This article is intended to teach the basics of meditation, while allowing for further exploration on the part of the practitioner when they feel they're ready.
I believe that there are three elements of meditation, each with an associated sub-element. Each is equally important.
- There is Breath, and posture.
- There is Focus, and visualization.
- There is Stillness, and space.
Note that I have said nothing about relaxation. This is because relaxation is merely a means of entry into meditation. It allows you to breathe better; it can help improve your posture; it helps you clear your mind to create personal space and stillness; and with that clarity allows you to focus and visualize better. Relaxation is important, but not a necessary element - once you understand the basis of meditation and have practiced regularly for a while, entering the trance state is possible even when tense and under stress; in fact, meditation often keys us into relaxation due to repeated association and the need to release all tensions in order to enter trance.
This essay will be broken into several sections. Above is the introduction. Next follows the explanation of each element and sub-element. Finally, I will provide an exercise which helps teach each element in turn.
In order to meditate, you must breathe fully, from the diaphragm. Breathing through the nose can be encouraged as a means to notice your breath and focus on it. Note that beginning lessons in meditation often have breath as their focus, so that learning to breathe properly forms a grounding basis in everything else you will learn.
Proper breathing stirs the air throughout your lungs and your body. It carries more necessary chemicals (like oxygen) into your blood with each intake, and removes more byproducts with each release. Breathing through your nose is not only more noticeable, but allows your nose and sinuses to do their job of preparing each incoming breath to meet your lungs. If you use incense or smudges of any kind, breathing through your nose also allows these scents to more thoroughly contact your smell receptors, which can trigger conscious or subconscious associations. You can use your mouth, but I generally don't unless I can't breathe through my nose at the time.
Meditation can be performed on limited breath, and in some cases it may be necessary. In fact, some meditative exercises require small or shallow breaths. The lesson in these tends to be one of self-control.
Deep breaths will also tend to push your back into a more correct alignment, as long as your ribcage isn't out of whack. This is both useful and important, and one of the reasons I place posture as a sub-element of breath. The other reason is that posture is not as important to meditation, so long as you can provide the primary elements.
Proper posture allows your body to circulate all its fluids and energies cleanly. It allows your joints to settle into a natural position. It supports you should you step out of your body. It helps you relax, and thus release the various aches you may have which can detract from your focus and stillness. I note that a lot of people tend to have their heads shoved forward and shoulders slumped no matter what they're doing. This contributes to stress on the body, and encourages degenerative effects: you're going to turn into a hunchback or suffer from degenerative neck problems as you get older, if you don't straighten up and push your head back.
Good postures can be found in any position: standing, sitting, lying, leaning, and so on. Posture has more to do with how you hold your body, than with the things surrounding you.
Focus is the point of the meditation, the goal. If you cannot keep your goal in mind, at least use it as the stepping-off and possibly returning point for your thoughts. When I meditate with a focus in mind, often that focus provides insight or is accomplished much more easily. If you meditate without any specific focus, your meditations are more of an exercise in patience than anything else. I believe that meditation is not about patience; it is about wisdom and understanding, though you may need great patience in order to acquire that understanding.
Examples of focus might be proper breathing or posture, creating space and stillness, or more likely winning a competition or finding your way when lost on the road.
Visualization is a sub-element of focus, in part because a strong focus creates its own images; and because I have performed meditation and workings with an absolute minimum of it. However, if you're preparing for something, like a display or competition or other complex procedure, then visualizing a perfect attempt will help you accomplish it: match your actions to the perfected visualization, and you should succeed.
Understand that even a truly perfect visualization should not replace your good judgement. Things happen, things change. The ability to adapt and compensate when factors outside your control change the scenario will separate the champions from the laborers. Still, even this is something which can be visualized and practiced for, though you'll never cover every possibility. I've been caught flat-footed at some of the most obvious things (like being asked "What special talent do you bring to this job?" in an interview).
I went back and forth for a bit, trying to decide whether space or stillness was the primary element here. The answer was simple: space does not create stillness, but stillness creates space. If you are still in mind or body, then no matter where you are, there will be a private space formed around you and within you. Others may attempt to impinge on that space, but ultimately you can preserve it within yourself.
Stillness, the release of stress and pains, the quieting of mind, will create clarity. If you are still in mind, then it tends to become easier to sort through all the things that are bothering you. If you are still in body, then you tend to become physically balanced, often more stable and/or ready to take the next appropriate action.
Some people like to move. They pace or they drum their fingers or they bounce their feet. These people may need to have an object or activity, such as a drum or a deck of cards, on which they can focus until they are still.
Remember that stillness is a part of you, something that you are and do and create.
Stillness in your environment can also be appropriate, but that's more a part of space. You might have a favorite location you like to be in, or a particular thing which you prefer to have with you, when meditating. There might be a certain kind of sound or scent you like to use. You may want to have people or things a certain distance from you.
Space is not necessary if you have a deep understanding and command of stillness, but having a good environment for meditation is generally conducive to good meditation. Minimal distractions, a clean area, good energy if you can sense it... these can encourage a fruitful session. Having a space set aside just for workings and meditation is a good idea.
Putting it all together
A meditation which teaches meditation
Set aside a certain amount of time. Half an hour or an hour is generally good. It doesn't matter exactly how long you give yourself, as long as you understand that this will take time before, during and after. You will be reflecting and understanding more of yourself during this exercise. It might be helpful to record this exercise in audio form and play it back or have someone read it aloud to you as you practice (read slowly and deliberately and give plenty of time to explore). Make sure any noisy or demanding people are not going to bother you during this time.
Find a good place to settle yourself. Sit, stand, or lie down; do so in a comfortable position, somewhere that lets you relax without necessarily falling asleep. Note that sitting or lying is preferred if you have a tendency to fall when fully relaxed. A good position when standing would be with feet somewhat apart. In any position, you should generally shoulders squared, back straight and body aligned so that there is even pressure on your joints. Remember that deep breaths will help you straighten up; remember to keep your head back if you can so that it's properly balanced on the spinal column.
Once settled, focus inward, on yourself. Closing your eyes can be helpful in creating visual space. Try to breathe through your nose. Breathe in quickly, letting your belly push out somewhat as your ribs and diaphragm work together to pull air into your body. Fill your lungs as deeply and fully as you can for that first breath. Release it naturally, just letting your muscles relax so that the air flows from you without effort.
Let your breath guide you. Feel the air travelling through your body. Experiment if you like, breathing quickly or slowly, shallow or deep, through nose or mouth, paying attention to how you feel with each breath. Thoughts may come to you, but acknowledge them and release them. You have time. You have yourself, which is everything you need for this moment. Things come when they are ready. You don't have to answer the telephone right away.
If you continue to be distracted by your thoughts, you can try tensing and relaxing all of your muscles in a slow progression: from toes up, from head down, out from or in to your center. This will help your body to relax further, and allow you to move closer to stillness.
Once you have found your best, most relaxing breath, maintain it. Breathe, in and out. Let the breath envelop you. Your breath, your power fills this space. It supports and invigorates you. In the midst of all that surrounds you is you and your breath. Envision your breath, wispy or solid, cloudy, clear, strands or dots or simply motion in space. It is yours, and while there are lots of options, deep down within you do know the best image to use at this time. It is yours, and mingles with all the air and energies around.
Explore these concepts. You don't have to understand right away, just examine them and how you feel about them. Eventually, when you are ready, come away. Return to yourself, your solid self. You are you. You are awake.
Note: When finished, you may be so relaxed that it will be difficult to move without encouragement. Take some time to continue relaxing; stretch your limbs, then start to pull them in so that you can lever your way upright again. An outside alert such as a timer or telephone going off, or someone offering a hand to help you up, can be very helpful in being able to get up and act in the outside world again.
You can engage in this exercise pretty much as often as you like (I'd suggest about once a week for beginners), though I wouldn't recommend more than about once or twice a day at the most. This is because during meditation you will tend to connect to your unconscious and emotional self and discard rationality, and you will normally need time in between sessions to examine your experiences with your rational mind and make logical connections between them. The amount of time varies depending on experience; for beginners (and sometimes even for experienced practitioners), it may take weeks or months for the entire experience to sink in. In my case, some lessons took years - over a decade - before I understood enough to know what I needed to know.