Meditation: An Introductory Guide

We've all seen images of the Buddha, sitting cross-legged with a serene little smile on his face. And many of us have sat down to meditate, only to find that our anything-but-serene minds are jumping from one thought to another like a hyperactive toddler who ate all the coffee. This situation is normal, and it can be improved. This page is here to help with that.

What is Meditation?

First of all, meditation is a nice way to relax one's mind. This has always been important, but it's particularly necessary in this information age, when we're constantly being bombarded with info whether we like it or not. Our senses are constantly being stimulated, and our days are full of multitasking and many-tasking. Even if we have a nice way to relax our bodies, our minds are frequently tense and overworked. Meditation unties these mental knots, acting in the same way a massage will act upon the body. It creates a more peaceful mental environment that's less prone to anger, worry, insomnia and stress.

Meditation also offers a way to better understand our own minds. With practice we begin to notice which thoughts catch our attention most strongly, and which ones have the power to make us feel good or bad. We start to see how things like our physical health, our family background, the company we keep, and the media we consume are affecting our thinking. All this understanding is ultimately empowering, because it enables choice. Gradually, we learn to focus on peaceful and positive thoughts, creating a mind that's more familiar with happiness and more optimistic about the world and our lives.

With more mental relaxation and greater self-awareness, we tend to become more creative, more confident, and less likely to become upset about small things. We can concentrate better and thereby work more effectively. We are better able to communicate in relationships, so partners and family members can understand what's going on between our ears. And once we've explored our own minds with an attitude of understanding and compassion, that attitude naturally grows to include the minds of others.

All this sounds wonderful, but no one said it was easy. So here are some concrete tips on how to meditate well. Keep reading to see how to sit comfortably, and watch for more updates on how to develop concentration, gain insight, and create a healthy habit in the long term.


Finding a Comfortable Posture

If this sounds like a long shot, don't worry about it. There are plenty of options, and they're all easier and safer than the Buddha’s famous Full Lotus pose. Any posture where your spine is straight will do the job, so you can sit upright on a chair or even lie down. It's important to select a comfortable posture, because an uncomfortable one will keep demanding your attention, which will make it difficult to focus on your mind. So please sit as comfortably as possible. In the longer term, a regular yoga practice will strengthen your back and lengthen your hamstrings and hips, and that'll make those uncomfortable poses nice & cozy.

Here are several cross-legged sitting positions that you can try. The names have been given by the yogic tradition. For most people, the poses towards the left the top will be easier.

Sukhasana ("Pleasant Pose") is simple and effective. If it's not comfortable for you, scroll down look right for some non-cross-legged options.

In Siddhasana ("Skillful Pose") the knees are placed more widely, and one heel is placed in front of the other by the central lower body.

In Ardha Padmasana ("Half Lotus Pose") one ankle is placed on top of the other leg. The knees can be closer or farther apart to suit your taste.

In Swastikasana ("Auspicious pose"), the soles touch the rear thighs. The second foot tucks in from underneath after the first is ready.

Padmasana ("Lotus Pose") is reknowned for its compact stability. However it can be hard on the knees, so please be aware and take care.

If your hips are less flexible, you might feel yourself rolling backward in any of these poses, and you'll need some muscle tension to stay upright. The long-term solution is to develop flexibility through yogasana, i.e. through yoga poses. But for the shorter term, you can sit on a folded blanket or cushion or Zafu or block. When you elevate your hips to knee level or above, you allow your lower spine to rise straight up from where it meets your pelvis. It then becomes effortlessly stable like the tower of stones at right. With your hips below your knees, your spinal foundation will be tilted like the Tower of Pisa, and you’ll need tension in your stomach or hips or groins to stay upright. This tension will interfere with your meditation, so please try another posture or elevate your hips.

If you're sitting cross-legged and you feel discomfort in your ankles or knees, you can support them with folded towels or other props. Lift them up to the point where they’re not feeling a stretch. If your lower back gets tired or starts cramping, you’ll be tempted to sit with your back to a wall. This can be a nice treat, especially when you have less energy, but it's best not to make it a habit. The better solutions are the same as for tight hips: a cushion (regular or Zafu), more yoga poses (especially Shalabasan and Agni Stambhasan), or a different position like one of the following.

Vajrasana or “Diamond Pose” is well-known in Japan. The locals there call it Seiza and traditionally sit in it while eating. To make it extra cozy, you can put a small folded blanket under your ankle joints, place a pillow between your calves and thighs, place a cushion under your sitting bones, or do all of the above. You can even build a seiza bench. This pose is my personal favorite for long sittings, but of course every body is different, so try it out for yourself.

Sitting on a chair is fantastic! It’s easy and it’s just as effective for meditation as any other pose. No genuine yogi or meditator will look down on you for doing this. Meditation can and should bring benefit to everyone, whether or not they’ve got tight hips or weak backs or wounded knees. If you’re a goal-oriented person with your telescope set on Padmasana, but you’re not yet comfortable in Sukhasana, sitting on a chair will let you relax and accept the place where you are.

Finally, Savasana or corpse pose can be used for meditation as well. The trick here is to keep your meditation separate from sleep. If you can use this posture without becoming too drowsy or dull, then by all means go for it. If you’re doing this before bed, keep the meditation distinct from sleep by noting to yourself “I am now finished meditating” and allowing sleep to come from there.


Developing Concentration

This guide will be expanded in the future. Thank you for your patience!