STRAIGHTFORWARD AND SIMPLE (but not easy), meditation is essentially training our attention so that we can be more aware—not only of our own inner workings but also of what’s happening around us in the here and now. Once we see clearly what’s going on in the moment, we can then choose whether and how to act on what we’re seeing.
People have been transforming their minds through meditation for thousands of years. Every major world religion includes some form of contemplative exercise, though today meditation is often practiced apart from any belief system. Depending on the type, meditation may be done in silence and stillness, by using voice and sound, or by engaging the body in movement. All forms emphasize the training of attention.
ATTENTION, ATTENTION, ATTENTION
The content and quality of our lives depend on our level of awareness—a fact we are often not aware of. You may have heard the old story, usually attributed to a Native American elder, meant to illuminate the power of attention. A grandfather (occasionally it’s a grandmother) imparting a life lesson to his grandson tells him, “I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is vengeful, fearful, envious, resentful, deceitful. The other wolf is loving, compassionate, generous, truthful, and serene.” The grandson asks which wolf will win the fight. The grandfather answers, “The one I feed.”
But that’s only part of the picture. True, whatever gets our attention flourishes, so if we lavish attention on the negative and inconsequential, they can overwhelm the positive and the meaningful. But if we do the opposite, refusing to deal with or acknowledge what’s difficult and painful, pretending it doesn’t exist, then our world is out of whack. Whatever doesn’t get our attention withers—or retreats below conscious awareness, where it may still affect our lives. In a perverse way, ignoring the painful and the difficult is just another way of feeding the wolf. Meditation teaches us to open our attention to all of human experience and all parts of ourselves.
THE THREE KEY SKILLS
All forms of meditation strengthen and direct our attention through the cultivation of three key skills—concentration, mindfulness, and compassion or lovingkindness.
Concentration steadies and focuses our attention so that we can let go of distractions. Distractions waste our energy; concentration restores it to us. The introductory meditation technique you’ll learn is uncomplicated and yet powerful: You’ll improve your concentration by focusing on something you’ve known how to do all your life—breathing. The practice entails paying attention to each in-and-out breath, and when your mind wanders (it will, that’s natural), noticing whatever has captured your attention, then letting go of the thought or feeling without berating yourself for it. You then return to focusing on your breathing. In this way meditation trains us to stay in the moment before us instead of reliving the past or worrying about the future. And it teaches us how to be gentle with ourselves and others, to forgive our lapses and move on.
Mindfulness refines our attention so that we can connect fully and directly with whatever life brings. Mindfulness meditation moves our focus from a single object, the breath, to anything that’s happening inside or outside of us at a given moment. We practice observing thoughts, feelings, sights, smells, sounds, without clinging to what’s pleasant, pushing away what’s painful, or ignoring what’s neutral. And we become adept at catching ourselves in the act of substituting our habitual knee-jerk responses for a more accurate assessment of what’s really going on in the present.
Lovingkindness is compassionate awareness that opens our attention and makes it more inclusive. It transforms the way we treat ourselves, our family, and our friends. Spending time paying careful attention to our thoughts, feelings, and actions (positive and negative) and understanding them opens our hearts to loving ourselves genuinely for who we are, with all our imperfections. And that’s the gateway to loving others. We’re better able to see people clearly and to appreciate them in all their complexity if we’ve learned to care for and appreciate ourselves. We might then be more inclined to wish them well instead of becoming irritated, to let go of past hurts and deepen a connection to a relative—to offer a friendly gesture to someone we might previously have ignored, or find a better way to deal with a difficult person.
You’ll rediscover a deeper sense of what’s really important to you. Once you look beneath distractions and conditioned reactions, you’ll have a clearer view of your deepest, most enduring dreams, goals, and values.
You’ll have a portable emergency resource. Meditation is the ultimate mobile device; you can use it anywhere, anytime, unobtrusively. You’re likely to find yourself in situations—having a heated argument at work, say, or chauffering a crowd of rambunctious kids to a soccer game—when you can’t blow off steam by walking around the block, hitting the gym, or taking a time-out in the tub. But you can always follow your breath.
You’ll be in closer touch with the best parts of yourself. Meditation practice cultivates qualities such as kindness, trust, and wisdom that you may think are missing from your makeup but are actually just undeveloped or obscured by stress and distractions. You’ll have the chance to access these qualities more easily and frequently.
You’ll recapture the energy you’ve been wasting trying to control the uncontrollable. Recognizing what we can’t control (the feelings that arise within us; other people; the weather) helps us have healthier boundaries at work and at home—no more trying to reform everyone all the time. It helps us to stop beating up on ourselves for having perfectly human emotions. It frees energy we expend on trying to control the uncontrollable
You’ll understand how to relate to change better—to accept that it’s inevitable and believe that it’s possible. Trying to avoid change is exhausting and stressful. Everything is impermanent: happiness, sorrow, a great meal, a powerful empire, what we’re feeling, the people around us, ourselves. Meditation helps us comprehend this fact—perhaps the basic truth of human existence, and the one we humans are most likely to balk at or be oblivious to, especially when it comes to the biggest change of all: Mortality happens, whether we like it or not.
CORE MEDITATION: BREATHING
This classic meditation practice is designed to deepen concentration by teaching us to focus on the in and out breath.
Sit comfortably on a cushion or a chair. Keep your back erect, but without straining or overarching. (If you can’t sit, lie on your back, on a yoga mat or folded blanket, with your arms at your sides.)
You don’t have to feel self-conscious, as though you’re about to do something special or weird. Just be at ease. Close your eyes, if you’re comfortable with that. If not, gaze gently a few feet in front of you. Aim for a state of alert relaxation.
Deliberately take three or four deep breaths, feeling the air as it enters your nostrils, fills your chest and abdomen, and flows out again. Then let your breathing settle into its natural rhythm, without forcing or controlling it. Just feel the breath as it happens, without trying to change it or improve it. You’re breathing anyway. All you have to do is feel it.
Notice where you feel your breath most vividly. Perhaps it’s predominant at the nostrils, perhaps at the chest or abdomen. Then rest your attention lightly—as lightly as a butterfly rests on a flower—on just that area.
Become aware of sensations there. If you’re focusing on the breath at the nostrils, for example, you may experience tingling, vibration, pulsing. You may observe that the breath is cooler when it comes in through the nostrils and warmer when it goes out. If you’re focusing on the breath at the abdomen, you may feel movement, pressure, stretching, release. You don’t need to name these sensations—simply feel them.
Let your attention rest on the feeling of the natural breath, one breath at a time. (Notice how often the word rest comes up in this instruction? This is a very restful practice.) You don’t need to make the breath deeper or longer or different from the way it is. Simply be aware of it, one breath at a time.
CORE MEDITATION: HEARING
Sit comfortably or lie down, with your eyes closed or open; if they’re open, find a spot in front of you on which to rest your gaze. Center your attention on the feeling of your breathing, wherever it’s predominant, wherever it’s easiest for you—just normal, natural breath. Follow your breath for a few minutes. Then turn your attention from focusing on the breath to focusing on hearing the sounds around you.
Some sounds are near and some far; some welcome (wind chimes, say, or snatches of music) some not so welcome (a car alarm, a power drill, an argument on the street). In either case, they’re simply sounds arising and passing away. Whether they’re soothing or jangly, you note the sounds and let them go.
There’s nothing you have to do about these sounds; you can hear them without any sort of effort at all. You don’t need to respond to them (unless, of course, it’s the sound of a smoke alarm, or your child crying); you don’t need to judge them, manipulate them, or stop them. You don’t even have to understand them or be able to name them. See if you can just hear a sound without naming or interpreting it. Notice changes in intensity or volume as the sound washes through you, without interference, without judgment—just arising and subsiding, arising and subsiding.
If you find yourself shrinking from a sound or wishing it were over, note that and see if you can be with it in an open, patient way. Keep your body relaxed. If the sound is upsetting, return to following your breath for a few minutes. Don’t strain to hear, just stay open for the next sound.
If you find yourself craving more of a sound, take a deep breath and relax. Simply notice that a sound has arisen, that you have a certain response to it, and that there’s a little space between those two events. Stay open for the next sound, recognizing that sound is continually coming and going outside of our control. If you find yourself getting tense in response to a sound, take a deep breath and relax, using whatever technique works for you; maybe it’s directing breath into a tight area of the body. Or you can, at any point, return to following your breath as an anchor, as a reminder of easy, spacious relaxation. If thoughts come up, notice them and let them go. You don’t have to elaborate: Oh, that’s a bus. I wonder what number? I wish they’d change the route so it’s more convenient. I wish I didn’t have to ride a bus at all. I’m so annoyed that my car’s in the shop … All you have to do is hear. All you have to do is be present.
And when you feel ready, you can open your eyes. As you return to your daily activities, consider the way this meditation reminds us that we can meet experiences with more presence and centeredness.