed. One of the major keys in meditation is that it is not sleeping and it is not simple relaxation. It is a scientific process for which you must be conscious and ideally not overstressed. Trying to meditate while sleepy or too stressed is generally a waste of your time.
How Long: There are many views on this, but for most people any session longer than 20-25 minutes is probably unnecessary. Starting with 10-15 minutes for 2-3 months and then working up to 20 is sufficient for obtaining results.
Where: Where you meditate is important only in the sense that it shouldn't be in bed or anywhere associated with sleep. It should be somewhere not too noisy and where you will not be distracted. Whether you face a shrine, the wall, overlooking a pond, it doesn't really matter. What is important, is to meditate in the same place regularly. This consistency of place is useful in training your body and mind to relax once you sit down.
The only "bad" way to meditate is to lay down. Standing, sitting in a chair, sitting on a meditation cushion, etc. are all ok. Laying down is not good because it is too easy to fall asleep - and, again, meditation is not sleeping or simple relaxation. Regardless of position, you want your back straight but not tight, your eyes to be partially open (to avoid sleeping) and gazing slightly downward, your head held up upright with the chin tucked slightly downwards and the tip of your tongue lightly touching the roof of your mouth about 1cm behind your front teeth (for energy circulation).
A traditional way to sit is in the "full" or "half" lotus positions where you sit cross legged and either one or both feet are on the opposite thigh. This can be difficult for some but it ultimately is a good way to keep your body aligned properly. In essence, whatever sitting style where you can relax without being too sleepy or too uncomfortable is best for you.
Below I have listed three techniques which people have found useful in the past. These techniques can be combined if your mind is too busy to help calm down the activity and reduced as your mind becomes clearer. In reality, meditation practice has its ups and downs, both from day to day and from month to month. It is a process with no end in particular and you should expect days where the meditation feels easy and days where it feels like a struggle. You should also keep in mind that the key is to loosely focus your mind - do not concentrate too hard on anything and do not lazily focus on nothing.
Technique (1) - Counting: As the purpose of meditation is not to sleep and not just simple relaxation, it is beneficial to use techniques that keep you conscious but slow your mind down and give it a stable point to relax into. Counting your breath, is traditionally one of the best ways to accomplish this.
In general, you want to count from 1 to 10 on each breath (either at the inhale or exhale). If/When you get to 10, start over from 1. While this sounds easy, you will find that you will count to 3, for example, and then 10 minutes will go by and you haven't counted any further. The key to meditation is to be awake, but not too awake. It is easy to count to 10 if you are too conscious and impossible if you are too loose, you will find your way over time.
If counting 1-10 is too hard and your mind remains too active you can try some of the following techniques: count from 10 to 1, or from 100 to 1 by 10's - basically anything that focuses your mind slightly more than the 1-10 routine.
Being flexible with the techniques is important, using more complex counting to restrain your mind and less complex when you are doing well - sometimes within the same session.
Technique (2) - Object Focus: Some people are more visually oriented and find counting their breath problematic. For these people, focusing on an object can be helpful for them. As one of the basic goals of meditation initially is to descend and focus your energy, visualization is often helpful in the area of the "dantian" or your energetic center. Traditionally, this is described as a point about an inch below your belly button and an inch inside of your abdomen (near CV 6).
A basic visualization technique is to picture a colored ball of light on the inside of your body near the dantian. Any color and size is fine. As you do not want to strain your concentration too hard, you can simply visualize a ball of light on an inhale and have it dissolve on the exhale - similar to counting.
If your mind is too busy, try changing the color of the ball every few breaths, or the size, whatever works best for your mind.
While there are many visualization techniques, initially it is better to not use those that are higher up such as light at the crown of the head, or those that are outside of you such as picturing yourself in a stream. Energetically these can lead to headaches and slightly dispersed energy respectively. Keeping it simple is best.
Technique (3) - Combined Counting and Object Focus: This technique works best during the initial stages of meditation or during particularly difficult sessions. It involves combining counting and a basic visualization. An example of this would be to breath in, say 1 in your mind and visualize the number 1 in your dantien. Any variation of this that lightly restrains your mind is fine.
Ultimately the counting and the visualizations are ways to stay conscious but loose. This allows the never ending rattle of thoughts and ideas in your head to die down. What you will learn over time is how not to pay attention to all the noise, but to be more selective. In reality, you are reacting all day to much of this information that is going around in your head but you are not fully conscious of it. One of the major benefits of meditation over time is to increase the awareness and processing time between an action and a reaction.
In a normal day there are many things which we react to with stress responses, some we are aware of and some not so much. What meditation allows is for your mind and body to ignore some of what is coming in, essentially cutting off the stress response. For your personal interactions it allows you to hear what someone else is saying and respond more clearly without as much emotional investment in the conversation. These are things, however, that each person experiences differently and only through consistent practice. Start now, keep it simple, and the benefits will come over time.