Article by Joseph P. Kauffman
Many people are becoming aware of the benefits of meditation, but not everyone is aware of exactly how to meditate. There are thousands of different meditation practices, and so finding a practice that you enjoy may require some exploration and experimentation. However, all authentic meditation practices should help you to bring awareness to the present moment, to your mind, and to your true nature as the awareness that is observing. For this is the essence of meditation—to connect you with your true self, to awaken you from the suffering caused by negative thoughts, and to make you more aware of the present moment in which you are living. There are many visualization practices and guided meditations that can be wonderful to practice, but if they do not serve the purposes mentioned above, they are not likely to bring you true inner peace and freedom.
One type of meditation that helps us profoundly in cultivating a calm and peaceful mind is the practice of shamatha meditation. Shamatha (a Sanskrit word that means “peaceful abiding” or “tranquility”) is the foundation of Buddhist meditation practice, however, similar practices can be found in traditions around the world, and you don’t have to have any religious or philosophical beliefs to practice it. The purpose of shamatha meditation is simply to stabilize the mind by cultivating a steady awareness of the object of meditation. It is also commonly referred to as mindfulness or concentration meditation.
The traditional practice of shamatha uses different objects as the focus of practice, and eventually, continued practice leads to practicing without an object of support, which allows one to meditate on emptiness itself in a relaxed and open awareness. Shamatha is the foundation of Buddhist meditation practice because it stabilizes the mind, and it isn’t until the mind is quiet that we can really relax in the open awareness of our true nature.
Shamatha mediation allows us to experience our mind as it is. When we practice shamatha, we are able to see that our mind is full of thoughts, some conducive to our happiness and realization, and others that are not. It is not unusual that our minds are full of thoughts, and it is important to understand that it is natural to have so much happening in the mind.
Over time, practicing shamatha meditation calms our thoughts and emotions. We experience tranquility of mind and calmly abide with our thoughts as they are. Eventually, this leads to a decrease in unhelpful thoughts, and an ability to relax with our experience as it is, whether that involves thoughts or no thoughts.
Traditionally, the practice is done in what is known as the seven-point posture.
The seven point posture of Vairochana is an ancient set of posture points that are said to align the physical body with our energetic body. The posture has been practiced for thousands of years by Hindu and Buddhist yogis.
The seven points are:
- Sit cross-legged.
- Hands in lap or on knees.
- Have a straight back.
- Widen and relax the shoulders to open the heart center.
- Lower the chin.
- Allow the tongue to rest on the roof of the mouth.
- The eyes are then either gently closed or slightly open.
We all have different bodies and capabilities. So, it is important to adjust this demanding traditional posture to meet the needs of our own bodies, and not struggle to adapt our bodies to the posture. What is most important in terms of body posture is keeping the back and spine as straight as possible and remaining comfortable.
So, the seven points of a more body-sensitive posture could be:
- Sit on a cushion or a chair, stand, or lie down.
- Arrange your hands in any way that is comfortable.
- Hold your back as straight as possible.
- Keep your shoulders relaxed and chest open.
- Hold your head at whatever level is comfortable.
- Allow your jaw to be relaxed
- And Keep the eyes closed or open.
- Once your body is in a comfortable position, begin the practice by becoming aware of your breath. Notice the inhalation and exhalation as it comes in and out of your nose. You’ll notice that the breath is most likely more active in one nostril, if this is the case then focus on the sensations of breath as they come in and out of that nostril. If it is coming in both, focus on the sensations of breath entering and exiting both nostrils.
- As you notice the breath coming in and going out, continue to let go of thoughts as they arise. Each time you are distracted a thought, simply let it go and return your attention to the breath.
- Depending on your own mind, thoughts may be more or less active, you may be easily distracted or you may be able to keep your attention. Either way, keep the attention on the simple sensations of inhalation and exhalation. Be the gatekeeper of your nose, and do not let a single breath in or out without your awareness of it.
- If you get distracted and you happen to lose your focus, just notice that you got distracted, and kindly come back to the breath. There is no sense in judging yourself for getting distracted, but rather, rejoice in the fact that you are training the mind to be relaxed and attentive.
- Keep practicing in this way, breathing in, and breathing out, returning the attention to the breath whenever it gets distracted. As you do this over and over, you will gradually decrease the time of getting distracted, and increase the time you are able to just rest and observe the breath.
- Now, as you exhale, become aware of your breath escaping and dissolving into space.
- Experience the same thing with the inhalation. Breath is coming in and dissolving into space.
- Allow your awareness to mix into this open space with the breath on both the inhale and the exhale.
- Continue awareness practice, letting go of thoughts and returning to the breath. Do this for as long as you can.
If you are new to the practice, it helps to begin by doing shorter meditation sessions. Rather than trying to force yourself to sit for extended periods of time. Sit for 5 or 10 minutes at a time, and try to do so more frequently. Frequent, short sessions will improve the quality of your meditation and help you build confidence in your practice. Continue to lengthen the time as you feel comfortable, and eventually, once you discover the true peace and calm of just being and breathing in stillness, your meditation will become the most enjoyable part of your day.
However, don’t forget that meditation is not simply sitting for a few minutes or hours and then getting up and no longer practicing. Bring your mindfulness practice into your daily life, and observe your mind as it is in relationship to situations, people, and events. Because life is relationship, and meditation helps us to strengthen our relationship with ourselves, allowing us to be more present for all of the other relationships that we exist in.
May you find peace within yourself, and may you bring this peace into the world.