How to Meditate, How Meditation is Done
Meditation Practices and Resources in Complementary Medicine
Meditation is like mental martial arts. You notice that the mind is making an assault, and with minimal effort, you step out of the way by returning to whatever the object of your concentration is. Little by little, you build up the mental muscles of awareness and letting go. This is a slow, gentle process. Just as a two year old wanders off and you bring him back with tenderness and patience, so it is with the mind. A meditation during which there are many thoughts and many attempts to bring the mind back to focus is a great training session. During the rest of the day you will gradually find that you have better concentration and are less prone to rumination. You are on your way to cultivating a peaceful heart and a powerful mind.
We are all wired differently from a physiological perspective and each of us has different beliefs and experiences. Therefore, an excellent centering practice for one person may not suit another at all. Some people prefer a moving form of meditation such as mindful walking, qi gong, hatha yoga or stretching exercises. Others prefer closed eyed sitting exercises such as concentration, mindfulness meditation, centering prayer or other forms of imaginal centering.
Whatever form you feel drawn to practice, make a commitment for the full twenty-eight days and put it into your schedule every day at the same time. This is the basis of forming a healthy habit. Most people find that getting up fifteen or twenty minutes earlier and doing the practice first thing in the morning not only works well in terms of getting it done, but also sets the tone for a more peaceful, energized, loving and productive day. Physiological research shows that at least three 20 minute periods of meditation weekly are necessary to experience longterm reduction in heart-rate, blood pressure, anxiety and other stress-related problems.
Diaphragmatic (belly or abdominal) Breathing
Belly breathing is associated with lower heart-rate, reduced blood pressure, increased energy and feelings of peacefulness, clarity, relaxation and creativity.
• Put one hand on your abdomen and close your eyes. Take a deep breath in through your nose and expel it slowly and completely through your mouth. You will feel your belly flatten. Let the next breath (and all subsequent breaths) come in through your nose. Can you feel your abdomen expand? If you can’t, just imagine that a balloon is inflating in your belly when you breathe in and deflating when you breathe out. The outbreath is longer than the inbreath, like a gentle sigh of relief.
For a fast mini-relaxation break any time during the day, take a deep breath and release it slowly- a letting go breath. Try breathing back from ten to one, one number on each outbreath. By the time you get to one, you will notice that your breath is much slower and more regular and that your bodymind system is relaxing. With a little practice, you will form the habit of breathing from your diaphragm most of the time.
Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, M.D. first found that concentration meditation elicits what he calls the “relaxation response.” All forms of meditation, in which the mind becomes quiet and focused, also elicit this innate physiological response which is the opposite of the body’s stress or fight-or-flight response. Belly breathing is an important cornerstone of the relaxation response. Benson first researched the clinically standardized “relaxation one method” of meditation in which the word one is repeated in time to each outgoing breath. Any word will produce the same results.
An ancient Sanskrit mantra, or meditation focus, is Ham Sah. This is supposed to remind the meditator of the sound of the incoming and outgoing breath. Ham as you breathe in, Sah as you breathe out. Ham means I am. Sah means the inner Self, the Divine Spark. Any short phrase will do as a meditation focus, either secular or religious. “Hail Mary” on the inbreath, “full of grace” on the outbreath is an excellent focus for those used to repeating the rosary which is also a kind of concentration meditation. Jewish Meditation by Rabbi Ari Kaplan, is an excellent primer for Jews. Benson’s classic The Relaxation Response is a fine review of both secular and religious meditation traditions and techniques.
Sitting with eyes closed, focus on belly breathing. Repeat your focus phrase, prayer or mantra in time to either the outbreath, or both the incoming and outgoing breath if it is a longer phrase. When thoughts come, passively disregard them and just return to the repetition.
Autogenic training was devised by two German physicians, Schultz and Luthe. With six volumes of research, it is probably the best-researched method of meditation and physiologic self-regulation. There are a total of six standard formulas. The first two formulas are heaviness and warmth. If we did not practice these exercises at the seminar you attrended, these instructions alone are insufficient for practice. They are meant as a review if we learned the practice together.
Assume the “ragdoll” position. Focus your attention on mindfully feeling sensation in each body part as you go through the exercise. Mentally repeat each formula several times until you begin to feel heaviness and warmth. Note the abbreviations. R=right. L=left. A=arm. L=leg. B=both.
My RA is heavy, My LA is heavy, BA are heavy
My RL is heavy, My LL is heavy, BL are heavy
My arms and legs are heavy (summary formula)
My RA is warm, my LA is warm, BA are warm
My RL is warm, my LL is warm, BL are warm
My arms and legs are warm (summary formula)
My arms and legs are heavy and warm (cumulative summary formula) which- if you practice the two standard formulas frequently- turns into an instant conditioned relaxation response.
The other four standard formulas (to be used only after appropriate instruction are:
3. It breathes me
4. Heartbeat calm and regular
5. My solar plexus is warm
6. My forehead is cool
The Buddhist peace worker, poet and monk Thich Nhat Hanh is known for his walking meditations. Most of the time we are not present to what we are doing. The mind is constantly thinking up thoughts of yesterday and tomorrow, often dwelling on the negative. As John Lennon wrote, “Life is what’s happening when we’re making other plans.” Mindfulness means to be present to what is, rather than losing ourselves in thoughts of what is no longer or what has not yet come. Mindfulness is an awakening to life, a nonjudgmental awareness of the wonder of the present moment. As you prepare to walk slowly and mindfully, regulating the cadence of your steps to diaphragmatic breathing, you might enjoy repeating one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditative poems:
Breathing in I calm body and mind (inbreath)
Breathing out I smile (long outbreath)
Dwelling in the present moment (inbreath)
I know this is the only moment ( long outbreath).
Become aware of the rhythm of your body and breathing. How many steps to your inbreath? How many steps to your outbreath? How does it feel to move forward, shift your weight, move your feet? Keeping breath and body awareness, begin to notice the world around you. See the trees, the grasses, the flowers in season, the sky. Smell the smells. Hear the sounds. Try to be aware without judgment or reflection. No good or bad sounds. Just sounds. Nonjudgmental awareness opens the eye of the heart. When you catch yourself thinking about something- and therefore becoming mindless- gently and kindly refocus your attention on breath and body. Recite the poem again and once more become mindful of the world around you.
Sitting Mindfulness Meditation
Sit in your seat with great dignity, back straight and eyes closed. Become aware of your breathing- how breath comes in and fills your belly and how breath moves out into space. Keep about 25% of your attention on breathing and the other 75% on the feeling of spacious mindfulness. You may become aware of sounds, sensations, thoughts. Just let them all come and go, passing across the spacious sky of your mind like clouds. Sogyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist lama, compares the thoughts that arise in meditation to waves that rise from the ocean. It is the ocean’s nature to rise. We cannot stop it, but as Rinpoche says, we can “leave the risings in the risings.”
We can extend the practice of mindful awareness and spaciousness beyond the period of sitting meditation into the rest of life. Thich Nhat Hanh has written a beautiful book called the Miracle of Mindfulness. With true simplicity and beauty he reminds us that we can wake up in the ordinary activities of life by bringing our full attention to eating, washing the dishes, smelling the roses, walking, making love. Choose a piece of fruit and eat it mindfully. Be aware of its look, smell and feel. Notice the way that your mouth fills with saliva in anticipation of its flavor. Be aware of each bite moving down your throat into your stomach. Enjoyment and gratitude are natural outcomes of mindfulness. Choose any activity like washing the dishes or taking a shower and commit to doing it as mindfully as possible. For some people taking a shower mindfully, aware of their breathing and all the pleasant sensations, is an excellent morning meditation.
Holy Moment Meditation
Healing and holy have a common root in the old Anglo-Saxon word haelen, to make whole. Holiness and healing are found in relationship- in our ability to be present to ourselves, other people, the natural world and the Divine. We have all had holy moments, natural experiences of mindfulness, when our heart opened and we were fully present to a sunrise, a sunset, the sun glinting off a snow covered tree, lights dancing in the water of a pond, or a look in the eyes of a loved one. These are moments of deep gratitude and connection to life, and often we cry when our full heart overflows.
Sit quietly and close your eyes. Focus on belly breathing for a few minutes. Now recall a holy moment and involve all your senses. What did you see? What were the shapes and colors of things above and below you, in the four directions around you? Can you recall any fragrances? Any sounds? What about physical sensation? Were you warm or cool? Touching, moving, still? What were you feeling? Where do you experience these emotions in your body? Let the memory fade and return to belly breathing, keeping the focus on the feelings that remain, watching them mindfully, flowing with them. This is the physical sensation of healing and holiness.
This form of silent, meditative prayer has been popularized by Father Thomas Keating of Snowmass Monastery in Colorado. You can read about it in his luminous book, Open Mind, Open Heart. The intention of the prayer is to be in God’s presence. The idea is to shift awareness away from the thoughts that Keating compares to boats floating down the river of consciousness to the river itself. The river is God’s Presence, that loving lifeforce in which we live and move and have our being.
Prior to beginning the practice, chose a prayer word, a Sacred Word, which will serve as your reminder to let go of thoughts and re-enter the river of the Divine Presence. The prayer word can be anything that reminds you of your intention to keep your appointment with God. Peace, Shalom, Hail Mary, Great Spirit, The Lord is my Shepherd, are a few examples. Before the first session, center yourself any way you choose and then pray for a Sacred Word to come to you. Once you have chosen one, keep it for at least a month. Changing it in the midst of prayer is a distraction.
Center yourself in the silent intention to be present to God. There is no focus on the breath at all in this practice. When you notice your mind wandering, repeat the Sacred Word a few times until you can let go once again to the deep silence of God’s Presence. Keating says to reintroduce the sacred word as gently as laying a feather on a piece of cotton. As with all forms of meditation, don’t worry about how well you are doing. As Keating writes, the feeling that we are in God’s Presence is a kind of grace. The best we can do is to have a willing heart by intentionally entering silence and waiting there for the Divine Beloved.
The Egg of Light Healing Exercise
One of the most ancient forms of healing and concentration consists of imagining yourself in the center of an egg of Divine Light. Sit quietly with eyes closed and imagine a great star of loving, living light above you. Feel streams of light washing over you and invite it to enter the top of your head and wash down through your body like a river washes through the sand on its bottom, carrying away any fatigue, fear, dis-ease or negativity. As all the darkness washes out of the bottoms of your feet imagine that it is taken in by Mother Earth and turned to compost. Spend a little extra time washing any part of the body where there is tension, pain or disease.
Let the light wash clean the boundaries of your heart, revealing the inner light which is your own true essence. Let that heartlight shine more and more brightly, filling your cells and tissues and then extending beyond your body- three feet above and below you and on all sides until you feel as if you are sitting in an egg of healing, protective light. Affirm that all positive thoughts and prayers from others will penetrate the egg and reach you, but all negative influences will bounce back off the egg and a blessing be returned to their sender. Affirm that all your own positive thoughts will reach through to others, and all negative thoughts will bounce back off the inner shell of the egg and a blessing of compassion will return to awaken your heart to love.
Meditate any way you choose for a few minutes, or enter the egg of light. Then repeat these blessings first for yourself, then for your loved ones, then for those you are in conflict with, and then for the world. I like to imagine the star of light from the exercise above expanding into a circle of light into which I call those to be blessed by name, imagining them as fully as possible. Here are the blessings:
May I be at peace, May my heart remain open,
May I awaken to the light of my own true nature,
May I be healed, May I be a source of healing for all beings.
See a circle of Divine Light. Invite your loved ones into it, calling them by name. See them in as much detail as possible, imagining the loving light shining down on them and washing through them, revealing the light within their own hearts. Then bless them:
May you be at peace, May your heart remain open,
May you awaken to the light of your own true nature,
May you be healed, May you be a source of healing for all beings.
Next, think of those people who you hold in judgment, and to whom you are ready to begin extending forgiveness. Place them in a circle of light, and see the light washing away all their negativity, just as it did for you and your loved ones. Bless them:
May you be at peace, May your heart remain open,
May you awaken to the light of your own true nature,
May you be healed, May you be a source of healing for all beings.
See our beautiful planet as it appears from outer space, a delicate jewel hanging in the starry vastness. Imagine the earth surrounded by light- the green continents, the blue waters, the white polar caps. The two-leggeds and four-leggeds, the fish that swim, the birds that fly, those that creep and crawl. Earth is a place of opposites. Day and night, good and evil, up and down, male and female. Be spacious enough to hold it all as you offer these blessings:
May there be peace on earth, May the hearts of all people
be open to themselves and to each other, May all people
awaken to the light of their own true nature, May all creation
be blessed and be a blessing to All That Is.
Archangel Healing Meditation
The four cardinal directions invoked in American Indian prayer correspond to the four Archangels in the Judeo-Christian tradition. These angelic forces of healing and guidance can be invoked as a long meditation any time during the day, or as a short prayer before falling asleep. After a little practice, you will literally feel wrapped in a soft blanket of angelic presence.
Sit or lie down, close your eyes and take a few letting go breaths. Center yourself in belly breathing for a few minutes. Place your awareness on the space in front of you, the Eastern Gate of your body temple. Ask for the presence of the Archangel Uriel, whose name in Hebrew means “The Light of God.” Stay centered and notice whatever you can about Uriel’s presence. Review your current situation, thinking of areas where you need more clarity. Ask Uriel for any help you need in making decisions or in discrimination.
Place your awareness to your right, the Southern Gate of your body temple. Ask for the presence of the Archangel Michael, whose name in Hebrew means “How Like Unto God.” Michael is the pure presence of love, forgiveness and wisdom. Stay centered and notice whatever you can about this presence. Review your current situation, thinking of any areas in which love or forgiveness needs to flow. Ask for any insights or help you require.
Place your awareness in back of you, the Western Gate of your body temple. Ask for the presence of the Archangel Raphael, whose name in Hebrew means “The Healer of God.” Stay centered and notice whatever you can about Raphael’s presence. Review your current situation, thinking of any emotional, physical or spiritual healing you may need. Ask Raphael for that healing. Think, too, about the healing you can bring to others and ask for any help you might need.
Place your awareness to your left, the Northern Gate of your body temple. Ask for the presence of the Archangel Gabriel, whose name in Hebrew means “the strength of God.” Stay centered and notice whatever you can about this presence. Gabriel is the angel who helps us overcome fear so that we may bring forth our creative gifts for the benefit of all. Review your current situation and ask for the removal of fear, as well as for help in realizing your creativity.
Become aware of a star of loving light above your head. Feel the Divine Light wash over you like a waterfall and flow through you the way that a river flows through the sand at its bottom. Let the light wash every cell clean, carrying away any fatigue, dis-ease, heaviness or pain. As the light flows through you, imagine that it is dissolving any darkness from around your heart, allowing the Sun within you to shine forth brightly as a blessing to all beings. Conclude with a prayer of thanksgiving for all the gifts of your life, and the most priceless gift of all- life itself.