Sunday, March 8, 2009

Guidelines for Starting a Meditation Practice

I. Space: Where to Meditate
II. Posture: How to Sit in Meditation
III. Instruction for Mindfulness Meditation
IV. 5 Stages of Meditation (Traditional Formulation)
V. When and How Much to Meditate

I. Space: Where to Practice Meditation
The following are guidelines for those who would like to begin to meditate on their own at home, in addition to the guidance of teachers and the support of a community.

1. Choose a quite space in your home or in a safe environment.
2. Create some privacy, close the door or ask others for some alone time.
3. Turn off any cell phones and other electronic devices such as radios or TV’s.
4. Clean and tidy the space, as this will help put the mind at ease.
5. Make the space pleasing to the senses, meaningful or sacred by arranging flowers, lighting candles or incense, setting up pictures or statues of inspiring people or places and making offerings and gestures of gratitude. This helps to demarcate the meditation space from ordinary space.

II. Posture: How to Sit in Meditation (from the 7 point Vairochana Posture)

In the beginning comfort is more important than form. The form includes:

1. If seated on the floor, place your legs in full or half lotus position or just crossed them in front of you. The right hand is placed in the left hand, palms facing upwards, with the tips of the thumbs gently touching. If seated in a chair, place your feet flat on the ground and hands folded in your lap.
2. Eyes are half open gazing softly at the space a foot or so in front of you. This will help prevent you from falling asleep. If restless, trying closing the eyes completely to help the mind begin to relax.
3. Keep your spine erect like a stack of coins, upright but not ridged. This will help keep you stay alert. Position your meditation cushion beneath your rear to raise the spine and tilt forward the pelvis. If in a chair come forward slightly with your back away from the back of the chair and your rear at the front half of the seat.
4. Shoulders are even and relaxed. Be mindful of hunching and slouching.
5. Dip your chin down slightly.
6. Keep a relaxed space between lips and teeth, and do not clench the jaw.
7. Rest you tongue softly on the roof of your pallet.

III. 5-Point Instruction for Mindfulness Meditation

1. Begin with reflecting on your spiritual aspiration for your life in general and clarifying your intention to meditate in particular. The more specific your intention the clearer the direction for your mind.
2. Select the object upon which you will focus your awareness (ie. the breath, sensations, emotions, sounds, consciousness, a specific theme, a visual object etc.)
3. Breath diaphragmatically in order to trigger the relaxation response. After a short period you can allow the breath to settle into a natural rhythm.
4. Once you realize you have been distracted from the mediation object, return your awareness back to the focus with an attitude or disciplined determination and non-judgmental care, patience and friendliness.
5. Seal your meditation with a dedication, recommitting your energies toward your initial aspiration. Here again, be specific as to what you will dedicate your energy towards during your between meditation period in everyday life.

IV. 5 Stages of Meditation (Traditional Tibetan Buddhist Approach)

1. Preparation: The mind is prepared by a number of activities including reflection on refuge, aspiration, four-immeasurables, visualizing the field of merit, seven-limb prayer, mandala offering, and other prayers.
2. Contemplation: Reflecting on a particular theme from the Stages of the Path Literature (Lam Rim) such as the “preciousness of human life” that motivates your practice. Select an object of meditation based on the contemplative theme or stage in the progression.
3. Meditation: Can include any combination of techniques: Analytic contemplation, single-pointed concentration, and visualization.
4. Dedication: Dedicate the positive force or energy (aka merits) generated by the practice to one’s own or to another’s spiritual awakening, before the potency is destroyed by afflictive emotions.
5. Between Sessions: Reflect on and try to assimilate the meaning of the particular meditative theme or topic as it relates to your daily activities and life.

V. When and How Much to Meditate

1. In general it is advised to meditate first thing in the morning when the mind is fresh and well rested. Practically speaking however, consider when your own energy level is optimal and when you have the time in your schedule.
2. In the beginning, commit to slightly less meditation time than you think you should do. Once you’ve decided on length of time, follow through without exception. Quality, consistence and follow through are more important that duration. Ideally you should end meditation while you are still enjoying it so that you desire to return to practice the next day. This is called ‘developing a taste for the practice’. If meditation becomes a drag to early, chances are you will abandon the practice altogether. Try starting with 5-10 minute intervals working up towards 25-30 minute periods. Most research suggests that 30 minutes of daily practice over 8 weeks results in various health benefits.
3. Consistency is important. Better to do a little meditation every day than to do a long stretch once or twice a week.
4. Remember that meditation alone does not constitute the entire contemplative path. Balance your meditation practice with readings, attending lectures, participating in discussions and debate with others, and spending time reflecting on the significance of spiritual themes in your own life. For more on this see the Fourth of the Four Noble Truth in an earlier post.

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