Meditation can, in theory, be practised anytime and anywhere – but it usually helps to choose a time and a place that is reasonably quiet and where you are unlikely to be disturbed or interrupted. It is not essential to meditate in a location that is completely silent. If it were, very few of us would do any meditating at all. But it does help, especially when starting out, to be in an environment that is reasonably quiet.
Sit comfortably, either on the floor or in a chair, in such a way that you feel you can remain reasonably still for as long as you intend to meditate – whether that be ten minutes, or half an hour – without needing to move unnecessarily. It will be much easier for our minds to settle down and be still if we can keep ourselves physically still as well. If possible, though it is not essential, try to sit with your back straight and unsupported, in a posture that feels both alert and relaxed at the same time.
You can have your eyes closed, or you can leave them open. Most people usually find it easier to meditate with their eyes closed, but if you prefer to keep your eyes open, just pick a spot somewhere on the floor in front of you and rest your gaze there.
One of the easiest ways to meditate is by using the simple, natural process of breathing in and out as something on which to focus your attention. Without breathing in any particular way, or trying to control the breath, but just breathing normally – neither fast nor slow – try to keep your attention focussed on your breathing. Be aware that as you breathe in you are breathing in, and that as you breathe out you are breathing out. You may be able to feel the breath at the tip of your nose, and notice the coolness of the air tickling your nostrils. You may be able to feel it in your abdomen as your chest rises and falls with each inhalation and exhalation.
Keep your attention focussed on the breath. This is easier said than done; the mind will almost certainly wander. So whenever you become aware that your attention has been stolen away and your mind has drifted away into some thought or fantasy – don’t worry about it, it’s normal – just take that as an opportunity to gently bring your attention back to the breath, back to the simple experience of being in the here and now. And carry on breathing in and breathing out…
Many people like to use a prayer word or mantra to help anchor the attention and keep the mind from wandering. Repeating a mantra in time with the breathing combines both techniques and can be very effective. A word or phrase of two syllables is often recommended, as this can more easily be coordinated with the breath – but there are other possibilities. It doesn’t have to be a word or phrase that means anything. In fact, there are certain advantages to using a mantra that has no obvious meaning, not least because we are less likely to be distracted by thinking about it.
In spite of what is often supposed, meditation is not about trying to stop the mind from thinking. Instead, as thoughts arise – which they will, because it’s just the nature of the mind to process the mental data we call thoughts – don’t try to suppress them, as this only generates more thoughts. Simply be aware of the thought, or the feeling it engenders – notice it – but without getting caught up in commentary and analysis. Try to cultivate a certain degree of cool detachment and step back from being the star of the movie in your mind. Just sit and watch the thoughts come and go, without getting caught up in the story, quietly observing them as they pass by like clouds on a breeze.
And breathe in and breathe out.