Meditation 101


by By Jeanne Faulkner /

Posted on May 1, 2009 at 1:07 PM

Updated Thursday, Nov 12 at 1:53 PM

About the Author

Jeanne Faulkner is a freelance writer and registered nurse in Portland, Ore. Her work appears regularly in Pregnancy and Fit Pregnancy, and she has contributed articles to the Oregonian, Better Homes & Gardens, Shape and other magazines.

Meditation. You know you want to. It's been on your to-do list forever. You understand the benefits: calmer mind, better sleep, improved health and concentration, decreased stress. Plus, all the cool kids are doing it--you want to be Zen, too. But here's the problem:  Every time you sit down, close your eyes, and try, try, try to clear your mind, you end up planning a month's worth of menus and tomorrow's agenda while reenacting that argument with your sister so you come out on top. You get all antsy and fidgety. But with a few simple pointers, you too can be a meditation master.

Meditation is pretty simple. Let's start with some definitions: Derived from two Latin words--meditari (to think, dwell on or exercise the mind) and mederi (to heal)--meditation is a different state of consciousness--not awake, yet not asleep either. It's often described as a "blank mind," but many meditation beginners become frustrated by their inability to clear their mind completely.

However, a "blank mind" is rarely the goal of meditation. Gengko Rainwater, a Buddhist monk, says that meditation can be a lot of things--and that it doesn't have to be Buddhist. Rainwater is a monk at the Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Ore. This Soto Zen temple is dedicated to helping cultivate Zen Buddhism in everyday life.

"Most people don't have a blank mind, but with consistent meditation, they realize how fast their mind spins and eventually allow it to rest," Says Rainwater. "When we meditate, we allow everything in our mind to rise and fall. We don't hang onto any particular thought but notice each one and let it go. Meditation allows a deep stillness to examine our mind and our 'stuff.' Everything, including thoughts, is impermanent. Eventually, we can take our practice out into our lives. When something unpleasant happens, we can stop and look at it with some detachment. Meditation allows us to pause and reflect instead of bashing on through life."

There are many styles of meditation. Rainwater practices Zazen meditation, which involves sitting, standing or walking. The most common posture is sitting on the floor with the hips elevated, either in a cross-legged position or on a pillow or bench, with an erect spine. Sitting on a chair, lying down or any position that allows proper breathing in a comfortable, relaxed yet alert posture will do. Don't slouch. You need your spine straight and chest open to allow thoughts and breath to flow freely.

Rainwater recommends starting with just 10 minutes a day, but says that consistency is more important than duration, and that benefits come from even a few minutes of regular meditation. "It's like exercise. It's better to meditate 10 minutes every day than two hours on the weekend." Gradually add time to your practice. Set a timer in another room (so you won't be distracted by your watch or jarred by noise), find a quiet place where you won't be interrupted (anywhere will do) and settle in to meditate.

  1. Once you've found your position, soften your gaze by either closing your eyes or focusing on one specific thing: a spot on the floor or wall, or a candle.
  2. Breathe. If you've ever done yoga, it's just like that. Inhale deeply through your nose and fill your abdomen and lungs from bottom to top, as deeply and slowly as you can. Then exhale slowly from top to bottom. Do this three times, then allow your breath to fall into its own natural but deep rhythm.
  3. Concentrate on each breath. Rainwater recommends counting ten breaths and then starting again. When your mind wanders, notice your thoughts but don't dwell on them, and then return to breathing. Some experts recommend focusing on one of the five senses while meditating. For example, breathe deeply and notice all the sounds that come and go--the birds outside, the dishwasher, kids next door. Don't really listen, just notice and breathe.
  4. Practice noticing sounds for a week. Then move on to "feeling" (notice the breeze, the feel of the clothes on your skin, that little itch).

John Duke, 50, clinic director of Outside In (a social-service agency serving low-income adults and homeless youth), started meditating in college and continues practicing several times a week. "I meditate to keep myself centered. It helps me let go of distractions. It's like a shot of whiskey after a hard day or the calm recovery after a good run."

He also advocates meditation for just about anyone. "When I counseled homeless youth, I occasionally recommended meditation to give kids who were struggling with substance abuse or other demons something tangible to use in their fight. I imagine meditation is like sitting under a bridge. There are cars driving over the bridge that represent my thoughts. I could easily hop in and let one of those cars carry me away, but instead I just observe them then return to sitting under the bridge."

If sitting still is too challenging, try walking, yoga or even knitting as a meditative practice. The key components are intention (done for the sole purpose of meditation), consistency, breathing and focus. Once practice is established, it can translate into other styles of meditation. Explore, but relax. Meditation isn't about the destination. It's about the journey.