I : Getting Ready to Meditate
Meditation is something you can do in any situation and in any posture. However, some situations are more conducive than others to helping the mind settle down. Especially when you’re just getting started, it’s wise to look for situations where there’s a minimum of disturbance, both physical and mental.
Also, some postures are more conducive than others to helping the mind settle down. The standard posture for meditation is sitting, and it’s wise to learn how to sit in a way that allows you to meditate for long periods of time without moving and without at the same time causing undue pain or harm for the body. Other standard postures for meditating are walking, standing, and lying down. We’ll focus here on sitting, and save the other postures for section IV of Part One, below.
Before you sit to meditate on the breath, it’s wise to look at three things in this order: your physical situation, your posture, and your mental situation—in other words, the state of your mind.
Your Physical Situation
Where to meditate. Choose a quiet spot, in your home or outside. For a daily meditation routine, it’s good to choose a spot that you don’t normally use for other purposes. Tell yourself that the only thing you’re going to do when you sit in that spot is to meditate. You’ll begin to develop quiet associations with that spot each time you sit there. It becomes your special place to settle down and be still. To make it even more calming, try to keep the area around it neat and clean.
When to meditate. Choose a good time to meditate. Early in the morning, right after you’ve woken up and washed your face, is often best, for your body is rested and your mind hasn’t yet become cluttered with issues from the day. Another good time is in the evening, after you’ve rested a bit from your daily work. Right before you go to sleep is not the best time to meditate, for the mind will keep telling itself, “As soon as this is over, I’m going to bed.” You’ll start associating meditation with sleep, and, as the Thais say, your head will start looking for the pillow as soon as you close your eyes.
If you have trouble sleeping, then by all means meditate when you’re lying in bed, for meditation is a useful substitute for sleep. Often it can be more refreshing than sleep, for it can dissolve bodily and mental tensions better than sleeping can. It can also calm you down enough so that worries don’t sap your energy or keep you awake. But make sure that you also set aside another time of the day to meditate too, so that you don’t always associate meditation with sleep. You want to develop it as an exercise in staying alert.
Also, it’s generally not wise to schedule your regular meditation for right after a large meal. Your body will be directing the blood down to your digestive system, and that will tend to make you drowsy.
Minimizing disturbance. If you’re living with other people, tell them you don’t want to be disturbed while you’re meditating unless there’s a serious emergency. You’re taking some time out to be an easier person to live with. If you’re the only adult at home, and you’re living with children for whom everything is a serious emergency, choose a time when the children are asleep. If you’re living with older children, explain to them that you’ll be meditating for x amount of time and you need privacy during that time. If they interrupt you with a non-emergency, quietly tell them that you’re still meditating and that you’ll talk with them when you’re done. If they want to meditate with you, welcome them, but establish a few rules for their behavior so that they don’t disturb your time to be quiet.
Turn off your cell phone and any other devices that might interrupt your meditation.
Use a watch or a clock with a timer to time your meditation. In the beginning, twenty minutes is usually about right, for it gives you enough time to settle down a bit, but not so much time that you start getting bored or frustrated if things aren’t going well. As you gain some skill in the meditation, you can gradually increase your meditation time by five- or ten-minute increments.
Once you’ve set your timer, put it behind you or off to your side so that you can’t see it while you’re in your meditation position. That will help you to avoid the temptation to peek at the time and to turn your meditation into an exercise in clock-watching.
If you have a dog in your home, put it in another room and close the door. If it starts to whine and scratch at the door, let it into the room where you’re sitting, but be strict with yourself in being unresponsive if it comes to you for attention. Most dogs, after a few days, will get the message that when you’re sitting there with your eyes closed, you’re not going to respond. The dog may well lie down and rest along with you. But if it doesn’t get the message, put it back in the other room.
Cats are usually less of a problem in this regard, but if you do have an attention-starved cat, treat it as you would a dog.
An important part of training the mind lies in training the body to stay still so that you can focus on the movements of the mind without being disturbed by the movement of the body. If you’re not used to sitting still for long periods of time, the act of training the body will have to go along with training the mind.
If you’re new to meditation, it’s wise not to focus too much on your posture for the first several sessions. That way you can give your full attention to training the mind, saving the process of training the body for when you’ve had some success in focusing on the breath.
So for beginners, simply sit in a comfortable way, spread thoughts of goodwill—a wish for true happiness—to yourself and others, and then follow the steps in the section, “Focusing on the Breath,” below. If your posture gets uncomfortable, you may shift slightly to relieve the discomfort, but try to keep your attention focused on the breath while you shift position.
If, after a while, you feel ready to focus on your posture, here are some things you can try:
Sitting on the floor. An ideal posture is to sit cross-legged on the floor, with at most a folded blanket under you—placed just under your sitting bones or under your folded legs as well.
This is a classic meditation posture for at least two good reasons:
One, it’s stable. You’re not likely to fall over even when, in the more advanced levels of meditation, your sense of the body gets replaced by a sense of space or pure knowing.
Two, when you’re accustomed to this posture, you can sit and meditate anywhere. You can go out into the woods, place a small mat on the ground, sit down, and there you are. You don’t have to carry a lot of cushions or other paraphernalia around with you.
A standard version of the posture is this:
• Sit on the floor or your folded blanket with your left leg folded in front of you, and your right leg folded on top of your left leg. Place your hands on your lap, palms up, with your right hand on top of the left. (To prevent this posture from causing an imbalance in your spine, you can alternate sides by sometimes placing your left leg on top of your right leg, and your left hand on top of your right hand.)
• Bring your hands close to your stomach. This will help keep your back straight and minimize the tendency to hunch over.
• Sit straight, look straight in front of you, and close your eyes. If closing your eyes makes you feel uncomfortable or induces feelings of sleepiness, you can leave them half open—although if you do, don’t look straight ahead. Lower your gaze to a spot on the floor about three feet in front of you. Keep your focus soft. Be careful not to let it harden into a stare.
• Notice if your body feels like it’s leaning to the left or the right. If it is, relax the muscles that are pulling it in that direction, so that you bring your spine into a reasonably straight alignment.
• Pull your shoulders back slightly and then down, to create a slight arch in your middle and lower back. Pull your stomach in a bit, so that the back muscles aren’t doing all the work in keeping you erect.
• Relax into this posture. In other words, see how many muscles you can relax in your torso, hips, etc., and still stay erect. This step is important, for it helps you to stay with the posture with a minimum of strain.
This is called the half-lotus position, because only one leg is on top of the other. In the full-lotus, once your right leg is on top of your left, you bring your left leg on top of your right. This is an extremely stable position if you can manage it, but don’t try it until you’re adept at the half-lotus.
If you’re not accustomed to the half-lotus, you may find in the beginning that your legs will quickly fall asleep. That’s because blood that normally flows in the main arteries is being pushed into the small capillaries. This can be uncomfortable at first, but don’t worry. You’re not harming the body, for the body can adapt. If the small capillaries carry an increased load of blood frequently enough, they will enlarge, and your circulatory system will be rerouted to accommodate your new posture.
The trick with all postures is to break yourself in gradually. Pushing yourself to sit long hours right from the start is not wise, for you can damage your knees. If you know any good yoga teachers, ask them to recommend some yoga poses that will help limber up your legs and hips. Do those poses before you meditate to speed up the body’s adaptation to the sitting posture.
A somewhat gentler way of sitting cross-legged than the half-lotus is the tailor position: Fold your legs, but don’t put the right leg on top of the left. Place it on the floor in front of the left, so that your right knee makes a gentler angle, and the left leg isn’t pressed down by the right. This helps relieve some of the pressure on both legs.
Benches & chairs. If you have a knee or hip injury that makes it difficult to sit cross-legged, you can try sitting on a meditation bench, to see if that’s easier. Kneel with your shins on the ground, place the bench over your calves, and then sit back on the bench. Some benches are designed to force you to sit at a certain angle. Others can rock back and forth, allowing you to choose your own angle or to change it at will. Some people like this; others find it unstable. It’s a personal choice.
If none of these three alternatives—sitting right on the floor, sitting on the floor on top of a folded blanket, or sitting on a meditation bench—works for you, there are many styles of meditation cushions available for purchase. They’re usually a waste of money, though, because an extra folded blanket or firm pillow can usually serve the same purpose. Pillows and blankets may not look as serious as a dedicated meditation cushion, but there’s no need to pay a lot of extra money just for looks. A good lesson in becoming a meditator is learning how to improvise with what you’ve got.
Alternatively, you can try sitting on a chair.
Choose a chair with a seat just high enough off the ground so that your feet can rest flat on the ground and your knees can bend at a ninety-degree angle. A wooden or other firm chair, with or without a folded blanket or thin cushion on the seat, is ideal. Too thick a cushion is unwise, for it leads you to hunch over.
When you’ve got a good chair, sit slightly away from the back, so that your back supports itself. Then follow the same steps as with the half-lotus: Place your hands on your lap, palms up, one on top of the other. Bring your hands close to your stomach. Sit straight, look straight in front of you, and close your eyes. Pull your shoulders back slightly and then down, to create a nice arch in your middle and lower back. Pull your stomach in a bit. Relax into this posture. In other words, see how many muscles you can relax and still maintain it.
If you’re too ill or disabled to sit in any of these postures, choose a posture that feels comfortable for your particular condition.
With any posture, if you discover that you have a tendency over time to slump your back, it may be because of the way you breathe out. Pay a little extra attention to your out-breaths, reminding yourself to keep your back straight each time you breathe out. Keep this up until you’ve established it as a habit.
And whatever your posture, remember that you don’t have to make a vow at the beginning not to move. If you find yourself in extreme pain, wait a minute so that you don’t become a slave to every passing pain, and then very consciously—without thinking of anything else—shift your posture to something more comfortable. Then resume your meditation.
The State of Your Mind
Once your body is in position, take a couple of deep in-and-out breaths, and then look at the state of your mind. Is it staying with the breath, or is a persistent mood getting in the way? If you’re staying with the breath, keep going. If some of the members of your mind’s committee are less cooperative, bring in some other members to counteract them.
The important point is that you don’t let a mood dictate whether you’re going to meditate or not. Remember, a bad meditation session is better than no meditation session at all. At the very least, you learn to resist the unskillful members of your mind to at least some extent. And only through resisting them can you come to understand them—in the same way that building a dam across a river is a good way to learn how strong the river’s currents are.
If some of your committee members are getting in the way, there are some standard contemplations to counteract them. The purpose of these contemplations is to cut through the mind’s usual narratives and to create some new committee members with new narratives that will help put things into perspective so that you’re more willing to stay with the breath.
The sublime attitudes. The most popular contemplation is to develop attitudes of goodwill, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity for all beings, without limit. These attitudes—called brahmaviharas, or sublime attitudes—are so useful that many people make a standard practice of developing them for a few minutes at the beginning of every meditation session regardless of whether there’s a conscious need for them. This helps to clear up any buried resentments from your daily interactions with other people, and reminds you of why you’re meditating: You want to find a happiness that’s secure—which means that it has to be harmless. Meditation is one of the few ways of finding happiness that harms no one at all. At the same time, you’re creating a new narrative for your life: Instead of being a person weighed down by resentments, you show yourself that you can rise above difficult situations and develop a magnanimous heart.
The four sublime attitudes are actually contained in two: goodwill and equanimity. Goodwill is a wish for true happiness, both for yourself and for all others. Compassion is the attitude that goodwill develops when it sees people suffering or acting in ways that will lead to suffering. You want them to stop suffering. Empathetic joy is the attitude that goodwill develops when it sees people happy or acting in ways that will lead to happiness. You want them to continue being happy. Equanimity is the attitude you have to develop when you realize that certain things are beyond your control. If you let yourself get worked up over them, you waste the energy you could have applied to areas where you can have an effect. So you try to put your mind on an even keel toward the things you can’t control, beyond the sway of your likes and dislikes.
Here’s an exercise for developing goodwill and equanimity:
Remind yourself of what goodwill is—a wish for true happiness—and that, in spreading thoughts of goodwill, you’re wishing that you and all others will develop the causes for true happiness. You’re also establishing the intention to further true happiness in any way you can, within your own mind and in your dealings with others. Of course, not everyone will act in line with your wish, which is why it’s important also to develop thoughts of equanimity to cover the cases where people refuse to act in the interests of true happiness. That way you won’t suffer so much when people act unskillfully, and you can stay focused on the cases where you can be of help.
For goodwill, begin by stating in your mind a traditional expression of goodwill for yourself: “May I be happy. May I be free from stress and pain. May I be free from animosity, free from trouble, free from oppression. May I look after myself with ease.”
Then spread similar thoughts to others, in ever-widening circles: people close to your heart, people you like, people you’re neutral about, people you don’t like, people you don’t even know—and not just people: all living beings in all directions. In each case, say to yourself, “May you be happy. May you be free from stress and pain. May you be free from animosity, free from trouble, free from oppression. May you look after yourself with ease.” Think of this wish as spreading out in all directions, out to infinity. It helps to enlarge the mind.
To make this a heart-changing practice, ask yourself—when you’re secure in your goodwill for yourself—if there’s anyone for whom you can’t sincerely spread thoughts of goodwill. If a particular person comes to mind, ask yourself: “What would be gained by this person’s suffering?” Most of the cruelty in the world comes from people who are suffering and fearful. Only rarely do people who’ve been acting unskillfully react skillfully to their suffering and change their ways. All too often they do just the opposite: They hunger to make others suffer even more. So the world would be a better place if we could all simply follow the path to true happiness by being generous and virtuous, and by training the mind.
With these thoughts in mind, see if you can express goodwill for this sort of person: “May you learn the error of your ways, learn the way to true happiness, and look after yourself with ease.” In expressing this thought, you’re not necessarily wishing to love or have continued relations with this person. You’re simply making the determination not to seek revenge against those who have acted harmfully, or those whom you have harmed. This is a gift both to yourself and to those around you.
Conclude the session by developing an attitude of equanimity. Remind yourself that all beings will experience happiness or sorrow in line with their actions. In many cases, their actions lie beyond your control, and your own past actions can’t be erased. In cases where these actions place obstacles in the way of the happiness you wish for all beings, you simply have to accept the fact with equanimity. That way you can focus on areas where you can make a difference through your present actions. This is why the traditional formula for equanimity focuses on the issue of action:
“All living beings are the owners of their actions, heir to their actions, born of their actions, are related through their actions, and live dependent on their actions. Whatever they do, for good or for evil, to that will they fall heir.”
Thinking in this way helps you not to get worked up about what you can’t change, so that you can devote the energy of your goodwill to what you can.
If there are people for whom goodwill is simply too difficult for you to manage right now, you might try developing thoughts of compassion instead. Think of the ways that they may be suffering, to see if that softens your attitude toward them, or helps you understand why they act the way they do. If this is too difficult, you can go straight to thoughts of equanimity about them. In other words, you can remind yourself that you don’t have to settle accounts. You’re better off freeing yourself from the circle of revenge. The principle of action and its results will take care of the situation.
Just that thought can give the mind some space to settle down and develop some concentration.
By spreading thoughts of goodwill and equanimity to all beings, you take your mind out of its everyday narratives and create a broader perspective for your meditation. It’s easiest to settle the mind into the present moment, right here and now, when you’ve let it think for a few moments about the universe as a whole. When you remember that all beings are looking for happiness—sometimes skillfully, more often not—it puts your own quest for happiness in perspective. You want to do it right.
There are other contemplations to counteract specific unskillful moods that might get in the way of your meditation, such as contemplation of your own acts of generosity and virtue for when you’re feeling low self-esteem, contemplation of death for when you’re lazy, or contemplation of the unattractive parts of the body for when you’re overcome with lust. A few of these contemplations are described in more detail in the Appendix.
II : Focusing on the Breath
Now you’re ready to focus on the breath. There are six steps:
1. Find a comfortable way of breathing.
Start by taking a couple of deep, long in-and-out breaths. This helps to energize the body for meditation and makes the breath easier to observe. Deep breathing at the beginning of meditation is also a good habit to maintain even as you become more skilled in the practice, for it helps to counteract any tendency to suppress the breath as you try to make the mind still.
Notice where you feel the sensations of breathing in the body: the sensations that tell you, “Now you’re taking an in-breath. Now you’re taking an out-breath.” Notice if they’re comfortable. If they are, keep breathing in that way. If they’re not, adjust the breath so that it’s more comfortable. You can do this in any of three ways:
a. As you continue breathing deep and long, notice where a sense of strain develops in the body toward the end of the in-breath, or where there’s a sense of squeezing the breath out toward the end of the out-breath. Ask yourself if you can relax those sensations with the next breath as you maintain the same breathing rhythm. In other words, can you maintain a sense of relaxation in the areas that have been feeling strained toward the end of the in-breath? Can you breathe out at the same rate without squeezing it out? If you can, keep up that rhythm of breathing.
b. Try changing the rhythm and texture of the breath. Experiment with different ways of breathing to see how they feel. You can make the breath shorter or longer. You can try short in and long out, or long in and short out. You can try faster breathing or slower breathing. Deeper or more shallow. Heavier or lighter. Broader or more narrow. When you find a rhythm that feels good, stick with it as long as it feels good. If, after a while, it doesn’t feel good, you can adjust the breath again.
c. Simply pose the question in the mind each time you breathe in: “What kind of breath would feel especially gratifying right now?” See how your body responds.
2. Stay with each in-and-out breath.
If your attention slips off to something else, bring it right back to the breath. If it wanders off again, bring it back again. If it wanders off 100 times, bring it back 100 times. Don’t get discouraged. Don’t get upset with yourself. Each time you come back, reward yourself with an especially gratifying breath. That way the mind will develop positive associations with the breath. You’ll find it easier to stay with the breath, and to return to it quickly the next time you slip off.
If you get discouraged thinking about how many breaths you’re going to have to stay focused on, tell yourself with each breath: “Just this one in-breath; just this one out-breath.” The task of staying with the breath will then seem less overwhelming, and your thoughts will be more precisely focused on the present.
If you want, you can use a meditation word to help fasten your attention to the breath. Buddho (“awake”) is a popular one. Think bud with the in-breath, and dho with the out. Or you can simply think in and out. Keep the meditation word as long as the breath. When you find that you can stay easily with the breath, drop the meditation word so that you can observe the breath more clearly.
3. When the blatant sensations of breathing are comfortable, expand your awareness to different parts of the body to observe more subtle breathing sensations.
You can do this section-by-section, in any order you like, but in the beginning try to be systematic so that you cover the entire body. Later, when your sensitivity to the body becomes more automatic, you will quickly sense which parts of the body need most attention, and you can direct your attention immediately there. But when you’re starting out, it’s good to have a clear and comprehensive roadmap in mind.
One roadmap is this:
• Start with the area around the navel. Locate that part of the body in your awareness and watch it for a while as you breathe in and breathe out. See what rhythm and texture of breathing feels best right there. If you notice any sense of tension or tightness in that part of the body, allow it to relax, so that no tension builds up as you breathe in, and you don’t hold on to any tension as you breathe out. If you want, you can think of breath energy entering the body right there at the navel, so that you don’t create a sense of strain by trying to pull it there from somewhere else. Have a sense that the breath energy is coming in and out freely and easily. There’s nothing obstructing it.
• When that part of the body feels refreshed, move your attention to different parts of the front of your torso and repeat the same steps. Survey the parts in this order: the lower right-hand corner of the abdomen, the lower left-hand corner of the abdomen; the solar plexus (the spot right in front of your stomach), the right flank (the side of the rib cage), the left flank; the middle of the chest, the spot to the right of that where the chest and the shoulder meet, the same spot on the left. In other words, you move up the front of the torso, focusing first on the center, then on the right, then on the left. Then you move further up the torso and repeat the same pattern.
• You may find, as you focus on the different parts of the body, that the rhythm and texture of the breathing will change to suit that part of the body. This is perfectly fine.
• Then move your attention to the base of the throat and follow the same steps as for the navel.
• Then bring your attention to the middle of the head. As you breathe in and out, think of the breath energy coming in and out not only through the nose, but also through the eyes, the ears, the back of the neck, the top of the head. Think of the energy gently working through any patterns of tension you may feel in the head—in the jaws, around the eyes, in the forehead—and very gently dissolving those patterns of tension away. When the patterns of tension feel relaxed, you can think of the breath energy going deep into the area around the pineal gland, right behind the eyes, and allowing that part of the body to absorb all the incoming breath energy it needs. But be careful not to put too much pressure on the head, because the nerves of the head tend to be overworked. Apply just enough pressure to maintain your focus comfortably.
• Now move your attention to the back of the neck, right at the base of the skull. As you breathe in, think of the breath energy entering the body at that spot and then going down the shoulders, down the arms, out to the tips of the fingers. As you breathe out, think of the energy radiating out from those parts of the body into the air. As you become more sensitive to these parts of the body, notice which side is carrying more tension: the left shoulder or the right shoulder, the left upper arm or the right upper arm, and so on. Whichever side is holding more tension, consciously try to relax that side and keep it relaxed all the way through the in-breath, all the way through the out-breath.
If you tend to hold a lot of tension in your hands, spend a fair amount of time releasing the tension along the back of each hand and in each finger.
• Now, keeping your focus at the back of the neck, breathe in with the thought that the energy is going down both sides of the spine down to the tailbone. Repeat the same steps as for the shoulders and arms. In other words, when you breathe out, think of the breath energy radiating out from the back into the air. As you become more sensitive to the back, notice which side is carrying more tension and consciously try to keep that side relaxed all the way through the in-breath, all the way through the out-breath.
• Now move your attention down to the tailbone. As you breathe in, think of the breath energy entering the body there, going down past the hips, down the legs, and out to the tips of the toes. Repeat the same steps as for the shoulders and arms. If necessary, you can spend a fair amount of time releasing the tension in your feet and toes.
• That completes one cycle in the survey of the body. If you like, you can go through the body again, beginning at the navel, to see if you can clear up any patterns of tension you may have missed the first time around. You can keep this up as many times as you like until you feel ready to settle down.
The amount of time you spend with each section of the body is up to you. In the beginning, as a general rule of thumb, you might want to spend just a few minutes with each point or section, giving more time to the points on the central meridian of the body than to the points on the side, and even more time to the shoulders, back, and legs. As you become more familiar with the energy patterns in your own body, you can adjust the time spent on each point as you see fit. If one point or section seems to respond especially well to your attention, releasing tension in a refreshing way, stick with that point as long as it responds. If a point or section doesn’t respond after several minutes of attention—or if you find that tension increases when you focus on it—drop it for the time being and move on to the next point.
If your time for meditation is limited, you might want to limit your survey to the center points on the front of the torso—navel, solar plexus, middle of the chest—and then to the base of the throat and the middle of the head.
If focusing in the head gives you a headache, avoid focusing there until you learn how to maintain focus with a minimum of pressure.
4. Choose a spot to settle down.
You can choose any spot you like where the breath energy is clear and you find it easy to stay focused. A few of the traditional spots are:
a. the tip of the nose,
b. the point between the eyebrows,
c. the middle of the forehead,
d. the top of the head,
e. the middle of the head,
f. the palate,
g. the back of the neck at the base of the skull,
h. the base of the throat,
i. the breastbone (the tip of the sternum),
j. the navel (or a point just above it),
k. the base of the spine.
Over the course of several meditations, you can experiment with different spots to see which ones give the best results. You may also find that other spots not mentioned on this list are also congenial. Or you may find that keeping track of two spots at once—say, the middle of the head and the base of the spine—helps to keep your attention fixed more firmly than focusing just on one spot. Ultimately, you want to be able to keep your attention focused on any spot in the body. This ability will be useful when you’re suffering from a disease or injury, as you can sometimes speed healing by focusing on the breath energy at particular spots in the body.
5. Spread your awareness from that spot so that it fills the body through every in-and-out breath.
Think of a lit candle in the middle of an otherwise dark room. The flame of the candle is in one spot, but its light fills the entire room. You want your awareness to be centered but broad in just the same way. Your sense of awareness may have a tendency to shrink—especially as you breathe out—so remind yourself with every breath: “whole body breathing in, whole body breathing out.” This full-body awareness helps to keep you from getting drowsy when the breath gets comfortable, and from losing focus as the breath gets more subtle.
6. Think of the breath energy coursing through the whole body with every in-and-out breath.
Let the breath find whatever rhythm or texture feels best. Think of all the breath energies connecting with one another and flowing in harmony. The more fully they’re connected, the more effortless your breathing will be. If you have a sense that the breath-channels are open during the in-breath but close during the out-breath, adjust your perception to keep them open throughout the breathing cycle.
Then simply maintain that sense of whole-body breathing throughout the remainder of your meditation. If the breath grows still, don’t worry. The body will breathe if it needs to. When the mind is still, the brain uses less oxygen, so the oxygen that the body receives passively—through the lungs and perhaps through the relaxed pores (anatomists have differing opinions on this)—will be enough to serve its needs. At the same time, however, don’t force the breath to stop. Let it follow its own rhythm. Your duty is simply to maintain a broad, centered awareness and to allow the breath to flow freely throughout the body.
If you find that you lose focus when you spread your awareness through the body, you can return to the survey of the different parts, try a meditation word, or simply stay focused on one point until you feel ready to try full-body awareness again.
Variations. As you get more familiar with the meditation and with the problems you encounter while doing it, you can adjust these steps as you see fit. In fact, gaining a sense of how to adjust things—to learn from your own experimentation—is an important principle in using breath meditation to develop discernment.
For example, you may want to change the order of the steps. You might find that you can more easily find a comfortable way of breathing (step one) if you first develop a full-body awareness (step five). Or you might find that you need to force the mind to settle down firmly in a single spot for a while (step four) before you can explore the breath sensations in the rest of the body (step three). You might find that after you’ve chosen one spot to stay settled in (step four), you want to focus on two spots at once for a while before you move on to spreading your awareness to the whole body (step five).
Another way of adjusting the steps is to vary what you do within a particular step. Step three—exploring the subtle breath sensations in the body—allows for an especially wide range of variation. You might want to start your survey at the back of the neck, thinking of the breath energy entering the body there from the back and then going down through the spine, and ultimately out the legs to the tips of the toes and the spaces between the toes. Then think of the breath coming in the back of the neck going down through the shoulders and out through the arms to the fingers and the spaces between the fingers. Then move your attention to the breath sensations in the front of the torso.
Or you might want to go through the body very quickly at first, and then repeat the survey more methodically.
Or you might visualize changing the direction of how the breath sensations flow through the body. For instance, instead of thinking of the breath flowing down the spine and out the feet, you might think of it coming up from the feet, going up the spine, and then either going out the top of the head or over the top of the head and down through your throat and out the area in front of the heart.
Or you might sense that there are breath energies surrounding the body like a cocoon. When this happens, try to get a sense of how to tell when these energies are in harmony, when they’re in conflict, and how to bring them from conflict to harmony in a way that nourishes the energies inside the body. One way of doing this is to visualize these energies as all flowing in one direction—say, from the head to the toes—and then, after a while, visualizing them all flowing in the other direction. Notice which direction feels more comfortable, and then stick with that. If the cocoon of breath energies feels comfortable, you can experiment with ways of using that comfortable energy to heal parts of the body that feel tight or in pain.
Another way of adjusting the steps, on certain occasions, is to focus on only a few of the steps. There are two main situations in which you might want to try this:
• When you’re first getting started and you find that the more broadly focused steps—3, 5, and 6—are hard to follow without getting distracted, you can skip them for the time being and focus first on the more narrowly focused steps—1, 2, and 4—until you can stay with them consistently. Only then should you expand your practice to include the other three. However many sessions of meditation this may take doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re able to maintain a comfortable center. That will help you add the remaining steps with a greater sense of stability.
• When you’re skilled at combining all six steps and you want to gain practice in bringing the mind to stillness as quickly as possible, you can focus on steps 4, 5, and 6. In other words, once you’ve learned from experience where your mind feels most comfortably centered, try settling down quickly in that spot, allow it to get comfortable, and then see how quickly you can spread your awareness along with the comfortable breath to fill the entire body and then keep it filled. This is a useful skill to develop, not only in the context of formal meditation, but also in daily life. This point will be discussed further in Part Three.
These are just a few of the ways you might want to experiment. In general, though, it’s usually best to begin with the six steps, in order, so as to have a clear roadmap in mind each time you sit down to meditate. That way, when you’ve wandered off, you’ll find it easier to pick up where you left off. And if a particular stage in the practice goes especially well, you’ll be better able to remember it because you know where it is on the map.
III : Leaving Meditation
There are three steps to leaving meditation skillfully.
1. Reflect on how your meditation went.
The purpose here is to pick up useful points for the next time you meditate. Was there any time during the past session that the mind felt especially calm and centered? If there was, ask yourself, “Where were you focused? What was the quality of your focus? What was the quality of your breath? What did you do leading up to that point in your meditation?” Try to remember these things for the next session. You may find that you can re-create that sensation of calm just by repeating the same steps. If you can’t, put that memory aside and focus totally on what you’re doing in the present. Try to be more observant of these things the next time. It’s through being observant that the meditation develops as a skill and gives more reliable results. It’s like being a good cook: If you notice which foods please the people you’re cooking for, you give them more of the same, and eventually you’ll get a bonus or a raise in pay.
2. Spread thoughts of goodwill again.
Think of whatever peace and calm you felt for the past session, and dedicate it to other beings: either specific people you know who are suffering right now, or all living beings in all directions—all our companions in birth, aging, illness, and death. May we all find peace and well-being in our hearts.
3. Try to stay sensitive to the breath energy in the body as you open your eyes and leave the meditation posture.
Don’t let your awareness of the visual field crowd out your awareness of the body-field. And don’t let your concern for your next activity cause you to drop your awareness of the breath energy in the body. Try to maintain that sense of full-body awareness as consistently as you can. You may not be able to keep track of the in-and-out breath as you engage in other activities, but you can maintain an overall sense of the quality of breath energy throughout the body. Keep it relaxed and flowing. Notice when you lose your awareness of it; notice how you can regain it. Try to keep the sense of awareness of the breath energy in the body as constant as you can until the next time you sit down to meditate. This way you maintain a solid, nourishing foundation for the mind as you go through the day. This gives you a sense of groundedness. That groundedness provides not only a sense of security and inner ease, but also a basis for observing the movements of the mind. This is one of the ways in which steady mindfulness and alertness form a foundation for insight.
In other words, the most skillful way to leave meditation is not to leave it entirely. Keep it going as much and as long as you can.
IV : Meditating in Other Postures
Walking meditation is a good transition between maintaining a still mind when the body is still, and maintaining a still mind in the midst of all your activities. As you walk in a meditative way, you gain practice in protecting the stillness of the mind in the midst of the motion of the body, while at the same time dealing with the fewest possible outside distractions.
An ideal time to practice walking meditation is right after you’ve been doing sitting meditation, so that you can bring a mind already stilled, to at least some extent, to the practice.
Some people, though, find that the mind settles down more quickly while sitting if they’ve done a session of walking meditation first. This is a matter of personal temperament.
If you’re meditating right after a meal, it’s wise to do walking meditation rather than sitting meditation, for the motion of the body helps both to digest your food and to ward off drowsiness.
There are two ways of practicing walking meditation: walking back and forth on a set path, and going for a stroll. The first way is more conducive for helping the mind to settle down; the second is more convenient when you don’t have access to an undisturbed path where you can walk back and forth without rousing curiosity or concerns from other people.
1. Walking on a path. Choose a level path anywhere from 20 to 70 paces long. Ideally, it should be a straight path, but if you can’t find a straight path that long, try an L-shaped or a U-shaped path. If you’re going to time your meditation, set the timer and put it someplace near the path but facing away so that you won’t be able to see how much time is left while you’re walking.
Stand at one end of the path for a moment. Gently clasp one hand with the other, either in front of you or behind you, and let your arms hang down comfortably. If you have your hands in front of you, have both palms facing your body. If behind you, have both palms facing away from your body. Close your eyes and check to see if your body feels properly aligned, leaning neither to the left nor to the right. If it feels out of alignment, relax the muscles that are pulling it out of alignment, so that your body is as balanced as possible.
Bring your attention to the breath. Take a couple of long, deep in-and-out breaths, and focus your attention on the breath sensations in one part of the body. It’s usually wise, in the beginning, to choose a point anywhere on a line drawn down the middle of the front of your torso. If you focus in your head, you tend to stay in your head: You don’t get a clear sense of the body walking, and it’s easy to slip off into thoughts of the past and future. If you focus on a point on one side of the body, it can pull you out of balance.
However, if in the beginning you find it hard to keep track of a still point in the torso, you can simply stay aware of the movement of your legs or feet, or of the sensations in your hands. As your mind settles down, you can then try finding a comfortable place in the torso.
Breathe in a way that allows the spot you’ve chosen to feel comfortable, open, and refreshed.
Open your eyes and gaze either straight ahead of you, or down at the path several paces in front of you, but don’t let your head tilt forward. Keep it straight.
Make sure that you’re still clearly aware of the point of your internal focus on the breath, and then start walking. Walk at a normal pace, or slightly slower than normal. Don’t gaze around while you walk. Maintain your inner attention at your chosen point in the body all along the path. Allow the breath to find a comfortable rhythm. There’s no need to breathe in sync with your steps.
When you reach the other end of the path, stop for a moment to make sure that your attention is still with your chosen point. If it’s wandered off, bring it back. Then turn to face in the opposite direction and walk back to where you started, maintaining focus on your chosen point. Stop at that end of the path for a moment again, to make sure that your attention is still with your chosen point. Then turn to face in the opposite direction and walk back again. If you find it helpful in calming the mind, you can decide beforehand to turn either clockwise or counter-clockwise each time you turn.
Repeat these steps until your predetermined time is over.
In the beginning it’s best to focus on maintaining your attention at your one chosen point in the body as much as you can, as you would in step 4 of the sitting meditation. This is because you’re balancing attention to several things at once: your chosen point, the fact that you’re walking, and the fact that you have to be aware enough of your surroundings so that you don’t stray off the path, walk past the designated end, or bump into anything. That’s enough to keep you fully occupied at first.
As you get more proficient at this, you can start paying more attention to how the breath energies flow in the different parts of your body as you walk—while at the same time maintaining the primary focus at your chosen point—in much the same way that you maintain a centered but broad awareness in step 5 of the sitting meditation. You can make a game of seeing how quickly you can move from being focused comfortably on one spot to spreading your awareness and the sense of comfort throughout the body. Once it’s spread, see how long you can keep it that way as you continue walking. As we’ll see in Part Three, this is an important skill to develop to maintain a sense of secure well-being throughout daily life.
Some people find that their minds can gather into strong concentration while walking. But generally, you’ll find that you can get into deeper concentration while sitting than while walking, because you have more things to keep track of while you’re walking. However, the fact that your attention has to move between three things when you’re walking—your still point, the motion of your walking, and an awareness of your surroundings—means that you get to see clearly the movements of the mind in a restricted field. This provides a good opportunity for observing them carefully and for gaining insight into their various ways of deceiving you.
For instance, you’ll come to notice how unbidden thoughts try to take advantage of the fact that the mind is moving quickly among three things. These thoughts slip into that movement and hijack it, directing it away from your meditation. As soon as you notice this happening, stop walking for a moment, return your attention to your chosen spot, and then resume walking. Ultimately you’ll see the movement of those unbidden thoughts but won’t move along with them. When you don’t move with them, they go for just a little way and then disappear. This is an important skill in gaining insight into the workings of the mind.
2. Going for a stroll. If you’re going to practice walking meditation by going for a stroll, you have to lay down a few rules for yourself so that it doesn’t turn into just an ordinary stroll.
Choose an area that’s relatively quiet and where you won’t run into people who will want you to stop and chat with them. A park is good, as is a quiet, backcountry lane. If you’re walking around your neighborhood, go in a direction you don’t normally go and where the neighbors won’t try to engage you in conversations. If someone does call out to you, make it a rule that you’ll nod and smile in response, but won’t say any more words than are necessary.
Before you start your walk, stand for a moment to put your body in alignment, and bring your attention to your chosen spot for observing the breath. Breathe in a way that keeps that spot comfortable and refreshed. Think of it as a bowl filled to the brim with water, and you don’t want to spill a drop.
Walk at a normal pace in a manner that’s composed but doesn’t look unnatural. You want to keep your secret: that you’re doing walking meditation and you don’t want anyone else to know. Gaze around only as much as is necessary and appropriate to keep yourself safe.
If your thoughts start wandering off, stop for a moment and reestablish your primary focus at your chosen point. Take a couple of especially refreshing breaths, and then resume walking. If people are around, and you don’t want to call attention to yourself, pretend that you’re looking at something to the side of your path while reestablishing your focus.
Whether you practice walking meditation on a set path or as a stroll, conclude the session by standing still for a moment and following the three steps for leaving meditation, as discussed under section III, above.
Standing meditation is rarely done on its own. It’s more often done as a part of walking meditation. It’s especially good for five situations while you’re walking:
1. When your thoughts slip away from the breath, stop and stand for a moment until you can reestablish your focus at your chosen point. Then resume walking. If your mind is especially restless, you may want to stand for a while. In this case, take advantage of the fact that you’re standing still, close your eyes, and see if the body feels aligned. If you’re slouching, straighten up, pull in your stomach a bit, pull your shoulders back and then down a bit, to create a slight arch in your back. If you’re leaning to one side or the other, relax whichever muscles are pulling you out of alignment. Then relax into this straightened posture so that you can maintain it with a minimum of strain.
2. When the walking has you fatigued but you aren’t yet ready to stop walking meditation, stand for a few minutes to rest, paying attention to your posture as in step 1.
3. When you’re trying to master the skill of spreading your awareness, along with the comfortable breath, from one spot to fill the entire body, you might find it easier to do this while you’re standing still. Once it’s spread, resume walking. If you lose that sense of the entire body, stop and stand still so that you can recover it more easily.
4. When the mind, in spite of the movement of the body, gathers into a strong sense of concentration, stop and stand still to allow it to gather fully. Some meditators arrange a place next to their meditation path where they can sit down if the mind gathers so strongly that even standing still is a distraction.
5. When an interesting insight into the mind comes to you while you’re walking, stop and stand so that you can observe it more carefully. In cases like this, you may not want to devote too much attention to your posture, as that might distract you from what you’re observing in the mind.
As a general rule, while standing, keep your hands clasped in front of you or behind you as you would when walking.
Meditation Lying Down
To meditate while lying down is very conducive for attaining strong concentration. Some people find that it’s actually more conducive for concentration than the sitting posture.
However, it’s also conducive for falling asleep. This is why your main concern when meditating while lying down is to stay awake.
It’s generally better to meditate while lying on your right side, rather than on your left side, on your back, or on your stomach. If you have to lie down for long periods of time—as when you’re ill—there’s nothing wrong with shifting your posture among these four lying postures and meditating all the while.
However, lying on the right side has three advantages. First is that the heart is above the head, which improves the blood flow to the brain. (This means that if your physiology is reversed, with the heart on your right side, you’d do better to meditate while lying on your left side.) Second, it’s better for digestion. Third—and here lying on the right side shares this point with lying on the left—you can make a point of placing one foot on top of the other and keeping it there, not allowing it to slip off. The amount of attention this requires you to devote to your feet can help keep you awake.
Have your head supported with a pillow at the proper height for keeping your spine relatively straight. If you’re lying on your right side, place your right arm slightly in front of you so that the body doesn’t weigh on it. Fold your arm so that your right hand is lying palm-up in front of your face. Allow your left arm to lie straight along the body, with your left palm facing down.
The steps for surveying your mind, focusing on the breath, and leaving meditation are the same as for sitting meditation.
V : Becoming a Meditator
Meditating is one thing. Becoming a meditator is something else. It means developing a set of inner identities around the activities of meditation. Ideally, as you meditate, these identities should take on growing influence within your inner committee.
The activities around which these identities grow are the three needed for concentration: mindfulness, alertness, and ardency. When you focus on the breath in line with the above instructions, mindfulness is what keeps the instructions in mind, alertness is what watches what you’re doing and the results that come from what you’re doing, while ardency is what tries to do it well. When you slip off the breath, ardency tries to come right back to the breath as quickly as possible. While you’re with the breath, ardency tries to be as sensitive as possible to what’s going well and what isn’t. When things aren’t going well, it tries to figure out why, so that it can improve them. When they are going well, it tries to maintain them so that they can grow.
As these qualities get stronger with practice, they begin to coalesce into two distinct identities, two new members of your mind’s committee. The more passive of the two is the observer, which develops around alertness. This is the part of the mind that steps back a bit and simply watches what’s going on with a minimum of interference. As it develops, it gives you practice in exercising your patient endurance—your ability to stick with things even when they’re unpleasant—and in exercising your equanimity, your ability not to react to things, so that you can see them clearly for what they are.
The more active of the two identities is the doer, which develops around mindfulness and ardency. This is the part that tries to make things go well; that, when they aren’t going well, asks questions and investigates to understand why, tries to remember what worked in the past, and then decides how to respond—when it’s best to interfere and when it’s not. When things are going well, this identity tries to keep them going well. Over the course of time, you’ll find that the doer can assume many roles, such as the investigator and the director. This part exercises your ingenuity and imagination, as you try to shape things in the best possible direction.
These two identities help each other along. The observer provides the doer with accurate information on which to base its decisions so that it doesn’t simply try to force its will on things and deny when it’s done harm. The doer does its best to make sure that the observer doesn’t lose balance and start providing biased information—as when it’s tempted to stay focused on one side of an issue and to ignore another side. Sometimes the back-and-forth between these two identities is fairly quick. At other times—especially when you can’t figure something out and simply have to watch what’s going on—you’ll find yourself identifying with the observer for a fairly long time before gaining enough information to pass on to the doer.
A large part of the skill in meditating is learning when to assume these identities while you practice. They’re especially helpful in dealing with problems in the mind, as we’ll see in Part Two. When you’re faced with pain, for instance, they provide you with alternative identities that you can assume in relation to the pain. Instead of having to be the victim of the pain, you can be the observer of the pain. Or you can take on the role of the investigator, trying to figure out what the pain is and why the mind is turning it into a burden.
Similarly, when an unskillful emotion comes into the mind, you don’t have to identify yourself as the person who feels the emotion or agrees with it. You can be the observer, stepping back from the emotion. Or, as the doer, you can be the investigator, taking the emotion apart; or the director, assembling a new emotion to replace it.
As your concentration strengthens, the observer and doer will continue to be helpful. On the level of strong concentration called jhana (see Part Four), they turn into a factor called evaluation: the discernment factor that helps to settle the mind down through understanding its needs and providing for them. The observer acts as the passive side of evaluation, the doer acts as the active side. Working together, they can take you far in the practice.
So even though these members of your committee are forms of becoming, they’re useful forms. Don’t throw them away until you reach the point where they have no more help to offer. In the meantime, get to know them by exercising them. Because your mind’s committee has a lot of unskillful members, you’ll need all the inner help you can get.
On breath meditation: Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo, Keeping the Breath in Mind, in particular “Method 2.” Ajaan Lee’s talks in Lessons in Samadhi are very useful for getting a fuller perspective on his approach to breath meditation, as are the talks in the section of Inner Strength entitled, “Inner Skill.” The short fragments in the sections of The Skill of Release entitled “Beginning Concentration,” “The Basics of Breathing,” and “All-around Discernment” offer useful tips.
On the brahmaviharas: “Head & Heart Together” in Head & Heart Together; “Metta Means Good Will” and “The Limits of the Unlimited Attitudes” in Beyond All Directions; “The Sublime Attitudes” in Meditations2
For short talks to read before you meditate: any of the books in the Meditations series
Relevant talks (mp3 audio):
The collection of talks entitled Basics contains many talks dealing with issues that arise as you start learning how to focus on the breath.