Presence of Mind
His instructions were simple: "There is nothing to do. Just sit back, relax, and be present." Within minutes, I was anywhere but present, my mind like a ping-pong ball bouncing between thoughts about the past and thoughts about the future.
After a few years of studying with others who offered a little more in the way of technique, I came to realize that the state of meditation—what my old boyfriend described as doing nothing and enjoying a deep sense of presence—is different from the practice of meditation, which involves training the mind so that it can more readily slip into that state of meditation.
No doubt, you've experienced a meditative state even if you've never "meditated": It might have happened while you were walking in nature, making love, or looking into the eyes of a child—moments when all your worries and rambling thoughts lost their grip and you could just be. For a lucky few, that state of meditation is something easily available, to be slipped into spontaneously, any time. But it's likely that to enjoy that state on a regular basis and be able to access it whenever you want, you'll need to start with a regular meditation practice.
Many studies have pointed out the benefits of a regular meditation practice: It can ease anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and myriad other physical and mental health issues. It can increase creativity and productivity and foster a general sense of well-being. But the greatest benefit it offers may be freedom from the tyranny of thoughts that occupy the mind. You know, those negative thoughts that tell you that you aren't good enough, or that there's only one way to do something, or that he's wrong and you're right, or that you don't have time for yoga and meditation in your busy life.
Even the mundane thoughts about groceries, the project due next week, and the vacation you're hoping to take can trap you in an imagined future or a remembered past instead of allowing you to savor the richness of the moment.
But no matter how much we relish true presence, for most of us staying present for even a minute is challenging. That's why the meditation tradition has borne so many mind-focusing practices—tools that cultivate the conditions for a meditative state to arise more frequently and fully. These practices include focusing attention on the breath, reciting a mantra, or gazing unwaveringly at a candle flame. There are hundreds if not thousands of such techniques, all asking the mind to give up its independent, wandering ways and instead focus on the one task it has been given, no matter what other ideas come into it.
Of course, the mind will not easily drop its habit of thinking whatever it wants whenever it wants. In the early stages of your practice, you might want to approach your mind as if it were a toddler learning table manners. You wouldn't seat a two-year-old at a linen-topped table and expect her first meal to be a quiet, graceful affair. You have to repeatedly show her what to do, gently reminding her to focus on getting the food in her mouth and patiently asking her to settle down, before she can learn to restrain her impulse to throw carrots to the dog. Eventually, perhaps after years of loving reminders, she might sit with poise, employing the techniques you showed her those many, many times, and quietly enjoy a meal.
As you learn to meditate, your mind needs the same kind of love, attention, and care you would show your toddler. Its first attempts to stop its wild ramblings and to focus on one simple thing will likely bring up resistance. Your mind may be exhausted by a few minutes of focus, throw a temper tantrum, or try very hard to do as you ask but still wander off, since that's the life it's used to. Just sit with it, like your child at the table, acknowledging how well it's doing and noticing when it goes astray but never punishing it, just bringing it gently back to the task at hand. Don't expect it to get the hang of this new idea in just a sitting or two—but know that if you stay with it, your mind will become more and more able to stay focused and do as you ask.
In the Yoga Sutra, the sage Patanjali defined yoga as citta vritti nirodha, which, roughly speaking, means that when you cease to identify with your ever-changing thoughts, you experience the state of yoga: the heart, body, and mind unify, and you recognize your true nature. Meditation is a means of experiencing that.
Despite the oft-heard instruction to "still the mind," the practice is not meant to help you get rid of all your thoughts—and you wouldn't want it to. Your ability to think is, after all, one of the greatest gifts in life, something to truly cherish. You are simply training yourself to become more aware of your thoughts and, more important, of how you relate to them—a process that can change the very landscape of your life.
For example, as you become more conscious of the stories and emotions that your mind generates, you can begin to distinguish between thoughts based on fear and thoughts based on truth. "Before we train our mind in meditation, we tend to believe the stories in our mind, like 'I'm not good enough' or 'I'm better than everyone else,'" says Debra Chamberlin-Taylor, a meditation teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. "All these stories lead to suffering. As we learn to see clearly, and stop identifying with the noise of our mind, we discover an openness, ease, and peace with the way life is."
No single formula is guaranteed to drop you into a state of presence. But with regular practice, you can learn to access a meditative state no matter what is happening around you. And as you gradually learn how to stay present, you'll begin to see how contentment is not lived in some other idealized moment—it is right here in the center of your life.
A Simple Guide for New Meditators
Don't know where to begin with meditation? Take a step-by-step approach to building a regular practice. Like asana, meditation takes discipline. If your toes start to curl when you hear the D-word, redefine "discipline" as developing a positive habit. Begin by finding a quiet space and schedule a regular time to practice. It may be that early mornings work best because they occur before you get caught up in the busyness of the day. The simplest way to integrate meditation into your life is to follow your asana practice with pranayama (breathwork) and Savasana (Corpse Pose), and then sit back up in a comfortable position for meditation. Practicing the asanas themselves can also be a form of meditation. At the very least poses help to prepare the body and mind for meditation by taking you inward.
Then, take a moment to check in with where you are starting—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Ask yourself: What is my motivation for today's practice? Why do I want to cultivate focused attention anyway? It might be that you want to feel calmer at work or find some relief from a difficult time you're going through. Whatever your answer, make it an intention for your practice, imbuing your meditation with meaning.
The next step is to begin to train your mind to focus on, and stay with, one thing for an extended period. For seated meditation, you might either close your eyes or keep them slightly open, which would help keep you alert if you're a little sleepy. Various meditation techniques—like those presented on the following pages—train you to unify, calm, and center the mind and find focused attention. This attention will allow you to begin to see, but not get caught up in, the habits and patterns of your mind. With that comes the freedom to connect more fully with your deeper wisdom.
Of course, even the most seasoned meditators experience floods of thoughts. When the thoughts arise, gently and lovingly invite your mind to return to the technique you've chosen as an anchor for your attention. Once you begin to notice how out of control the mind is, you will learn to not take all of the thoughts that come up so seriously, and can start to develop compassion toward yourself. Some meditators liken this to the process of training a puppy. If you train a dog by beating it, it will become obedient, inflexible, and neurotic. If you train the little guy with kindness and firmness, your pet will learn confidence and trust. It takes time to develop a new habit, so be patient with yourself. Begin with 5 to 10 minutes and progressively build up to 30 to 45 minutes of quiet meditation. (You might find it helpful to use a timer so that you don't have to watch the clock.)
Try all of the practices—maybe devoting a week or more to each one—and see what works for you. Keep in mind that you are not trying to get anywhere, so don't get caught up in the techniques. They are simply tools; they are not the meditation itself. Meditation is ultimately a way of being with the present moment, exactly as it is, with an open heart and an open mind.
Just Breathe. Find a comfortable seated position and begin by observing your natural breath. Notice the texture, length, and rhythm as the breath flows in and out of your body. Feel the temperature of the air as it touches your nostrils. Take note, too, of pauses between breaths. As thoughts arise, note them, but then allow them to float by like clouds, gently bringing your attention back to the breath. If you find it difficult to concentrate, try silently counting. For example, inhale 1, exhale 1, inhale 2, exhale 2, up to 10, and then repeat the cycle. After a while, you can stop counting and just focus on your natural breath.
Mantra on the Mind. Traditionally, mantras are sacred words or syllables given by a teacher that are repeated as a means for awakening to the Divine. Working with sound is a powerful way to soften the critical mind and transform the energy of your internal dialogue. In yoga, Sanskrit sounds imbued with specific meanings are often used, but you can choose any sound or word that has meaning for you. You might try repeating the word shanti (peace) out loud as you exhale, and "peace" silently to yourself as you inhale. When thoughts arise, concentrate on the sound and the vibration of the sound in your body.
Try one of these techniques to learn concentration: a first step in experiencing meditation.
See the Light. Where the eyes go, so goes your attention. Tratak, a Sanskrit word that means fixed gazing, is the practice of staring at an object to steady the mind. Place a burning candle at eye level, about two feet away from where you are comfortably seated. Focus your gaze on the flame without blinking for about a minute, using the light as a focal point to return to when your mind wanders. Then close your eyes and visualize the flame at the point between your eyebrows, holding the image for as long as you can. When the image fades, open your eyes. Repeat the exercise three or four times. End your practice by rubbing your hands together until they heat up, and gently place your palms over your eyelids to bathe them in warmth.
Body Scan. This is a great technique to use if you have an injury or illness that makes it uncomfortable to sit. Lie on your back with your legs straight, or prop yourself up on pillows so that you are in a reclining position. Close your eyes unless you are sleepy, in which case you can keep your eyes open. Cultivate an alert but relaxed attention as you take a mental tour of the body. Bring awareness to each part of your body, starting with the big toe, each of the other toes, the ball of the foot, the arch. Continue in this detailed fashion to the top of your the head. Ask yourself: What tension do I feel? Where is there pain? Observe any sensations—warmth, coolness, tingling, dullness, compression, and spaciousness—as you move through the body. Notice your relationship to your experience: thoughts, images, and feelings as they arise and pass away. This is not an exercise in trying to change or judge the body, but to experience what is there. Meet what you find with friendliness and without resistance. The point is to train your mind to go where you want it to go.
Step Out. Walking meditation is great if you find you are too restless to sit still, and it can help widen your field of focus. Begin standing, bringing your attention to the bottoms of your feet and the contact of your feet with the surface beneath you. Lift one foot, noticing how your body weight shifts to the standing leg. Feel the standing foot spread itself over the ground. Going as slowly as you can, step forward, tracking the changes in the body as you move. Can you feel specific muscles contracting and others relaxing? At what point does your balance shift from the back leg toward the front leg? Each time your mind wanders, bring your attention back to your feet. Notice the environment around you—the colors, the scents, the textures, and any thoughts or feelings that arise—and keep bringing your attention back to the act of walking.
Sky Gazing. Nature is a powerful ally for meditation. Sometimes—when the computer crashes as you're facing a pressing deadline, or the car breaks down when you're short on money—it's easy to get caught up in the dramas of life and feel disconnected from your sense of presence. For this practice, find a place in nature where you have an uninterrupted view of the sky. Invite a soft gaze that allows you to have peripheral vision. Imagine you have eyes in the back of your head and have a 360-degree view. Take in the spaciousness of the sky and open to it. You are not looking for anything in particular. Instead, you're simply being with the spacious awareness as your thoughts appear and disappear. If you start to zone out, you can close your eyes and come back to your body and breath. Once you feel more connected, you can open your gaze again and keep some awareness in the body as you invite yourself back to the experience of spaciousness. Before returning to your daily activities, take a moment to ground yourself and reconnect to the earth.
In and Out. This practice helps you to cultivate concentration and a more spacious awareness during daily activities. Imagine that your attention has two lenses: a zoom lens and a wide-angle one. As you move through the various activities of your day, zoom in on a specific task or object and then zoom back out again. For example, while washing the dishes, notice the feeling of the water on your hands, zooming in on the sensation. Is it warm or cool? Where do you feel it the strongest? See if you can narrow your attention to the edges of where you feel the sensation. Then shift to a wide-angle lens. As you continue to feel all of the sensations in your hands, open to the space around you: the sounds in the room, the view in front of you, the space behind you, and the ground beneath you. Alternate back and forth between narrowing and widening your focus and notice how it affects your experience.
Life as Meditation. Connect with a more spacious awareness throughout the day with free-form meditations.
Janice Gates is founding director of the in San Anselmo, California.