Preserving your Sanity: Zen Meditation for Beginners
Is Meditation Good for You?
Though meditation has been practiced for thousands of years and in numerous cultures, today it is widely practiced as an exercise in stress management, relaxation, and even physical health. Some studies indicate that meditation may be helpful for a number of conditions ranging from insomnia to allergies.
I've chosen Zen meditation technique in particular here because I find it easy to simplify the practice and apply it in a completely non-religious context. Also, those who keep up with my work will know that I just recently did a fair bit of research on the subject, so why let it go to waste? Call me lazy.
When using a zafu or a reasonable facsimile thereof, you'll want to sit cross-legged. As a beginner, I suggest the Burmese position or a comfortable adaptation thereof. This consists of sitting "indian-style" with your feet flat on the floor, soles upward. The knees should also be on the floor, but this might require a bit of loosening up first. Once you can sit that way, you'll find that keeping the back straight and head up is extremely easy and fairly stable. With just a slight curve in your lower back, you'll be able to relax your muscles and remain in a proper, upright posture with your torso centered over your hips.
Now, rest your forearms on your thighs, and place your non-dominant hand palm-up inside your dominant hand, thumbs together, forming sort of an oval which should be centered about 2 inches below your belly button.
How to Start Meditating
The first step is to decide where you should meditate. The goal is to achieve a state of mental serenity, so logic dictates that you'll want a quiet place, as free of distraction as possible. That, I know, can be difficult these days but it can be done. Start by turning off your phone, or at least putting it on silent for a while. As for background noise, there are innumerable sources for free "meditation music" online, and even smartphone apps. Personally, if I find the day-to-day noise outside my house to be too offensive, good old fashioned classical music does the trick just fine. Use your judgement, this is about you and your peace of mind, after all, not "doing it right". What works for you is the right way.
If you're going to be sitting on the floor, you'll need a cushion. Since we don't all have a zafu (a small round cushion used by in traditional Zen practice) lying around the house, a rolled-up blanket or a good, thick pillow will work just fine. Sitting in a chair is also perfectly acceptable, just keep your feet flat on the floor and maintain proper posture with your chin up and your back straight but relaxed. To center properly, it can be helpful to rock back and forth a bit and find your center of gravity, then settle into it. This will place you in a position allowing for good posture and stability without straining your muscles in trying to stay upright. Relaxation is the goal, right?
The Hard Part - Breathing in Meditation
In a proper sitting position, with non-restrictive clothing, you'll find yourself able to breathe more deeply. I won't go into a bunch of stuff about the diaphragm, just leave it at when you inhale, the rise should be in your abdomen, not your chest. Breathing through your nose is the prescribed method, with your tongue lightly pressed against the roof of your mouth (this reduces salivation, which meals less interrupting your breathing pattern with swallowing spit). Breathing through your mouth is perfectly acceptable if you've got a cold or other nasal issue, of course, but it'll dry your mouth out. Now, slow down.
Now that all the technicalities are out of the way, take a moment to settle into a comfortable rhythm, breathing deeply and slowly without straining yourself. It's said that a Zen master only completes an inhale/exhale cycle two or three times a minute. That will not be you, trust me, unless your goal is to wind up unconscious.
Okay, before we move on, lets take a moment to review.
Meditation position and breathing
Crossed, knees and feet flat on the floor
With a cushion, creates a stable tripod, allowing you to relax.
Dominant hand holding opposite, thumbs touching
Called the "cosmic mudra", said to focus your mind inward.
Upright and centered
Comfortable and allows for a stable position without muscle tension.
Benefits of Meditation
So, now that you know how to meditate, what's the point? Well, meditation has long been praised as a fantastic way to simply calm the day-to-day anxieties that plague us all and bring the mind back to a calm, relaxed state. This has obvious implications for insomnia, pain management, and even anxiety-related heart conditions, among other possible health conditions.
Long story short, if 15 minutes of your time can calm you down and help you to relax and think more clearly, isn't it worth your while?
So, now that you're sitting and breathing (yes, it took that long to get there) you simply count. Count each inhalation and exhalation as one (in other words, each full breath is two), and continue until you reach ten, then start again at one. This is a simple way to keep your mind on-track and monitor whether or not your focused or if your mind is drifting. If you do find yourself losing count, simply start again at one. Don't dwell on it, just bring your mind back to the breathing and resume.
Generally, it is suggested that you do this for perhaps five minutes to start, just to get settled into it. Before long, you'll be able to extend the sessions without getting tired, and ten to fifteen minutes is more than enough to calm your mind. After a few months, you may well find yourself able to do away with the counting entirely and just focus on the breathing itself. This is perfectly acceptable.
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