What is meditation?
Meditation is a practice of concentration, contemplation or reflection. It usually involves using specific mindfulness technique, such as mindful breathing, or remaining silent and still. For millennia, the practice of meditation has been used to cultivate positive emotions, get mental clarity, balance stress responses, create heart space, and learn to let go of attachments, cravings and pain.
In ancient India, the practice of meditation is usually known as Dhyana. From India, the practice spread to China and Japan, where it finally became Zen (Dhyana—Chan—Zen). In reality, various meditative practices, like praying, sitting motionless for long hours, dancing or chanting, have been always present all around the world, and are still used as daily rituals in African cultures, Indigenous cultures of Americas, Sufism, etc.
The common misconceptions about meditation
The biggest misconception of meditation would probably be a picture of a Yogi in a trance-like state somewhere in the Himalayas. This and similar stereotypes often link meditation to some kind of asceticism or worshipping. Consequently, many people are unsure whether meditation can be a suitable modality for them. In reality, however, there are many different types of meditation: religious, secular, sitting, walking, dynamic, sound healing meditations, loving-kindness meditation, mindful breathing, shaking, prayers, etc. Each has been developed to serve a specific purpose, and can be applied in different situations.
In the last few decades, meditation has been gaining more and more popularity in the Western world. It has been a subject of scientific research and today it can be frequently found as an alternative healing tool of Positive Psychology, Psychotherapy, stress management coaching and mindfulness-based modalities. In Positive Psychology, meditative practices are mostly secular, and are used to deal with chronic stress, anxiety, insomnia, depression, eating disorders, and other contemporary epidemics.
In fact, the practice of meditation can actually become your most delicious quiet place. When you close your eyes and shut down your visual perception, you activate your inner vision and open the doors to an experience that is probably totally different from what you are used to experiencing most of the time.
Please keep in mind that meditation is not a dogma, but an individual exploration of possibilities. It is a tool that may help you find your inner stillness, build a sense of profound intimacy with yourself, create spaciousness in the heart, or gain insight. Do not be upset if it does not work, and feel free to experiment and develop a personal approach that would meet your own needs and wishes.
Mindful Breathing: Anapanasati
In different Buddhist traditions, Anapanasati is one of the most fundamental techniques you learn in order to start your meditation practice. Anapana means inhale and exhale and sati means memory, and the technique is usually translated into English as “mindfulness of the breath.” With this technique, we learn (or remember) how to come back home, to the mindfulness of our own inhales and exhales. We reconnect to the wisdom of our greatest teacher – our own conscious intuitive breath.
The initial practice is simple. It consists of sitting or lying down in stillness with your eyes closed, and observing the natural flow of the breath. To keep your mind focused, you can count your inhales and exhales from one to ten. Make sure that your breathing is neutral, soft and sweet. Practice as long as it is pleasant.
Anapanasati promotes the softness of the breath, which is actually a key quality of healthy breathing. Many people talk about the importance of breathing deep, but in many cases it is its lightness, sweetness and stillness that make breathing beneficial. In fact, during my pilgrimage in the Indian Himalayas, my teachers of Buddhism and Yoga always encouraged me to breathe less. Most of them were mountain people who actually breathe quite differently than people who live in lower altitudes. For the mountain people, breathing less happens quite naturally due to the different oxygen density and even some oxygen deprivation, which actually can be very healthy and stimulating in small doses.
Step 1: Find a quiet place and make sure you will not be disturbed by anything or anybody. Sit down on the floor, either on your yoga mat or on a folded blanket. Find your cross-legged position or any other position that allows you to lengthen your spine and open your chest and shoulders. If you need some extra support, sit next to the wall or on a chair. Your body should feel comfortable and relaxed, yet awake.
Step 2: Close your eyes and take a few calming breaths to get centered and connected to the present moment. Notice the sound of your breath. Try to make your breath smooth and soft, but do not force yourself or control or count your inhales and exhales.
Step 3: Place your hands on your chest, on your heart (Hands-on-Heart Mudra). Inhale slowly and hold your breath for a moment, then exhale and pause again, before your next inhalation. Inhale with gratitude, exhale with tenderness and kindness. Enjoy this time and space in between your breaths, observing the stillness and the mystery hidden there. Feel how your chest is rising and falling with every breath you take, enjoy the intimacy of your touch. Feel your hands on your heart.
Step 4: Observe the heat and energy accumulated in your heart. Whatever it is, try not to judge or reject it. Welcome this energy. Welcome fear if it is fear. Welcome joy if it is joy. Welcome anger if it is anger. Welcome whatever emerges with equal kindness.
Step 5: When it is time, exhale and let go everything that doesn’t serve you anymore. Do not hold onto pain, resentment or guilt in your heart any longer. Let them go. Release them like you would release birds from a cage. Inhale with gratitude, exhale with kindness.
This meditation teaches you how to become more aware of your body and its sensations. Similar to mindful breathing, scanning the body helps to calm down the mind and come back to the present moment. It also teaches the practitioner how to observe rather than react or judge, which is the foundation of all mindfulness practices. The instructions in this article are given for a body scan performed lying on a yoga mat.
Lie down and get comfortable. Make your palms face the sky and feel the support coming from the earth. Try to relax your body and make it heavy. Close your eyes and breathe in and out a few times, bringing your whole attention to the sound of your breath. Try to slow down your breathing. Make it gentle, quiet and soft.
Feel the weight of your body on the floor. Notice the sensations of your body touching the mat. Notice how your back is touching the ground. Check your face and neck are relaxed. If your neck is tense, gently move your head left and right a few times, until you find a more comfortable position. Create some space between your teeth and lips to soften your jaw. Let all your facial muscles be pleasantly relaxed.
Slowly, start scanning your body. First, bring your attention to your feet and ankles. Observe the sensations in your feet. Notice whether there is any tension, tightness or slight discomfort which you keep there. Stay with your sensations for some time and try to make the feet and ankles heavy and relaxed. Surrender them to the ground.
Do the same with your knees, thighs, and hips. Take your time, do not hurry. Once you reach your pelvic zone, feel how your butt cheeks touch the ground. Make them soft, like ice-cream melting.
When you are ready, bring your attention to your stomach and chest. Feel how they rise and fall, following the pattern framed by your inhalations and exhalations. Breathe softly, enjoy the sound of your breath and the synchronicity of movement with breathing.
Feel your back, your shoulders, your arms, hands and fingers. Surrender them to the ground. If you notice any tension, especially in your fingers, hands and wrists, make them heavy and relaxed. Try to let all the worrying and fixations go. Make your palms open and ready to receive.
Take a few slow and deep breaths and direct your attention to your neck, your face, your head, and your hair. Soften your jaw again. Take your time and scan your face properly—your lips, nose, eyes, eyebrows, and forehead. Allow yourself to be completely relaxed. Keep breathing slowly and stay in this state of relaxation as long as it is pleasant.
When you feel ready, open your eyes.