How and why to meditate

balance rocks

“Meditatio” by Mary Karr

In the back’s low hollow sometimes
a weightless hand guides me, gentle pressure
so I tack soft as a sailboat. (Go there)

Soften the space between your eyes (smudge
of eucalyptus), the third eye opens.
There’s the wide vermilion sky

that cradled us before birth,
and the sun pours its golden sap
to preserve me like His precious insect.

Why to Meditate

  1. It is healthy. My meditation mentor created a podcast explaining benefits of meditation, summarizing the latest research, teaching how to meditate, and offering a dozen guided meditations.
  2. It is relaxing. Meditation activates the parasympathetic system better than sleep. Herbert Benson, M.D., made meditation scientificaly respectable virtually overnight through his study of the “Relaxation Response”.
  3. It reduces anxiety, depression, insomnia, blood pressure, and more.
  4. It increases awareness, compassion, self-control, peacefulness, and more.
  5. It feels good.
  6. Every religious tradition practices meditation– including Christianity – and atheists and agnostics do too. It’s like laughing or studying the stars: it’s human.

Quickstart Guide to Meditating

  1. Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed.
  4. Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word, “one” (or another simple, short, melliflous word), silently to yourself. For example, breathe in … out, “one”,- in .. out, “one”, etc. Breathe easily and naturally.
  5. Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. Keep a clock visible so you can occasionally check the time, or set a gentle alarm, like a bell or chime. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened.
  6. Do not worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace.
  7. When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to repeating “one.” With practice, the response will come with less and less effort.
  8. Practice the technique once or twice daily. The best times are probably first thing in the morning and last thing before bed. Avoid meditating within two hours after any meal, since the digestive processes seem to interfere with the elicitation of the Relaxation Response.

My Story

I began meditating in 2004. My mentor said, “You seem scattered. Have you tried meditation?” He explained a bit about it; I waited for 2 weeks. The next time I saw him, I requested he show me how. He gave me a quick introduction, like the one written below.

He said that studies have shown that four years of 20 minute meditations (twice daily) have a dramatic and permanent effect on happiness, compassion, and peacefulness. Being inconsistent, I decided to try 1 minute a day and increase each week for 20 weeks. I did 1 minute meditations twice a day every day for 7 days. Then I did 2 minute meditations twice a day for 7 days, without missing one. At about week 10 I got impatient and started doing the recommend 20 minute meditation twice a day.

I did not enjoy it at first. It was “boring”, agitating, itchy, and dull. But some days I looked forward to it. At six months in, I still wasn’t having mystical experiences or anything dramatic. But for the first time I realized that I was longing all day for that evening meditation.

That was about 10 years ago. By the time I got to the four year mark, meditation had transformed my life. My personality, my relationships, my spiritual life, my intellectual life, my taste in movies, books, and poetry were all radically changed. Meditation became, and remains, the most important part of my day.

May 2015 marks 11 years of daily practice. I’m still a beginner. 11 years in, I still miss days. I’ve meditated for at least 10 minutes probably 80% of the approximately 4,000 days. That’s meditating about 8,000 times for a total of about 4,000 hours.

I’ve learned a lot but am still learning. If you’d like to learn more, see below or send me a line.

Objections to Meditating

Q: Is it just for “religious” or “spiritual” people?
A: Meditation is no more religious than laughing, sleeping, dancing, relaxing, or studying the stars. Atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, seekers, scientifically-minded, and spiritual but not religious people enjoy the benefits and peace of meditation. And certainly also Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Ba’hai, and others practice meditation within their own religion.

Q: Isn’t meditation about “emptying your mind”?
A: Not exactly. Meditation is about practicing single focus. You empty your mind of everything else but that one thing. That’s why one of the most common forms of meditation is mindfulness. If you choose to focus on an empty word or phrase, then you are contemplating emptiness and practicing nonthought. If, however, you choose to focus on a powerful word or prayer, then you contemplate that reality and practicing communion.

Q: Isn’t meditation boring?
A: Yes and no. Sometimes, after a hectic day, or busy week or month, 20 minutes of being being “bored” is peaceful!

Q: Isn’t meditation esoteric?
A: No, the military, professional athletes, practice it as well as monks.

More Readings

  1. Robert Puff, Meditation for Health and Happiness
  2. Thomas Keating, Centering Prayer
  3. John Main, World Community for Christian Meditation
  4. Thomas Merton, Spiritual Direction & Meditation
  5. Robert Puff, Reflections on Meditation: A Guide for Beginners
  6. Some of the 3,000+ scientific studies on the benefits
  7. JenReviews guide to meditation
  8. John Parrot’s excellent summary of meditation resources.

More Audio

  1. The “Calm” app for iPhone and Android is good for beginners, with a guided introduction.
  2. The Insight Timer for intermediate and expert. It’s a simple, beautiful app for timing your meditation, tracking progress, guided meditations, making friends, and more. (Friend me on this app!)
  3. UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center free guided meditations