Letters

Musings on Meditation and How to Start

Dear Friends, 

In my latest advice column, I promised you a post about the basics of meditation. Meditation has been written on many times over by people far more qualified than myself to give you instructions, so rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ve decided to share some links, some book recommendations, and a little of my own experience with you. 

The first book I read on meditation was Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck. I found it on my sister’s book shelf while she was in college and I was in the habit of raiding her room for books and CDs. That would have made me about 14 and not the greatest judge of books, but I’ve always trusted books to find their way into my life at the right time. Everyday Zen is a practical and approachable book that demystifies zen practice, and it remains the first one I recommend to anyone who asks about meditation. 

There were other books I stumbled on in my parents’ house that were not about meditation specifically, but which helped cultivate a state of mind that would be open to learning to practice. The Prophet by Khalil Gibran felt significant to me because it takes spiritual problems (anger, jealousy, greed, and other human flaws) out of a religious-specific context and discusses them with a thoughtful, compassionate, universal perspective. Another book that was impactful was the Tao of Pooh, which I found while rummaging through my older brother’s closet. Later, I would read the Tao te Ching itself, which is not a long or difficult read, although it’s dense in its own way. These works are not about the kind of seated meditation we typically think about when discussing a meditation practice, but they’re about living in a meditative or mindful way.

Yogic meditations are pretty different from Buddhist practices, and they sometimes include visualizations or mantras that are customized for an individual’s current state of development, however the most basic practices are generally suitable for anyone. The core of most yogic techniques involves training the awareness on the breath. As a beginner, you can focus on counting (i.e. Inhale: one, exhale: one. Inhale: two,  exhale: two… and so on) or timing your mantra with your breath (i.e. Inhale: So. Exhale: Hum). Some yogic practices focus more heavily on technique whereas Zen practice tends to strip away any technique or tool that one might get attached to. Though there may be disagreements between folks who prefer one approach over the other, my opinion is that any form of meditation is better than none. 

The reason I recommend meditation so strongly is that without basic self awareness, much of the self work we do goes to waste. We may be trying very hard to be good people and do the right thing, but if we never sit quietly with our own minds, we never really know what we’re working with. Self work without any reflection or mindfulness is like searching for something extremely important in an oversized purse you haven’t emptied in years. We reach into ourselves to see what needs attention, and we find a jumble of old, unprocessed feelings, crumpled up memories, crumbs of good times past, and of course, all the most important stuff (keys, wallet, true identity) have been buried at the bottom under all the trash we keep casually tossing in. Daily meditation practice is like emptying the bag, tossing out what we no longer need, and leaving the house with only the essentials. It’s freeing. 

Meditation supports our personal development because it trains us to stay in the present moment rather than thinking about what should be, what once was, or what we hope will be. While many mental illnesses are rooted in our genetic makeup, they are often exacerbated by our tendencies to obsess, to judge, and to cling. Meditation practice asks us to let go of all that in order to stay in the present. One of the most beautiful payoffs of practice is the moment when you find yourself in conflict and you have the presence of mind to realize, “I can choose to hold on to this anger or not.” That single moment of awareness in which you have the power of choice can change everything. 

I hope you’ll take the time to learn about some different approaches to meditation and find one that suits you. The general recommendation is not to hop from one style to another at random but to pick one practice and do it consistently. Below are more articles and instructions on meditation. Test out a few, then settle on one you can commit to doing daily. Even five minutes of practice each day can make a huge difference.

It may be hard to practice consistently at the beginning, but they say no progress made through meditation is ever lost. So if you miss one day, just pick up again the next day. If you totally forget about it for a week or a month, then when you remember again, just say to yourself, “Why don’t I sit down right now and enjoy being quiet?” And ta-da! You’re meditating.

Lots of love to all of you~

Mary

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