My approach to meditation as I said was experimental. I tried mantras at first, but did not feel as if they were my cup of tea. I settled on the oldest and simplest technique, mindfulness training. I decided to approach the project in partial actions. The first step would be to learn to pay attention to my body. My experience suggests that meditation practice is progressive in the same way that weight lifting is progressive. I am an old weight lifter. You don't walk into the gym and bench press a cow. You start with a small dog and progress to a cow.
When most people think of meditation, they picture themselves in a calm, peaceful state, but meditation is more than just being relaxed or peaceful. It includes deep concentration. A person who uses depressant chemicals like opiates or tranquilizers has a pretty good idea what it means to be relaxed but while she is relaxed she is very unfocused, in a fog. Stimulant chemicals such as cocaine or speed can produce a sense of being very focused, but you would be jittery as a June bug. Meditation is the combination of deep peace and clear-minded focus. The following is a basic meditation exercise in body awareness or body mindfulness that is used by a lot of meditation approaches.
Begin by taking a comfortable position laying on a mat or soft carpet. If it improves the comfort use a pillow or bolster to support your head or neck as you see fit. The goal is comfort with the middle areas of the body free to move so that breathing can proceed naturally. The room should be either dimly lit or dark. First take a deep breath through your nose and notice how your lungs fill with air. Take another deep breath and allow yourself to feel the sensation of your lungs expanding your chest, opening your chest up as it expands, to make room for the incoming air. Now place your fingertips gently on your belly. Let your belly become soft and loose. Now imagine that your belly is like a balloon or beach ball. As you inhale air through your nose, feel the beach ball growing larger as it fills with air. Notice how the air expands and inflates the beach ball. When the beach ball is full of inhaled air, allow the air to move naturally into the lungs. Take four or five breaths in this manner, filling the beach ball, allowing the air to rise up naturally into the lungs and then let go of the air as you exhale through your nose. Keep you attention on the opening up of the belly and lungs as you inhale and the closing up of the beach ball and lungs as you let go of the air through your nose.
Now letís work with concentration. Imagine that your focus or concentration is like a really good flashlight. Where ever you point the beam of the flashlight, in that place you can see very clearly, allowing you to make a close examination of the area in the spot of light. Begin by pointing the flashlight at your eyes and the area around your eyes and even the bridge of your nose. Just see what you find as you examine these areas with the light. Maybe, there is heaviness or scratchiness. Spend a time examining your eyes and the area around your eyes. Then as you inhale through your nose, let your belly fill with air and let the air rise up naturally into your lungs and then breath into and through your eyes and the areas around your eyes before you exhale through your nose. Notice your eyes and the area around your eyes opening up and expanding with your breath. Repeat this breath cycle, inhaling and then exhaling two or three times for each area that is explored. Next point the beam of your flashlight at your forehead. Allow the beam to move from temple to temple, seeing what you find along the way. Maybe you have a headache? Then, as you inhale through your nose, let your belly fill with air and let the air rise up naturally into your lungs and then breath into and through your forehead before you exhale through your nose. Notice your forehead opening up and expanding with your breath. Repeat this breath cycle two or three times. Next point the flashlight at the very top of your head and then make slow concentric circles with the spot starting from the center and moving outward. Just see what you discover as you explore your scalp. Maybe you will feel nothing at all or maybe you can feel your hair. Then, as you inhale through your nose, let your belly fill with air and let the air flow up into your lungs and then breathe into and through the top of your head before you let go the air through your nose. Notice the top of your head opening up and expanding with your breath. As you exhale, let go of the tension that you discovered in your exploration.†
Continue the above process moving down to your neck, then to your shoulders and back, first exploring an area with your flashlight and then breathing into and through each area two or three times and releasing the tense energy with the out breath. Pay special attention to the area opening up and expanding with your breath.† Eventually you will develop a pattern of moving around your body. Sometimes you will have enough time to make a very detailed exploration and other times your exploration will be more cursory. You may explore in a predetermined pattern or follow the sensations that seem to call out along your route. As a last cycle, allow the beam to spread out so that it takes in your entire body and then explore what your entire body feels like all at once. Then, as you inhale through your nose and your belly fills with air let the air flow naturally up into your lungs and then breathe into and through your entire body. Feel your entire body as it grows to fill the space around you, as it expands and opens up with your breath.
The next exercise, labeling the breath with a number, is recommended fairly often and focuses your attention on your breath from the moment you inhale the air through your nose until you exhale the air through your nose. Your Position or posture should be comfortable and capable of being sustained for 15-20 minutes. The most important feature of any position is that the spine should be as straight as it can be without discomfort so that the breath can flow freely. Some suggested examples are a kneeling meditation bench, a kneeling computer chair, laying on your back on a firm surface, sitting on a chair with your back straight without resting against the chair back or if you are able sitting cross-legged on a pillow on the floor, making sure that your buttocks are raised higher than your feet. Make sure that the position allows for you to breath freely and comfortably. Clothing should be loose so that nothing encumbers your stomach area that would interfere with breathing.
The following is premeditation warm up to test your position. Are you comfortable? Place the tips of your fingers on your stomach. Feel the natural movement of your stomach as you breath. Separate the breathing in from the breathing out. Feel how as you breath in your stomach rises and as you breath out your stomach descends. Imagine that your stomach is a beach ball. Imagine that as you breath in the beach ball fills with air. Imagine as you breath out that the beach ball empties of air. For a few minutes and without changing your natural pattern of breathing do this beach ball exercise. Notice when the breath is long, it takes longer to fill the beach ball. Notice when the breath is short, it takes less time to fill the ball. Check up. Are you comfortable? Is the breath flowing freely?
Place your hands in a natural position. You have noticed the separation of the in and out breath. Your breathing is natural and flows easily. If it is not, make any adjustments necessary to gain a comfortable, natural flow of the breath. The first step in beginning to meditate on the breath is to place your attention on your breathing. Notice the breathing in and the filling of the stomach area (the beach ball). Notice the breathing out and the deflating of the stomach area. Begin to count each successive out breath. As you breath in, notice that you breath in. As you breath out, notice that you breath out and count the out breath as one. As you breath in, notice that you breath in. As you breath out, notice that you breath out and count the out breath as two. As you breath in, notice that you breath in. As you breath out, notice that you breath out and count the out breath as three. As you breath in, notice that you breath in. As you breath out, notice that you breath out and count the out breath as four. Continue to count each successive out breath until you reach the count of ten. On the tenth count of the out breath, start the count over again at one and repeat until you get to ten. Continue counting out breaths to ten for approximately the first half to three quarters of the session. You will get better at figuring out where you are in a session as sessions pass.
While counting out breaths there will be a tendency to lose count. When you realize that you have lost count, simply return to counting by starting over at one. Your mind will wander. You will get lost in thought, but when you do very gently and without recriminations return to counting your out breathes. Counting keeps your attention on your breathing, but your mind will want to do what it is used to doing and it will resist. Donít get frustrated. Just notice that your mind has wandered and bring it back to the breath. Start the count over at one.
The idea is to breath naturally. This is not a breathing exercise, but a mind training (strengthening) exercise. You let the breath be itself, but as you breathe in you note that you are inhaling and as you breathe out you note that you are exhaling. After the exhalation is ended, you give it a number and repeat this process until you have counted up to ten. Once you get to ten, you start back at one.
Now this sounds pretty easy, but you would be amazed how hard it is to keep your mind on the task. The exercise is designed to help build concentration and the focus is the breath. When you lose count, you return to the breath and begin again. Basically, it is hard to count and think at the same time. Your mind will begin to drift to a thought or a plan and you just pull it gently back to the breath. You would think that the goal was successfully staying concentrated on the breath for prolonged periods of time, but this is deceptive. The activity of coming back to the breath is like weight lifting, the more you do it the stronger you get. It is the process of refocusing that is important not how long you can stop the thought flow. This exercise turns out to be very powerful because as you do it you become more and more concentrated until you can follow the breath without the count.
At about the half or three quarter point in your session, try to maintain the focus on your breathing without the count. Notice the in breath. Is it long or short? Notice the out breath. Is it long or short? Keep your attention on your breathing without counting. Instead of counting, label the in-breath as breathing in or just in and label the out breath as breathing out or just out. If the in-breath is long, label it long. If the in-breath is short, label it short. Do the same for the out-breath. Continue in this manner, labeling in and out breaths, until you become fluid at labeling the breaths.
Continue to follow the breath as it moves in and out, long and short, but without the labels. When your mind drifts, just like you did while you where labeling or counting, gently bring it back to the breath. When a thought, sensation, feeling or sound intrudes on your concentration on the breath, just label the thought, sensation, feeling or sound as thought, sensation, feeling or sound without your normal tendency to mull it over and then return to concentrating on the breath. If you find that your mind wandering is getting out of control, return to counting the breath as before. Once the concentration has been stabilized, try concentrating on the breath without the count again and continue to label thought, sensation, feeling or sound. Do this for the remainder of the session.
Working on all of the above in one session may be too much. Try just doing each part for a couple of weeks instead. Just count the breath until you get really good at counting the breath. Just label the breath in or out or long or short until you get really good at labeling the breath. After awhile, try following the breath without the count or the label. Finally, while following the breath without the count or labels, try labeling thoughts, sensations, feelings or sounds. Any of these techniques can be done separately or together. It is not unusual to do the counting the breath technique all by itself for years before moving on to other techniques.
I counted the breath religiously for over a year before I moved to the other labeling techniques. Whenever I would feel my concentration flagging or I lost focus during a session, I always returned to the count even if I was pursuing another meditation technique. While I rarely fall asleep when I meditate, I do become dreamy. Dreamy is inattentive, unfocused and meandering in a mindscape of formless mental objects which evaporate from memory when focus returns. For at least the first few years of my meditation practice, counting the breath was the place I would go to steady myself. At first, counting the breath was tedious. My mind fought against the repetitive, boring nature of the exercise. The mind wanted to be free of the constraints breath counting placed on it. It wanted to chatter, to bounce from thought to thought, to plan and worry. The way I worked with this resistance was to take frequent breaks, counting for a few cycles, then letting the mind return to its habitual ramblings and then returning again to the breath. Instead of forceful, I was patient, gentle and pliant, but steady. Each time I stayed a little longer on the breath.