Meditation Basics

How to Sit

There are seven points to the proper posture when meditating.

  1. Legs. If possible, sit in the lotus position, but only if you can do so comfortably. If not, try the half-lotus or sit cross-legged, or you can sit upright in a chair.

  2. Spine. The spine should be as straight as possible.

  3. Shoulders. The shoulders should be even.

  4. Hands. The right hand should rest atop the left hand, palms up. Your thumbs lightly touch. If possible, your hands rest about four inches below the navel. Your arms are relaxed; they do not touch the sides of your body. About an egg’s width should remain between arm and torso. The shape your hands make symbolizes the dharmakaya or "truth body." If it’s hard to hold your hands below your navel, it’s okay to rest them on your lap or on a pillow in your lap.

  5. Eyes. Your eyes are slightly open, but not focused, their aim following your nose, looking a little downward. If your eyes were focused, you would be gazing at the tip of your nose.

  6. Mouth. Your lips are relaxed, almost smiling.

  7. Tongue. Your tongue touches your upper palate; this prevents thirst and drooling.

Most important of all is keeping your spine straight. You will be more comfortable and energy will flow freely. A straight spine also allows your chest to be open. This helps to ensure clarity of mind. Your body has psychic energy channels. The proper posture for meditation allows energy to move throughout your body. These energies are influenced by the activities of the mind. If your energy flow is smooth and uninterrupted, your mind can remain calm.

Simply sitting in this posture does not mean you are meditating though.

Focusing the Mind

In meditation, your mind does not do three things.

1. Your mind does not engage in responding to external activities. For example, when a sound is heard, you leave it alone; you don’t start wondering about it or respond to it.

2. Your mind is not entertaining thoughts. You are not remembering or fantasizing.

3. You are not engaging in inner dialogue or inner chattering. Thus your mind is not wandering; it’s not roaming like a mad dog with no specific destination.

Your mind’s focus is inward, but your mind is not numb, nor is it sluggish or dull. Your mind is fully alert, awake, fresh with awareness, ready to detect, but not detecting. Meditation is not a means to blocking or numbing the mind. And it’s not easy. If someone says meditation is easy, that person is not meditating. You need lots of training, years and years. But in a few weeks or months, if you spend 20 minutes a day practicing, you can realize benefits. That’s because meditation is mind training, and you can improve the quality of your awareness through practice, through training your mind to focus.

Ordinarily, we learn through applying concepts. We have a concept of what a glass is and apply that to every glass we see. Through meditation, we improve the quality of our mind and its awareness and become able "to know" beyond our concepts, to know something as it is, without adding value or subtracting value.

We know our world through the conceptual process. We impose on objects our expected match of object and concept of that object. We "see" an object in the way we think of it. This is a fundamental cause of our emotional problems, and meditation can help us stop this. Our mind is always imposing on reality, never exposed to reality.

Meditation can train us so that we can be exposed to reality.

Questions and Answers

Question: What is the difference between shamata meditation and vipassana meditation?

Answer: Shamata is single-pointed meditation. Vipassana is meditation with a 360-degree awareness.

Question: I have problems with thoughts, thoughts, thoughts.

Answer: The very purpose of shamata meditation is single-point focus. That means unusual concentration. When your concentration becomes strong or stable, you no longer need to make a conscious effort. In order to reach that stage, you need to cultivate a single-point focus. To do that, we use objects of meditation. Objects of meditation direct the single-point focus of mind. We cultivate an object of meditation so we can stay focused for longer and longer periods of time. Your thoughts keep coming because you don’t know the purpose of the focal point.

Anything can be the object of meditation. In general there are four kinds.

1. An object you can feel or touch. Buddhists often use the image of Buddha for two reasons: They have taken refuge in the Buddha, dharma and sangha and see Buddha as the source of refuge.

2. Light. A one-pointed light can be used. Imagine a tiny, fingernail-size light, very intense, like the hot, white light from a spark, at the level of your forehead and four inches away from you.

3. Sound. This is not an external, physical sound, but a mental, internal sound, never-changing in pitch. The sound shouldn’t have a specific meaning to you because you don’t want to generate thoughts.

4. Mantric seed syllables. Om is the universal sound. Ah is also good to use.

Using a focal object gives you confidence, familiarity with a method to attaining single-point focus, lessens thoughts, and offers better concentration. Without a focal object, there isn’t any way to cultivate a strong, sure focus. Without a focal object, you could have a mental state without thoughts, what we call a thoughtless state of mind or a blank state of mind. But you wouldn’t have any possibility of cultivating single-point focus or improving the quality of your mind.

And that’s the goal of meditation, improving the quality of your mind to improve the quality of your daily life.

Just achieving a blank mind in meditation might help you to feel calm and good for a little while after meditation, but won’t help you deal with reality. The main goal of meditation is to transform your whole way of living, to transform daily life, to be more productive every day of your life. If you don’t use a focal object, your mind will not be occupied with one specific object. Consequently, two things will be missing.

1. Mental clarity will be absent. With mental clarity, your mind is lucid.

2. Mental stability will be absent. This refers to more than not thinking or not wandering in your thoughts. When your mind is stable, you aren’t chasing after every sensory input. Instead, your mind is at rest, staying with one purposefully chosen object.

Many of us, when we begin meditating, don’t understand the purpose of the object of meditation. We fail to use it in a proper way, and many thoughts come to interrupt us. However, it’s good to be aware of how many thoughts we have rushing around our mind when we first try to sit in meditation. The workings of your mind are revealed, and you understand why it’s important to bring your own mind under control.

At some point, you will realize your meditation is being interrupted less often by intrusive thoughts. It’s a good sign when you realize you are not letting your mind do whatever it wants to do, when you can, instead, use your mind for a spiritual purpose.

Question: When I start to meditate, all my anxieties rise up. Would saying a mantra help?

Answer: Saying a mantra that protects the mind would be good initially. Reciting it would help the mind slow down. But ultimately, you need to learn to meditate without a mantra.