You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you are too busy; then you should sit for an hour.
– Old Zen Saying
Being mindful of the world around you, and especially your own mind, is surprisingly difficult. But once you do you become more aware of your thoughts, and the patterns of those thoughts, you will be able to exert more control over yourself.
By focusing inward you become aware of self-doubt, self-criticism, and rationalization, and are eventually able to recognize whether those thoughts are valid. This is why methods to focus inward, including meditation, are used extensively by mental health professionals. There can even be a physiological response, with some research showing that meditation leads to a reduction in age-related brain deterioration.
Meditation is not prayer, it is not religious, and it is not contemplation. However it can augment those activities when combined with them. Many organizations have begun to recognize the power of mindful meditation to reduce stress, deprogram multitasking tendencies, and improve focus, such as Google, Aetna, General Mills, Intel, and Target. Intel participants have reported a twenty percent decrease in stress, a thirty percent increase in overall happiness and well-being, and a twenty percent increase in new ideas, ability to focus, and quality of work relationships.
To start a meditation practice, find a time of the day when you won’t be disturbed or distracted. I personally prefer right after I get up, before breakfast and definitely before I check email or read the paper. If you put it off, you will never get to it. Trust me.
Find a quiet location with few distractions – for me it is a corner of my downstairs office. Traditional meditation is sitting cross-legged on a zafu or small cushion, however this is not a requirement. Whether on a chair or a cushion, it is important to sit upright with your body balanced. I prefer to face the wall to further reduce distractions, and I use a timer app on my iPad so I won’t be distracted by wanting to check the clock.
Rest your hands in your lap, look downward, eyes opened and focused downward a few feet away. Keeping your eyes open helps you remain present, but if you need to initially close your eyes to remove distractions, go ahead. Take a slow, deep breath and feel it enter, then exit, the lungs. Count the breath.
Acknowledge and accept the thoughts that will inevitably enter your head, acknowledge them, then cast them aside by refocusing on your breathing. You will be surprised at how difficult it is to even count to ten without having an extraneous thought. You will learn to enjoy the simple breathing, the serenity it creates, and the joy of realizing that breathing means you are alive.
Initially try this for just two or three minutes, eventually working up to ten or fifteen. When you find you can regularly count ten breaths without distraction, stop counting and just count in, out, in, out, 1, 2, 1, 2. Otherwise you will get too caught up in the counting itself.
After a week or a month, if you are comfortably counting breaths, try adding some concentration to the practice. As you breathe in, consciously follow the breath from your mouth to the depths of your lungs, and then do the reverse as you exhale. Take several seconds to inhale and exhale, deliberately being conscious and aware. Feel the breath oxygenate your blood, notice how your heart beat changes, feel the breath take the turn at the top of your throat. As before, if your mind wanders, recognize the thoughts, dispatch them, and return to your breath.
When you are ready to go further, perhaps when both breathing exercises are fairly effortless for twenty or thirty minutes, you can add whole body awareness. As you breathe in and out, following the breath, start at the top of your body and work your way down. Be aware of each itch and each pain, and identify their exact location. What do you feel when you mentally explore the itch instead of scratching? When you reach the tips of your toes, work your way back up. Over time you’ll be amazed at how you can feel sensations you never felt before, how itches can move, and how you begin to recognize the wonder that is your body. You will also learn how you can remove muscle tension and stress just by recognizing it.
It took me well over a month to work up to just fifteen minutes. When you reach that point you will notice a significant improvement in serenity and calmness, which will help reinforce your practice by offsetting the effort it initially takes. My current daily practice is twenty-five minutes. If I’m stressed, I force myself to find time for an hour – although I still cannot keep my mind clear for that length of time.
A couple times a week I will also do kinhin – walking meditation – on the beach near our house. Although it’s technically used as a walking break between periods of sitting meditation, I find it to be a break from the routine and a powerful bonding with nature. Walking meditation is very similar to sitting meditation except that you take one step per breath, still focusing on your breathing, thoughts, and body. I also enjoy doing it barefoot to add additional sensory inputs, and a closer sense of connection to the Earth.
Meditation is the easiest way to calm the mind and become more in touch with the present reality. You will notice yourself becoming more perceptive, calm, and present in professional situations as well. This is why many organizations, sports teams, and health professionals are encouraging their team members to meditate.
Try it for a few days. How do you feel? How do your thoughts change? There are more tips on how to meditate in the online resources.