Meditation Techniques

A break from the Mexico Updates –

I started writing this for a friend of mine and decided to post it to the blog as well.  We all need some more peace in our lives and our brains.  Here are some of the ways I try to get there.  Please do share any of your methods!

For Karen,

I do not have any idea how much or how little you know about meditation so I am going to write as if you know nothing and forgive me if that comes of pedantic or condescending – because that ain’t where I am coming from.

The two most basic forms of meditation are counting breath and repetition of a mantra.  For the purpose of this writing, I am just going to deal with meditation as a means to achieve some peace and relieve anxiety.  The further metaphysical discussions about bliss, enlightenment, nirvana, God Consciousness, and all that other good stuff are for another time.

Counting Breath:

This is the one I use most often.  There will be a few general notes at the end, but once you are settled and ready to begin – as you breathe in, count in your mind “one”.  You do not say it actually out loud, but you do say it with some amount of verve inside your head.  When you breathe out, you say in your mind, “one”.

Repeat the procedure for number two.  Sounds easy?  It is not.  Here is the catch.  Any time you have any thought at all – any thought at all – that is not “one” or “two” etc… you have to start over with breathing in at “one”.

I have been using this technique for over twenty years and I have never made it as high as seven.  There are two main reasons for this.  The basic one, and the first hurdle for everyone, is that I have too many thoughts and it is not easy to shut them down, even to just focus on one thing.

The second reason is better.  If I do make it past three – I usually enter a deeper meditative state and cease counting and cease all thought before I make it to seven.  This is a phenomenal feeling – though it can take years to accomplish.  For a guy with a brain like mine, a state of “no thought” is as close to bliss or paradise as I can even conceive.

When I first started, I did this meditation two to three times a day at least 5 days a week for months – then off and on over the years.  I wish I still did it more regularly.

You have to figure out what works for you with exactly “how to count”.  Your breathing should be deep and even – and relaxed.  Do you draw out “o n e” and try to make it last as long as the whole inhale, and then draw out “o n e” to last as long as your exhale?  Do you simply count “one” and then focus on the breathing in, then again a short “one” and a focus on the exhale?  I fall somewhere in-between.  I do not drag the number out for the whole breath – that makes my mind too active and I end up with unintentional thoughts related to the counting and breathing.  But if I go too short on the number, and just say “one” – especially in the early, first few minutes, the there is too much “empty space/time” as I complete the inhalation that my mind will invariably fill up with thoughts.

I know some people who do a more repetitive method – as they breathe in they count “one, one, one, one, one” (however many times) and then as they exhale “one, one, one, one, one” (however many times), and then move to “two, two, two…”.  I have tried this and if my head is super cluttered and will not shut-up, I will use this technique for a few minutes – just to get settled.

There is no “right way” – you have to do what feels right to you.  Since the whole point is to help you relax – using whatever method feels best to you is the answer, not trying to match your experience against the experience of others.

Repetition of a Mantra:

This has much in common with counting breaths.  There are a lot of mantras.  Some traditions believe that we each have our own special mantra that will help us achieve the best results.  I am not sure about all that, but I have had some great meditation using a mantra. “Om” is always a good place to start.  “Hari Krishna”, or simply “Krishna”, or “Om Namasivaya” or “Gayatri” are all good.  But you do not need to use Hindu words.  “Coco” or “Lego” or “Sunbeam” or “Orange” { ; ) } or pretty much anything else will also work just fine.

To begin, you could do it like counting breaths, just substitute your mantra where we spoke of numbers earlier.  Because it is a simple repetition, there is no starting over, you just keep going.  You can do the slow repetition “O r a n g e” on the inhale and again on the exhale – or simply “Lego, lego, lego, lego, lego….” over and over as you breathe.

While you do not start over, you have the same goal of focusing on your breath and the word and you do not want to have other thoughts.  As with counting, once you get really settled, you should end up no longer saying the mantra and just “being” with no thought, in a really beautiful place.

I do generally prefer the counting breaths, but I like the carrot and the stick, the risk/reward of advancing or starting over.  Sometimes though, I just want to chill and leave all that alone and I rock out with 15 minutes of “Om Namasivaya”.

General Notes:

As your body and your mind get used to doing this – they both look forward to it and will try to help you.  This is part of why no one ever makes it to “10” by counting breaths.  It gets to where even if you do not make it into a deep meditative state (which most of the time you – or anyone – will not) you still get some deep refreshment and peace out of the practice.  These days, with my life as crazy and up-in-the-air as it is, I might make it to “three” on counting breaths – but I can feel myself fully relax just by the act of starting the process.  The first time I breathe out “one” and I have made it that far – a breath in and a breath out with no other thought than “one” – “one” – I can feel the pressure and the weight and the anxiety roll off of me – and I consciously notice it happening – and that is a thought and I have to start over at “one”.

Form –

There are some particular positions certain disciplines use – but the most general and most basic position should work fine.  (Let me know if any of these physical descriptions do not convey meaning effectively, and I will try again.)

Sit “Indian” style – legs crossed, ankles close to ground, knees up top.  Many people recommend – if you are able, and comfortable doing it, sit “real indian” style with both ankles up on top of your knees and both knees closer to the ground.

I just use regular Indian – ankles down, knees on top.  The point is to be comfortable.

There are many different theories about “hand posture” as well.  I usually just leave them on my knees – left on left, right on right.

Sometimes I have them more in my lap – hands open, right over left – left “cradling” right – and right relaxed and open – as if ready to hold an avocado pit.

Some folks make symbols with their fingers.  Here again – find something comfortable and stick with it.

Here at the beginning, the point is to find a position that you can get into easily, that allows you to keep your body “open” with decent posture and that you can hold without fidgeting (once you get settled).

You can meditate anywhere.  It is probably best in the beginning to do it in a very quiet and safe room.  On tour with my metal band, i did it in the car, or the back of a bar.  Most people recommend that you close your pets out of the meditation room.  I never do this.  For me the infrequent times that my dogs have sniffed or licked me while I was meditating have been far less distracting than the gigantic uproar they would cause if there was a closed door between us.  And I have been a nanny for my sister before.  It is easier now that the kids are old enough to understand and respect “Uncle Nick needs 15 minutes of quiet time” and they can handle that without drowning or setting stuff on fire.  But my first nanny duty was with a two-year old.  I meditated during baby nap times.  I left the baby door cracked and did my thing close enough that I could hear if I was needed.  Believe me – even if you hit a really deep state – you will hear it and know if you are needed.

The babies and animals thing is definitely not the most ideal environment to meditate – especially to learn to start meditating – but as with all things, if you wait for perfect conditions, nothing would ever get done.

I generally meditate in bed.  I sit indian style near the head of the bed.  Maybe a pillow or two between me and the wall.  Some people prefer chairs – some cushy that you can sit cross-legged in, some straight back and you just do feet flat on the floor, or cross ankles.  Some like couches.  Some like the middle of the floor.  Some like against the wall.  I really prefer outside, but you have to get your game in shape before you can pull that off.  Sounds, bugs, wind, clouds, neighbors – they can all cause excess thoughts and defeat the purpose.

You want to do deep breathing, from the diaphragm.  But as with all other parts of this, do not let the guidelines become a distraction.  Breathe as deeply as you can easily and while relaxed, without ending up focusing on “how deep am I breathing?  Is this enough?” – just something comfortable.  In through the nose, out through the mouth.  If out through the mouth is too hard or distracting, just using the nose is OK.

You do not want to close your eyes if you can help it.  Sometimes you need to, depending on the environment – and occasionally it can be useful just as a way to help shut down the brain.  But generally, let your eyes and your eyelids relax and you will end up with your eyes just barely open.  Again – do whatever is easiest and feels best.  If it is better or easier for you to just close them, then go ahead.

Posture – I get settled and try to sit with my back straight and shoulders back and chest open.  Because I have so many years of poor posture that I am trying to defeat – sometimes I can hold this easily and comfortably – sometimes not.  Once you get settled, take your mind out of it and let your body do what it wants.  Sometimes I finish a session still in perfect posture.  Sometimes I finish with my shoulders collapsed and my head almost in my lap.  Huge pools of drool are also very common in my case. (I don’t wear “good” shirts for meditation.)

You want to have your meditation sessions be about 15 minutes.  10 is fine if that works better for your schedule.  You do not want to start with longer than 15 minute sessions – or shorter than 10.

From years of practice, I am able to get into it within one minute or so of sitting down to start, and I get about twelve minutes of good time in.

When I first started, I would get set, and it would take probably 4 or 5 minutes of fidgeting and arguing with myself before I was able to shut up, let go, and get into it.  This is expected and OK.  For me it was stuff like “I think my sock is bunched up under my ankle.  That is probably gonna hurt.  I don’t know if I should move it.”   And so on for 20 seconds before I decide to fix or remove my sock – and re-settle.  Then it is my shirt bunching at the top of my pants near the small of my back.  I fix that, then it is my hair.  And on and on.  Like I say, these kinds of things are expected, normal, and fine. You want to be still and settle down, but it is better to go ahead and fix anything distracting in the beginning instead of worrying about your hair tie for 15 minutes.  If you can manage five good minutes out of 15 in the beginning sessions – that is awesome.

In the beginning, I set a gentle alarm to tell me when 15 mins was up.  In case you do go deep, you do not want a jarring loud sound.  You want to “come up out of it” gently.  An alarm in another room – the timer on the microwave with you in a different room – something like that.  These days, perhaps a cell phone timer or alarm set to vibrate would probably be decent (but not unless it would not make noise/motion for any other reason during this time – airplane mode?).  After a while, your body knows and you don’t need it anymore.  Do take a full minute at least before you stand up.  Open your eyes, gently roll your head to stretch your neck.  Slowly let yourself come back to full everyday consciousness.

A few other notes.  I hesitate to put these in because these are some of the things I used as excuses not to meditate instead of guidelines on better meditation – but I believe it is better to have more information.

Because one of the points of this practice is to settle down and stop your brain, it is useful to have your body doing as few things as possible.  This means that it is generally better to meditate before you eat or drink.  Wake up, pee, and meditate was how one guru taught me.

If you meditate after you eat, your body is going to be doing the work of processing food while you are trying to settle down.  If you have a cup of water, that may be ok, but no caffeine – though they say it is best to have nothing.  Then meditate again about an hour before you want to eat dinner.  This should be far enough away from lunch that your body has settled down, but not so far from dinner that your stomach will be growling from hunger.  Drugs in all forms are highly discouraged for people seeking peace through meditation.  In addition to the obvious ones like heroin and crack, this also means, tobacco, booze, caffeine, and sugar.

Karen, from the little bit I know about your daily affairs, I would imagine that once a day 15 minutes – probably mid-morning or early afternoon – whenever T-maximus takes a little nappy-break time, would be your ideal time.  Do not sweat the food part, but do keep it in mind.  I do not know where you are with caffeine these days, but that part is definitely good advice.

Meditating in front of a Kalianda mural - Thiruvananthapuram

5 thoughts on “Meditation Techniques”

  1. Aw, man – I just might have to write my own blog about this one. I’m not knocking any of your techniques, I’ll just share my own which differ a little.
    Counting – I’m not a big fan of counting, although I went through a phase of counting 500 breaths. It keeps me too goal/future-oriented; so I go Vipassana-style and try to keep my focus on either the in/out, up/down of my stomach or the in/out breath of the front of my nostrils.
    Mantra – Sometimes I get into “Ram, Ram, Ram, Ram …” because it reminds me that everything is, well, Ram. That airplane passing overhead is Ram, my thoughts of work are Ram, the heater kicking on is Ram, the airplane still passing overhead is Ram. Doing it vocally helped a lot with 4th chakra (heart) opening, as well, if you’re into that sort of thing. I’ve also been experimenting with telling myself that I am loving awareness, which really helped me with some reflexive negative thoughts I’d been having about others (which I would beat myself up for having).
    I close my eyes, too.
    Although he doesn’t anymore, Artimus used to sometimes wake up and come sit right in my ‘cradle’ while I sat cross-legged. Sure, it interrupted my meditation and he would squirm a lot, but it’s such a cool thing how can you not dig it?
    “Wake up, pee, meditate” right on.

  2. Thanks for sharing Chris. I think that not only are your comments excellent and useful on their own – but they also serve to reinforce one of the points i was trying to make. There are a truckload of different methods of meditating.

    Doing it is the important part, no matter what method you use. And, you will most likely end up customizing the experience to meet your needs. Sorry Yoda – but there IS try, and try is important.

    I hope you will write some more and share with the rest of us…

    – – back in the day i used “avalokitesvara” – – because i do tend to struggle with compassion. Not so much in general – but in the specifics and with specific people and situations. For me though, That got me more distracted thinking about an issue than peeling the onion of conscious thought…

    I like that you use Ram – that is one of my dear friend’s and business partner’s names so i would probably be too distracted with it, but it is nice to hear…

    • Yeah, just start and follow what you like or are drawn to, I say. I’ve seen too many people get turned off from yoga because they see an instructor work themselves into a very advanced/limber posture. “I can’t do that,” they say and walk away from the whole thing. So when people tell me they want to start a practice and ask for advice I generally tell them to start small. Just like you don’t begin learning guitar with a Les Paul and Marshall stack with pedal-board.
      After watching the DHAMMA BROTHERS doc, a friend I saw it with said “Aw, man, I could never do that.” This was my big a-ha moment. I reminded her that nobody starts off with 3-hour daily sits. But more important, the only thing most beginners lack is the patience with themselves. Long-time practitioners don’t get upset if they can’t focus their minds during a sitting. They know they tried and they can take note of what distracts them. And, what’s most important, they can sit with what distracts them without trying to change it. After all, how are we going to find out what distracts us if we refuse to acknowledge distraction?
      It’s one of the many paradoxes in this sort of work. You need to make the effort to engage in the practice to start off with, but once you get started, any effort exerted (to ‘get over’ something or stop distractions) just gets in the way. It’s crazy. Unneeded emotional baggage just falls away on its own accord – but if it’s pushed away, it not only sticks around, but arouses anger, self-doubt and a host of other things that don’t serve us.
      I kind of feel like I’m preaching to the choir on this one, Nick, since you’ve been doing this longer than I have. Thanks for a cool forum, though.
      One of the things that keeps me from starting my own blog is the temptation toward spiritual materialism, which I *totally* fell into when I started my practice. I had a friend in Fairfax who was also getting started and we were emailing a lot. First we were just telling each other what we were doing. Then we got into “well, I read that what you’re doing isn’t optimum because ____” and then we got stuck comparing methods and critiquing one another. I would ask What can I do with my mind while sitting? And he would say That’s the whole point is to not be doing anything. Then I would tell him that laying on his back wasn’t such a great posture because he couldn’t get that pelvic tilt. Like me. get it? It’s funny now, seeing as neither of us knew much of anything, but it’s always something I look out for when talking about individual practices – not to presume I can/should ‘correct’ people’s practices. I try to wait until asked and then keep my answers short, not turn them into a self-aggrandizing journal entry about me me me.
      By the way, how long has this reply been going on, anyway? 🙂 hahaha

  3. I, like Chris, most often use the Vipassana style without counting–straight “into the light,” as they say; since I haven’t equally tried both I can’t say if it’s more effective/easy to clear the mind completely or clear everything but one thing.
    Also would add that the breathing is tummy breathing, shoulders stay stable, only belly moves–like a child breathes. If Karen (or other readers) had a theatrical or voice background she’ll get this. Since so much of meditation is breath…
    Finally, from my days at the Buddhist Center in San Francisco, yet another seated position is butt up on a pillow, sort of level with the knees can sometimes be useful for those with wonky knees or hips.


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