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    Saturday
    Sep082007

    Meditation 101

    I recommend and encourage meditation because it helps people relax. Regular practice helps people to relax their minds and bodies, and when people relax they just feel better. And when people feel better, everything in their lives seems to go better -- they become happier, healthier people all around. There is nothing more natural, nothing more "spiritual" than relaxation -- letting go and allowing spirit.

    Meditation, done properly, shouldn't be difficult -- it should be and feel easy and effortless . As a matter of fact, if it doesn't feel easy to do, it generally means that you are making unnecessary efforts or trying too hard.

    Think of meditation as a technique for relaxing the mind, a natural and easy way to soothe and uplift yourself whenever you feel the need to do so. Meditation is completely safe, costs nothing, is enjoyable and rewarding, and is enormously beneficial.

    Learning to meditate is learning to gently allow the flow of your mind. Meditation is the practice of consciously and deliberately relaxing mental disturbance, mental resistance, a little bit at a time. Relaxing mental resistance means resolving conflicting thoughts, negative thoughts, disturbing thoughts -- letting go of any thoughts that feel tense or stressful.

    It's gently and consistently letting go of pressure, letting go of struggle, letting go of working on things, just for a while.

    It's letting go of the need to figure things out and push against things in your mind. It's allowing the mind to relax and settle down.

    Ultimately, it is just learning to let go of mental struggle and enjoy the flow, enjoy the peace of mind.

    There are many different ways to meditate, but the purpose of all of them is the same: allowing the unbroken flow of mind, eliminating disturbance in the mind. Patanjali, the great ancient teacher of Yoga said, "Meditation (dhyana) is the unrestricted flow of mind towards it's object." In simple terms, being able to relax and focus deeply, without stress or strain. In Buddhist practice the state of meditation is called samatha bhavana, a state where "the mind becomes like a still, clear pool completely free from disturbance and agitation, and ready to mirror on its surface the nature of things as they really are."

    The mind can never really be "still," (nothing that *is* can ever be still -- not really) but when the flow of mind is undisturbed, it appears "still." Think of a river or stream -- the ripples you see are evidence of resistance of the flow, interference from the wind and from the river bed. If there was no resistance -- no atmosphere or stream bed or shore to create backflow, the flowing stream would appear as still and smooth as glass. In the same way, a calm mind is an active, flowing mind, appearing "still" only because there are no resistive thoughts disturbing or distracting the flow of consciousness.

    Think of a time when you felt great happiness or appreciation or joyful clarity, what is called by some a "peak experience." In that moment of total focus, the mind is profoundly clear and bright, very awake and at the same time, very relaxed, very open.

    Attempting to "quiet" the mind through restraint or control or resistant thought, such as "I must not think that" or "I must only think of my breath" or "I can't settle down" creates more disturbance, not less, and is not helpful.

    The mind is clear and free and flowing when the mind is happy, when the thoughts are solely of what is wanted. Unhappiness is evidence of conflicting or contradictory streams of thought in the mind, a mixed focus on both what is wanted and what is not wanted.

    Concentration or sustained focus is only meditation when it is relaxed and easy and natural. It cannot be forced. It cannot be the product of struggle or effort.

    When we review the benefits of meditation, we see that they are many: relaxation and stress reduction, mental clarity, emotion peace and physical well-being, improved immune system response, to name a few.

    Since meditation strengthens the mind-body connection, all aspects of physical health are strengthened and improved. And since meditation makes the mind clearer and stronger, we become more creative, intelligent and emotionally adaptive and responsive. Our judgment improves, and our sense of perspective expands. Meditation uplifts the spirit and inspires a sense of connection to all things, allowing a greater sense of peace and security and being-at-home in the world.

    In addition, one of the most significant benefits of meditation is the growing awareness, through practice, that our mind is ours to manage and utilize, that we can learn to manage how we think, how we feel, and how we live. We learn that we, through mind, are the authors of our own experience, and have more control over how we feel than we perhaps ever knew.

    Ideally, meditation would be a constant flow of joyful, peaceful thought towards the things that are important to us, the things we love, our favorite things. It would bring us to greater heights of joy, not numbness or detachment or neutrality. Meditation is not really quieting the mind, although it can seem that way. It is clarifying the mind, opening the mind, expanding the mind.

    We meditate, or deepen our meditation, by learning to selectively focus attention on thoughts or perceptions that are at least emotionally neutral, or, even better, more pleasing to us. Virtually all meditation techniques involve various ways of doing this.

    We use mental techniques to gently and consistently shift our focus of attention toward thoughts or feelings or states of mind that soothe us, toward thoughts or perspectives that make us feel more relaxed, more at ease.

    In meditation we want to soothe the mind, not stir it up. We are not seeking truth or figuring things out or dwelling on what we don’t like or want. In meditation we deliberately focus on what is pleasing to allow our psychology and physiology to deeply rest and experience relief and healing. We are allowing ourselves to come back to our natural peace and joy in being.

    It is important in meditation that we do not struggle, we do not concentrate, that we do not try to control the mind through effort. It's more like leading the mind through joy. We think thoughts softly and gently, as we normally do (thoughts are naturally vague ideas, not clear ideas), and we are simply more selective about what we dwell on, about the thoughts we choose to give "airtime" to. And we always try to shift our attention in a gentle way, no muss, no fuss. And no hurry.

    When you want to meditate, pick a comfortable setting, a place where you feel safe and at ease, with few distractions. Wear comfortable clothing. It does not matter whether you sit in a couch or a chair or on the floor, although it's generally better to sit up straight so you don't fall asleep too easily. (Not that falling asleep is such a terrible thing -- it just means you're tired.) The important thing is that you are comfortable and relatively free from outside distractions, at least at first.

    Try to adopt a relaxed, easy, playful approach to meditation. No need to be serious. A casual, playful, easygoing attitude works best. You're going to poke around in your mind and find the good feeling places.

    Before we begin, we might choose or call to mind thoughts or ideas that feel pleasant and appealing, and that have no importance other than to provide a comfortable place for our mind to dwell. Things we can easily appreciate or feel good about. We can choose words, images, feelings, memories, or ideas or perspectives of any kind. Pick things that are simple and uplifting. These focal thoughts are the "mantras: that we will use to direct our thoughts toward better feeling places.

    The word "mantra" just means a mental device, a mental tool. A mantra is a vehicle, a direction for your mind to take. A mantra can be any thought that usually makes you feel better. Different mantras may work better for you at different times, so if one isn't feeling good to you, feel free to try another. It only matters that it feel comfortable when you think of it.

    Mantras work better when they are personally soothing or pleasing -- choose any word or phrase, or an image or sound that easily summons good feelings and a sense of well-being.

    Think of anything that makes you smile -- a child, a beloved pet, a happy memory, a good feeling, anything at all. If you think of a time when you were comfortable or happy, pick out a few elements that feel good, and focus especially on the feeling of feeling good. Pick words or thoughts or images that call that feeling to mind. Those are your mantras. Make a list of three or four, so you have a place to go when you are meditating.

    Mantras are used to encourage the mind to take a direction toward more peace, more joy, more well-being. By gently introducing the mantra, by thinking the thought, we move the mind toward more positive flow. Introduce the mantra in the same easy way you think any other thought, by calling it to mind. Then continue to favor it or dwell on it comfortably. If you begin to feel as though you are losing touch with the mantra, don't try to hold on to it, let it go. You can then easily come back to it as you wish.

    In addition, we can release resistant thought by deliberately choosing to focus on a thought in a different way, using any thought or perspective or reframe that makes us feel better. For example, thinking about paying bills could make us feel tense. Thinking "I can think about that later" could bring a feeling of relief.

    Or we could simply think, "Could I let this thought go?"

    Or, "Could I make peace with this thought? Could I relax and let it go for now? Just as best I can."

    Or, "It would be so nice to let go of this thought."

    All of those are better feeling thoughts.

    Any thought that feels even a little bit better is a better thought. (Thoughts that feel a lot better aren't usually easy to sustain.)

    Some people find it easier to find a better feeling first, then find the thoughts that go with it.

    The better feeling and thought doesn't have to be on the same topic as the resistive thought. It can be any thought that feels better.

    There is a big difference between finding a better thought and actually feeling better -- that is, feeling an actual sensation of relief, and having the idea or belief that a certain thought is a ‘better’ thought.

    The only way to know which thoughts feel better is to actually feel which thoughts feel better.

    For example, we may think about "peace in the world" and become slightly agitated, because it may call to mind thoughts about the world that are not so peaceful. And that is the opposite of what we are trying to do. Thinking instead about something pleasing that is closer to home, such as how cozy our chair feels, may actually bring us more of an actual sensation of peace.

    Some of my favorite meditation thoughts: "It's OK," "It's all right," "Relax and breathe," "Let it go for now" and "Let's think about how we want to feel."

    We can also focus on pleasant body sensations as mantras or we can focus on the sensation of breathing. Or counting numbers, or listening to the hum of an air conditioner. Any focus of mind that we can deliberately dwell on in order to draw the mind away from uncomfortable or resistive thoughts is an appropriate and useful mantra.

    Simple things that please you work best. Don't make the process too ‘precious’ or significant, or complicated.

    If you don't know what to use for a mantra, you're taking it too seriously! Try different thoughts until you find ones you like.

    You can always use a neutral focus, like the word "one" or your breathing, but good-feeling mantras work best.

    We begin by closing our eyes, relaxing, and breathing. We settle in for a little while before doing anything else, slowly breathing in and out, enjoying the way it relaxes you.

    In meditation we try to be very gentle with our thoughts. We simply want to gently favor some thoughts over others. We favor, or deliberately focus on thoughts that feel neutral or pleasing and we release, or let go of thoughts that feel tense or upsetting. We appreciate thoughts and feelings that feel more like ease or relief.

    Because we are creatures of habit, after meditating for a while, you may notice your mind turning back toward the everyday thoughts that feel like ‘work.’ You may notice worries creeping in, or concerns, or a wanting to solve some problem. When this happens, gently decide to release those thoughts, (or at least to not encourage them)—and gently turn back toward whatever thoughts and feelings you have chosen as your focal point in meditation. This cycle -- habitually returning to problems, then turning back toward more comfortable thoughts, is centering practice, learning meditation. You are training the mind to release painful thoughts and to turn habitually toward better feeling thought.

    Whenever you catch yourself returning to this habit of uncomfortable thought, say to yourself: "It's OK, you're retraining yourself, so relax, breathe, relax and breathe, relax and breathe," and then turn your mind toward better feeling thoughts.

    You will find it easier to quiet your mind if you choose simple thoughts (like 'comfort' or 'relax') that do not have the potential to expand into something too complicated. Don't try to work anything out. Let your life wait until you have finished meditation.

    Try to keep your thoughts in meditation small, simple, and close to home: "It's nice to be here." "I like the way this feels." "I love the idea of relaxing."

    If you are distracted by anything, include it in the meditation and simply continue.

    Distractions are best dealt with by not resisting them, by including them in the meditation. For instance, one simple and easy way to meditate is to focus the mind on environmental sounds, room ambiance, air conditioners, even ringing in your ears. While you are dwelling on the neutral sounds, you are releasing uncomfortable thoughts. If someone starts making some noise nearby, use the noise they are making as your mantra by including it and not resisting it.

    You know you are meditating correctly when you feel yourself physically relaxing, or feeling physically good. You may also feel a comfortable detachment, or numbness, in relation to your body. Meditation should feel pleasant and easy. When it feels good, it is good. If you are having difficulty, you can always write to me for help.

    Fifteen or twenty minutes is a good length of time to meditate. But even a few minutes is worth doing. Time yourself by peeking at your watch.

    Always remember to come out slowly at the end of meditation. Give yourself plenty of time to readjust to activity.

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