“Buddhist meditation is helping so many people overcome internal conflicts and discover inner peace.” —Anam Thubten
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years, spanning multiple cultures and continents for this reason: Its benefits impact and influence life in all areas—physical, mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. However, to experience the numerous benefits of meditation means it has to be done regularly, not sporadically. Here are 12 steps to make meditation a habit, the Buddhist way.
1. Select a space. You don’t need a lot of room for meditation, but do find a location in your residence which intuitively appeals to you. Some people like to be near a window that can be opened, allowing the sight, sounds, and smells of nature to enter. Others like to be more secluded by facing a wall. Adorn your space with an object that enhances meditation, such as a candle, a sacred text, or a statue or image of a spiritually advanced soul.
2. Find your posture. The seemingly universal image of a meditator is of one seated on the floor with legs crossed or in a full lotus position with feet resting on opposite thighs. While these positions work for some, they aren’t ideal for most people. In fact, the Buddha is presented in various images in four separate postures: sitting, standing, walking, and reclining. If you can sit comfortably on the floor or a cushion with legs crossed, do so. If that posture doesn’t work with your body, then do what the Buddha did: stand, walk, or lay down on your back. Also, meditation works just fine sitting on a chair with a straight back and hands gently resting on the thighs. This is called Egyptian posture because it is believed that the ancient pharaohs sat this way in meditation.
3. Choose a realistic amount of time. Sitting for hours at a time may work for monks but isn’t practical for those of us who live and work in the world. You will be more likely to stick to a practice if you choose a realistic amount of time. Start with a few minutes and work your way up to 20 or 30 minutes. Joseph Goldstein, a meditation teacher and author, offers this suggestion: “Try making a commitment to getting into the meditation posture at least once a day. You don’t have to sit for any particular length of time, just get on the cushion. A lot of times, the hardest part is getting there. Once you’re sitting down, you think, ‘I might as well sit for a few minutes,’ and more often than not, you’re getting full sessions in.
4. Commit to a consistent meditation schedule. In order to make meditation a habit, it’s important to find regular time for meditation, and then stick with it. Treat your meditation time like an appointment with a good friend. You wouldn’t allow other events and issues to squeeze out time with a friend. Apply the same thinking toward your meditation schedule. As you sit regularly during the same time, it will naturally become part of your daily routine.
5. Remind yourself of the benefits. On days when motivation is low, it can help to review the ways meditation is beneficial to your life. In his book Flip The Switch: 40 Anywhere, Anytime Meditations in 5 Minutes or Less, Eric Harrison, writes: "Meditation is well worth doing. It relaxes the body and calms the mind rapidly; it is the best way to reduce stress; it improves your health and helps with many common illnesses; it makes your thinking clearer; it puts you in touch with your deeper emotions; it dispels sadness and confusion ... It can bring peace, beauty, and wisdom into your life."
6. Choose a practice. There are many ways to meditate besides sitting silently. From the Vedic tradition, there is mantra meditation. Here, one repeats a word or phrase for the purpose of focusing the mind. The most common word, and one which is said to have the most power, is the sound om. Sit quietly and chant om for several minutes until you feel your mind relaxed. Follow that with a few moments of silence.
From the Japanese Nichiren Buddhist tradition, there is chanting of the phrase Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. This way of meditation was favored by Tina Turner, the “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” who practiced chanting meditation for decades. Buddhist and Vedic traditions offer a wide variety of meditative techniques. Research them and commit to the technique that works best with your personality.
7. Use a meditation timer. “When you sit in meditation, use a timer instead of a clock,” advises Narayan Liebenson Grady, a meditation teacher at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center. “If you have to keep opening your eyes to check on the time, restlessness can be exacerbated. By using a timer, one frees oneself from the concept of time and discovers a deepening of relaxation and a sense of the timeless.”
There are many excellent meditation timers that can be added to a cell phone. Set the timer for the time length you wish to meditate—three minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes, or longer—then close your eyes and meditate. The timer frees your mind from wandering away, and the timer will issue a gentle sound when the time is up.
8. Sit with others. This is something highly recommended by writer Jessica Angima, an artist and meditation teacher. “Schedule a meditation with a spiritual friend,” she says. “Whether in-person or via video call, you will generate mindful energy that will cut through your stagnation and carry you to your next sit.” Group meditation is easier than just sitting by yourself and offers these additional benefits:
You meditate for a longer period of time (usually 60-90 minutes) than when alone
You experience the uplifting energy of a group
Your practice deepens and your commitment grows
You make spiritual friends.
9. Be kind and compassionate with yourself. It’s easy to become frustrated, agitated, and even angry with yourself when you find your mind suddenly thinking and wandering when you’re supposed to be meditating. Punishing yourself with judgment and negativity unnecessarily complicates your meditation practice. Be kind, compassionate, and patient with yourself. Apply this insight from Lorin Roche, PhD, author of Meditation Made Easy: “When thoughts come, they come. Take a welcoming attitude, as if birds have just landed on your lawn. Let them peck around. When you become aware that you are thinking, then you have a choice: You can finish the thought or you can return to the breath or whatever your focus is. When you become aware that you are thinking, do not hurry back to the breath and do not feel you were wrong to be thinking.”
10. Do it twice a day. This is very useful for those who don’t have the time or the temperament to sit once a day for a longer period of time. Rather than feel like a meditation failure, a positive way to address this would be to have two shorter meditation sessions daily, such as 10 minutes in the morning and another 10 minutes later in the day. This twice-a-day meditation routine is foundational to Transcendental Meditation (TM), the style taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Those who practice TM do it twice a day: 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes before an evening meal.
11. Take it outside. Meditating outside in the presence of nature is a great way to add another incentive for the practice. Sit in your yard, in a park, or near a body of water. Meditating outdoors allows you to absorb pleasant sights and sounds of our natural world: birds singing, wind blowing, leaves rolling, squirrels running. Being outside refreshes the mind and body while rejuvenating a meditation practice.
12. Understand the purpose of your meditation. Nothing will derail a meditation practice more quickly and permanently than harboring a mistaken understanding of what meditation does and does not do. Meditation is not about "killing the ego" or seeing colors, hearing sounds, and experiencing visions. What a healthy meditation practice should do is make you a calmer, wiser, kinder human.
Tashi Nyima, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who leads a community in Dallas elaborates: "A good meditation has little or nothing to do with 'extra-sensory perceptions' or escaping temporarily from suffering. A walk, a nap, a vacation, or a warm bath can be more effective for such purposes. If we continue to harbor the same prejudices, the same irritability, and the same indifference toward the suffering of others when we rise from the cushion, it does not matter how many divine lights we see or how many celestial sounds we hear—our meditation is a farce. If we rise from the cushion with more patience, more love, and more compassion, our meditation has been good."
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